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Soviet Defeat in Afghanistan

Former CIA official and Defense Secretary Robert Gates recalled a staff meeting in March 1979 when the CIA asked whether they should keep the mujahideen going, thereby sucking the Soviets into a Vietnamese quagmire. The answer was to fund the guerilla fighters.

At the time the invasion took place on 24 December 1979, Mikhail Gorbachev met with Eduard Shevardnadze [Georgian Communist Party leader, future Soviet Foreign Minister under Gorbachev]. They were both members of the Politburo, but this decision was taken without their participation. It was taken by a very narrow group in the top leadership of the party, and they both thought it would be a disaster. Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on March 11, 1985. And from very early in his general secretaryship, Gorbachev wanted to get Soviet troops out of Afghanistan.

After the beginning of the restructuring process in the USSR and the course of refusal to use force in international relations proclaimed in April 1985, the Soviet leadership began to take measures to reduce the combat strength of the OCRF. In February 1986, at the XXVII Congress of the CPSU, General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee Mikhail Gorbachev announced the development, together with the Afghan side, of a plan for the phased withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.

By 1985, Americas attrition strategy gave way to a more aggressive approach intended to inflict a humiliating defeat on the Soviet Union. Thanks to Texas congressman Charlie Wilson, the CIA received increased funding to press the war against the Soviets. The most audacious move was a 1986 decision to supply the Mujahedin with heat-seeking, shoulder-launched Stinger antiaircraft missiles. These missiles turned the tide of the war by giving Afghan guerrillas the capability to destroy their most dreaded enemy weapon in the rugged Afghan battlefield the Soviet Mi-24D helicopter gunship. The first three Stingers fired took down three gunships. Rebel morale soared overnight. Devastating Soviet losses mounted.

In May 1986, in an attempt to win Afghan support for the Soviet-installed regime, Karmal was replaced by Sayid Mohammad Najibullah as secretary general of the PDPA, and a campaign was intensified calling for "national reconciliation" between the Soviet-supported regime and the Islamic resistance, the mujahidin (literally, holy warriors) and their supporters. When President Najib took power in 1986, there was a change of approach. First, Najib's government was designed as a massive project in political accommodation. Second, the government realized that Soviet military presence in Afghanistan was on the wane, and ethnic and tribal loyalties were exploited to establish local militias to fill the gap. The so-called Uzbek militia of General Dostum and the Ismaili militia of Sayyed Mansoor developed into major military units.

Gorbachev repeatedly termed Afghanistan a "bleeding wound," although he did not admit that the Soviet occupation and the Soviet-supported regime were opposed by the vast majority of Afghans. But he had the same problems that other leaders have when troops are there and a lot of people have been killed - its very difficult to say all these lives were wasted, the Afghan lives and the lives of Soviet soldiers. He wanted to get out, but with some dignity and some kind of agreement. The process took longer than Gorbachev expected.

Partly in support of the "national reconciliation" process, Gorbachev in his Vladivostok speech of July 1986 announced the withdrawal of a token number of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. September 20, 1986 the first six regiments were withdrawn from the DRA.

Despite talk of reconciliation, a major, but eventually unsuccessful, Soviet-Afghan army offensive against the mujahidin was launched in Paktia Province in mid-1987. At the December 1987 Soviet-United States summit meeting in Washington, Gorbachev proposed that the Soviet Union remove the 115,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan on the condition that the United States first cease aid to the mujahidin, a proposal in accord with the Soviet contention that "imperialist" interference was the main reason for the initiation and continuation of the Soviet occupation.

In April 1988, Afghanistan and Pakistan signed accords, with the United States and the Soviet Union acting as "guarantors," calling for the withdrawal of Soviet military forces from Afghanistan over a nine-month period beginning on May 15, 1988.

The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan took place in two stages. From May 15 to August 15, 1988, more than 50 thousand soldiers and officers of the 40th Army left Jalalabad, Ghazni and Gardez in the east, Kandahar and Lashkargah in the west, Faizabad and Kunduz in the north-east of the country. From December 1988 to February 15, 1989, the second half of the military units of the 40th Army was withdrawn. On February 4, the last division of the 40th Army left Kabul, and by February 8, guard posts on the Kabul road - the Salang Pass were removed. Two days later, this route was placed under the protection of the Afghan government forces. In the western direction, the Soviet units left Shindand on February 4 and on February 12, Herat. From 11 to 14 February, all units located in the area from the Salang Pass to Highroton were withdrawn to the territory of the Turkestan Military District.

The Soviet Union's justification for sending its troops and tanks into Prague in August 1968 came to be known as the Brezhnev doctrine. The virtual codification of the doctrine, appeared in Pravda on 26 September 1968 "... a socialist state that is in a system of other states constituting a socialist commonwealth cannot be free of the common interests of that commonwealth. ... The weakening of any link in the world socialist system has a direct effect on all the socialist countries..."

In July 1988, the Soviet Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, spoke of a policy reliant "on such principles as non-aggression, respect for sovereignty and national independence, non-interference in internal affairs". At the United Nations in December 1988, Gorbachev declared his commitment to freedom of choice for all nations. His emphasis on this as a principle that knows no exceptions, and his announcement of the unilateral withdrawal of 50,000 Soviet troops and 5,000 tanks from Eastern Europe, sent a clear message to the people of Eastern Europe that the USSR would never militarily intervene in their countries while he was Soviet leader.

The last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan on 15 February 1989. The primary reasons for the Soviet failure in Afghanistan believed by some to be due to the Stinger missiles that CIA provided to the Mujahedin were the ignorance of knowledge about counterinsurgency warfare, the underestimation of ethnic, religious, and tribal nature of the Afghan society, and the complete lack of ethical standards of conduct. The horrible sufferings of the Afghan people swung international opinion hard against the Soviets.

Boris Gromov, the head of Soviet 40th Army that was sent to Afghanistan in 1979, argues that the conflict shouldnt simply be painted as victory or defeat its far more complex. He says the Soviets targeted partisans and that no clear victory was expected. As he points out, the USSR controlled most of Afghanistan during the campaign and the mujahideen failed to take a single military outpost, despite their support from abroad. At the height of the conflict the 40th Army had 108,800 soldiers, which proves the fact nobody aspired to a classic victory in Afghanistan, said Gromov, hinting that the number of troops was just enough to effectively control the country and nothing more. In comparison, Washington pumped five times more soldiers into Vietnam, a country five times smaller than Afghanistan in terms of territory.

Foreign Minister Shevardnadze later lamented, The decision to leave Afghanistan was the first and most difficult step. Everything else flowed from that. This view implied that the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan led to the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet-Afghan War may have been a key factor in the delegitimization of Communist Party Rule. The Soviet Army was demoralized and marginalized by society.

Gorbachev also oversaw the Soviet withdrawal of troops from Angola, and withdrew Soviet support for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the communist governments in Cuba and Vietnam. He also negated the Brezhnev Doctrine that pledged Soviet intervention where communism was under threat, choosing instead to loosen Soviet control over the countries of the Eastern Bloc and allow them some freedom in navigating their own futures. The so-called "Sinatra Doctrine" was announced by Mikhail Gorbachev on October 25, 1989 - the policy became known popularly as the "Sinatra Doctrine" because it allowed the Eastern European states to "do it their way."

Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi I. Gerasimov said on 25 October 1989 that the Soviet Union had adopted the "Sinatra Doctrine" in its policy toward Warsaw Pact nations. "He has a song, '(I Did It) My Way,'" Gerasimov explained. "So every country decides on its own which road to take." Gerasimov appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" to discuss the speech delivered earlier by Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze in which he said that the Soviets now recognize the absolute freedom of choice of all countries, specifically the Warsaw Pact nations. This marked a fundamental departure from the past, in which Eastern European countries that strayed too far from orthodoxy found Soviet armies on their doorsteps. Asked if that includes an absolute rejection of any military force against any Eastern nation, Gerasimov replied: "That's for sure . . . political structures must be decided by the people who live there."

In October 1991, the Soviet leadership decided to stop military assistance to the Afghan government on January 1, 1992. In April 1992, the regime of Najibullah fell (he himself was killed), power passed to the transitional council of the Mujahideen, who proclaimed the Islamic State of Afghanistan. In November 1994, the radical Islamic movement "Taliban" (prohibited in the Russian Federation) entered the armed struggle for power in the country, later the Taliban occupied Kabul and proclaimed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

The Soviet defeat in Afghanistan demonstrated that in this conflict the capacity of the Soviet system was no longer adequate. In the end, however, the system did not crumble thanks to external pressures and not even thanks to pressure by the domestic opposition, but because it had exhausted its last resources. It proved no longer able to control developments on the periphery of Soviet power and, in the final analysis, not even at home. The power, which had at one time been so feared at home as well as abroad under Stalin's leadership, and had been respected under Khrushchev and continued to be dangerous during the time of the geriatric government of Brezhnev's fellow travelers, crumbled.

In total, according to the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, in the period from December 25, 1979 to February 15, 1989 in the territory of Afghanistan military service there were 620,000 Soviet servicemen. of them 525,200 (including 62,900 officers) served as part of the 40th Army, 90,000 in frontier and other subdivisions of the KGB of the USSR, 5,000 represented the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) of the USSR. In addition, at the positions of civilian staff in the troops were about 21,000.

According to a statistical study edited by Colonel-General Grigory Krivosheev "Russia and the USSR in the wars of the 20th century", the total irretrievable human losses of the Soviet side in the Afghan conflict amounted to 15,051 people. Controls, formations and units of the Soviet army lost 14,427 people, KGB units - 576 people, formations of the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs - 28 people. Other ministries and departments (Goskino, State Radio and Television, Minstroy, etc.) lost 20 people. During the same period, 417 servicemen disappeared without a trace in Afghanistan, of which at least 130 people were released during the conflict and in subsequent years.

Over 200,000 servicemen as well as workers and civil servants were awarded orders and medals. 86 Soviet soldiers for their courage and heroism were awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union (25 - posthumously). According to official figures, 147 tanks, 118 aircraft, 333 helicopters, 1,314 armored vehicles and 433 artillery systems were lost in the battles.

During the withdrawal, Soviet troops donated to the Afghan side about 2,300 various-purpose objects, including 179 military camps (32 garrisons), 990 armored vehicles left, about 3,000 vehicles, 142 artillery pieces, 43 rocket artillery, 82 mortar, 231 units of anti-aircraft weapons, 14,400 units of small arms, 1,706 grenade launchers.

According to a United States Department of State estimate made in 1987, almost 1 million Afghans had been killed and more than 5 million had fled the country since the 1979 Soviet invasion. Over 15,000 Soviet troops were killed in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

When a legislative body formed in the reformist Gorbachev era gathered in Moscow in December 1989 to reflect on the U.S.S.R.'s failed war in Afghanistan, its assessment of the military effort that had left 15,000 Soviet troops and millions of Afghans dead was unequivocal. "The Congress of People's Deputies of the U.S.S.R. holds that the decision deserves moral and political denunciation," read the statement condemning the December 1979 invasion that commenced a near-decade-long campaign and hastened the Soviet Unions demise in 1991.

But on the 30th anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the public mood in Russia is much changed, and Russian legislators have stepped out in support of an initiative to overturn the 1989 resolution and pronounce the invasion as a just and necessary move.

In a survey by state-run pollster VTsIOM, timed to coincide with the Soviet withdrawal anniversary, 42 percent of respondents said the Soviet Union should not have sent troops into Afghanistan, while 31 percent supported the move. Only five years ago, another poll by the independent Levada Center found that 68 percent condemned the decision to invade, and only 9 percent backed it. In 1991, a Levada survey showed a gap of 88 percent against to 3 percent in favor.

Critics called the effort to restore the original Soviet arguments for invading Afghanistan a brazen attempt to justify other wars the Kremlin was involved in today, amid falling public approval ratings for the Russian government.

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Page last modified: 21-02-2019 18:36:13 ZULU