In 2001, following the September 11 attacks, the United States went to war in Afghanistan. It did so largely ignorant of the lessons of the Soviet intervention in that country two decades before, thinking them irrelevant. Ironically, by ignoring Soviet history, Americans were repeating it. In 1979, Mikhail Kapitsa suggested to his boss, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, that perhaps Moscow should study the 19th and early 20th century British involvement and wars in Afghanistan. Gromyko rejected any comparison between the USSR’s forces and those of the British empire. Yes, Kapitsa responded, “the forces are different. But the mountains are the same.”
Eighteen years after the U.S. went to war, the parallels with Russia’s experience seem obvious. Not least of them is the difficulty of leaving Afghanistan. Donald Trump promises American troops will be gone by November of 2020. Barack Obama made similar promises in 2014 and 2016. Similarly, Mikhail Gorbachev decided it was time to get out in 1986, but Soviet forces only left in 1989.
So what can Trump learn from Gorbachev’s experience if he seeks to sustain changes that the U.S. has backed, and to avoid what happened a little over three years after the Soviets left, when the Afghan government collapsed and the country was plunged into civil war? I offer four lessons for Washington and the international community to keep in mind as American forces depart.
Second, the Afghanistan the United States leaves will be neither that which it hoped to build, nor that which existed before September 2001. The Soviets changed the country. So did the Americans. So, what will endure? Among the Afghan security capabilities the Soviets helped develop in the 1980s, what lasted were local/ethnic militias, and the Sarandoy (police) and KhAD (intelligence) services, which had become effectively institutionalized during the years of Soviet-backed rule. The Afghan Army, which the Soviets had tremendous trouble getting off the ground, largely collapsed. Economic infrastructure, meant to replace agriculture demolished by the scorched earth tactics of the USSR and its Afghan partners, did not survive. The United States and NATO have probably done a better job building the Afghan National Army than the Afghan police, a reversal of the Soviet experience. They, too, failed to revitalize agriculture (though they surely did it less harm). The drug trade, which has remained resilient despite their best efforts, however, seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future, with repercussions for Afghanistan and the rest of the world. Policies going forward will need to reflect these realities.
The importance of foreign support is probably the most crucial lesson, not just for America, but for the global community as a whole. Najibullah would not have held on for over three years had his forces been incompetent or his approach to reconciliation inflexible. However, he fell months after Soviet assistance dried up, which it did when the USSR collapsed. Today, Afghanistan is no less dependent on foreign aid than the Najibullah regime was. Its economic growth prospects are not sufficient for Afghanistan to become significantly less dependent any time soon. For any Afghan government to survive, whether or not fighting continues, foreign money has to keep flowing. Peace would help Afghanistan start to grow its economy more dramatically. In time, a strong economy might even drive out the drug trade. But neither Kabul nor its partners should be under any illusions about how long that will take, and how much help Afghanistan will need in the meantime. Peace, therefore, may lead to military disengagement, but it will be short-lived if economic disengagement accompanies it. If the Americans like the government that emerges in Afghanistan, they can likely be counted on to help. If they do not, and no one steps into the breach, Afghanistan can expect a resurgence of conflict.