Remembering the Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan

The final and complete withdrawal of Soviet combatant forces from Afghanistan began on 15 May 1988 and ended on 15 February 1989 under the leadership of Colonel-General Boris Gromov. Planning for the withdrawal of the Soviet Union (USSR) from the Afghanistan War began soon after Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Under the leadership of Gorbachev, the Soviet Union attempted to consolidate the PDPA’s hold over power in the country, first in a genuine effort to stabilize the country, and then as a measure to save face while withdrawing troops. During this period, the military and intelligence organizations of the USSR worked with the government of Mohammad Najibullah to improve relations between the government in Kabul and the leaders of rebel factions.

The diplomatic relationship between the USSR and the United States improved at the same time as it became clear to the Soviet Union that this policy of consolidating power around Najibullah’s government in Kabul would not produce sufficient results to maintain the power of the PDPA in the long run. The Geneva Accords, signed by representatives of the USSR, the US, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Republic of Afghanistan (thus renamed in 1987) on 14 April 1988, provided a framework for the departure of Soviet forces, and established a multilateral understanding between the signatories regarding the future of international involvement in Afghanistan. The military withdrawal commenced soon after, with all Soviet forces leaving Afghanistan by 15 February 1989.

Events leading up to military withdrawal

Understanding that the Soviet Union’s troublesome economic and international situation was complicated by its involvement in the Afghan War, Gorbachev “had decided to seek a withdrawal from Afghanistan and had won the support of the Politburo to do so [by October 1985]”. He later strengthened his support base at the top level of Soviet government further by expanding the Politburo with his allies. To fulfill domestic and foreign expectations, Gorbachev aimed to withdraw having achieved some degree of success. At home, Gorbachev was forced to satisfy the hawkish military-industrial complex, military leadership, and intelligence agencies (later, Gorbachev would tell UN Envoy Diego Cordovez that the impact of the war lobby should not be overestimated; Cordovez recalls that Gorbachev’s advisors were not unanimous in this pronouncement, but all agreed that disagreements with the US, Pakistan, and realities in Kabul played a bigger role in delaying withdrawal). Abroad, Gorbachev aimed to retain prestige in the eyes of third-world allies. He, like Soviet leaders before him, considered only a dignified withdrawal to be acceptable. This necessitated the creation of stability within Afghanistan, which the Soviet Union would attempt to accomplish until its eventual withdrawal in 1988–9. Three objectives were viewed by Gorbachev as conditions needed for withdrawal: internal stability, limited foreign intervention, and international recognition of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan’s Communist government.

Policy of national reconciliation

After the death of Leonid Brezhnev, the political will for Soviet involvement in Afghanistan dwindled. The level of Soviet forces in the country was not adequate to achieve exhaustive military victory, and could only prevent the allied DRA from losing ground. The Soviet Union began the gradual process of withdrawal from Afghanistan by instating Muhammed Najibullah Ahmadzai as the General Secretary of the Afghan Communist Party, seeing him to be capable of ruling without serious involvement from the Soviet Union. Babrak Karmal, Najibullah’s predecessor, was deemed by the Soviet leadership to be an obstacle to both military withdrawal and the diplomatic process. Although Soviet military, diplomatic and intelligence agencies were not singleminded about his appointment, Najibullah was seen as a leader that could work with the Soviet Union in order to find a negotiated settlement. Mirroring shifts within the USSR itself, the Soviet effort in Afghanistan placed “a much greater emphasis on pacification through winning over rebel commanders” rather than transforming “Afghanistan along Marxist lines winning over the population through economic incentives and establishing a party and government influence in the cities and countryside”. As a whole, the policies the Soviet Union and their allies powers in Afghanistan pursued after the transition of power from Babrak to Najibullah were referred to as the Policy of National Reconciliation

The Soviet-led attempts to encourage reconciliation were also complicated by mid-level military commanders, both Soviet and Afghan. While the military and political leadership of the USSR worked with the Najibullah government on raising the level of cooperation with rebel and tribal leaders, Soviet “mid-ranking officers sometimes failed to grasp the political significance of their operations” and the Afghan army had to be convinced “to stop calling the opposition “a band of killers,” “mercenaries of imperialism,” “skull-bashers,”’. Nevertheless, some progress was achieved by Soviet intelligence agencies, military and diplomats in improving relations with rebel factions. The canonical example is the establishment of tentative collaboration with noted rebel commander and Afghan National Hero (posthumously) Ahmad Shah Massoud. Here too, however, relations were complicated by mid-level military realities, and even by Najibullah himself. Although the Soviet military leadership and diplomats had been in contact with Massoud since the early 80’s, military operations against his troops, the DRA’s insistence on his disarmament, and information leaks about his relations with the Soviets derailed progress towards achieving a formal ceasefire with him. Conversely, Najibullah was in ostensibly regular contact with unnamed rebel leaders “through certain channels”, as Cordovez found out during his first meeting with the Afghan leader.

Negotiations about non-interference of foreign actors

Faced by the failure of the Policy of National Reconciliation to stabilise the country by itself, and hoping to benefit from the gradually thawing relationship with the United States, the Soviet Union pushed forward with its effort to attain a diplomatic solution that would limit Pakistani and American interference in Afghanistan. Throughout 1987, Soviet diplomats attempted to convince the United States to stop supplying the mujahideen with weaponry as soon as Soviet forces withdrew, and to reach an agreement on a power-sharing proposal that would permit the PDPA to remain a key actor in Afghan politics. Najibullah was receptive to the prior, but the Soviet Union did not manage to come to this agreement with the United States. From statements made by Secretary of State Shultz, the Soviet leadership came under the impression that the US would cease military shipments to the mujahideen immediately after Soviet withdrawal, with the condition that the USSR “front-loaded” its withdrawal (i.e. withdrew the majority of its troops in the beginning of the process, thereby complicating redeployment). This was conveyed to the Najibullah government, managing to convince him that the Soviet-American diplomatic effort would benefit the Kabul government.

Process of military withdrawal

The withdrawal of Soviet military forces began on May 15, 1988, under the leadership of General of the Army Valentin Varennikov (with General Gromov commanding the 40th Army directly). As agreed, the withdrawal was “front-loaded”, with half of the Soviet force leaving by August. The withdrawal was complicated, however, by the rapid deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan. While the US was not bound to stop arms shipments, and continued to supply the mujahideen in Pakistan, Pakistan did not deliver on its commitment to prevent weaponry and troops from flowing into Afghanistan. The mujahideen also continued their attacks on withdrawing Soviet forces. The Soviet Union repeatedly reported these violations of the Geneva Accords to UN monitoring bodies, and even pleaded with the US to influence the factions they supplied. The desire of the Soviet Union to withdraw, however, coupled with the United States’ inability to control the behaviour of the mujahideen, meant that the Soviet objections did not bring any results.

As the Soviet withdrawal and rebel attacks continued, the deteriorating security of the Najibullah government caused policy disagreements between the different services of the Soviet Union. For example: while the Soviet military had succeeded in establishing a de facto cease-fire with Ahmad Shah Massoud’s forces as Soviet troops withdrew through territories under his control, the KGB and Shevarnadze attempted to convince Gorbachev that an attack on Massoud was necessary to guarantee Najibullah’s survival. In the words of Soviet military commanders, Najibullah himself also aimed to retain the Soviet military in Afghanistan — Generals Varennikov (in charge of the withdrawal operation), Gromov (commander of the 40th Army), and Sotskov (chief Soviet military advisor in Afghanistan) all pleaded with top Soviet military and political leadership to control Najibullah’s attempts to use Soviet troops to achieve his own security, and to convey to him that the Soviet military would not stay in Afghanistan. After the departure of Yakovlev from the Politburo in the fall of 1988, Gorbachev adopted the Shevarnadze-KGB line of policy regarding supporting Najibullah at the cost of antagonising rebel factions, and a halt of the withdrawal was ordered on November 5, 1988. In December, Gorbachev decided to resume the withdrawal, but also to carry out an operation against Massoud, ignoring arguments from his advisors and military commanders on the ground. In January 1989, the Soviet withdrawal continued, and on January 23 Operation Typhoon began against the forces of Ahmad Shah Massoud. Up until the end of the military withdrawal, Shevarnadze and the head of the KGB unsuccessfully attempted to convince Gorbachev to retain a contingent of Soviet military volunteers in Afghanistan to defend land routes to Kabul. On February 15, the 40th Army finished their withdrawal from Afghanistan. General Gromov walked across the “Bridge of Friendship” between Afghanistan and the USSR last. When Gromov was met by Soviet TV crews while crossing the bridge, he swore at them profusely when they tried to interview him. Recalling the events in an interview with a Russian newspaper in 2014, Gromov said that his words were directed at “the leadership of the country, at those who start wars while others have to clean up the mess.


Soviet support for the Najibullah government did not end with the withdrawal of the regular troops. Aid totalling several billion dollars was sent by the Soviet Union to Afghanistan, including military aircraft (MiG-27s) and Scud missiles. Due primarily to this aid, the Najibullah government held onto power for much longer than the CIA and State Department expected. The mujahideen made considerable advances following the withdrawal of the Soviet contingent, and were even able to take and control several cities; nevertheless, they failed to unseat Najibullah until the spring of 1992. Following the coup of August 1991, the Soviet Union (and later the Russian Federation under Boris Yeltsin) cut aid to their Afghan allies. This had a severe impact on the Hizb-i Watan (formerly known as the PDPA), and on the armed forces, already weakened by their fight against the mujahideen and internal struggles — following an abortive coup attempt in March 1990, the Army (already encountering a critical lack of resources and critical rates of desertion) was purged. Ultimately, the cessation of Soviet aid and the instability that it caused allowed to the mujahideen to storm Kabul. Najibullah was removed from power by his own party, after which the mujahideen futilely attempted to form a stable coalition government. Disagreements and infighting between the likes of Massoud and Hekmatyar set the stage for the eventual rise of the Taliban.

Courtesy : Wikipedia

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