June 1, 2013  

Leaving Afghanistan

Lessons from the last time a superpower departed

Lt. Col. Shane A. Smith

Is Afghanistan’s government doomed to fall soon after most NATO forces leave in 2014, as many in the government, intelligence and academic communities seem to think? A fair reading of the post-Soviet Afghan experience suggests otherwise — if we can properly apply the lessons of history.

President Mohammad Najibullah’s regime endured more than three years after February 1989, when the Soviet Union finished withdrawing all but a small advisory contingent of troops; it finally fell in April 1992. Most examinations of this time depict Najibullah’s defeat as inevitable, and the years a mere “tunnel” to Taliban rule. Yet nothing is foreordained, either then or now, and the period offers a valuable lens on our own time.

Individual Fixation

For various reasons, all sides fixated on Najibullah, complicating the quest for an Afghan government that could be accepted as legitimate both within the country and abroad.

For the Soviet Union, Najibullah’s continuation in power validated its decade-long effort, or at least allowed it to save face after withdrawing. Moreover, Soviet leaders believed that any negotiations that led to Najibullah’s departure would jeopardize their standing as champion of Third World liberation movements. So Mikhail Gorbachev pressed for Najibullah’s inclusion in any future government structure even when it conflicted with other Soviet objectives, such as obtaining badly needed Western investment.

The United States appeared to view Najibullah as an embodiment of its proxy fight with the Soviet Union. This stance dictated that Najibullah was illegitimate and must go and that his inclusion in any future government would represent a U.S. failure. But Afghanistan was not a vital national security interest for the Americans. Once the Soviets had withdrawn, the U.S. should have been more flexible. While Washington remained rigidly wedded to ousting Najibullah, the ostensible U.S. ally Pakistan was using funding and equipment from mujahedeen supporters to sponsor its favorite candidate, the vehemently anti-American Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

As for the mujahedeen parties, Najibullah personified all they fought against. He was a foreign puppet, an apostate and the former head of the KhAD secret police that had killed and tortured thousands. They rejected any direct negotiations with him, much less any discussion of his participation in a follow-on government.

This fixation on an individual leader kept the United States and USSR from negotiating toward an end state for Afghanistan that would allow its citizens to achieve some form of peaceful existence; it prevented the major mujahedeen parties from even considering a coalition government in Kabul that included elements of the regime. And it highlights maxims applicable both then and now. First, institutions must be supported over specific people. Second, opponents, even ones considered distasteful, must be included in dialogue and often in a negotiated government, especially when a battlefield victory is unlikely.

Lowering the Temperature

The regime did not immediately fall after the Soviet withdrawal. Indeed, the removal of combat forces, leaving only a small and unobtrusive contingent of advisers, greatly lowered the temperature. Disunity among the major mujahedeen parties escalated. Local field commanders grew more open to reaching some agreement, written or unwritten, with the government. The number of active fighters in the country decreased. With Soviet troops no longer fighting, many insurgents, viewing the jihad as over, went home. The conflict changed from a religious duty to a civil war, hardly as motivating to potential recruits.

Moreover, a seemingly startling transformation occurred after the bulk of Soviet troops had gone. The Afghan troops’ apparent lack of skill had often frustrated their Red Army counterparts, and few expected them to emerge as effective defenders of the regime. But with the burden settled squarely on their shoulders, the Afghan military surprised outside observers and, in retrospect, performed well.

The army grew stronger, while the mujahedeen failed to adjust to their new conventional roles. The army’s performance led to a positive re-evaluation of the regime’s prospects. Force redeployments also helped deny the mujahedeen the early, easy victories they expected. The army adopted a defensive posture to attrit insurgent forces and made extensive use of airpower, a capability the insurgency lacked and one which played into Afghanistan’s geography, in key ground attack and logistics roles.

The Afghans did struggle in many areas, including maintenance, logistics management, supply, engineering, clerical tasks, medical care, communications, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Such areas require continued training and advisory support by international forces.

Militia Trouble

Afghanistan’s long history has often seen the rise of the unofficial fighting groups dubbed militias; the state raised tribal levies periodically to confront foreign and domestic threats. During Najibullah’s reign, the formal state security strategy included efforts to woo local combatants into the regime’s fold through offers of financial support, cease-fires, titles, autonomy and weapons. It was hoped these fighters would make up for the loss of Soviet troops and lower the overall level of violence in the country to a manageable point.

At some point, there were probably more militiamen than active mujahedeen in Afghanistan. Their roles, initially focused on road defense and local control, expanded to include most counterinsurgency offensives. Ultimately, they controlled large amounts of tanks and other heavy equipment.

Militias were, however, difficult to control. Many participated in criminal endeavors to supplement their incomes, while militia leaders, theoretically on the same side, battled one another for territory. The regime held little real administrative control in the territories under militia control, and the relationship was essentially transactional — no real loyalty adjustment occurred. Leaders were paid to provide troops, and when the regime’s ability to pay collapsed, the system broke apart, with allegiances shifted in new, more advantageous directions.

Though the militias did play a role in maintaining security for the regime, their defections in 1992 directly contributed to the government’s fall. This, added to their role in hampering the Afghan state’s development and consolidation during the post-withdrawal period, bears further examination when evaluating their utility in current planning.

Money and Interest

Even before they started withdrawing, the Soviets were losing interest in Afghanistan. An early symptom was their establishment of a unilateral, unconditional timeline for withdrawal, a move that hampered their flexibility, influence and bargaining position.

Once Moscow had pulled its combat forces, Afghanistan fell off the daily docket. Senior policymakers became focused on the USSR’s internal tensions, its difficulties in Europe and the infighting over Gorbachev’s reform agenda. In March 1990, a year after the withdrawal, the Politburo disbanded its Commission on Afghanistan. In August 1991, Najibullah lost many of his supporters in the attempted coup against Gorbachev. This, with Boris Yeltsin’s concomitant ascendancy, spelled the end of Moscow’s interest in preserving the Kabul regime.

The ultimate loss of interest was seen in the cutoff of foreign aid.

The Soviet departure had thrown Kabul into financial crisis. Natural gas exports, which had accounted for up to 40 percent of government revenue in the mid-1980s, disappeared with the Soviet technicians who operated the wells. Spending by foreign troops stationed in the country was lost. Meanwhile, government spending on security skyrocketed.

Moscow responded with a river of aid, sending military hardware, commodities such as fuel and wheat, and money enough to fund much of the government’s expenditures. The expense was considerable, yet much less costly than the military deployment had been, and arguably as successful at keeping the regime in power.

But when the Soviet Union collapsed and the aid dried up, the Afghan government’s days were numbered. As resources grew scarce, Najibullah lost control of militias held in thrall only by Soviet-supported state patronage. Ultimately, it was the loss of aid, not mujahedeen pressure, that brought the regime down. Soviet-Afghan War experts Lester Grau and Artemy Kalinovsky have both argued that had aid not ceased, the Kabul regime likely would have survived indefinitely.

In this light, the 2012 U.S.-Afghan Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement is a step in the right direction and sends the right messages to the parties involved. As the past indicates, government survival without a large foreign military presence is an achievable objective.

On the other hand, should the international community lose interest or become distracted by domestic economic concerns and walk away from providing continued aid and assistance with economic development within Afghanistan, potential outcomes there grow bleaker.

Many years of vicious conflict followed Najibullah’s fall, initially among the various mujahedeen parties and then between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. The United States and its coalition partners would do well to heed the lessons of 1992. AFJ

Lt. Col. Shane A. Smith is an Air Force National Security Fellow. He holds a master’s degree in Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School and a master’s degree in History from East Tennessee State University. The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position or policies of the Defense Department or the U.S. government.