Out of Afghanistan
THE AMERICAN DEPARTURE FEELS LIKE WHAT I REMEMBER ABOUT THE SOVIET DEFEAT IN 1988
By David K. Shipler
There is a whiff of familiarity in the promised American withdrawal from Afghanistan. The parallels are uncanny, bringing to memory my one brief foray to the country, in the spring of 1988, as Soviet troops prepared to leave after nearly nine years of bloody warfare that ended in their defeat. Their departure opened the way for a fundamentalist Islamic movement to take power, now poised to take power once again.
“One week from now, I’m going home,” Pvt. Yuri Moshnikov told me then, a grin lighting up his face. He was in a bush hat and light khakis and leaned casually against the gate of a base outside Kabul. Then the smile faded. He had lost friends during combat in Kandahar. “This war is evil,” he said bravely — bravely, for freedom of speech was not established in the Soviet Army. “No one needs this war. Afghanistan doesn’t need it. We don’t need it.” Yet, he continued, “I fulfilled my duty.”
Defeat in Afghanistan comes gradually, like a slow realization. For the Americans, it has taken nearly twenty years as mission creep evolved into mission impossible. For the Russians, it was spread by the US-supported mujahideen, the Islamist forces that received weapons from the CIA via the Pakistanis. These included shoulder-launched Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, so deadly that when I flew into Kabul from Moscow aboard an Aeroflot passenger jet, we had to spiral down tightly in a falling-leaf approach while Soviet helicopters whirled around us firing flares to deflect any heat-seeking Stingers heading our way. For a guy with a US passport, being defended by the Soviet military against American weapons felt truly bizarre.
It was also odd, especially in retrospect, for the United States to be arming the wrong side, the side that oppressed women and barred girls from going to school. That side was the one that morphed into the Taliban, which harbored Al Qaeda, which struck on September 11, 2001, which prompted the United States to invade in order to — yes — oust the Taliban, the younger generation of fundamentalists who ruled the country with religious totalitarianism.
Pretty soon, they are going to be back. President Trump wanted out, so in a rare spasm of good sense he hired the skilled Afghan-American diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad to negotiate a deal with the Taliban. But the agreement is turning out to be reminiscent of the Paris accords, which covered the US departure from Vietnam, leaving South Vietnam to fight and lose alone, as the Afghan government is likely to do as well.
In that sense, President Biden is implementing Trump’s policy, but with a difference: Biden seems like a man without illusions. He is the first president since George H. W. Bush with enough experience in foreign policy to know the limits and potential of American power in all its forms: diplomatic, economic, military, and moral. He also appears willing to face two realities about Afghanistan. One is the reality of the incomprehensible Afghan quilt of unconquerable tribalized fiefdoms. The other is the reality of American impatience and reluctance to play the long game with lives and treasure. As a people, we favor wars only as long as we are winning, which we could have done in Afghanistan if we’d left after toppling the Taliban. But we decided — or slipped unwittingly into the temptation — to remake the country in something of our own image.
The United States had smaller ambitions there after the Soviet Union invaded in 1979. The American role was more spoiler than constructor. Washington was not truly interested in Afghanistan — nor in Moscow’s motives, evidently. It was the Cold War, and through that myopic lens just about everything looked like a zero-sum game: the Soviet invasion looked imperialist, not defensive; a Soviet advantage even on its own border meant an American loss. Containment shaped US policy, blocking and parrying was the reflexive methodology. Just as the United States supported dictators because they were anti-communist, so the United States supported a religiously autocratic movement because it was anti-Soviet.
What drives a country to war is usually complex, and it would not do to simplify Moscow’s calculations. But a few salient points should have been clear enough to alert Washington to Soviet concerns, perhaps enough to argue for a hands-off American approach.
Popular in American policymaking was the strategic, or historic, analysis of Soviet intentions, holding that the invasion was a natural continuation of the Russians’ impulse toward contiguous expansion, their century-old thrust toward warm water ports and their contemporary desire to be within striking distance of the oil-rich Persian Gulf. But while Afghanistan lay along the Soviet Union’s southern border, the rugged, transportation-deficient country was hardly the best route.
The theory was flawed. Projecting such carefully drawn thinking onto a Soviet government crippled by an ailing leader, Leonid Brezhnev, gave Moscow more credit for canniness than was probably due.
A more plausible scenario had origins in Iran’s Islamic revolution the previous year, which had rekindled Russians’ traditional fear of hostile encirclement. It stoked worries in the Soviet hierarchy that fundamentalism could spread across the border into the vast Muslim population of Soviet Central Asia.
Then, a series of coups and counter-coups in Kabul caused consternation. An anti-communist president was ousted, then a pro-Soviet government was overthrown by an American-educated president suspected by Moscow of links with the CIA — all while an insurgency of Muslim fundamentalists controlled two-thirds of the country.
Imagine a similar scenario in Mexico. A pro-American government in Mexico City is beleaguered by a rural guerrilla movement rooted in social grievances and religious issues — and drawing support from countries hostile to the US. The pro-American president is overthrown, killed, and replaced by a pro-Soviet defense minister who orders the former president’s supporters arrested. Washington is riveted by the specter of strong Soviet influence across the southern border of the United States. At the height of the Cold War, would anyone be amazed if the US sent troops to Mexico to straighten things out?
Misunderstandings lead to war, and as generals are fond of warning, war is easier to begin than to end. Biden is right when he argues that if the US waits for the right conditions to leave Afghanistan, they will never arrive and the American military will be there for a year or two or ten.
I’m averse to quoting myself, but I can’t resist mentioning that in talks I gave shortly after the 2001 invasion, I heard audiences gasp in derisive disbelief when I said that US troops would be there for twenty years.
And in 1988, I visited the hilltop Martyrs’ Cemetery, where the sorrowful wind blew silently, and has continued from then into today and tomorrow. “Somewhere far off, behind the silence,” I wrote in The New York Times, “came a woman’s voice in a thin wail. Here, weeping over a grave, a widow knelt and prayed from a pocket Koran; there, a brother stood, holding firmly onto another brother’s arm.”