Exactly 25 years have passed since the Soviet Union pulled its troops out of Afghanistan. The US-led ISAF is on course to do the same this year. Washington can only hope that the bloody aftermath of the Russian withdrawal is not repeated.
So why did both countries invade such a remote and inhospitable state? By the time the Soviet tanks rolled down the perversely named Friendship Bridge on the border to what is now Tajikistan, few seemed sure.
Purportedly, the Soviet Union deployed its military in 1979 to prop up a Communist government that had come to power in a bloody coup the previous year. Without military intervention, the Kremlin (probably correctly) felt that the government had little chance of survival.
In the era when the world was a chessboard of proxy wars between the East and the West, the war was seen as a counter-move to strengthen the Soviet position in the Islamic world following the Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt. Indeed, the US and Arabic states entered the stage immediately – spending billions of dollars funding religious extremists simply on the basis of their hostility to the Soviets.
But for all the post-factum justifications, committing the Soviet Union to a direct military invasion in a non-crucial arena was an arbitrary decision, and was seen as such by many high-level Soviet apparatchiks – even when it was taken.
By 1989, during the height of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, and in the midst of the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Soviet involvement in Afghanistan seemed downright grotesque.
Over 12 years later, following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, the US invaded Afghanistan with a more seemly (if ironic, considering its past allegiances) justification of dismantling the radical Taliban regime that provided a safe haven for terrorists that staged attacks throughout the world.
Since then, the war aims have grown more nebulous and distant, with several strategic approaches, including the once much-heralded “surge,” failing to bring an end to armed conflict in Afghanistan.
One thing is clear now, however – the US public has had enough. As recently as 2008, most Americans supported the war effort. But polls now show that less than 20 percent of US adults want the troops to stay.
Both NATO and the Soviet Army used forces of comparable sizes for the duration of the conflict, with around 100,000 foreign soldiers present at any one time. The USSR and the US have both tried to relieve the burden by training local militias, though the Soviets were more cautious, fearing mass defections of newly-trained men with weapons who perhaps weren’t as receptive to secular Communist ideals as they first appeared. Considering the difficulties the US has had already with abrupt and fatal betrayals among its own Afghan National Security Forces, the worry does not appear to be entirely groundless.
The official death toll for the Soviet forces – published only in the last months of the conflict – was close on 15,000, though most experts believe it to have been higher. In their 13 years on the ground, the NATO allies have lost in excess of 3,400 personnel.
But the biggest contrast is between the numbers of dead Afghans. Between 1 and 2 million Afghans were killed during the Soviet invasion and occupation, and perhaps as many as 3 million were wounded. More than 5 million, perhaps as much as one-third of the country’s population, became refugees, crossing into Pakistan and Iran.
Official statistics say that less than 20,000 civilians have perished in Afghanistan since 2001, though classifying people as civilians when fighting an informal guerilla war defies firm criteria. The death toll of non-Western fighting casualties on all sides is unknown, but has probably reached at least 100,000 and could be higher – though nowhere near the numbers of the earlier conflict.