A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan
By Artemy Kalinovsky
Harvard University Press $27.95 (£20.95)

As they flew out to Afghanistan in October 2001 to avenge the trauma of 9/11, an American special forces sergeant told his fellow Rangers they might learn something from the Soviet soldiers who had fought there before them. “We don’t want to hear any of that Commie rubbish from you about a bunch of sad asses who lost their war to monkeys,” they replied. But 10 years on we are facing much the same problems the Russians did. Perhaps, western policymakers are beginning to wonder, the Russians could give us some tips.

In 1979 Afghanistan was in growing chaos under a brutal and disorderly Communist government. The Russians believed they had a viable model for sorting things out. They had given clean water, healthcare, education for girls, a developing agriculture and industry and the Soviet version of law and order to their own central Asian Republics. Surely they could do the same in Afghanistan? So they set out to stabilise the political system, reconcile the Communists with their enemies and train up the army and police force. They built roads, factories, irrigation projects, schools. They placed advisers everywhere in the military and the civilian administration.

The Russians had not expected to fight and believed they could get out within a year. Instead they found themselves in a quagmire, as the civil war between Afghan Communists and their domestic enemies became a three-way fight of ambushes, roadside bombs, villages obliterated by bombardment, atrocities on all sides. It took them more than nine years to extricate themselves.

Artemy Kalinovsky tells how they did it in A Long Goodbye. He does not go into the military detail but concentrates on the diplomacy, the decision- making in Moscow, and on Soviet attempts to rebuild Afghanistan’s politics and economy. His account is meticulously documented and supplemented by interviews with surviving Russian protagonists. Though further documents will no doubt come to light, it is unlikely his lucid and elegant narrative will soon be bettered.

At times Kalinovsky seems to imply Gorbachev could and should have got out earlier. But he recognises that even the most determined leader is trapped by past errors and commitments, present circumstance, and contradictory pressures from both friends and enemies. Gorbachev summed it up: “We could leave quickly, without worrying about the consequences, and blame everything on our predecessors. But that we cannot do. We have not given an account of ourselves to the people. A million of our soldiers have passed through Afghanistan. And it looks as if they did so in vain. So why did those people die?” The dilemma is sadly familiar today.

The painfully negotiated agreement signed in Geneva in April 1988 gave the Russians opportunities their enemies – the Americans, the Pakistanis and the Mujahideen – had been determined to deny. Their soldiers departed in good order, undefeated in battle. They left behind their own man, the politically astute Mohammad Najibullah, and an Afghan army capable of combating the Mujahideen. Then it all went wrong. Najibullah’s government disintegrated. The Russians, themselves bankrupt, cut off his essential supplies. He fell in 1992 and a civil war followed, from which the Taliban emerged as victors.

Things today are different. The cold war, in which Afghanistan was a pawn, is long over. The Taliban, unlike the Mujahideen, are not supported by a superpower. But there are telling similarities and Kalinovsky draws the obvious parallel with the unsatisfactory choices now faced by Barack Obama. Today’s Afghan army is still smaller and less well equipped and trained than Najibullah’s, and it is just as vulnerable to desertion and divided loyalties. Opinionated foreign advisers still undermine the local sense of responsibility. Pakistan is still very much in the game. Afghans still look askance at foreign invaders, even when they come bearing gifts. Like the Russians, the west has abandoned its hopes of transforming Afghan society for the more modest aim of departing with honour, leaving behind a secure and coherent government. But that government, like Najibullah’s, will still need huge financial and military assistance to survive against internal intrigue, armed opposition and interference from Pakistan. We have more resources than the Russians. We may do better at reconciling the Afghans among themselves. We may, as Kalinovsky suggests, succeed in crafting a regional solution involving the Russians too. We have no choice but to try. But we will need much time and a great deal of luck to succeed.

The writer is a former UK ambassador to Moscow, and author of Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, published by Profile books.

Get alerts on Non-Fiction when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article