Twenty-five years have passed since the Russians finally pulled out of Afghanistan: long enough to look back with some objectivity, and to draw parallels with the war which the Americans have been fighting there since 2001.
Moscow had long had friendly relations with Afghanistan, strategically situated on Russia’s vulnerable Southern border. But then came the Communist coup in Kabul in April 1978, and the brutal and divisive leadership of Amin, the Communist president. The country looked as if it might disintegrate and become open to American influence. Very reluctantly, the Soviet government decided to replace Amin by someone more amenable. In a brilliant operation Soviet special forces stormed Amin’s palace and killed him.
The Russians aimed to withdraw from Afghanistan as soon they had set up a new ‘socialist’ government capable of defending itself. They thought that might take no more than a year. Instead a rebellion spread across the country. They were drawn into a savage war which lasted nine years.
The Americans aimed to make the Russians pay a heavy price for the invasion, while the Afghan resistance and the Pakistanis were determined to install an Islamist government in Kabul. Remarkably, they failed. Negotiations were difficult and protracted. But by April 1988 the Russians had achieved a comparative success. The 40th Army withdrew in good order. And it left behind a friendly government in Kabul under Najibullah, a long-standing Communist.
But Najibullah depended on Russian supplies of weapons, ammunition, fuel and food, which were cut off at the beginning of 1992 because Russia could no longer afford them. Najibullah was overthrown. A vicious civil war followed. It was ended by the victory of the Taliban.
The Americans entered Afghanistan in 2001 to eliminate the Al Qaeda bases which had planned the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York. They too started with a brilliant series of special forces operations. But then they made the same mistake as the Russians: they tried to re-engineer Afghan politics by setting up a friendly government in their own image — a ‘democratic’ one this time. They too ended up in a protracted war. Like the Russians they have not been defeated on the battlefield. But they too have failed to achieve their ambitious political objectives.
Indeed, they have not achieved even their immediate objective: to destroy Al Qaeda as a source of terrorism worldwide. For Al Qaeda has demonstrated that it is not tied to any one territorial base: it now works in loose coordination from Yemen, North Africa, Syria and elsewhere. Jihadists from European countries and the Caucasus gain experience in the hot spots of the Arab world, and bring it back to carry on the struggle at home.
This is a problem for Russia too, since it helps feed the insurgency in the North Caucasus. Russia is unlikely to join other countries in forceful intervention abroad: since 1989 there has been little appetite for such adventures. Indeed, if the failed interventions in Afghanistan demonstrate anything, it is that terrorism can best be countered by good intelligence and police work, and only occasionally by the very limited application of force. Such work relies to a large extent on international cooperation, to which Russia can make a major contribution in support of its own continuing interests in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Middle East.
So what is now in store for Afghanistan itself? The future there is obscure. Once the Americans have left, the country may once again be torn apart by civil war. Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors may be unable to refrain from meddling in its affairs. Perhaps the constructive assistance given to Afghanistan by the Americans and others over the last decade will be sufficient to ensure a kind of stability and a modicum of social and economic progress, though that looks optimistic. But in the end only the Afghans themselves will be able to find solutions that endure.