Page last updated at 06:26 GMT, Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Soviet lessons from Afghanistan

Andrew North
BBC News

Soviet tanks in Afghanistan
The problems faced by Soviet forces in Afghanistan carry echoes for Nato

All the most senior ministers were at the Afghan strategy meeting.

They knew things were not going well, but from their leader there was a whiff of panic.

"We just need to be sure that the final result does not look like a humiliating defeat: to have lost so many men and now abandoned it all... in short, we have to get out of there."

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev - the speaker of those words - was understandably alarmed.

It was June 1986, almost a year since he had taken the decision to start withdrawing Soviet troops from Afghanistan and hand over more responsibility to the government there.

But Soviet losses, already above 10,000, kept mounting.

With conflicting signals this week about the direction of Western policy in Afghanistan, there is a hint of the same kind of panic and indecision.

Soviet exit strategy

US President Barack Obama is still deciding whether to send in thousands of US reinforcements.

Soldiers from former Soviet Union in Afghanistan
1979 - Brezhnev sends in troops
1988 - USSR pledges to withdraw
1989 - final Soviet withdrawal
Soviet deaths - estimated at 15,000
Afghan deaths - estimated at one million

Yet the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown - facing ever-greater opposition to the Afghan war - has been highlighting possibilities for UK troops to pull back in some areas next year.

It is less than two weeks since he was saying: "We cannot, must not and will not walk away."

But as Mr Gorbachev found, getting out is at least as difficult as staying in.

It took almost four years to pull out entirely - because of a combination of dithering over strategy and last-ditch efforts by Moscow to prop up its client government in Kabul in the hope of maintaining some pride and influence.

The former Soviet leader's difficulties are detailed in previously secret transcripts of Politburo meetings and diary entries recently released by the Washington-based National Security Archive.

They make sobering reading for British and American leaders, as they decide whether to double-up or cut their losses in Afghanistan.

There are certainly differences - not least America's determination to make the Soviet withdrawal as costly as possible in blood and treasure.

Lost battle

But there are echoes too of the difficulties the US and its allies face now.

Mikhail Gorbachev, former Soviet president
President Gorbachev was alarmed by the situation of Soviet forces

By the late 1980s, Moscow's exit strategy was basically the same as Nato's today - to build up an allied government in Kabul with sufficient trained army and police forces to defend itself, thereby allowing foreign troops to leave.

But even with the backing of a 100,000-strong Soviet army and billions of rubles in aid, the Afghan government struggled to establish its legitimacy and authority much beyond the capital - much like President Hamid Karzai's Western-backed administration today.

This bleak assessment of the situation in late 1986 by the Soviet armed forces commander, Marshal Sergei Akhromeev, sounds eerily familiar.

"Military actions in Afghanistan will soon be seven years old," Mr Akhromeev told Mr Gorbachev at a November 1986 Politburo session.

"There is no single piece of land in this country which has not been occupied by a Soviet soldier. Nonetheless, the majority of the territory remains in the hands of rebels.

"The whole problem is that military results are not followed up by political actions. At the centre there is authority; in the provinces there is not.

"We control Kabul and the provincial centres, but on occupied territory we cannot establish authority. We have lost the battle for the Afghan people".

Familiar problems

By that point, Soviet trainers had created an Afghan army 160,000-strong - double the size of the force Nato has trained so far - together with thousands of much-feared secret policemen.

Yet once Soviet forces had left, they could do little more than defend Kabul and a few other cities.

Only massive military aid, coupled with incompetence and in-fighting among the US-backed mujahideen opposition, allowed the Afghan government Moscow left behind to cling on in Kabul for a few more years before finally collapsing.

There were familiar problems too with the financial assistance Moscow gave.

It hoped the funds would bolster the capacity of the Afghan government and pay for projects that would benefit people, winning hearts and minds.

However corruption rendered much of its useless.

As the Politburo discussed a new aid request from Kabul in January 1987, Marshal Sergei Sokolov said: "In 1981, we gave them 100m roubles of free assistance. And all of that went to the elite. And there was nothing in the hamlets - no kerosene, no matches."

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