Is US Repeating the Soviet Union’s Mistakes in Afghan War?

Afghanistan’s current situation is not unlike 1988 when the Soviet soldiers were withdrawing. Here’s why. 

4 min read

Under the 2020 Doha agreement, the Trump administration pledged to withdraw all US troops by May from Afghanistan, and the Biden administration is also considering a full withdrawal, which could repeat past catastrophes.

Withdrawing US forces immediately could ensure the collapse of the Afghan government, trigger a civil war, turn Afghanistan into a playground for terrorist groups, and the terrorists in turn could plot vengeful attacks such as 9/11 in the future against the US.

The US is repeating the Soviet mistake in Afghanistan after three decades; Afghanistan and the world could again face the circumstance of the 1990s, when the Soviet troops withdrew and global terrorism was unleashed.

Like Soviet Era, US’s Present Dealings With Taliban May Lead to Collapse of Afghan Govt

Afghanistan’s current situation is not very different from 1988 when the Soviet soldiers were leaving. The Taliban’s founders, the Mujahideen of the 1980s, were rebelling to remove Soviet troops and refused to take part in the peace process. Later, when the Soviet proclaimed a withdrawal, the Mujahideen believed they had defeated the superpower, and thought the Kabul government would fall directly after the foreign troops’ exit.

The Mujahideen bolstered the insurgency against the Afghan government; finally, the Afghan government collapsed in 1992.

On the other hand, the Taliban signed a deal with the US and called for the US to withdraw its all soldiers in exchange for commitments by the Taliban to reduce violence, and end ties with the al-Qaeda. But the Taliban has entirely violated its promises — mounted violence enormously such as the Mujahideen did during the Soviet withdrawal, started the targeted killings of Afghan intelligentsia, and have constantly met with the al-Qaida during their negotiations with the US.

Like the Mujahideen, some Taliban also announced they would continue the war against the Afghan government after dealing with the US.

The US has been dealing with the Taliban the same was as the former Soviet Union dealt with the Mujahideen, and the consequences are likely to be similar too.

For instance, the Soviet leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev announced to pull out of all Soviet combat troops by the end of 1988, and called Afghan leader Dr Najibullah to Moscow in late 1986 to reach a settlement with the conflicted groups.

In 1987, Najibullah declared a National Reconciliation Policy, invited the leadership of the Mujahideen, offered them positions at the central government, and assured to remove Soviet troops from their areas if they made peace.

Exit of Soviet Troops in 1988 Changed Insurgency Into Civil War

The Mujahideen leadership rejected the government's proposal and pledged to sustain jihad until the entire withdrawal of Soviet troops and the end of the communist regime. Earlier proclamations of the departure have failed the reconciliation plan and immensely motivated the Mujahideen for triumph.

At last, without ending the war, the Soviet exit was determined under the Geneva Accord in 1988.

Within the ferocious nine-year war, roughly one million civilians were killed, 90,000 Mujahideen fighters, 18,000 Afghan troops, and 14,500 Soviet soldiers, but peace was not achieved.

The withdrawal of forces had changed insurgency into a civil war with great destruction, and the various Mujahideen factions fought against each other across Afghanistan to constitute their own government or get key posts in the government.

Emergence of the Taliban & Unleashing of Global Terrorism

Amidst the disarray of civil war, the Taliban emerged in 1994, began fighting against the Mujahideen, and captured Kabul in 1996. Instantaneously, terrorism spread in the world after the Taliban gave hospitality to al-Qaeda leadership.

From Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda’s leadership planned attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, and the 9/11 Attacks and the Pentagon in 2001.

After the 9/11 incident, the US invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban regime with the support of the Northern Alliance within three months, and a democratic government was installed under the leadership of Hamid Karzai.


Moreover, peace talks were initiated between the US and the Taliban in 2018 after 17 years of conflict, with 139,000 Afghans and roughly 2,400 US soldiers fatalities between 2001 and 2018.

Trump’s Mistakes in Afghanistan

But Donald Trump repeated Gorbachev’s mistake in Afghanistan. His statement about the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan before the result of the dialogue had recreated the 1980s situation and tremendously encouraged the Taliban for military victory just as Gorbachev’s announcement had emboldened the Mujahideen.

The Taliban quickly started celebrating the war victory, such as the Mujahideen celebrated after Gorbachev's declaration and claimed that the US was on the verge of defeat.

Therefore, the Taliban began the spring offensive with the name of Al-Fath, which means ‘victory’.

For the Taliban, the ‘withdrawal of troops’ is the US's defeat; the US officials have repeatedly been giving the deadline of the withdrawal, repeating the Soviet missteps, providing them with a narrative of victory against the US, and encouraging the Taliban that they can recapture the country as the Mujahideen seized it after the Soviet exit.


US Failure to Hold the Afghan Taliban Accountable

Even during the negotiations, the US has failed to hold the Taliban accountable for their constant violation of the agreement. After the exit of the US, the Taliban will definitely follow the course of their elders, the Mujahideen, to attempt to repeat history to collapse the Afghan government and reverse the US gains.

Three decades ago, the Soviets failed to thwart Afghanistan’s collapse and end the insurgency. Now, the US suffers from a similar dilemma to preclude Afghanistan from future upheaval and ending its longest war.

Soviet Lessons for the US

The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 left a pivotal lesson for the US. The full extraction of US troops, guaranteed to the Taliban under the agreement, could create the same catastrophic situation as the world saw after the withdrawal of the Soviet, and the country once again will become a terrorist sanctuary.

An irresponsible withdrawal will alter the longest war of the US into a forever war.

Biden should not repeat Soviet mistakes and halt the withdrawal, so as not to lose the US gains of the last two decades in Afghanistan.

(Hizbullah Khan is a political analyst focusing on US foreign policy. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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