A Tale of Two Withdrawals: Why Soviet and US Pull-Outs From Afghanistan Were So Different
04:00 GMT 18.08.2021 (Updated: 13:22 GMT 06.08.2022)
Washington's disorganised and haphazard pull-out from Kabul comes in sharp contrast to how the USSR left the country in February 1989, says American independent journalist Max Parry, recalling how the US political establishment tried to create a Vietnam-style Afghan quagmire for the Soviets, but eventually fell into its own trap.
On 15 August, the US hastily evacuated its embassy staff from the Afghan capital of Kabul as the Taliban* entered the city.
Viral image of a US military helicopter flying over the embassy evoked strong memories of the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975, prompting media pundits and social media users to draw parallels between the US' Vietnam War and the protracted 20-year-long Afghan campaign. In April 1975, Dutch photographer Hubert van Es took a picture of people scaling a ladder to a US helicopter on a rooftop in Saigon, at the end of the Vietnam War.
It appears that the White House was not prepared for a yet another "Saigon moment" last Sunday: on 12 August, US intelligence services forecast that Kabul would fall in 90 days; then they corrected their prognosis to 72 hours. However, the capital fell quicker than that, and weeks ahead of the scheduled deadline, triggering the collapse of the Ashraf Ghani government and panic at Kabul Airport.
Ironically, over 40 years ago Washington planned to create a similar "Vietnamese quagmire" for the USSR in Afghanistan
. Operation Cyclone aimed at arming and funding Afghan insurgents had been launched months before Soviet troops entered the Central Asian state
at Kabul's request, according to the memoirs of ex-CIA Deputy Director Robert Gates.
Ex-National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski recalled
in 1998 that the trick was to "induce a Soviet military intervention". Nevertheless, after a 10-year war, the Soviet forces avoided a humiliating "Vietnam-style" defeat by ending the fight and conducting an orderly withdrawal between 15 May 1988 and 15 February 1989.
Soviet Pull-Out Vs. US 'Saigon Moment'
"The key difference between the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and the US pull-out today is the completely disorganised and haphazard nature of the latter", says independent American journalist Max Parry, referring to the messy evacuation of the embassy staff and the dispatch of an additional military contingent to the country to wrap up the withdrawal as soon as possible.
Despite being bogged down in a protracted and exhausting standoff with the US-armed Mujahideen
, the Soviets managed to carry out their drawdown "in an orderly, responsible fashion", he points out.
Nevertheless, the US and its allies tried to hinder the Soviet pull-out, according to the journalist. He explains that although the Geneva Accords stipulated the timetable for the Soviet evacuation, which Moscow adhered to, "the US actually violated the agreement in continuing to send arms to the jihadists".
"The Americans did everything to ensure that the pull-out either did not take place or, if it did, with huge losses for us", recalled Colonel-General Boris Gromov, the last commander of the 40th Army in Afghanistan, in his 2019 interview with Sputnik. Nevertheless, the Soviet military prevented provocations and ensured safe a withdrawal through land routes, which was apparently more risky than the US aerial pull-out.
Furthermore, in contrast to Washington, "the Soviet Army left intact a relatively stable government to preside over the country", the journalist remarks. The pro-Soviet government of Mohammad Najibullah ruled the country and maintained armed resistance against the Mujahideen until April 1992. The Afghan insurgents took Kabul shortly after his resignation.
Agreements With Responsible Power Brokers
Gromov revealed that the Soviet military leadership had set up and maintained contacts with the leaders of the Peshawar Seven, a military-political union of the leaders of the Afghan Mujahideen. In particular, the general struck an agreement with Ahmad Shah Massoud, one of the key Afghan warlords leading the fight against Soviet forces in the Panjshir Valley area. According to the general, the Mujahideen kept their word and provided safe passage for Soviet troops.
In contrast, it remains unclear exactly what agreements were concluded between the Biden administration and the Taliban political and military wings given that the speed of the militants' advance apparently caught the US off guard, according to Parry. Furthermore, the Biden administration's postponement of completion of the military pull-out
from May to September 2021 prompted ire from the Taliban leadership and threats that the Mujahideen would fight to the bitter end should the White House violate the Doha accords.
To complicate matters further, ex-President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani fled the capital, thus breaking earlier agreements on an orderly power transferal. According to Russian officials on the ground in Kabul, Ghani attempted to smuggle out a vast sum of money as he fled the country.
Moreover, it appears that Washington did not trust the Ghani government very much, the journalist believes: "When the US recently vacated Bagram Air Base, they did so without even letting the Afghan commander in charge of the airfield know in advance, which indicates a serious rupture in communication between Washington and the Ghani government in Kabul", he says. According to Parry, this episode "should serve as a warning to lackey governments of Washington around the world that they too could be abandoned at the drop of a hat".
Operation Cyclone Boomeranged on the US
Joe Biden's 16 August address on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan prompted a wave of criticism from conservative commentators for "absolving himself of responsibility" and "more or less invit[ing] the Taliban to take over the country". For his part, former President Donald Trump lambasted his successor for the "incompetent" way of pulling out.
He explains that the American people unanimously supported an end to the 20-year conflict
and withdrawal of US troops. Still, the way in which it was conducted, "along with the widely perceived out-of-touch characterisation of events on the ground by Secretary of State Blinken and Biden himself", has backfired on the administration, according to the journalist.
Now, Biden's White House has found itself being blasted from both the right and left over its handling of the Afghan debacle, Parry notes, predicting that this serious setback for Biden on matters of foreign policy will help the GOP going into the midterms next year.
Meanwhile, one should bear in mind that it was Washington's policy-makers who armed, trained, and enabled the Afghan Mujahideen back in the 1980s
, the journalist remarks. Speaking
to Le Nouvel Observateur's Vincent Jauvert on 15 January 1998, Zbigniew Brzezinski highlighted that he did not regret that the US' Afghan covert war resulted in the emergence of the Taliban, designated as a terrorist organisation in many states.
"Regret what?" Brzezinski asked. "That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? ... What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire?"
At the time, the prominent geostrategist could not have imagined how this covert op would eventually boomerang on the US.
*The Taliban is a terrorist organisation banned in Russia and many other countries.