Why the Soviet Union Gave Up in Afghanistan
This document is reprinted from Harper’s Magazine, June 2009
From a May 10, 1988, letter from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to all Party members. The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan began on May 15 and was completed February 15, 1989. The letter is among documents related to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan published in February by the National Security Archive. Translated from the Russian by Svetlana Savranskaya.
The decision to invade was made when there was a lot of uncertainty in the balance of forces within Afghan society. Our picture of the real social and economic situation in the country was also insufficiently clear. We do not want to say it, but we should: at that time, we did not even have a correct assessment of the unique geographical features of that hard-to-enter country. This was reflected in the operations of our troops against small, highly mobile units, where very little could be accomplished with the help of modern military technology.
In addition, we completely disregarded the most important national and historical factors, above all the fact that the appearance of armed foreigners in Afghanistan has always been met with arms in the hands of the population. This is how it was in the past, and this is how it happened when our troops entered Afghanistan, even though they came there with honest and noble goals.
Babrak Karmal became head of the Afghan government at the time. His first steps in that capacity gave us grounds to hope that he would be able to solve the problems facing his country. Nothing new emerged, however, in his policies that could have changed for the better the attitude of a significant portion of the Afghan population toward the new regime. Moreover, the intensity of the internal Afghan conflict continued to grow, and our military presence was associated with forceful imposition of customs alien to the national characteristics and feelings of the Afghan people. Our approach did not take into account the country’s multiple forms of economic life and other characteristics, such as tribal and religious customs.
One has to admit that we essentially put our bets on the military solution, on suppressing the counterrevolution with force. We did not even make full use of the existing opportunities to neutralize the hostile attitudes of the local population toward us. Often our people, acting out of their best intentions, tried to transplant the approach to which we are accustomed onto Afghan soil, and encouraged the Afghans to copy our ways. All this did not help our cause; it bred feelings of dependency on the part of the Afghan leaders in regard to the Soviet Union, both in the sphere of military operations and in the economic sphere.
Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan continued, and our troops were getting engaged in extensive combat actions. Finding any way out became more and more difficult as time passed. Combat action is combat action. Our losses in dead and wounded—and the Central Committee believes it has no right to hide this—were growing heavier and heavier. Altogether, by the beginning of this month, we had lost 13,310 dead in Afghanistan; 35,478 Soviet officers and soldiers were wounded, many of whom became disabled; 301 people are missing in action. There is a reason people say that each person is a unique world, and when a person dies that world disappears forever. The loss of every individual is very hard and irreparable. It is hard and sacred if one died carrying out one’s duty.
The Afghan losses, naturally, were much heavier than ours, including the losses among the civilian population.
One should not disregard the economic factor either. If the enemy in Afghanistan received weapons and ammunition worth hundreds of millions and later even billions of dollars, the Soviet-Afghan side also had to shoulder adequate expenditures. The war in Afghanistan has cost us 5 billion rubles a year.