A Soviet unit pictured prior to their withdrawal from Afghanistan, 1989. Source: A.Solomonov / RIA Novosti
On February 15, 1989, the Soviet military finally left Afghanistan. The last to cross the bridge across the Amu Darya River was the commander of the 40th Army, Gen Boris Gromov, who said the now famous phrase: “There is not a single Soviet soldier behind me.”
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan began in December 1979, when a KGB special-purpose team, with support from army units, overthrew the leftist president Hafizullah Amin, who tried to reduce the country’s dependence on the USSR and strengthen relations with Iran and Pakistan. Prior to the invasion, there were even reports that Amin had held a meeting with anti-communist warlord with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
At first, Soviet generals thought that the mission in Afghanistan would be a brief and easy one, but very soon it turned into a long and draining war. They entered into a clash with a handful of fanatics but by 1989 were fighting against a well-organized rebel army backed by resources from the West, Arab countries and even China. No other rebel movement in the world has ever enjoyed such large-scale outside support.
Crossing that bridge into Afghanistan was easy but crossing it on the way back from Afghanistan turned out to be very hard.
“The country's senior leadership underestimated the situation that had developed in Afghanistan. They thought that the paratroopers' presence and the deployment of several units would be enough to establish law and order everywhere, but, unfortunately, the reaction they got was quite different,” says Col-Gen Georgy Shpak, who commanded the 350th Guards Airborne Regiment that was the first to enter Afghanistan. “That had to do with how freedom-loving the Afghan people turned out to be and with the interference from the USA, which was rendering unprecedented support to the mujahideen. It began to arm nearly everyone in Afghanistan, in effect, giving birth to world terrorism headed by Osama bin Laden. We were told that we would perform our task and be back home. But we ended up staying there for nine years.”
In the summer of 1983 Soviet ambassador to Kabul Fikryat Tabeyev said: “There is Andropov in the Kremlin now, he understands how pointless our military presence in Afghanistan is. Soon everything will change.” But Andropov died, to be replaced by ailing Chernenko, who did not get enough time to look into the Afghan issue. Thus it was only with Gorbachev's coming into power that the Soviet Union began to look out for ways out of the Afghan trap.
“We were thrown into burning lava,” recalls Col Vladimir Savitsky, from the Airborne Troops. Like many other Soviet servicemen, after nearly 10 years of fighting in Afghanistan he will not be shaken out of his conviction that that country “cannot be defeated with weapons alone.” But the ideology imported by the USSR was rejected by the Afghan society. “We were losing on the ideological front. People there were very religious. We should not have tried to build socialism there at all,” he says.
Savitsky recalls that the Afghans were extremely sensitive when it came to interference in their life but were always happy to accept humanitarian aid from Soviet servicemen.
A veteran with the special-purpose unit Alfa, Sergey Goncharov, who too took part in the Afghan campaign, has similar memories. “When we captured a village, we brought doctors with us, who were called tabibs, and we helped locals with food. Ours was a completely different attitude. The Americans are acting differently: for them it is just territory that they have to capture,” he says.
The U.S. military studied the Soviet experience in Afghanistan but ended up caught in the same trap as the USSR because the Afghans are equally hostile to godless socialists as they are to western democracy. For the USA, a swift anti-terror operation too turned into a protracted war.
Now, a quarter of a century on, Russian society is still debating how to assess the Afghan campaign. The Russian union of veterans of the Afghan campaign intends to appeal to the president to revise the assessment that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was given at the 1989 Congress of Soviet people's deputies, which dismissed it as “a political adventure.”
“Twenty-five years have passed and it is hard to judge those events, whether they were good or bad. At least we thought that we were fighting for justice and we had no doubts,” says Alfa veteran Sergey Goncharov.
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