Afghanistan today and yesterday: Mujahideen history from Brezhnev to Biden

Carlos Zapata

The withdrawal of United States (US) troops from Afghan territory after a particularly extensive lapse of operations, established by US President Joseph Biden and consummated in August, has been evidently one of the most momentous events of this year. “Staying longer was not an option” (Biden 2021, as quoted in Zurcher 2021) was the President’s response in order to justify the abrupt nature of the process and its immediate repercussion of Taliban reconquest, especially after an unsuccessful campaign of “nation-building” (Zurcher 2021). Although, these operational developments can be admitted as unprecedented events in the international arena, their motives should not be limited to isolated cases and, in this particular context, they could be grouped within a cyclical process of foreign intervention in the history of Afghanistan since 1979, specifically with the entry of Soviet Union (USSR) forces against the Mujahideen groups in December of that year. The patterns of deployment, initial operations, occupation, and withdrawal shared by both Soviet and US interventions, pose themselves as especially susceptible for suggestive analogies and arguably similar in what concerns the role of the Afghan government, international image, and internal defiance. The following paragraphs will therefore focus on a comparative assessment between the two historical periods and present an approximation to the continuous conflict that has been witnessed in Afghan lands since the intervention by Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet government.

Apparent frustration when addressing the training and assistance of Afghan governmental forces against insurgent groups is something that has been visibly shared by both the US and Soviet efforts. On the one hand, the Soviet endeavor was motivated primarily by both national and regional concerns. These concerns could be summarized in the protection of an amicable Marxist regime in Kabul and to assert influence over that government “by making sure that its leadership was loyal to Moscow” (Goldman 1984, 403). Forces were deployed to protect the pro-Soviet government from the opposition raised by the Mujahideen, a term which encloses a broad group of “Islamic fundamentalists, who had become increasingly militant after the fall of the Shah of Iran [in 1979]” (Kornfeld 1981, 10). Military difficulties were present since 1980 (Oliker 2011, 73) and the assisted improvement of the Afghan forces in matters such as capabilities and preparedness was viewed as a way to ensure an orderly Soviet withdrawal (Oliker 2011, 75). While developments were made, especially in what concerns training, efforts sustained to build functioning armed forces in a peaceful Afghanistan were fruitless and the systems developed were prone to corruption (Oliker 2011, 79-80). On the other hand, the US case similarly was incapable of preparing the Afghan governmental forces against downfall in its struggle against the Taliban insurgency. The US intervention was initially provoked by geostrategic necessities, which could be summarized in the following two points: disrupting the safe havens of Al-Qaeda and replacing the ruling Taliban regime (Schweitzer and Eran 2021, 1). Forces were sent and the initial objectives of affecting Al-Qaeda, cessation of the Taliban authority and the establishment of a new administration with the election of President Hamid Karzai were achieved (Schweitzer and Eran 2021, 2). However, these attainments would remain in the short term, as the corruption and lack of public confidence in the new government would oblige the US to increase its investment on the training of the Afghan army. Efforts would become futile, considering: the corruption, lack of supplies and low morale that plagued the Afghan forces in the current year and which allowed the present Taliban takeover (Hartung 2021). The US effort could arguably also be seen as a disruptor to the “political structure of Afghan society” (Zain 2006, 82), something that can also be affirmed of the Soviets on the grounds of initial governmental meddling (Goldman 1984, 387-389)

Additionally, both Soviet and US interventions have resulted in withdrawals after inconsequential initiatives against insurgent objectives and following possible affectations to their international image and prestige. It is apparent that the Soviets “fell short of success, as measured by, for example, the ability to defeat the insurgency” (Oliker 2011, 80) in a war that would finally end in a Mujahideen takeover. Withdrawal was perceived by the Soviets as a solution after their ineffective military efforts, regardless of the important costs of geostrategic sacrifice, fundamentalist spillover towards the Soviet republics of Central Asia, loss of credibility in amicable states and international humiliation (Daley 1989, 499-501). However, motives for the withdrawal also include the input of political capital by which the international “anti-coalition” could fundament their critiques and “put the Soviet Union in an extremely grave condition” (Dashichev as quoted in Daley 1989, 510). Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Eduard Shevardnadze was also worried by concerted backlash after expressing “we must not pretend that the standards…of what is termed civilized conduct in the world community do not concern us” (as quoted in Daley 1989, 510). The US case, on its behalf, also resulted in the necessity of withdrawal, in this context cursory, which was formally pursuit after the negotiation of the Doha Agreement during the Trump administration (Schweitzer and Eran 2021, 2). This decision would not follow without consequences, as “the vacuum that will be left by the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan will pose a political and military challenge for countries in the region” (Schweitzer and Eran 2021, 4). The retirement of US troops was perceived internationally as a failure, with critiques ranging between unfulfilled foreign policy promises in Britain to security concerns of fundamentalist spillover in China (Sly 2021).

The internal opposition against both interventions is another aspect that should not be ignored. Abuses by the Soviet army in the inappropriate use of force contributed to the lack of acceptance from the Afghan public (Oliker 2011, 74). Furthermore, opposition from the Soviet people was raised in the final years, represented mainly by the Afgantsy, who were Soviet veterans from Afghanistan and with many of them belonging to non-Russian nationalities of the country (Reuveny and Prakash 1999, 697). These Afgantsy had a role in discrediting the Soviet army during and after the military operations (Reuveny and Prakash 1999, 693-697). In addition, the role of Soviet academic circles cannot be underestimated, with an article from magazine Literaturnaya Gazeta asserting that one of the results of the venture was that: “a significant consolidation of the anti-Soviet front of states surrounding the USSR from West to East had taken place” (Bogomolov 1980, as quoted in Daley 1989, 512). On its behalf, the US endeavor in establishing a new regime did not succeed, as it was also opposed by the Afghan citizenry, which was particularly fractured (Zain 2006, 85). Public opposition in the US, in perhaps a similar evolution to the Soviet case, was relatively high at the start and low in the final years of operations. While a majority of US citizens continued to support the Afghan war until 2009 (Jacobson 2010, 592), up to 54% in 2021 approved the withdrawal of troops based on a survey by the Pew Research Center (Van Green and Doherty 2021).

Nevertheless, there also exist certain and significative differences. The treatment of human rights is one of the facets that set both interventions apart. Succinctly, the Soviet effort was characterized by the destruction of homes and the maltreatment of citizen property (Oliker 2011, 74). Contrarily, the US effort has been rather nuanced, as it did impulse, albeit unsustainably, free elections (Schweitzer and Eran 2021, 2) and the slight improvement of women livelihood (Samar 2019, 153), although, it was also tainted by violations to physical and economic integrity and the civilian casualties perpetrated by pro-government militias (Friesendorf and Krahmann 2016, 72).

Succinctly expressed, more than forty years of struggle in Afghanistan with the transcendental participation of Soviet and US troops have created two historical periods alike in several measures, which include but are not limited to, failure in the creation of a sustainable and independent Afghan army, negative effects to the international prestige of the countries involved, and internal defiance from various actors. There are significant differences, however, in what concerns the advancement that each venture made in human rights.


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