The war in Afghanistan is not going well. A young president wants to pull out, but is boxed in by his generals. In Kabul, a corrupt, nominally democratic leader is losing his grip on power. A surge of ground troops has begun. The year is 1985.
It was 25 years ago that the Soviet Union experienced the bloodiest year of its occupation of Afghanistan, as the West is today. It was also the moment that Soviet forces there grew to a record 118,000 men -- a number ominously close to the 97,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan today. The strategy then was, as it is now, to produce a "surge" that could establish the conditions for withdrawal. Afghanistan's early spring of 1985 offers a striking parallel with its current season of discontent, and as the U.S. government pushes ahead with its strategy, it would be wise to study how the Soviets failed in fighting and ending their war.
In 1985, Moscow's mission was less an imperial adventure than an attempt to preserve some measure of dignity before exiting Afghanistan for good. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev swept into office in March 1985 as an agent for change, a politician who claimed he could get the Soviet Union back on track after the serious missteps of his predecessors. Minimizing his country's involvement in Afghanistan topped his to-do list. Gorbachev had become increasingly impatient with the counterinsurgency against the stubborn U.S.- and Pakistan-backed mujahideen, which was costing the nearly bankrupt Soviet Union an estimated $2 billion to $3 billion a year. He was prepared to finally and decisively change course.
In front of the 27th congress of the Soviet Union's Communist Party in February 1986, Gorbachev owned up to the dire nature of the struggle, referring to Afghanistan as "our bleeding wound." The delegates authorized him to seek a political solution for the conflict and eventually to end the Soviet presence in the country. But rather than chart an immediate withdrawal, Gorbachev conceived an effort to bolster the pro-Soviet Afghan government by military means.
First, the Soviet leader had to prepare the political ground in Afghanistan. Gorbachev started by breaking the news of an imminent Soviet withdrawal to his Afghan allies. In his initial encounter with Afghan President Babrak Karmal, Gorbachev made clear his determination to end the war: Karmal would have to defend his own country, Gorbachev told him in no uncertain terms, by the summer of 1986.
According to recently disclosed Russian documents, Gorbachev said that Karmal was shocked by this news. "[He] was dumbfounded, in no way expected such a turn, was sure that we needed Afghanistan more than he did, and was clearly expecting that we will be there for a long time, if not forever," Gorbachev told a meeting of the Politburo in October 1985. Gorbachev decided that the Kremlin's faltering Afghan allies stood no chance after a Soviet withdrawal unless there was a new face in Kabul's presidential palace. "The main reason that there has been no national consolidation so far is that Comrade Karmal is hoping to continue sitting in Kabul with our help," Gorbachev reportedly said of Kabul's largely ineffective and unpopular ruler. Finally, the Soviet leader put his money on Mohammad Najibullah, the energetic former head of the secret police. On Nov. 21, 1986, Afghanistan witnessed one of the country's rare peaceful transitions of power when Karmal "voluntarily" left Kabul for Moscow for medical treatment, paving the way for Najibullah's takeover.
Najibullah took Gorbachev's message to heart. In a bid to prepare his government to fend for itself, the president launched an all-encompassing national reconciliation policy in 1987. Every Afghan who accepted the principles of reconciliation would be welcome to return home. The insurgents were even offered seats in the government. Constitutional reforms were put on the table that recognized the pivotal role of Islam and established the country's nonaligned status in the Cold War. The Kabul government's concessions went so far as to relinquish control over the judicial system to the mullahs. The president clearly was determined to cut a deal.
Gorbachev was also now ready to start laying the groundwork for an orderly Soviet troop withdrawal. The Soviet Union began to invest heavily in the new regime and backed Najibullah's reconciliation strategy. At this program's core was a massive buildup of Afghan security forces. In effect, as it prepared for withdrawal, Moscow effectively produced a "surge" of military assistance intended to make the Afghan government more responsible for the battle against insurgents -- a strategy that closely resembles the West's current counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan.