Vienna, February 15 – Twenty years ago today, the last Soviet forces left Afghanistan, nearly a decade after Leonid Brezhnev had dispatched them there to prop up a pro-Moscow government in Kabul, an action that involved more than 600,000 Soviet soldiers and resulted in large numbers of killed and wounded both among them and among the Afghan population.
And today, across the Russian Federation and in some other former Soviet republics, officials and ordinary citizens, including the surviving veterans from that long-ago conflict, took part in a variety of events to commemorate both the war itself and the Soviet government’s decision to withdraw from it.
But behind these moving events, a debate is raging between those who believe the Soviet intervention led to the demise of the Soviet Union and those who are convinced that the decision to withdraw had precisely that effect, an argument intensified this year by Moscow’s decision to allow transit across Russia of some materials in support of US intervention in Afghanistan.
According to a poll conducted by the All Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), 47 percent of Russians now believe that Soviet intervention in Afghanistan was “a political adventure” on the part of the Soviet leadership, ten percent fewer than had that view a decade ago (wciom.ru/novosti/press-vypuski/press-vypusk/single/11403.html).
A slightly greater percentage now – 58 percent – say that there was “no need” to send forces to Afghanistan, although one in five – 20 percent – believe that there was such a good reason to take that step. And with regards to the outcome of the war, 44 percent of Russians say Soviet forces lost, while only 23 percent believe that they won.
Not surprisingly, given the passage of time, fewer and fewer Russians know about the war from participants – only 36 percent now say they have such knowledge compared to 46 percent twenty years ago. And consequently, the role of the media in defining what they believe to be the case almost certainly has increased.
Many Russian officials both at the end of Soviet times and in the 1990s were critical of the war and thus supportive of the decision to withdraw. Indeed, the Congress of Peoples Deputies even adopted a resolution declaring that the decision to send Soviet forces into Afghanistan was a mistake.
But in today’s more nationalistic Russia, a country in which leaders like Vladimir Putin express regret over the demise of the USSR and justify almost everything even Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin did, opposition to the Afghan war among commentators and politicians is giving way to support for it, and support for the withdrawal is yielding to opposition.
One example of this is the effort some are making to repeal the declaration of the Congress of Peoples Deputies about the war, a declaration that some Russian politicians and columnists say is not only degrading but flies in the face of a larger historical “truth” (www.rus-obr.ru/days/1920).
If one measures victory and defeat in terms only of who remains standing on the battlefield at the end, they say, then “the USSR lost the Afghan war.” But they insist that “there exists another, more objective point of view,” one that shows the intervention itself was correct but that the decision to withdraw was a mistake.
The intervention, they argued, not only blocked American plans to weaken the Soviet Union but won permanent friends for the Russian nation among the Afghans and other peoples in South Asia, while the withdrawal not only undermined Soviet power in the region but opened the way for the US to set up bases in Afghanistan.
Another commentator, Yuri Krupnov, a Russian nationalist who runs the Moscow Institute of Demography, Migration and Regional Development, has been even more explicit: Intervention helped the Soviet Union, and “the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan was a mistake” (www.argumenti.ru/publications/8963).
The withdrawal, Krupnov told “Argumenty nedeli,” “marked the departure of the USSR-Russia from the entire region,” leaving “a geopolitical vacuum” that the Americans have moved to fill. And consequently, “having thrown over Afghanistan, the USSR signed its own death warrant.”
Many people misunderstand the Afghan war, Krupnov continues. On the one hand, they assume that Soviet forces were fighting Afghans. But this is not so. “A local war is always war between the great powers.” In Afghanistan, he says, the USSR was fighting the United States and its allies, just as Russia was fighting not Georgians but the West last year.
And on the other, Soviet intervention, as costly as it was in human and financial terms, did not destroy the USSR, Krupnov insists. What destroyed the USSR was its foolish attitude toward the preservation of “its own investments” in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Having made them, Moscow needed to defend them rather than walk away.
Asked whether he wants to say that “if the forces had not been withdrawn, the Soviet Union would not have collapsed,” the Moscow commentator says that is “precisely” what he wants to say. And he complains that those who think that Afghanistan was the Soviet Union’s Vietnam are completely off base because Soviet forces performed better and spent less.
But there is a way in which Krupnov’s view on Afghanistan converges with that of some Americans about the way in which the US ended its involvement in Vietnam. He insists that the real problem for his country’s forces was not on the field of battle but at home where “populism covered by humanitarian motives” led to what he and they believe were the wrong decisions.