AFGHANISTAN 20 YEARS AFTER THE SOVIET WITHDRAWAL
By Benon Sevan
Sunday, February 15, 2009
SUNDAY February 15 will mark the twentieth anniversary of the
withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan. On that day, the
last Soviet soldier, Lieut. Gen. Boris V. Gromov, the commander of the
Soviet forces in Afghanistan, walked across the "Friendship Bridge"
linking the Afghan border town of Hayratan with Termez, in the Soviet
Union, bringing to an end the costly and disastrous nine-year Soviet
military involvement in Afghanistan, which began in December 1979.
The withdrawal of the 100,000 Soviet troops from Afghanistan was
completed on February 15, 1989, pursuant to the Geneva Accords,
signed on April 14, 1988 between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the
United States and the Soviet Union serving as guarantors.
I was present in Kabul during the military parade on May 15, 1988 to
mark the beginning of the withdrawal of Soviet troops. The Soviet Union
did not consider the troop withdrawal as a military defeat but rather,
as General Gromov put it, as "the completion of an international
mission and the fulfilment of the Geneva Accords; none of our units,
even the smallest one, have retreated. That is why there is no talk
of a military defeat."
During a meeting held at the fortified Soviet embassy in Kabul,
a week before the final withdrawal of the Soviet troops, my friend
Ambassador Yuliy Vorontsov, with his usual sense of humour drew my
attention to the numerous media representatives gathered outside the
"I am sorry they would all be disappointed," he said. "They are all
waiting for me to run away from Kabul. We will not abandon Afghanistan
like the Americans who rushed to the helicopters on the rooftop of
their embassy as Saigon fell around them," he added.
The Soviet Union failed in Afghanistan not only because of the
perseverance of the Mujahedeen fighters supported by the United
States and others through Pakistan but because, above all, they
failed to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. Instead,
they concentrated their efforts on a military solution.
The Soviet military intervention was not only costly to the Soviet
Union but, above all, to the Afghan people: over 1.5 million Afghans
killed; over three million refugees in Pakistan and two million
refugees in Iran; over a million internally displaced; thousands upon
thousands maimed, orphaned and widowed, with the country devastated
and covered by land and butterfly mines.
Once the Soviets left Afghanistan, however, the Afghan people were
forgotten and the attention of the world moved elsewhere. It is most
unfortunate that no one seems to have learned lessons from the Soviet
failure in Afghanistan; to this date a heavy price is being paid for
In the mean time, the Taliban have spread all over Afghanistan and
have also been creating havoc in Pakistan. The weak government of
President Hamid Karzai has not helped the situation either. It looks
like President Karzai has been losing speedily his favoured position
enjoyed during the Bush administration and may be dropped like a
Pakistan has been paying the cost for its heavy involvement in
Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, when it served as the
front line state in the Cold War. Pakistan provided sanctuaries to
the Afghan mujahedeen. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI),
which literally directed the war in Afghanistan, was involved in the
recruitment and military training of the mujahedeen.
It also served as the main broker in providing the funds and the
military supplies to the mujahedeen – provided mostly by the CIA
and Saudi Arabia – favouring the most extremist mujahedeen leaders,
including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Ustad Abdul Rabi Rasul Sayyaf – who
is said to have been the one who first invited Osama bin Laden to
Afghanistan – and Mawlawi Mohammad Yunus Khalis.
I regularly warned the representatives of the United States,
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, as well as others involved in favouring
the extremists groups in Afghanistan that they should instead support
the moderate mujahedeen leaders. I warned them that the Frankensteins
they were creating would one day come back to hound them in their
During a meeting with the then Pakistan President Ghulam Ishaq Khan,
I was told that all Pakistan was interested in was to have "a friendly
Islamic republic in Afghanistan." I responded that the policy being
followed would instead "turn Afghanistan into an Islamic cemetery,
and cemeteries do not recognise borders. The cemetery would extend
I had similar conversations, among others, with the late Benazir
Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, former Prime Ministers. Afghanistan became –
and continues to be – the breeding and training ground for extremists
coming from all over the world, from Algeria to the Philippines.
There can be no military solution in Afghanistan. It is most
unfortunate that during the past years the United States and its
allies have relied on the same failed Soviet strategy in Afghanistan,
emphasising the military option. During the recent discussions held
in Munich, unfortunately the emphasis was more on a military solution,
with a request to NATO partners to increase their troop contributions
as well as their active combat engagement in Afghanistan.
While Afghanistan indeed poses "the greatest military challenge" to the
United States, as recently stated by US Secretary Defence Secretary
Robert Gates, one should not underestimate the challenge posed by
the increasingly dangerous developments in Pakistan where in certain
circles, particularly within the military, there is resistance to the
increased criticism and growing pressure being placed by the United
States on the Government of Pakistan to improve its counterterrorism
performance. According to reports, there is also a growing suspicion
within Pakistan regarding American intentions, particularly after
the strategic relationship established between the US and India.
With the departure of the Bush administration obsessed with its
anti-terrorism fight without any distinction between Islamist
extremists and Islam, there is now hope that under new US
Administration there would be a major policy review with regard to
Afghanistan, avoiding the mistakes committed not only in Iraq but also
in Afghanistan which had been placed on the back burner for so long.
The appointment of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as President Obama’s
Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, is a welcome
appointment. He has the experience as well as the courage to say it as
is, if need be banging heads. The Afghans respect strong personalities,
which Holbrooke is.
Duplicating the policy and strategy used in Iraq would not necessarily
bring about the same results in Afghanistan. It may be recalled
that after large sums of money were provided to the Afghan tribal
leaders and warlords to prevent the escape of the wanted Taliban and
al Qaeda members into Pakistan, the same tribal leaders and warlords
readily accepted offers of more money from other sources and then not
only allowed but also assisted in the escape of the wanted Taliban
and al Qaeda leaders into Pakistan. That reminds me of the saying:
"You can rent an Afghan but not buy them."
While security in Afghanistan is imperative – thus the imperative
to have the necessary armed forces for the time being – the military
should be used in support of the diplomatic and development process.
If the current policy of a military option is reinforced, Afghanistan
would become the Iraq of the new Administration.
It is therefore essential to establish a well co-ordinated emergency
humanitarian assistance programme, providing sufficient and guaranteed
funding for economic and social, including educational, projects, as
well as for the essential reforms of governmental institutions. There
is need for major reconstruction and infra-structure programmes. It
is essential to understand and respect Afghan traditions, including
Afghans should fully participate in the implementation of the
programmes concerned and take full ownership of the process.
Simultaneously with that effort, immediate steps must be taken to
start negotiations with the Taliban forces that are not part of al
Qaeda, who are prepared for reconciliation. This is something which
is fully supported by President Karzai.
In one of my early cables from Kabul to the UN Headquarters in New
York, I had written: "I see the light but not the tunnel. I am afraid
we must dig the tunnel ourselves."
Well, Ambassador Holbrooke that is exactly what is needed to be
done now without any delay. I wish you good luck. It is imperative,
however, to involve all the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan,
including Iran, in digging that tunnel.
Benon Sevan, former United Nations Under-Secretary-General, served as
the Personal Representative of the Secretary-General in Afghanistan
and Pakistan (1989-1992).