Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Cold War flashbacks as Americans rebuild Soviet tunnel in Afghanistan

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Under blazing June sunshine in the Hindu Kush mountains, U.S., Russian and Afghan officials gathered by the entrance of the Salang tunnel, arguably the most important stretch of highway in Afghanistan, linking the country’s south with its north.

They had come to celebrate emergency repair works carried out by the U.S. government on the 2.6 km (1.6 miles) of concrete passageway that the Soviets built in 1962. Constantly congested and leaking, the tunnel is on the brink of collapse.

But what happened next was a repeat of Cold War dynamics, unfolding in a country where Soviet forces made a dispirited 1989 exit after a decade-long war against U.S.-backed mujahideen.

Twenty-two years later, the United States will soon begin a troop withdrawal from the increasingly unpopular NATO-led war now in its tenth year.

Can Obama learn from Soviets how to withdraw from Afghanistan?

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President Barack Obama’s announcement that the United States will begin pulling its troops out Afghanistan in 2011 provides a good opportunity to look back and study history. This will, after all, be the second time Afghans have bid farewell to a superpower, and Nikolai Gvosdev in Foreign Affairs offers an interesting take on what happened the last time, when the Soviets pulled out in 1989.   A portrait of former Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah is pasted up inside a window in Kabul on Dec. 11, 2009. Najibullah, who clung to power for three years after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan and was hung from a traffic lamp by the Taliban is now a popular figure among many Afghans who remember his rule as a gentler time than life under the warring factions that toppled him. Photo by Peter Graff, Reuters.  

The man the Soviets left in charge was Mohammad Najibullah, who clung to power for three more years, then sheltered for another four years in the U.N. compound in Kabul, before finally ending up strung up by the Taliban from a Kabul traffic lamp in 1996. Najibullah’s grisly end means his career hardly seems like one that President Hamid Karzai would want to emulate. Yet Gvosdev’s account is a reminder that Najibullah actually held on to power far longer than most in the West expected. His government in fact actually outlasted the Soviet Union itself, which collapsed in 1991.

In Gvosdev’s account, the key to Najibullah’s success lay in part in lavishing funds on tribal and provincial chiefs. That tactic became impossible after the Soviet Union disintegrated and the money dried up. Even so, Najibullah might have still hung on had Pakistan not been given free rein by the West to back the Mujahideen that unseated him.

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