Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Can Obama learn from Soviets how to withdraw from Afghanistan?


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.

These days, Najibullah is actually quite a popular figure in Kabul. You can spot his moustachioed face on faded posters tucked into windows or peeling from the walls of cafes. The West may automatically loathe anyone with a Soviet taint, but Afghans can be forgiven for comparing Najibullah favourably to the horrendous leadership that followed — especially the bloodbath unleashed by the feuding warlords who toppled him. The period from 1992-96, when Kabul neighbourhoods were flattened by rival ethnic militia commanders firing from surrounding hilltops, was probably the darkest night of Afghanistan’s 30 years of war. Afghans of all communities have a visceral fear of a return to that time, which is why so many backed the Taliban’s rise to power in 1996 and why even Karzai’s fiercest rivals in this year’s presidential election rarely sought votes by threatening to call their followers out onto the streets.

Unlike the Soviet Union, the United States is presumably not going to disintegrate within two years of pulling its troops out of Afghanistan. Nor is Pakistan likely ever again to be given as free a rein as it had in the early ’90s to back guerrillas fighting to topple its neighbour. The U.S. withdrawal will be gradual, not abrupt, and this time the West’s aid money — a bargain compared to the war — can keep flowing more or less indefinitely.