This book analyzes the decisions made by the Soviet Politburo, which contributed to the failure of the Afghan mission, in light of these three general issues. The focus is not on the bureaucratic character of the decision-making process itself, but rather on its results: the concrete decisions that defined the USSR's Afghan policy and strategy throughout the conflict. Utilizing the minutes of Politburo meetings from the period in question (1978–1989) as a basis for evaluating the interaction between key members of the Politburo over the issue of Afghanistan provides a critical perspective on how the Soviet-Afghan War began, how it was fought, and how and why it was ultimately lost. Analyzing the war by focusing on the interrelated issues of Soviet civil-military relations, leadership instability, and concerns about prestige sheds new light on how the Soviet Union failed.
The primary responsibility for Soviet failure in Afghanistan begins at the center of power in Moscow. It is essential to take account of the decisions made by Soviet political leaders before and during the war. The decision to remain in Afghanistan after achieving the initial objective of regime change in 1979 was made not by Soviet military leaders or diplomats, but by Leonid Brezhnev. Continued occupation was reaffirmed by subsequent General Secretaries until Mikhail Gorbachev finally ordered a withdrawal in February 1989. There is no current explanation for this dimension of the Soviet failure. Instead, the focus has been on specific stages of the war, from initial intervention through the occupation and withdrawal. This book makes the argument that Soviet failure at the political level was attributable to a civil-military divide, the rapid succession of leadership, and a persistent fear of damaging the USSR's international reputation.
In the decades before the invasion, the Soviets over-estimated their capacity to invade Afghanistan and create a pro-Soviet government with the ability to convert the population to socialism. There seemed to be no disagreement about these goals and strategies between Soviet party leaders and the military, nor about the need to create strategic buffers on the USSR's frontiers. Soviet civil-military relations had also benefitted from a generally stable transfer of power from one General Secretary to the next, as well as the international prestige of being a superpower inherited in the wake of World War II, reinforced by nuclear weapons and an extremely powerful conventional army. The invasion of Afghanistan occurred at a time when the USSR appeared to be at the height of its military power and international influence, and at a time of generally friction-free civil-military relations.
In a spasm of nineteenth century geopolitical determinism, the Western media mistakenly believed that the Soviet goal in Afghanistan was either to obtain access to a warm-water port or to dominate oil interests in the Persian Gulf. Moscow's aim was actually pure cold war—-prevent Afghanistan from providing a base for American meddling in the region, or from succumbing to an Iran-style Islamic revolution that might contaminate the USSR's own Muslim population and potentially destabilize parts of the USSR. The Soviets had provided substantial foreign aid and military assistance to Afghanistan over the years, which reinforced their belief that they simply could not afford to lose the country to an Islamist revolution abetted by Washington. The Soviets did not see an independent Afghanistan as dangerous; but they expected that it would remain a stable and friendly client state that they could protect from antagonistic ideological and political influences.
The instability in the Soviet system from one General Secretary to the next in 1980–1985 prevented any political or diplomatic momentum from building. The first act of each new General Secretary was not going to be bringing home the troops and accepting defeat. After five years of conflict, the damage inflicted to the Soviets' international reputation far exceeded the destruction on the ground and casualties in their ranks. The Afghanistan campaign was also having a significantly negative impact on the prestige of the Soviet Army. The Red Army lost its image of invincibility. The image of defeat slowly imprinted itself into the Soviet public mind, including the minds of soldiers and officers who served in Afghanistan. Both domestically and internationally, and in advance of the start of Gorbachev's rule, the Soviet Union suffered far beyond what they expected or yet even fully understood.
When Gorbachev took over as General Secretary in March 1985, his agenda was to modernize the Soviet economy so that the communist regime might sustain itself and its international prestige. However, before the new General Secretary could do this, he had first to resolve the situation in Afghanistan. In the wake of Chernenko's death, Gorbachev sought to re-evaluate Moscow's Afghan commitment. Disturbed by the failure of the Soviet military to consolidate gains after five years of fighting and unmet promises, he was anxious to withdraw Soviet forces. Nevertheless, he preferred to move slowly on Afghanistan, and settle into office by first dealing with other less contentious issues. He was not yet, nor could he afford to be, the visionary and radical reformer he would later become, so initially he deviated very little from existing Afghan policy and strategy.
Mikhail Gorbachev recognized that a Soviet military victory in Afghanistan was a chimera, and began to explore an expeditious political exit from the war. On February 26 1986, in a dramatic presentation to the 27th Soviet Communist Party Congress, Gorbachev made his case for war termination. Afghanistan, he told them, was a "bleeding wound." The protracted conflict was damaging Soviet morale and political will. The Soviet military had forced resistance fighters onto the defensive, but the political struggle for Afghanistan was irretrievably compromised. The Afghan people and international opinion unequivocally supported a resistance that, although beleaguered, endured in the mountains and villages with grim determination. He declared his intention to immediately develop a detailed timeline for withdrawal and he made clear that the Afghan government must prepare for a future without direct Soviet military assistance. The central question addressed in this chapter is: what took him so long?
By the end of the adventure in Afghanistan, after nearly ten years of fighting, the Soviets realized that they had accomplished very little. Like the British before them, the Soviets had moved confidently into Afghanistan in order to thwart challenges from developing on the borders of their empire. They never considered the consequences of a failed invasion, indeed the decisions they made governing the war reflected confidence to the point of hubris. What was more interesting still, intervention actually degraded the political, strategic and military status of Afghanistan from Moscow's perspective, or at the very least, failed to improve it. The Soviet war proved to be a political mistake, an economic affliction, and a strategic failure, which had dire consequences in the context of a USSR in the throes of systemic failure and faltering legitimacy.