Context & Culture

Crossing the Bridge: The 25th anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan


It was the last hot conflict of the Cold War: the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan between Christmas 1979 and February 1989. 25 years ago today, the last Soviet soldiers left the country, defiantly waving their banners and insisting they had not lost. A truce with Ahmad Shah Massud, the main northern mujahedin leader, had secured them an almost smooth withdrawal. The Soviet-backed regime held out unexpectedly for three more years, before collapsing after Yeltsin’s Russia stopped aid and major components of the armed forces defected to the mujahedin. Today, with the withdrawal of NATO combat troops looming, there is the question of whether history will repeat itself. AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig, who was in Kabul in 1989, looks back and also scrutinises what advice former Soviet general have for today’s foreign forces.

On 15 February 1989, I was sitting in the Embassy of the German Democratic Republic in Kabul where I was the most junior diplomat, watching Afghan state TV.(1) It was reporting live from Hairatan, on the Afghan side of the Friendship Bridge that crosses the Amu Darya river and ends in Termez in what was then a town in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. The last Soviet armoured personnel carriers with the last Soviet soldiers on board, holding their units banner, were leaving Afghanistan after nine years and almost three months of an occupation that helped to change the political map of the world.

The General doesn’t look back

On the last armoured personnel carrier that crossed the bridge squatted Boris Vsevolodovich Gromov, the last commander of what was euphemistically called the “Limited Contingent of Soviet Forces in Afghanistan,” officially the 40th Army. The USSR had up to between 104,000 and 130,000 troops in Afghanistan at one time, roughly the number ISAF and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) – the US ‘anti-terrorism’ mission – would have during the ‘surge’ two decades later. When Gromov reached the middle of the iron bridge, he climbed down from the tank and went the last meters calmly on foot. From the Soviet side, his teenage son walked towards him, handed him a bouquet of red carnations. “Turn around!” I thought. “Turn around and show the Afghans a sign of apology or at least of respect!”

But Gromov walked on, with his son’s arm tucked under his, toward a Soviet TV crew and did not turn. Then the live broadcast ended.

“Soviet officials had repeatedly vowed that their men would not leave Afghanistan in disarray, like the last Americans clambering onto helicopters from the roof of their embassy as Saigon fell around them,” wrote the New York Times the next day. “This morning, at least, Lieut. Gen. Boris V. Gromov did not disappoint them.”

The Geneva accords…

The process of the Soviet withdrawal had kicked off four years eralier, on 15 March 1985, away from the eyes of the public. In a meeting in Moscow with then Afghan president and leader of the ruling People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) Babrak Karmal, the then new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachov told his counterpart, “You understand that Soviet troops cannot remain in Afghanistan forever” (this and most of the following quoted from here). On the same day, Gorbachov hinted at the possibility of a Soviet troop withdrawal when meeting Pakistan’s military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq.(2) Both Karmal and Zia were in Moscow to take part in the state funeral of Gorbachov’s predecessor Konstantin Chernenko. The decision to withdraw was made officially a few months later, in July 1986, and by November that year, six Soviet regiments – 6-7,000 soldiers – had withdrawn from Afghanistan, meant by the Soviet leadership as a sign of seriousness but called a propagandist exercise in the West. No one believed the Soviets were serious, although there were sufficient signs they were.

As early as 1981, Afghan-Pakistani contacts had been made at the United Nations in Geneva in an attempt to end the crisis, initiated by Moscow and Kabul. Both governments, that of the USSR and that of what was then the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA), claimed the Soviet forces had entered Afghanistan in order to protect it from a foreign intervention which was supporting rebels attempting to overthrow the DRA government. They argued that, once the foreign threat to Afghanistan was removed, the Soviet forces would leave (source: Library of US Congress Country Study Afghanistan). They also argued that a Soviet-Afghan friendship treaty had given the Afghan government the right to call Soviet troops to its help. Many in the Soviet leadership believed it would be a short mission and did not heed warnings from leading military and academia that a military intervention might end in a quagmire.

From June 1982 onwards, there were official discussions on how to end the conflict – the Geneva talks were conducted under UN auspices but indirectly, as Pakistan did not recognise the Afghan government. The UN Secretary General’s Personal Representative, the Ecuadorian diplomat Diego Cordovez, shuttled between the two delegations who were sitting in separate rooms in the UN’s Palais des Nations in Geneva. On 14 April 1988, after eleven, often multi-stage rounds, the Geneva Accords (officially known as the Agreements on the Settlement of the Situation relating to the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan) were signed (a contemporary media report here; the full text of the documents here).

On 2 February 1988, Gorbachev had already stated that the governments of the USSR and Afghanistan had fixed a date to begin the withdrawal – 15 May 1988 – and that this would be completed within ten months, ie not later than 15 March 1989. That plan was fulfilled one month ahead of schedule.

But the Geneva accords were, in reality, not a peace agreement and only regulated the international aspects of the conflict, ie the Soviet withdrawal and an end to Pakistani support for the mujahedin. The future make-up of the Afghan government was left outside the negotiations’ mandate. Moreover, the mujahedin were also not party to the agreement. Although they were massively supported by and based in Pakistan, they did not want it to speak in their name in Geneva.

… and their aftermath

The Soviet Union had initially planned to ensure the political survival of the ruling PDPA (now renamed Hezb-e Watan, Fatherland Party) as a political force and of its leader Najibullah. In what may be a smaller-scale parallel to NATO/US military’s plans for a limited post-2014 training and counter-terrorism missions, the Soviet leadership left an advisory mission of some 30 officers in Kabul, headed by General Makhmut Gareev. Afghanistan was also still receiving Soviet military aid, worth four billion in 1989 and one billion roubles in 1990.(3) (The deployment of the ‘limited contingent’ had cost the USSR 7.5 billion roubles per year on average between 1979 and 1989.)

Initially, it looked good for the Kabul government. There was an immediate, coordinated attack by several mujahedin groups (advised by the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI) to take over Jalalabad in March 1989 and establish an alternative government there, but it failed. The Soviet plan to establish a broad-based government with what was called “representatives of all strata of society”, including the mujahedin, moderate exile politicians (including the former king Muhammad Zaher) and the PDPA, collapsed due to the rejection by the more Islamist parties among the mujahedin as well a by Pakistan, while some more moderate groups initially had supported it. As reported at the time, the mujahedin “refused to join a coalition government with the PDPA, participate in any elections organized by the regime, or hold direct talks with PDPA representatives.” But Najibullah, having survived the 1989 Jalalabad attack and the March 1990 coup attempted by defence minister Shahnawaz Tanai in cooperation with Hezb-e Islami, was actually holding out against all the odds and, as a result, also became less conciliatory and determined to stick to power.

However, in 1991, the new leaders in Moscow changed position. Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev, who one year earlier had ruled out Najibullah stepping down as a “capitulation,” now said that “only the Soviet support for the extremists with Najibullah at their top” stood in the way of a political solution. In late 1991, Vice President Alexander Rutskoy – himself a former Soviet fighter pilot who had been shot down, held and released by the mujahedin – assured a visiting Afghan mujahedin delegation headed by Borhanuddin Rabbani that his government would stop all military and food aid to Najibullah’s government. He also said Russia would drop the demand in the 1988 Geneva accords which stipulated that the US should simultaneously stop its support for the mujahedin and that Najibullah’s Watan Party would be guaranteed a political role in future Afghanistan.(4)

The Russian aid stop came into force in January 1992, immediately after the USSR was dissolved (on 26 December 1991) and the effects were felt immediately. As Dilip Hiro, in his 2002 book War Without End, details the Afghan Air Force, the most effective part of the Afghan military, was grounded due to lack of fuel. Najibullah was then saved by countries in the former Soviet Central Asia who had no wish to see Afghanistan being taken over by religious fundamentalists and supplied Afghanistan with 6 million barrels of oil and 500,000 tons of wheat to survive the winter.

Parallel to the halt by Yeltsin’s Russia to all financial, military and food aid to the government in Kabul, resistance also rose within Najibullah’s own government where several military and political leaders had established contacts with the mujahedin. A final United Nations plan of a handover to a non-party, interim government – in exchange for Najibullah stepping down and leaving the country failed – or at least only worked half. Najibullah did step down, but mutineers from what later became General Dostum’s Jombesh stopped him at Kabul airport and sent him back to Kabul where he spent the last four years of his life, until his execution by the Taleban (the details of which are still murky), in a UN compound. Some remaining PDPA leaders around foreign minister Abdul Wakil and interim head of state Abdul Rahim Hatef (died 2013) handed over power to the advancing fighters of the Jamiat-e Islami and its military wing Shura-ye Nazar, led by Ahmad Shah Massud. The Pakistan-based coalition of seven Sunni mujahedin parties, that included Jamiat, appointed Hazrat Sebghatullah Mojaddedi interim president for two months. (Hamed Karzai, then working as the international relations man in Mojaddedi’s party, became deputy foreign minister.)

Leonid Shebarshin, formerly the head of the KGB’s intelligence directorate, wrote in the 1990s: “We betrayed Najibullah. … Today it is clear that exactly at the moment where Afghanistan was close to a political solution – at least partly, Russia’s recognition of the Afghan resistance dealt a fatal blow to the Kabul government. The end is well known. Russia did not only lose a friend but also its capabilities to influence developments in the region.”

The stop of the aid was followed by some years of Russian abstinence from Afghan matters. Only when the Taleban started to take over the country, in a kind of historical about-face, Russia (together with Iran and India) decided to support its former enemy, the United Front (also called the Northern Alliance) and Ahmad Shah Massud. For example, in 1998, Massud was allowed to use the Russian air base of Kulyab in Tajikistan as a fall-back position. Post-2001, it is really only recently, with the upcoming NATO withdrawal, that Russians have started to show more interest in Afghanistan again – and Afghans have also started warming up their contacts. Russia sent some humanitarian help and engaged in football diplomacy, with the first Russian-Afghan friendly played in Kabul in April 2013.

The post-Najibullah Afghan interim government started haggling from the beginning. There were controversies about how, and in which numbers, the Tehran-based Shia mujahedin groups were to be represented. The rotating six month presidency only rotated once. Mojaddedi stood down to be replaced by Borhanuddin Rabbani. He held an all-party meeting (called Shura-ye Hal o Aqd, Council for a Solution and Agreement) in which not all parties felt properly represented and it extended his tenure for 18 months in December 1992. He would be Afghanistan’s official president for another eleven years. What was supposed to be a power-sharing agreement and a coalition government of all major mujahedin parties soon descended into armed fighting, and by the second half of 1992, a factional war was in full swing again. This highly destructive war would cost tens of throusands of lives in Kabul alone and see the flattening of a third of the city and helped usher in the Taleban who captured the Afghan capital in 1996, but also played out viciously in other parts of the country (see for example events in Kunduz in a 2012 AAN paper here). Afghanistan’s political map was again re-drawn.

As 13 years later the Bonn agreement, after the fall of the Taleban regime, the Geneva Accords did not end the war. But after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops the war now had fully become an Afghan affair, with regional countries supporting local proxies. Currently, another twelve years later, a somewhat similar scenario seems to play out again, with the still on-going war mainly fought out between the Afghan security forces and an the insurgency while the foreign troops are leaving (AAN’s analysis of the current phase here).

The cost of war

Already by the mid-1980s, Soviet leaders had called Afghanistan a “bleeding wound”. But they were mainly concerned about their own country. At that time, the USSR was economically bogged down in an exhaustive arms race with the US that strained on the living conditions of the people. In Poland, the enormous popularity of the Solidarnosc (Solidarity) movement undermined the monopoly of power of the communist parties in Eastern Europe. Civil rights groups sprang up in many of the socialist countries. At home, in the Soviet Union, people felt the wounds caused by their leaders’ Afghan war. This war had touched many lives – 650,000 Soviet soldiers and thousands of civilians served in Afghanistan during the ten years. People dreaded the so-called ‘black tulips’, the Soviet transport planes that brought back the bodies of Soviet soldiers in zinc coffins. The Soviet media had continued to paint a picture of Soviet citizens fulfilling their ‘internationalist duty’, for many years rarely mentioning any fighting, instead printing photos of Soviet soldiers sweating on what today would be termed reconstruction projects or hugging happy Afghan peasants. In 1989, the term zinkovye malchiki, (zinky boys) went into common use. It was coined by Belarussian writer Svetlana Alexievich in her eponymous 1989 documentation book that for the first time made the uncensored voices of Soviet soldiers, their families and neighbours heard.

Soviet documents published by the German magazine Der Spiegel in 2011 have a quote from Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadse from 1987:

Not much is left [among Afghans] of the friendly feelings towards the Soviet people that had existed for decades. Many people were killed, and not all of them were bandits. We have not solved a single problem of the farmers, actually we fought against the farmers. That we invaded there without a clue as to the psychology of the people and of the real situation in the country – that is a fact.

For all of that, we waste a billion roubles per year. … And we still need to calculate exactly how much Afghanistan costs us right now. [Premier Ryshkov] has no details about that. But the US calculate that the war costs us two billion per year, the Japanese talk about three billion.

According to General Makhmut Gareev, a high-ranking military advisor to President Najibullah, in his book (1996) Afghanistan after the Withdrawal of the Soviet Forces, during the almost ten years of war in Afghanistan. 14,453 Soviet soldiers were killed and 49,983 wounded, including some 7,000 permanently maimed. 330 were then still missing in action.(5) Not that many, says the general, mentioning that in 1993 alone, 25,000 Russians died from alcohol poisoning. In another article, he opines that most of these casualties could have been prevented if “many more forces” had been sent in the first place and then quickly withdrawn. The 40th army reached its peak of around 120,000 soldiers in 1986 and still had 115, 000 in 1988, in what looks, in retrospect, like a Soviet surge to hit the mujahedin hard before its withdrawal.

For the Afghan casualties, Gareev only has one sentence: “We also cannot be indifferent toward the deaths of Afghans.” He had no figures for them (compare current practice: according to a BBC report, “the American-led coaltion … says that it does not keep a tally on civilian casualties.”)(6) At least, Gareev praised his former enemies. He mentioned Ahmad Shah Massud’s “courage, foresight, good organisational capabilities and outstanding mind”, and added that he had prevented “any brutality against the population”.

The day after General Gromov walked out of Afghanistan in 1989, no mention was made of the cost of war and of any atrocities by the Soviet press. Moskovskaya Pravda, for example, wrote:

An orchestra thundered. The country greeted its home-coming sons. [There also were daughters, but never mind.] Our boys have returned after they fulfilled their internationalist duty. In all these years, Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan built hundreds of schools, high schools, thirty hospitals and the same number of kindergardens, some 300 apartment blocks, 35 minarets, dozens of wells and constructed or repaired 150 kilometres of irrigation canals.

In comparison, here is an Afghan balance of the war. Ghanie Ghaussy, an economist living in exile in Germany, put the number of civilian casualties at 1.2 million, of refugees at six million and of internally displaced at two million and war-inflicted GDP losses at USD 5.8 billion in a 1989 article for the Internationales Asienforum, an academic journal published in Germany. Due to the destruction of dams and irrigations systems and the emigration of 35 to 40 per cent of the rural population, agricultural production fell by 40 to 50 per cent, compared to the Afghan year 1975/76. The country lost almost a third of its livestock, while ten per cent more went abroad with the refugees. (For more background about this era, also refer to The Afghanistan Justice Project’s report Casting Shadows: War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity:1978-2001 Documentation and analysis of major patterns of abuse in the war in Afghanistan 2005.)

Learning lessons?

Although there is a lot of literature comparing the US wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan and the US and Soviet Afghan wars, the subject is still often a taboo for many politicians. When I drew a comparison between the two Afghan wars in a small, unofficial discussion in Berlin, which included a leading German politician, he became immediately upset: “You cannot compare that! This is completely different! The Soviets went into Afghanistan and destroyed the country and we went to Afghanistan to rebuild it and bring democracy.” This has to do with a disinclination to face reality and what Artemy Kalinovsky, who has intensively researched the Soviet war in Afghanistan, describes as the belief widespread among modernisers “in a sort of universal rationality, according to which people would respond positively to the promise of economic aid and improvement in livelihood” in his 2010 paper with the telling title “The Blind Leading the Blind” (on which his 2011 book A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan is based, see it reviewed by AAN here).

A lot of what Kalinovsky laid out in his book reads as if he was writing about the post-2001 period. Look at what he says about the patterns of behaviour of advisors on the ground (and their preparation, or lack thereof) and about how general policy shifted:

Soviet leaders, he writes,

… realized fairly early on that the situation could not be resolved through military means alone. They hoped that economic aid and improved governance would help give the Kabul government greater legitimacy. Thus parallel to the military effort of the 40th army, there was also a smaller ‘army’ of Soviet advisers working to rebuild state institutions, improve the party’s internal cohesiveness and relationship with the population, and carry out agricultural reform.

Kalinovsky also notes unsuccessful efforts to bring coordination to the situation, the infighting between individual Soviet advisors and different institutions, a “tendency to take sides in the PDPA split” and the major role the KGB played, particularly after Najibullah came to power in 1985 (as party head) and 1986 (as head of state). This is reminiscent of the CIA’s role and its special relationships with particular politicians and ‘strongmen’, including the president and his family. This relationship has been created when US Special Operations Forces helped Hamed Karzai to establish an anti-Taleban front in Uruzgan in late 2001. It was continued when he was in office by, what the New York Times called, “wads of U.S. dollars packed into suitcases, backpacks and, on occasion, plastic shopping bags have been dropped off every month or so at the offices of Afghanistan’s president – courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency” paid “over a decade”. The other side of this relationship was the close cooperation of the CIA with the militias of the president’s later murdered brother Ahmad Wali Karzai in Kandahar.

The Soviet advisors, Kalinovsky adds, came “without any special preparation, in most cases”:

’Training’ for a party adviser about to be sent to Afghanistan was a one week course regarding the ‘political, military, and economic situation in that country,’ plus whatever additional reading on Afghan history or politics the soon-to-be adviser might pick up on his own. During the week-long course instructors from the CC CPSU International Department emphasized the importance of the ‘internationalist mission’ about to be undertaken and tried to inculcate a sense of optimism regarding the job.

Similarity, a US Joint Forces Command’s “pre-deployment Afghanistan reading list” to military personnel dated August 2009 with mainly COMISAF tactical directives and some material on COIN, but, mysteriously, also including a book about Hezbollah, and the three novels by Khaled Hossaini as additional reading sounds more like a quick browse through an airport bookshop than what country specialists would recommend.

Back to Afghanistan in the 1980s: Kalinovsky quoted Yuli Vorontsov who became the USSR’s last ambassador to Kabul under Gorbachov as saying that Soviet advisors were “everywhere, absolutely everywhere. It was the worst sort of colonial politics. Terrible”. He describes Vorontsov’s predecessor as “acting as a ‘governor-general’”, apparently telling the newly promoted Najibullah “I made you General Secretary.” According to the author, it was “common practice” to write speeches for Afghan leaders in Russian, only then being translated into Dari and Pashto. This was also the case with post-2001 Afghan government documents for many years. I observed it personally in 2004/05 in joint Afghan-international working groups on reconstruction. There, all documents and discussions were in English and I had to translate for high-ranking Afghan participants.

And the results were the same. As Kalinovsky put it: “The presence of Soviet troops and advisers seemed to cause paralysis among Afghan politicians. … A Soviet assessment of the PDPA from 1983 noted that even at the highest level of the Party, there was a tendency to shy away from decision-making.” No wonder, as it was often taken out of Afghan hands anyway, again, a familiar parallel with what happened again after 2001.

Finally, there is an interesting parallel in military strategies. As the US military surge, announced in 2009 and started in 2010, came after the announcement that combat troops were to be withdrawn, the 1985 Soviet decision to withdraw was followed by a Soviet troop ‘surge’ as well, bringing the ‘Limited Contingent’ up to 120,000 soldiers. According to Kalinovsky, this went along with an “abandonment of the nation-building approach after 1987 and the turn to methods of pacification that focused primarily on reaching out to the major rebel leaders”. This approach failed because most main mujahedin leaders simply rejected reconciliation and the Kabul government collapsed first.

(Added 17 February 2014:) Another parallel is the extensive use of militia and other auxiliary forces both by the Soviets and the US-led coalition.(7)

Even the outcome of the Soviet military operations sounds familiar. Former Soviet marshal, Sergey Akhromeyev, quoted in the New York Times in 2009, reportedly told his superiors in November 1986:

About 99 per cent of the battles and skirmishes that we fought in Afghanistan were won by our side. The problem is that the next morning there is the same situation as if there had been no battle. The terrorists [notice the terminology] are again in the village where they were — or we thought they were — destroyed a day or so before.

New Russian advice

Boris Gromov, the last commander of the Soviet 40th army in Afghanistan, went into politics at home in Russia after his return. He was elected the governor of Moscow oblast (region) in 2000 and held the position till 2012. Still in office, in 2010, together with Russia’s then NATO ambassador Dmitry Rogozin, he penned an op-ed for The New York Times, titled “Russian advice on Afghanistan”. Stuck in Afghanistan, US military leaders had long sought lessons and advice from their Soviet predecessors in Afghanistan. But what Gromov and Rogozin had to say was surprising. It mainly repeated the Soviet thinking of the 1980s.  They, at least, are still portraying the Soviet military intervention as anything but a mistake, while also projecting feelings of hurt and of having been misunderstood. They were, they said, “utterly dissatisfied with the mood of capitulation at NATO headquarters, be it under the cover of ‘humanistic pacifism’ or pragmatism.” They insisted, “NATO troops [must] stay in the country until the necessary conditions are provided to establish stable local authorities capable of independently deterring radical forces and controlling the country… In fact, we were the first to defend Western civilization against the attacks of Muslim fanatics. No one thanked us.”

(Addition on 17 February 2014:) The Soviet parliament has officially called the Soviet was in Afghanistan as “mistake” in 1989.(8)

Nevertheless, it still seems to be difficult for many of them to admit the atrocities caused in those ten years, as the Russian ambassador to Kabul Zamir Kabulov, now special envoy for Afghanistan, did in 2008: “We abused human rights, including the use of aggressive bombardment.” Although, as Kabulov does, they often claim that they do not wish to see the Taleban win in Afghanistan, one cannot but come to the impression that there is a strong sense of schadenfreude, as they enjoyed the spectacle of their old adversary NATO manoeuvring itself into the Afghan quagmire. Even Kabulov is not free of this. The US has “already repeated all of our mistakes. … Now, they’re making mistakes of their own, ones for which we do not own the copyright.” Gromov’s and Rogozin’s article even has an element of hubris – that they knew Afghanistan better then the West does.

Against this, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachov sounds like the lonely voice in the wilderness. He has said in the late 1990s already that “if our country had learned the lessons from Afghanistan, I am sure that it never had come to [the wars in] Chechnya.”

Reducing Afghanistan’s multi-layered conflicts to simply one about Islamist terrorism shows that many Russian military and political leaders are still stuck in an over-simplified world view when it comes to their Afghan war, that they have not reviewed their attitudes toward that country and not understood why the Soviets have failed there. (It was of little help to NATO, too.) If such attitude prevails, it does not bode well for Afghans, as the regional countries already start playing a larger role and many in the west hope the neighbouring countries will have to solve the problem. This should make everyone think again who believes that a regional solution is necessarily a good thing.

(1) (Added 17 February 2014:) The footage shown on Afghan TV apparently came from Soviet TV. RFE/RL interviewed the Soviet reporter who shot it on 15 February this year, here. RFE’s report speaks of a “carefully orchestrated scene intended to spin the pullout as a dignified exit rather than a retreat following a devastating conflict”. The withdrawal was not as smooth as reported: According to official figures, about 520 Soviet soldiers died during the operation. The journalist who covered Gromov’s walk across the bridge, Mikhail Leshchinsky, reported: “No one even bothered telling parents where and when military units would be arriving. A huge number of people gathered in [the Soviet-Afghan border cities of] Termez and Kushka, and none of them knew when their sons would arrive. People literally lived at the border for months.”

(2) Zia-ul-Haq had not heard such a thing for the first time, though. At another Soviet state funeral three years earlier, that of Leonid Brezhnev, the then new top man, Yuri Andropov, told him the same thing. However, the reformist Andropov did not live long and was replaced by Victor Chernenko, the Soviet Union’s last Stalinist ruler. Only when Gorbachov’s turn came in 1985 did the Soviet position became pro-negotiations again.

(3) This is according to Russian sources. Number vary considerably on this point: Rocric Braithwaite (in his 2011 book Afganzy (our review here) talks of USD three billion spent in 1990.

(4) A very good and detailed rendering of the years between the Soviet withdrawal until shortly before Najibullah’s fall in 1992 can be found here.

(5) There are still 265 soldiers missing, according to the current Russian ambassador to Kabul. One, a former intelligence officer of Uzbek origin, has recently been discovered in Herat where he works now as custodian for the local jihad museum. He also reportedly once had been a body guard for Taleban leader Mulla Baradar but later distanced himself from the Taleban.

(6) The first UN report on Afghan civilian casualties came out in 2007. Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental organisation started one year earlier.

(7) (Added 17 February 2014:) The best study of the Soviet time is Antonio GIustozzi’s War, Politics and Society in Afghanistan: 1978-1992 from 1990. For the post-2001 period, see our 2010 paper “Local Defence in Afghanistan: A Review of Government-backed Initiatives”, authored by Mathieu Lefrevre, here, and various dispatches, for instance here, herehere, here, here or here.

(8) (Added 17 February 2014:) On this year’s anniversary, Franz Klintsevich, the chairman of the Russian Afghan Veterans Union, has urged the government to revise the Soviet parliament’s condemnation of the war. Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov, however, said revising the assessment of the war would be “inappropriate” now.

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture