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Afghanistan: A Tale of 2 Similar-yet-Distinct Withdrawals

On February 15, 1989, the last Soviet soldier crossed the Afghan-Soviet border marking the end of one of the bloodiest conflicts ever fought in Afghanistan’s history. Nearly 32 years later, a similar yet distinct withdrawal took place in Afghanistan. The last U.S. military plane left Kabul on August 30, 2021, terminating a presence that traversed two decades. U.S. and Soviet hurdles and ambiguities exhibit a startling resemblance on certain levels coupled with differences in their own forms.

The contemporary world’s most stalwart military ultimately withdrew from Afghanistan on August 30, a day ahead of schedule, concluding a 20-year affair and deserting Afghanistan in the Taliban’s hands. The war had sprung soon after Al Qaeda’s infamous 9/11 attacks, necessitating over $2 trillion and taking more than 170,000 lives. The United States conclusively failed to defeat the Taliban, the very same Islamist militants who supported Al Qaeda and provided them with a haven to execute attacks against the West. What exactly was accomplished out of this war is a different topic to deliberate!

Credits: AP Photo

As the last evacuation flight flew out of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul just before midnight, the despairing individuals left behind (at least 100,000 people, by one estimate) who might be eligible for expedited U.S. visas were indefinitely assured of a tumultuous and unpredictable future. Perhaps, the worst nightmares of the innocent Afghan allies who supported NATO & the US, unfortunately, might be evolving to be true.

Likewise, Soviet troops had first invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, intending to prop up the communist and, Pro-Soviet government threatened by civil revolt and resistance. Hence commenced a frustrating armed struggle with Afghan Muslim rebels. The rebels hated their own nation’s communist government along with the Soviet troops supporting it.

The subsequent eight years witnessed devastating battles between the two sides for comprehensive undisputed control of Afghanistan, which neither the Soviets nor the rebels ever managed to achieve. Dubbed as “Russia’s Vietnam“, the Soviet intrusion demonstrated exceptionally expensive in plenty of ways. The fiercest of bloodsheds flopped miserably to break the insurgency’s back. In the words of Gorbachev, ‘The Afghan war had become “a bleeding wound”‘, and, therefore, the Soviet Union had to withdraw its military from Afghanistan.

By 1988, the Soviets had determined to disentangle themselves from the circumstances. The signing of the Geneva Accords, on April 14, 1988, between Afghanistan, Pakistan, with the Soviet Union and the United States as guarantors, made it official and subsequently paved the route for their withdrawal. Consequently, USSR completed its retreat in 1989. The withdrawal, however, did not put an end to the gruesome fighting. It continued, and the Muslim rebels eventually succeeded in establishing control over Afghanistan in 1992.

Credits: Frank Scherschel

Riding on the back of the Doha Agreement signed by the Trump Administration and the Taliban in 2018, the United States under Joe Biden executed the plan for the withdrawal but with an extended end date of August 31. What was supposed to be an agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan boomeranged. The Taliban made rapid advances, and countries including the US, NATO allies and others rushed to evacuate their own citizens and the eligible Afghan nationals.

Kabul fell to the Taliban on August 15th, following which scenes of the recklessly negligent retreat started unfolding at the Kabul airport. Videos featuring people clinging onto outgoing planes and falling to death in attempts to exit created mayhem along with headlines. Thousands of people concentrated at the international airport in the anticipations of being evacuated. The entire nation experienced an all-around disaster with the President escaping to the UAE. Suffering was widespread, and the haphazard planning by the men & women in fancy suits at the Pentagon, State Department and the White House were primarily to be blamed.

The Soviets, on the other hand, had ensured a meticulously choreographed withdrawal ceremony that telegraphed solemnity and dignity. An orderly procession of tanks moved north across the Friendship Bridge, which spans the Amu Darya river, between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan – then a Soviet republic. Behind him, no Soviet soldiers remained in the country. “The day that millions of Soviet people have waited for has come,” an officer said at a military rally later that day. The end outcome, however, was the same!

Kabul fell to the Mujahedeen in a matter of 3 years after Soviet withdrawal. By 1992, all gains made under USSR were lost. Fast forward to 2021, Taliban did not even need a whole year to capture the majority of Afghanistan. They are now in the process of the formation of an interim government with UN-sanctioned individuals occupying key positions. Neither USA nor USSR was able to solve the issues for which they had invaded the country in the very first place. Blunders by the ones in power in all the three major stakeholding nations secured that civilians of their respective countries bear the brunt.

The defeat at the Taliban’s hands is undoubtedly humiliating for the US but less humiliating compared to the Soviet Union’s withdrawal in 1989, an event that contributed to the doom of its empire and Communist rule. Both of the big powers withdrew as losers leaving behind unbearable chaos for the innocent citizens.

This episode does mark the end of an era. What follows next remains to be seen. The average Afghan prospect does not look very encouraging. But what can never be denied and is now the indisputable fact is that Afghanistan has freshly reaffirmed itself to be the graveyard of empires as it did for the Soviet Union and numerous others before.

Gaurav Chakraborty is a student pursuing Economics Hons from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Varda Ahmad

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