The way that the US forces left Afghanistan left the whole world aghast at its utterly chaotic nature. It has become a cliche to describe Afghanistan as the graveyard of empires, humbling the British, the Soviet Union, and the US. But not all such attempts by empires ended as pitifully as the way that the US did. The NPR radio program Morning Edition compared the US exit with that of the Soviet Union in 1989.
One feature that is similar is that by its end, the occupation was seen as a tragic blunder by the Soviet Union.
By the time the Soviet army withdrew, the war was seen by most Soviet citizens as a mistake. Fifteen thousand soldiers had been killed, thousands more wounded. And an estimated million Afghans had died in the fighting. After a decade of war, many Soviets couldn’t understand what the USSR was even doing there.
But the final exits were not similar.
It’s February 15, 1989, the final day of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Camera crews are calmly filming as the last troops prepare to pull out.
A band entertains troops. Soldiers dust their boots. And then this scene – the last tanks and trucks cross a bridge into neighboring Soviet Uzbekistan followed by a lone figure on foot, Soviet General Boris Gromov.
“I can say not one soldier remains behind me,” Gromov tells a reporter. The general is then joined by his young son. And the two walk arm in arm back into Soviet territory.
But it was a telegenic and appropriate ending to a decade of war, says veteran Sergei Opalev.
The main thing is that it was organized. From our perspective, the evacuation was done just right, says Opalev, who, as a captain in division headquarters, was among the last troops evacuated. We left infrastructure but took every tank and machine gun with us, he adds. For reasons he can’t understand, the Americans didn’t.
There are three phases when a powerful country invades another, much weaker, one. The first phase is the initial invasion, which usually goes quickly because of the huge mismatch in military might. The second phase is the quagmire as the invading country gets bogged down, it becomes clear that the invading army will never win the hearts and minds of the local population, and commits atrocities in its efforts at maintaining control. The third phase is the exit.
The Soviet Union managed to carry out the third phase with some order. The US has demonstrated in both Vietnam and Afghanistan that it can only do the first with any competence by using brute force. The other two phases were total shambles.