How the Soviet Union left Afghanistan

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.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    The US has demonstrated in both Vietnam and Afghanistan that it can only do the first with any competence

    Since the second phase is “get bogged down in a quagmire, become hated by the locals and start committing atrocities”, the USA is not just competent but in fact a world leader at phases one AND two.

    It’s literally only the “go home today and take all your toys with you” phase that seems, despite repeated attempts at practice, to be beyond them.

  2. jrkrideau says

    The Kabul government and army was still in half-decent shape when the Soviets withdrew.

    The Government did not fall until 2 or 3 years later when the USSR began to seriously collapse and Gorbachev stopped sending aid.

    Maybe the USA is not too good at this sort of thing.

  3. says

    I would suspect the USSR being a neighboring empire made somewhat of a difference. I would assume they were trying to add Afghanistan to their empire as opposed to whatever the USA was trying to do. Maybe that made a difference???

  4. jrkrideau says

    @ 3 Leo Buzalsky
    I would assume they were trying to add Afghanistan to their empire…

    I have not seen any hint of that. I think they felt a requirement to help a fellow socialist country and they wanted a stable government next door that did not consist of religious fanatics like the mujahadeen. When the Afghan gov’t asked for help they agreed.

    As the USSR was next door it would have had academics , military officers, and politicians from Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, etc., people who knew Afghanistan, knew some or all of the languages and probably knew just how ungovernable it could be.

    What I suspect Moscow did not know was that the USA was already funding and equipping the mujahadeen in Pakistan and had been doing so for several months.

  5. Steve Morrison says

    About the “graveyard of empires” cliché: a historian named Bret Devereaux recently wrote a blog post debunking the idea that Afghanistan is inherently unconquerable. Alexander, Genghis Khan, and a number of other conquerors did add Afghanistan to their empires.

  6. jrkrideau says

    @ 5 Steve Morrison
    Ah yes, I read that a while ago. Great article.

    When I wrote probably knew just how ungovernable it could be. I did not mean to imply it was unconquerable, just that it would not be worth trying when a friendly socialist state would be fine.

    Something that occurred to me after I had posted, the reason British India fought 3 wars there was because they were afraid that Imperial Russia would take Afghanistan, opening India to invasion. Kipling’s Great Game, etc.
    Actually occupying Afghanistan the early 1980s would have raised paranoia levels in New Delhi and Islamabad to terrifying levels.

  7. lorn says

    Not so much.

    We really didn’t do phase one very well. I give it a C-. The military, which on its own could have done the job was hobbled by the need to give the operation a ‘Afghan face’. The fact is while we dominated the Taliban we let OBL slip out simply because we were trying so hard to use Afghan, mostly Northern alliance troops.

    Afghan is a society where common people survive, in part, by making sure no one clan, leader, ethnicity wins everything. The common man lives in the gray space between factions. They capitulate to power while subtly assisting other factions or sabotaging the larger one. It pays to stay in touch with both, all, sides. Some of this is purposeful but some of this is seemingly subconscious. Either way, sudden shifts in loyalty and reversals are a long standing Afghan tradition.

    No big surprise that someone within the mass of rented Afghan troops would slip a warning to OBL and, for a price, leave one or more rat lines unguarded.

    Yes, we used an endless string of drone strikes and thousand pound bombs to kill and demoralize the Taliban. But mostly we destroyed their foot soldiers, an asset easily recruited in the surrounding areas. We killed some of their leaders but there were always replacements. Their ideology remained intact.

    I give the occupation higher marks. A solid B. Not because we succeeded but rather because occupations are generally failures. Japan and Germany post-WW2 are perhaps the exception. Successful because we didn’t destroy the existing social/power/ political structures and was able to use them. Both nations favored the rebuilding, both were pretty close to total failure. That and the majority of the people generally agreed with our wider plans.

    The withdrawal I give an A-.

    I think Trump really thought the Taliban would not keep their word. That he was leaving Afghanistan as a busted nation and future site of a grand catastrophe. That the swift incursion of the Taliban would see small groups of US troops massacred and it would play out like Saigon but with more shooting. Planes exploding in the air and on the ground. Men women and children desperately running through acres of burning fuel. Human torches. US troops unable to help. US soldiers captured and beheaded on TV. Trump would get off on that.

    As it was the Taliban negotiated with every commander and group along their route of advance. It went so fast that ISIS-k were caught flat-footed. Only near the end of the evacuation were they able to bring force to bear. Sad about the 13 US troops and almost 200 Afghans but it could have been much worse. A C-17 full of women and children exploding on a runway is a nightmare.

    The Taliban kept their word. We got out in remarkably good order. The equipment we left behind was mostly crap. Even the technical good stuff is useless without the software that was removed. Yes, the Taliban got lots of M-4s with ACOG sights and quite a few night vision devices. Very fancy stuff for 2002. Now you can buy it all at Walmart. Give it a few years. They will get tired if the relatively delicate poodle shooters. They will run out of batteries that makes a lot of it work. Soon enough it will be back to AKs.

    But that’s just me.

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