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Afghanistan withdrawal: Sherard Cowper-Coles on what the Soviets did right

What Gorbachev can teach us about how to exit the country

16 March 2013

9:00 AM

16 March 2013

9:00 AM

History doesn’t show us only mistakes to avoid. It also gives us examples of success to be emulated. We would do well to study the way in which the Soviet Union left Afghanistan.

Like Barack Obama in 2009, in 1985 the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev was faced with the challenge of how most elegantly to extract his country from Afghanistan. Unlike Obama, Gorbachev was being told by his military advisers — who had mostly been doubtful about the whole campaign from the start — that the war was unwinnable. Unlike Obama, he decided that the right course was to follow the playbook for countering insurgencies. The first task was to ensure that an essentially tactical military campaign was enfolded in a coherent political strategy.

Ironically, the principles of that strategy are to be found in the fruit of General Petraeus’s year at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: the outstanding Counterinsurgency Field Manual of the United States Army. It explains that counter-insurgency is mostly politics, and that insurgents must somehow be cut off from the sanctuaries into which they withdraw under military pressure.

Knowing that they were going to leave, the Russians moved quickly to replace a weak Afghan leader with a credible Pashtun strongman. They advised that leader — a former secret police chief — to abandon socialism, embrace Islam and work with the tribes. And that is exactly what Dr Najibullah did. Red turned green. Out went the hammer and sickle, in came the crescent moon. A Marxist who had seldom darkened the doors of a mosque was there all the time, praying. And, most importantly, he reached out to the tribes and their leaders: it was they, not the army or police, who were going to secure and govern post-Soviet Afghanistan.

The Russians knew that Afghanistan could never be secure without the active consent of the countries which surround it, each of whom has a dog or two in the fight. So they asked the neighbours for help in securing stability. In this, they were only partially successful. But what was known as the Six plus Two process did at least acknowledge that the Afghan conflict had a regional dimension — a dimension which needed to be addressed through serious sustained collective diplomatic engagement.

The result of all this was that when the last soldier of the Soviet 40th Army marched back into the Soviet Union across the friendship bridge over the River Oxus on 20 February 1989, the Russians left behind a regime, in Kabul and Kandahar, Herat and Jalalabad, which not only survived but also succeeded in defeating the insurgency which the Americans and British were continuing to support. It collapsed only when, in 1992, the Soviet Union itself collapsed, ending the external subsidy on which every Afghan government in modern times has depended.

A quarter of a century later, in 2014, we may not be so lucky. I don’t believe that Afghanistan will immediately plunge back into full-scale civil war. But many of the gains we have made, in terms of better governance, improved health and education, and fairer treatment of women, will erode. Great areas of the south and east — the parts of the Pashtun Belt which British, American and allied troops have fought so bravely and so long to secure — will gradually revert to a state of Afghan nature.

At this late or indeed any other stage, it is of course far from certain that a serious double-decker political process, which pursued a new settlement within Afghanistan and across the region, would succeed. But without such a strategy or even an attempt at one, the end of the latest foreign irruption into Afghanistan will create a vacuum unlikely to be filled by wholly benign forces. We must hope that Secretaries Kerry and Hagel do their job, here as in so many other parts of the world.

Sherard Cowper-Coles was the British ambassador to Afghanistan from 2007 to 2009. His book Ever the Diplomat is published by HarperPress.

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