By Dr. Raja Muhammad Khan

Upon development of consensus between former Soviet President Gorbachev and the Politburo leadership, that the former super power (Soviet Union) could no longer sustain the heavy expenditures of the Afghan war in terms of human cost as well as the financial effects, the Communist regime decided to withdraw its forces from Afghan territory in 1988. The last Soviet soldier, however, left Afghan soil on February 14, 1989. By then, the mighty Communist regime had realized that no optimistic end of the Afghan quandary as desired by USSR is insight and that that Soviet decision to invade Afghan soil was a big mistake. Soviet Union lost over 14,453 combat soldiers including 1979 officers during this almost ten years long abortive campaign. 53,753 (11.44 percent) combatants were wounded, injured, or sustained concussions. A huge number of the troops fell ill, and had to be replaced from time to time. As revealed during later studies and estimates, over 80% soldiers those formed part of Afghan war fell prey of multiple diseases and had to be replaced from time to time. Besides, USSR also lost 333 helicopters, 114 aircrafts, 1315 APCs, 433 artillery guns, 11,369 cargo and fuel tanker trucks, and 147 tanks. 

In February 2002, just four months after the US led attack and subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, a former war veteran of the Soviet launched Afghan war (1979-1989), Colonel (retired) Chebyshev, had advised the United States, that, “I recommend that they get out of there as soon as possible.” The advisory statement had a bitter but time-tested realistic history behind it. The colonel was an eyewitness of the Soviet invasion, followed by 10 years long disastrous campaign that ended with the disintegration of this former Communist super power, an empire indeed. The world’s strongest armed forces equipped with modern state of art weaponry and the highest number of strategic arsenals (nuclear devices) had to face a humiliating defeat at the hands of apparently a small number of the Mujahedeen, having the public support besides covert U.S assistance. 

During his prolonged stay in that country (Afghanistan) as a commander of a group of combat soldiers, he had realised that, “It is impossible to conquer Afghanistan,” a historically proven reality. This war veteran had visualized a worst U.S fate, or at least not very   different from what has happened with former USSR, if the sole super power of the time decides to overstay in that hostile country. It is a well-known fact that the people of Afghanistan are extremely hospitable and they respect and love their guests, whom they have invited as a nation. However, at the same time they are equally dreadful once they are pushed or pressurized against their traditions by any external power, might have the blessing of a few or a limited class.

Then U.S led coalition forces Commander in Afghanistan,  General Tommy Franks, knew the philosophy of fighting in Afghanistan and he admitted in the initial days of U.S invasion that US would not repeat the mistakes of the former Soviet Union “whose large military presence triggered resistance in Afghanistan.” Therefore, decided to keep less ground forces and more dependence was to be made on the aerial bombardment. However, with the each passing day, US strategy kept changing with more troops pouring into this hostile land and today, there are over 150,000 U.S and NATO troops deployed in that war-torn country, where unlike Soviet, no super power is fighting with them covertly or overtly as of today. It must be remembered that at the peak days of Soviet invasion, the size of its forces did not exceed 125,000 combat soldiers at any one particular time.  Contrary to the heavy losses Soviet Union suffered from 1979 to 1989, US and NATO forces lost only 2223 combat soldiers (bulk being of US, 1398), with apparently less losses of war munitions in about the same duration (ten years).

  Af-Pak: Fluid security situation

Nevertheless, the major difference is that NATO and U.S are still continuing occupation of Afghan soil after almost 10 years and it is expected that it would prolong for another few years if not longer. A very clear indication of this has the come from the Pentagon, whose Press Secretary Mr. Geoff Morrell said on November 18, 2010, that 2014 withdrawal schedule of NATO and US forces from Afghanistan is, “an aspirational goal, it does not mean that all U.S. or coalition forces would necessarily be gone by that date. There may very well be the need for forces to remain in country albeit hopefully in smaller numbers.”  For the world consumption, Pentagon is providing an excuse that Afghan National Army is still not in a position to take over the security aspects of its country. Whereas, Pentagon feels that, US “goal is to have Afghan security forces in the lead over the preponderance of the country by the end of 2014, but those forces might not have the lead role everywhere.”

This renewed U.S strategy clearly indicates that it has long-term plan to stay in Afghanistan and the region. It is in contrast to what President Obama announced as an exit strategy in December 2009, that US and NATO forces will start pulling out from July 2011. The new revelations indicate that there is a clear difference of opinions and perceptions between White House and the Pentagon and that later can overrule the Presidential directives. Although during the Lisbon Summit on November 20, 2010, the NATO partners have agreed to pull out their forces from Afghanistan by 2014, however, U.S has kept its options open even thereafter. From the current development, one thing is getting clearer day by day that perhaps US has not learnt a lesson from its failure in Afghanistan since last 10 years. They are still hopeful to get a success in the days to come, once they could not capture more than 15 percent of the Afghan territory from Taliban and warlords. Over 55 percent of the Afghan territory is still under the hostile groups.

From the comparative study of both invasions, one aspect appears common and that is massive violations of the human rights. Both invasions; the Soviet lead Communist, and the US lead Capitalist, have brought miseries for the innocent people of Afghanistan. Both made brutal use of force indiscriminately in this land of traditions and love. None has showed little concern for average Afghan national. Heavy war munitions, indiscriminate firing, use of chemical weapons by USSR and aerial bombardment with B-52 Bombers  by US has killed many innocent civilians during both invasions. Indeed, capture and then holding of this land of heroic people have been the dreams of many empires and global powers of their times, but, none could succeed in this planning yet. After the failure of Tsarist Russia and British Empire in late 19th and early 20th century, in capturing the Afghan soil, United States perhaps thought of trying its destiny. However, the sole super power could not learn lessons from the Russian experience, where the real force behind the Mujahedeen was U.S itself. 

  US: From Austerity to Prosperity

Some of the major lessons, which U.S strategists could have learnt from the previous history of invasions in Afghanistan, are covered in the succeeded paragraphs. The first and the foremost lesson is that Afghan would never tolerate any foreign power occupying their homeland, how friendly or helpful that might have been. Anyone violating their code of life, the Pukhtunwali, will be jointly considered as the enemy of the Afghan nation. Like former Soviet Union, U.S has also completely ignored the “most important national and historical factors, above all the fact that the appearance of armed foreigners in Afghanistan was always met with arms in the hands (by local population).” This fact is part of Afghan traditions and would continue as such in future too. The second lesson is that, the government in Kabul must have legitimacy in the eyes of Afghan people. In spite of being elected, the Hamid Karazai   Government is still considered as the unlawful rule, thrust upon them by West and U.S.  An ordinary Afghan gives it a status not very different from what they had for the Babrak Karmal lead People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) Government, sponsored by former Soviet Union. Afghans consider that there has been, no improvement in their living standards, rather deterioration in the lives of those living in the rural areas has been much pronounced under the current regime. Indeed, how can the Kabul bound government could improve the living standards of the people living on the countryside.

Third significant lesson is that neither incumbent Afghan Government nor U.S has ever realised the ethnic sensitivities of the Afghan society. There is a clear division between northern and southern portion of the country. Northern portion is further subdivided into a number of ethnic groups, currently making an alliance; the Northern Alliance. The southern portion however, has the dominant Pushtun population, currently staying out of Afghan powerhouse in Kabul.  Without incorporating them into the central Government, how could the Hamid Karazai or US can expect a success.  Redressing the grievances of the majority Afghan population group through reconciliation and integration would be essential to bring stability in that country. This will give U.S a face saving to leave Afghanistan with respect, rather like USSR, irrespective of the schedule it follows (2011, 2014, or some later date even).

Fourthly, as USSR pursued a military solution of the Afghan problem, U.S has been harping on the same in last over nine years. It did not opt for a political solution of the problem, except in the recent past once, Hamid Karazai insisted on that. Even in that, U.S was neither serious nor sincere to implement, rather put up unwanted pre-conditions, which caused more differences then harmony. Even once the former force commander of ISAF in Afghanistan, General MacCrystal suggested a political solution and reconciliation, was sacked, and retired from the service in a humiliating way. In spite of entering into the 10th year of their occupation of Afghan soil, the US and NATO forces have yet not been able to gain control over all the provincial capitals of Afghanistan. At time, they carry out military operation in a particular area and then leave the location, which subsequently was re-occupied by the Taliban or the warlords. Contrary to this, Soviet soldiers had occupied most of the Afghan soil, but later were evicted and subsequently had to leave without gaining whatever they thought of.

  First Afghan Air force Female Pilot

Fifthly, in late 1980s, Soviet leadership realized that, “their advisors working in Afghanistan were mistaken in attempting to re-create Soviet society and apply their own solutions to a vastly different context.” Similarly, US advisors have been trying to impose a western type of democracy in Afghanistan, a country having its own traditional pattern of Government having tribal culture.  Afghanistan is a conservative society where liberal values being practiced in the U.S and West are being viewed as extraterrestrial. Sixthly,   As Soviet, “did not even have a correct assessment of the unique geographical features of that hard-to-enter country, US and NATO too has a limited know how of hostile Afghan terrain. The latest weaponry and tactics of either the USSR or the U.S did not work against the traditional fighting techniques of the Afghan people. Soviet politburo later found that, in the operation of their combat units against the Afghan resistant groups “very little could be accomplished with the help of modern military technology.”

After 10 years of the failed military intervention in Afghanistan, NATO and U.S should have assessed their mistakes. Many analytical studies have been undertaken by their own think tanks, giving assessment of the ground situation. They have detail reports about the causes of the failure of former Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Above all, they know the Afghan history and traditions.  It is high time that they should start winding up and let Afghan people to decide their future as per their own desires. One thing should be very significant that US should not select a country like India to succeed it after it decides to leave Afghanistan.


A former commander of Soviet forces in Afghanistan has warned history is being repeated in the war-ravaged country as the United States and its allies become increasingly mired in an "unwinnable war." CNN TV Interview

Dr. Raja Muhammad Khan has done done his Ph.D in International relations from Karachi University, presently he is an Associate Professor with National Defense University at Islamabad, Pakistan. He focuses on Central Asia, South Asia and the Muslim World in particular. He also covers other conflicts elsewhere in the world. He is a regular contributor to Opinion Maker.