Afghanistan, Relations with

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Afghanistan has played a key role in the foreign policy history of both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. During the nineteenth century, Russian and British intelligence and government officials vied for influence in the region, with the final delineation of spheres of influence being the Amu Darya rivernorth of that was considered Russian and south of that was British. During the Bolshevik Revolution and civil war, opposition forces in Central Asia used Afghanistan as a base of operation against Red Army units. Indeed, Afghanistan was a haven, and then a transit route, for those wanting to escape the Soviet Union at this time.

After a series of treaties, Afghanistan became a neutral neighbor for the Soviet Union and relations focused largely on trade and economic development. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Soviet involvement in Afghanistan increased. Soviet assistance was almost equally divided between economic and military forms. Between 1956 and 1978, the Soviet Union gave $2.51 billion in aid to Afghanistan, compared to U.S. assistance of only $533 million. This was part of a larger Soviet strategy to increase their presence in South Asia, as the United States was seen as being more influential in Iran and Pakistan. Equally important, although commercial ties always remained modest, the Soviet Union used this relationship as a "positive example" for the rest of the developing world.

The Sawr Revolution in April 1978 radically changed the Soviet presence in the region, as the new leadersfirst Nur Muhammed Taraki and then Hafizulla Amindebated the extent to which they wanted outside powers involved in the country. The leadership in Moscow feared that the Afghan government under Amin was going to drift out of the Soviet Union's orbit, and began to put pressure on it to remain a loyal ally. Finally, as a measure to ensure full subordination, the Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. Amin was killed in the ensuing conflict, to be replaced by Babrak Karmal in 1980.

The Brezhnev administration claimed that it sent troops into Afghanistan to help the current leadership stabilize the country. Within months, Soviet bases were established in a number of cities in the country and Afghanistan was effectively under Soviet occupation. Many states in the international community condemned the invasion and a majority of Western states boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow as a sign of protest.

Within two years, opposition groupsoften based on tribal or clan affiliationsbegan to increase their resistance efforts against the Soviet occupiers. Known collectively as the Mujahedeen, the opposition fought both Soviet units and those of the People's Democratic Republic of Afghanistan army. Although the Mujahedeen fared poorly in the opening campaigns, increased training and support from outside powers, especially the United States, helped turn things around. By the mid-1980s, it was apparent that the Soviet Union was bogged down in a guerrilla war that wore down both troop numbers and morale.

By 1984, Soviet citizens were beginning to get frustrated with this "endless war." The rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in the following year signaled a new phase in the conduct of the war, as he acknowledged that the Soviet Union ought to look at a way to end their participation in the conflict. Over the next two years, United Nationsmediated negotiations took place, which resulted in a peace settlement and the Soviet withdrawal from the country. The government was finally admitting casualty figures, which became difficult as fighting intensified in 1985 and 1986. By this time, there were between 90,000 and 104,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan at any one time.

It was not until early 1989 that the last Soviet troops left Afghanistan. In all, the ten-year Afghan War cost the Soviet Union more than 15,000 killed and more than 460,000 wounded or incapacitated due to illnesses contracted while serving in the country (this was an amazing 73 percent of all forces that served in the country). Such casualties severely damaged the country's international reputation and internal morale. During this period of glasnost by the Gorbachev administration, it was commonplace for Soviet citizens to criticize the government's war effort and the effect it had on returning veterans, the "Afghantsy." Indeed, many observers compared the Soviet experience in Afghanistan with that of the United States in Vietnam.

For the first several years after the Soviet withdrawal, the government of Najibullah, the Soviet-sponsored leader of Afghanistan who succeeded Babrak Karmal, was able to maintain power. However, by 1992, the Mujahedeen forces ousted him and set up their own provisional government. These groups no longer had a single unifying cause (the removal of Soviet forces) to keep them together, and a civil war ensued. This lasted until 1996, at which time the Taliban were able to wrest control of most of the country.

As a result of the United Statesled "coalition of the willing" attacks in 20012002, Russia ironically became a more active player in the region. Following the al-Qaeda attacks in the United States, Afghanistan quickly came under attack for its support of that terrorist organization and its unwillingness to hand over top al-Qaeda officials. By the beginning of 2002, supportive of the U.S. effort, Afghanistan has been more active in assisting what it sees as the defense of its southern borders.

For more than two decades, Afghanistan has remained a security problem for the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation. Therefore, Russia will undoubtedly continue to place importance on remaining politically involved in future developments in that country, although given its somber experience in the 1980s, it is doubtful that Russia will develop a military or security presence in the country any time soon.

The Afghans are likewise mistrustful of Russian influences in the country. Even in the early twenty-first century, Afghanistan continued to feel the effects of the Soviet campaign in the country. As expected, U.S. troops toppled the Taliban regime and were in the process of establishing a more representative regime in Kabul. Russia, for its part, had seen 1.5 million Afghans killed in the ten-year war, most of whom were civilians. In addition, millions more citizens became refugees in Iran and Pakistan. Finally, hundreds of thousands of landmines remained in place to cause injuries and death on a near-daily basis. On a broader level, the economic and social disruption caused by the war, and the subsequent civil war and Taliban rule, had resulted in a country completely in ruins.

Perhaps most telling for contemporary Russia is the fact that Afghanistan symbolizes defeat on several levels. It was a failed effort to export socialism to a neighboring state; it was a failure of the Soviet army to defeat an insurgency; it was a failure of confidence by the population in the political leadership; and it was a failure for the economy, as the war created a drain on an already-troubled economy.

See also: brezhnev, leonid, ilich; gorbachev, mikhail sergeyevich; military, soviet and post-soviet


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Goodson, Larry P. (2001). Afghanistan's Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics, and the Rise of the Taliban. Seattle: The University of Washington Press.

Grau, Lester, ed. (2003). The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan, 2nd edition. New York: Frank Cass Publishers.

Kaplan, Robert D. (2001). Soldiers of God: With Islamic Warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan. New York: Vintage Books.

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Roger Kangas