The Soviet Victory That Never Was

What the United States Can Learn From the Soviet War in Afghanistan

Could the Soviet Union have won its war in Afghanistan? Today, the victory of the anti-Soviet mujahideen seems preordained as part of the West’s ultimate triumph in the Cold War. To suggest that an alternative outcome was possible -- and that the United States has something to learn from the Soviet Union’s experience in Afghanistan -- may be controversial. But to avoid being similarly frustrated by the infamous “graveyard of empires,” U.S. military planners would be wise to study how the Soviet Union nearly emerged triumphant from its decade-long war.

There are, of course, some fundamental differences between the Soviets’ war in the 1980s and the U.S.-led mission today. First, the Soviet Union intervened to save a communist regime which was in danger of collapsing due to resistance to its comprehensive and often traumatic social-engineering programs. Unlike the Soviets and their client regime, the United States is not interested in forcibly removing the burkas from Afghan women, shooting large numbers of mullahs for resisting secularization, or reprogramming the political and social mores of Afghans. Instead, Washington has a far more limited objective: namely, ensuring that Afghanistan remains an inhospitable base for extremist groups hoping to attack the West.

Second, the Soviet army was prepared to fight a total war in Afghanistan, taking heavy losses in men and machinery and inflicting sweeping violence on the Afghan people. No U.S. commander would be willing to wage such a war today; the U.S. military realizes that making a desert and calling it peace is no way to curtail an insurgency.

But the Soviet experience should not be entirely ignored. When Soviet troops pulled out of Afghanistan in February 1989, many in the United States expected to see the mujahideen quickly topple the pro-Moscow government in Kabul. This did not happen. The regime led by Mohammad Najibullah, whom Moscow installed as president in 1987, remained in control of the country. For a moment, it appeared as if the Kremlin had successfully left in power an Afghan government and army that could withstand the Soviet withdrawal.

Register Now
Non-Subscriber
Register now to get three articles each month. Join us as a paid subscriber and get unrestricted access to all of Foreign Affairs, including on our iPad app.
Please note that we will never share your email address with a third party. Read our privacy policy.
Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis