Afghanistan and the Soviet Withdrawal 1989: 20 Years Later


Washington D.C., February 15, 2009 — Twenty years ago today, the commander of the Soviet Limited Contingent in Afghanistan Boris Gromov crossed the Termez Bridge out of Afghanistan, thus marking the end of the Soviet war which lasted almost ten years and cost tens of thousands of Soviet and Afghan lives.

As a tribute and memorial to the late Russian historian, General Alexander Antonovich Lyakhovsky, the National Security Archive today posted on the Web ( a series of previously secret Soviet documents including Politburo and diary notes published here in English for the first time.  The documents suggest that the Soviet decision to withdraw occurred as early as 1985, but the process of implementing that decision was excruciatingly slow, in part because the Soviet-backed Afghan regime was never able to achieve the necessary domestic support and legitimacy — a key problem even today for the current U.S. and NATO-supported government in Kabul.

The Soviet documents show that ending the war in Afghanistan, which Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev called “the bleeding wound,” was among his highest priorities from the moment he assumed power in 1985 — a point he made clear to then-Afghan Communist leader Babrak Karmal in their first conversation on March 14, 1985.  Already in 1985, according to the documents, the Soviet Politburo was discussing ways of disengaging from Afghanistan, and actually reached the decision in principle on October 17, 1985.

But the road from Gorbachev’s decision to the actual withdrawal was long and painful.  The documents show the Soviet leaders did not come up with an actual timetable until the fall of 1987.  Gorbachev made the public announcement on February 8, 1988, and the first troops started coming out in May 1988, with complete withdrawal on February 15, 1989.  Gorbachev himself, in his recent book (Mikhail Gorbachev, Ponyat’ perestroiku . . . Pochemu eto vazhno seichas. (Moscow: Alpina Books 2006)), cites at least two factors to explain why it took the reformers so long to withdraw the troops.  According to Gorbachev, the Cold War frame held back the Soviet leaders from making more timely and rational moves, because of fear of the international perception that any such withdrawal would be a humiliating retreat.  In addition to saving face, the Soviet leaders kept trying against all odds to ensure the existence of a stable and friendly Afghanistan with some semblance of a national reconciliation process in place before they left.

The documents detail the Soviet leadership’s preoccupation that, before withdrawal of troops could be carried out, the Afghan internal situation had to be stabilized and a new government should be able to rely on its domestic power base and a trained and equipped army able to deal with the mujahadeen opposition.  The Soviets sought to secure the Afghan borders through some kind of compromise with the two other most important outside players — Pakistan, through which weapons and aid reached the opposition, and the United States, provider of the bulk of that aid.  In the process of Geneva negotiations on Afghanistan, which were initiated by the United Nations in 1982, the United States, in the view of the Soviet reformers, was dragging its feet, unwilling to stop arms supplies to the rebels and hoping and planning for the fall of the pro-Soviet Najibullah regime after the Soviet withdrawal.

Internally, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan did everything possible to prevent or slow down the Soviet withdrawal, putting pressure on the Soviet military and government representatives to expand military operations against the rebels.

Persistent pleading on the part of Najibullah government as late as January 1989 created an uncharacteristic split in the Soviet leadership, with Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze suggesting that the withdrawal should be slowed down or some forces should remain to help protect the regime, while the military leadership argued strongly in favor of a complete and decisive withdrawal.

According to the American record, Shevardnadze had already informed Secretary of State George Shultz as early as September 1987 of the specific timetable for withdrawal.  But many senior officials did not believe the Soviet assurances; in fact, deputy CIA director Robert Gates famously bet a State Department diplomat on New Year’s Eve 1987 that Gorbachev would make no withdrawal announcement until after the end of the Reagan administration.  Gates believed the Chinese saying about the Soviet appetite for territory: “What the bear has eaten, he never spits out” — and only in his memoirs did he admit he was making “an intelligence forecast based on fortune cookie wisdom.”  (Robert Gates, From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War (New York:  Simon&Shuster, 1996, pp. 430-431).  Of course, Gates’ hardline views on Gorbachev would take over U.S. policy as the George H.W. Bush administration came into office in January 1989.

By this time, however, the Soviet leaders well realized that the goal of building socialism in Afghanistan was illusory; and at the same time the goal of securing the southern borders of the Soviet Union seemed to be still within reach with the policy of national reconciliation of the Najibullah government.  So the troops came out completely by February 15, 1989.  Soon after the Soviet withdrawal, however, both superpowers seemed to lose interest in what had been so recently the hottest spot of the Cold War.

Najibullah would outlast Gorbachev’s tenure in the Kremlin, but not by much: Within three years Najibullah would be removed from power and brutally murdered, and Afghanistan would plunge into the darkness of civil war and the coming to power of the Taliban.  Twenty years later, the other superpower and its Cold War alliance are fighting a war in Afghanistan against forces of darkness that were born among the fundamentalist parts of mujahadeen resistance to the Soviet occupation.  In such a context, the language and the dilemmas in these 20-year-old documents still provide some resonance today.

This posting is also a tribute to and a commemoration of one of our long-standing partners in the pursuit of opening secrets and writing the new truly international history of the Cold War.   General Alexander Lyakhovsky passed away from a heart attack while standing on a Moscow Metro platform on February 3, 2009, less than two weeks before the 20th anniversary of the end of the war in which he served as an officer, and which he studied for many years as a scholar.  He is survived by his wife Tatyana and their children Vladimir and Galina.

The National Security Archive mourns the passing of our dear friend and partner, Alexander Antonovich.  It is fitting and proper that here we express our deepest appreciation for his remarkable knowledge, his scholarly and personal integrity, and his generosity both in expertise and the documents that he always shared with us, while he educated us and the world.  His memory lives on in all of us who ever read his work, heard him speak, or best of all, listened to him sing the sad songs of the Afghan war.

— Svetlana Savranskaya, director of Russia programs, Thomas Blanton, executive director, National Security Archive, and Malcolm Byrne, Deputy Director, National Security Archive.


Document 1.  Memorandum of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Conversation with Babrak Karmal, March 14, 1985

In his first conversation with the leader of Afghanistan, who was installed by the Soviet troops in December of 1979, Gorbachev underscored two main points: first that “the Soviet troops cannot stay in Afghanistan forever,” and second, that the Afghan revolution was presently in its “national-democratic” stage, whereas its socialist stage was only “a course of the future.”  He also encouraged the Afghan leader to expand the base of the regime to unite all the “progressive forces.”  In no uncertain terms, Karmal was told that the Soviet troops would be leaving soon and that his government would have to rely on its own forces.

Document 2.  Anatoly Chernyaev Diary, April 4, 1985

Chernyaev reflects on the “torrent of letters” about Afghanistan received recently by the Central Committee and the Pravda newspaper.  They reflect the growing dissatisfaction of the population with the drawn-out war and the consensus that the troops should be withdrawn.

Document 3.  Anatoly Chernyaev Diary, October 17, 1985

At the Politburo session of October 17, 1985, General Secretary Gorbachev proposed to make a final decision on Afghanistan and quoted from citizens’ letters regarding the dissatisfaction in the country with the Soviet actions in Afghanistan.  He also described his meeting with Babrak Karmal during which Gorbachev told the Afghan leader: “we will help you, but with arms only, not troops.”  Chernyaev noted Gorbachev’s negative reaction to the assessment of the situation given by Defense Minister Marshal Sergey Sokolov.

Document 4.  Politburo Session, June 26, 1986

The Politburo discusses the first results of Najibullah’s policy of national reconciliation.  Gorbachev emphasizes that the decision to withdraw the troops is firm, but that the United States seems to be a problem as far as the national reconciliation is concerned.  He proposes early withdrawals of portions of troops to give the process a boost, and proposes to “pull the USA and Pakistan by their tail” to encourage them to participate in it more actively.

Document 5.  Politburo Session, November 13, 1986

The first detailed Politburo discussion of the process and difficulties of the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan, which included the testimony of Marshal Sergei Akhromeev.

Document 6.  Politburo Session, January 21, 1987

The Politburo discusses the results of Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and Head of the Central Committee International Department Anatoly Dobrynin’s trip to Afghanistan.  Shevardnadze’s report is very blunt and pessimistic about the war and the internal situation.  The main concern of the Politburo is how to end the war but save face and ensure a friendly and neutral Afghanistan.

Document 7.  Politburo Session, February 23, 1987

Gorbachev talks about the need to withdraw while engaging the United States and Pakistan in negotiations on the final settlement.  He is willing to meet with the Pakistani leader Zia ul Khaq, and maybe even offer him some payoff.  The Soviet leader also shows concern about the Soviet reputation among non-aligned countries and national liberation movements.

Document 8.  Politburo Session, February 26, 1987

In his remarks to the Politburo, General Secretary returns to the issue of the need to withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan several times.  He emphasizes the need to withdraw the troops, and at the same time struggles with the explanation for the withdrawal, noting that “we not going to open up the discussion about who is to blame now.”  Gromyko admits that it was a mistake to introduce the troops, but notes that it was done after 11 requests from the Afghan government.

Document 9.  Colonel Tsagolov Letter to USSR Minister of Defense Dmitry Yazov on the Situation in Afghanistan, August 13, 1987

Criticism of the Soviet policy of national reconciliation in Afghanistan and analysis of general failures of the Soviet military mission there are presented in Colonel Tsagolov’s letter to USSR Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov of August 13, 1987.  This letter represents the first open criticism of the Afghan war from within the military establishment.  Colonel Tsagolov paid for his attempt to make his criticism public in his interview with Soviet influential progressive magazine “Ogonek” by his career — he was expelled from the Army in 1988.

Document 10.  CC CPSU Letter on Afghanistan, May 10, 1988

On May 10, 1988, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR issued a “closed” (internal use) letter to all Communist Party members of the Soviet Union on the issue of withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.  The letter presents the Central Committee analysis of events in Afghanistan and Soviet actions in that country, the problems and the difficulties the Soviet troops had to face in carrying out their mission.  In particular, the letter stated that important historic and ethnic factors were overlooked when the decisions on Afghanistan were made in the Soviet Union.  The letter analyzes Soviet interests in Afghanistan and the reasons for the withdrawal of troops.

Document 11.  Politburo Session January 24, 1989

This Politburo session deals with the issue of the completion of the withdrawal and the post-war Soviet role in Afghanistan, as well as possible future development of the situation there.  The discussion shows the split among the Soviet leadership with Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze arguing for leaving some personnel behind to help protect the Najibullah regime or delaying the full withdrawal.

Document 12.  Excerpt from Alexander Lyakhovsky and Vyacheslav Nekrasov, Grazhdanin, Politik, Voin: Pamyati Shakha Masuda (Citizen, Politician, Fighter: In Memory of Shah Masoud), (Moscow, 2007), pp. 202-205

Document 13.  Excerpt from Statement of the Soviet Military Command in Afghanistan on the Withdrawal of Soviet Troops, February 14, 1989

On April 7, 1988, USSR Defense Minister signed an order on withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.  In February 1989, the Defense Ministry prepared a statement of the Soviet Military Command in Afghanistan on the issue of withdrawal of troops, which was delivered to the Head of the UN Mission in Afghanistan on February 14, 1989 — the day when the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan.  The statement gave an overview of Soviet-Afghan relations before 1979, Soviet interpretation of the reasons for providing internationalist assistance to Afghanistan, and sending troops there after the repeated requests of the Afghan government.  It criticized the U.S. role in arming the opposition in disregard of the Geneva agreements, and thus destabilizing the situation in the country.  In an important acknowledgement that the Vietnam metaphor was used to analyze Soviet actions in Afghanistan, they military explicitly referred to “unfair and absurd” comparisons between the American actions in Vietnam and the presence of Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

Document 14.  Official Chronology of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan with quotes from documents from the Archive of the Gorbachev Foundation, Moscow.

This article was first published by the National Security Archive as “National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 272.”