February 15, 1989: It was the day when the last of the Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan after a brutal war that resulted in many of America’s defeats in Vietnam. Afghanistan was supposed to return to nonaligned status. But, there was another battle brewing up.
With the Soviets gone, the regional chieftains began to flex their muscles in what was a power vacuum and as was expected Afghanistan began to slide into chaos. The scenario was similar to what happened in Iraq when the US toppled Saddam Hussain. The genie was out of the bottle and there is no way they could not put it back in.
The mujahedeen was a ragtag army of Islamist guerrillas, were funded to the hilt by US backed alliance including Islamic nations and they had only one aim – to somehow defeat the Soviet army. But once the Soviets were out, the warlords could not decide what to do next. Who do they go after? So, they decided to fight for supremacy against each other. Afghanistan was soon sliding into a mess.
Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks – they were all at each other’s throats. At one time or another, almost every single faction fought every other faction. In the chaos, the communist government was able to hold on in the capital for three whole years after the Soviets left. The chaos After Soviet withdrawal gave rise to the Taliban and various factions of mujahideen who took control, but then they quickly began to fight among themselves. And that continued bloodshed between warlords gave rise to the radical Taliban movement.
Although the Soviet troop presence in Afghanistan ended in February 1989, large-scale Soviet military and economic assistance to its Marxist protégés there continued. As Soviet troops withdrew, they left behind literally all their material except for the vehicles needed to transport them back over the border. In addition, Some of this weaponry from Eastern Europe where Communist regimes were falling like nine pins was transferred to Afghanistan. It did not help in keeping up with Moscow’s warlords.
A day after the Afghan capital Kabul fell to rebel troops, fierce fighting broke out between rival factions of the mujahideen. When it finally came, the liberation of Kabul turned into violent mayhem, leaving the capital city in ruins.
Fast forward to 2021, and US troops have left, the same way as the Soviets did, we could see a change in strategy. President Putin is seeking a more hardline stance against the US led alliance, and one could see Moscow sending in arms to its sympathizers. The recent skirmish with a British Naval Ship in the Crimea is a pointer of how things would shape out.
Moscow is wary of having a hostile neighbor in Kabul and it’s most likely that the Northern Alliance now headed by Ahmed Shah Masood’s son Ahmad Massoud may be bolstered by the Soviets. He calls the deal reached between the previous US administration and the Taliban a year ago was a mistake, particularly because it had excluded the Afghan government”. The question was the balance of negotiation and power. Ahmad Massoud has predicted that Afghanistan would fall into another chaos, violence and civil war now that US troops have pulled out, what he believes was too quick a withdrawal.
Ethnic Uzbek leader, General Abdul Rashid Dostum could also be in the Soviet scheme of things. During the Soviet–Afghan War in the 1980s, Dostum was part of the Afghan National Army and the regional commander of the country’s north, commanding about 20,000 mostly Uzbek soldiers participating in battles against mujahideen rebels.
In 2014, he joined Ashraf Ghani’s presidential administration as a vice president, but was forced to flee in 2017. In 2018, he narrowly escaped a suicide bombing by ISIL-KP as he returned to Afghanistan at Kabul airport. In 2019, he escaped a determined attack by the Taliban on a convoy he was travelling in. Now that the US troops have left, the battle hardened Dostum could be Moscow’s man in Afghanistan.
When the Soviets withdrew, much of the anti-foreign-presence motivation for many Afghans to fight with the mujahideen disappeared. Indeed, some mujahideen groups themselves appeared tainted for being so very close to Pakistan. With US troops gone, the Taliban has begun attacking the Afghan Government forces, and it is likely that Taliban with Pakistani ISI assistance will install their puppet in Kabul. Will we see another Osama Bin Laden in the making? Questions that beget more questions.
History, of course, is not destined to repeat itself. But, it is happening.