History lessons in Afghanistan

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Audio Transcript:

Anchor Marco Werman speaks with cold-war scholar Mark Kramer, about historic failures by foreign military generals to tame Afghanistan.

MARCO WERMAN: President Obama has considered the historical precedents and they are sobering. Foreign generals have marched into Afghanistan since at least the time of Alexander the Great and their forays have all ended in failure. But one of them didn't have to. That's according to Mark Kramer who directs the Harvard Project on Cold War studies. He's in Sophia, Bulgaria. He says the Soviet Union frequently had the upper hand in Afghanistan when Mikhail Gorbachev was in power in Moscow.

MARK KRAMER: The depiction of Afghanistan as a complete failure for the Soviet Union was in part the effort of Gorbachev's government to discredit everything that had been done by Lenin Brezhnev's regime, including the invasion in Afghanistan. It was a much more mixed result for the Soviet Union than it sometimes depicted. It was far from a complete failure.

WERMAN: But ultimately they left, they were chased out essentially, right?

KRAMER: That's correct. I should add that because the war went on for nine years with Soviet troops there, the status of it changed quite a bit. By mid-1983 or so, in other words you're talking about three and a half years into the war, Soviet commanders shifted to a much more widespread counter insurgency strategy that emphasized quite brutal tactics and it came at a great cost to the Afghan population but it did achieve considerable progress and over the next few years, Soviet forces did gain considerable control of Afghanistan and in fact, by early 1986, several months or close to a year after Gorbachev, Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power, Soviet troops were on the verge of annihilating the Afghan resistance but an important change happened at that point which was that political calculations in Moscow changed and it's now clear from de-classified documents that as early as November, 1985, Gorbachev, at a Soviet party bureau meeting indicated that a decision had been made to withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan. So curiously enough, at the very time that military progress was being made, the political calculation changed the whole game and so from the on, it was really a question of when Soviet troops would be withdrawn, not whether they should be.

WERMAN: So are you saying that by 1986 if the Soviets had stayed in Afghanistan, they would have won militarily if you had taken a political ??

KRAMER: Yeah, I mean basically if you look purely, and again counterinsurgency was incorporating an important political element so I don't mean to leave that out, but in terms of military progress, Soviet troops were on the verge of annihilating the Afghan resistance at that point, even after Soviet troops did pull out in early 1989, even though it's now depicted as a failure. In fact, the regime that they left in power, which was headed by pro-Soviet Communist leader, [SOUNDS LIKE] Nagi Buwa, that regime sustained itself in power for the rest of the Soviet period without Soviet troops on Afghan territory and that simply would not have been possible for the Afghan government at the time that Soviet troops moved in.

WERMAN: Mark Kramer directs the Harvard Project on Cold War Studies. He's been speaking with us from Sofia, Bulgaria. Thank you so much for your time.

KRAMER: Thank you.