On This Day

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Vitaly Zaporozhchenko/AP
Soviet Army soldiers wave their hands as their last detachment crosses a bridge on the border between Afghanistan and Soviet Uzbekistan, Feb. 15, 1989.

On This Day: Soviet Troops Leave Afghanistan

February 15, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Feb. 15, 1989, the Soviet Union pulled its remaining troops out of Afghanistan, ending the USSR’s nine-year occupation of the country.

The Soviet Union’s Vietnam

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As the United States allied with Pakistan after World War II, the Soviet Union maintained a close strategic relationship with neighboring Afghanistan. But running the country proved challenging for Afghan King Mohammed Zahir Shah, who had difficulty maintaining a central government in a nation with strong tribal roots.

On April 27, 1978, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan deposed the monarchy and Muhammad Taraki became president. Backed by the Soviet Union, Taraki’s government imposed Marxist social and land reforms, which angered traditional Muslims and incited violence resistance from Islamic insurgents known as the mujahideen.

Taraki was killed in September 1979 by party rival Hafizullah Amin, who took control of the government. Amin did not have widespread support in Afghanistan and he sought to loosen ties with the Soviet Union.

On the night of Dec. 24, the Soviet Union launched an invasion of Afghanistan to seize control of the government. Amin was killed on Dec. 27 by KGB agents and replaced by the Soviet-selected Babrak Karmal, who faced fierce resistance from the mujahideen.

Taking advantage of Afghanistan’s rugged mountainous terrain, the mujahideen maintained control of more than three-quarters of the country and employed guerilla warfare tactics to fight the over 100,000 men of the Soviet army to a stalemate. The rebels received support from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States CIA, which covertly sent arms—most notably anti-aircraft missiles—due to the political lobbying of Congressman Charlie Wilson. The United Nations also took the mujahideen’s side, passing a resolution in 1983 that called for the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops.

The war in Afghanistan became a quagmire for the Soviet Union, but it was reluctant to withdraw without first establishing a stable government. The National Security Archive writes, “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 … But the road from Gorbachev’s decision to the actual withdrawal was long and painful.”
Finally, in April 1988 the Soviet Union signed the Geneva Accords with the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan that created a timetable for withdrawal. The last Soviet troops left Afghanistan on Feb. 15, 1989, ending an occupation that lasted more than nine years.

“The last Soviet soldier came home from Afghanistan this morning, the Soviet Union announced, leaving behind a war that had become a domestic burden and an international embarrassment for Moscow,” wrote The New York Times.

Nearly 1 million Afghan people, mostly civilians, were killed during the occupation, while the Soviet army had about 14,500 soldiers killed, according to estimated by the U.S. Department of State.

Later Developments: Rise of the Taliban

Afghanistan carried on its civil war until pro-Soviet Prime Minister Mohammad Najibullah was ousted in 1992. The Islamic fundamentalist Taliban, made up of many mujahideen, took control and brought a degree of stability to the region through a repressive regime based on Sharia law.

The Taliban harbored terrorists, providing sanctuary for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. Following the al-Qaida attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to eliminate the Taliban regime it had a role in creating.

Although pro-Western leader Hamid Karzai currently heads the country, the Taliban has experienced a resurgence in the south, and the opium trade continues to thrive.
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