NPR

Lessons For U.S. From Soviet Role In Afghanistan

President Obama met last week with Afghan President Hamid Karzai about plans to remove all U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan by 2014. Counterterrorism expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross discusses what we can learn from the Soviet Union's retreat from Afghanistan in 1989 and the lasting legacy of the U.S. presence there.

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Last Friday, the future of Afghanistan was once again front and center in Washington. Afghan President Hamid Karzai met with President Obama who confirmed the U.S. will be withdrawing all combat forces there by 2014. President Karzai said it's time for Afghanistan, in his words, to regain sovereignty.

History is thus repeating itself. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He says there are, however, more similarities than you might expect between the U.S. and Soviet withdrawal of 1989.

DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: I think it's an apt comparison because when the Soviets left, there was this conception that Najibullah's regime that was the Communist regime that was left there was going to collapse basically imminently.

LYDEN: Because it had been supported by the Russians.

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: Absolutely. And they thought that with the Russians out of the country, this regime was not long for the world. What was interesting is that Najibullah's regime did much better than people anticipated. It survived for several years. He used patronage networks. And in that way, it may have been sustainable, absent the collapse of the Soviet Union.

So when people are looking at the U.S.' withdrawal and what will happen to Karzai's regime, understanding what happened in this very understudied period - 1989 to 1992 - is a very important thing to look to for historical lessons.

LYDEN: I want to stick with President Najibullah for just a few moments. As I recall, going to Afghanistan in 2001, one of the first things I was shown - and language warning here - was the lamppost from which his much-mutilated body was hung, and that was back in 1996. Do you see any comparison between his end and what the future could hold in Afghanistan? Or is that not an apt comparison?

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: Well, it's a possibility. You know, it's hard to say what the future will hold in Afghanistan. One thing that we can certainly draw from Afghan history - not just recent history but 2,600 years of history - is that the country has its way of surprising both foreign powers and also its own leaders. I think that, in fact, you're much more likely to see a regime that's able to survive in Kabul and look much like Najibullah's regime did prior to the Soviet Union's collapse.

One thing we can draw from that, though, is Najibullah's regime was not a regime that was able to extend its writ throughout the country and to really take care of the kind of concerns that we have today, concerns, for example, about a terrorist safe haven, about the expansion of the Taliban, things that perhaps are likely to happen post-U.S. withdrawal.

LYDEN: I just don't want to leave our conversation, David Gartenstein-Ross, without talking about Pakistan a little. It's not as if Afghanistan exists in isolation. How do you think that relationship will change once the U.S. presence is diminished?

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: Pakistan has really been a significant part of the story over the past decade. And the U.S. has, frankly, never really had a Pakistan policy. It's very difficult for the leader of Pakistan to exert control over the country. And this is a significant dynamic and one that will probably continue after the U.S. leaves.

LYDEN: And speaking of the U.S. departure, do you think the likelihood is that there could be a kind of civil war as there was at the end of the 1990s?

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: Certainly, there's going to be a lot of violence within the country. Whether it's civil war-type violence with ethnic factions actually fighting each other or whether it's more routine struggle for control is a good question. I would guess it would be the latter type. I don't expect the country to simply descend into civil war as the U.S. leaves.

LYDEN: Your expertise is on defense, but I don't want to overlook completely. You hear from Afghan civilians, particularly those who are educated and who've worked so hard to try to stabilize the country or contribute to a civil society: Don't forget us. Do you think we will?

GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: Yes. Regrettably, I do think that we're going to forget them. Both the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan are at this point incredibly unpopular - things that we would like to forget. And it's going to be very difficult to operate within that country, especially given budget constraints. I really wish that the answer was no. But if you look at our own history, we have a tendency to forget our allies. We've done that before. We did that with the Vietnamese. We have largely done that with Iraq. And I expect that we will sadly do the same thing with Afghanistan.

LYDEN: That's Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Of course, there are Afghans determined to help their country build its future - a young technocrat class, some of them the sons of warlords. Ahmad Shafi is an Afghan journalist based in the U.S., and he's hopeful about changes he's witnessed amongst the young and educated, putting country over tribe.

AHMAD SHAFI: They called themselves the survivalists. These are the generation who grew up witnessing the communist struggle in the 1980s, then they went through the civil war in the 1990s. Then in 2001, they had an opportunity to go to the West and they had their education and they returned to Afghanistan. These are people from Karzai's office and also some of the sons of the former warlords who were sent by their fathers to go and receive some education because they thought their sons would come back and help them consolidate their power base.

What happened is the sons got exposed to much larger ideas and they came back more Afghan than being Tajik or Pashtun. My own prediction is that they would lead Afghanistan towards a much more open society.

LYDEN: Afghan journalist Ahmad Shafi, who's worked with NPR in the past, shared his thoughts on the future of Afghanistan from our bureau in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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