WASHINGTON — As the U.S. prepares to draw down combat forces in Afghanistan later this year, wrapping up the longest war in American history, questions arise about lessons learned from the Soviet's own 1989 withdrawal, which happened 25 years ago today.
Fears of leaving the war-stricken country in bad shape, much as the Kremlin did a quarter-century ago, are only exacerbated by tensions surrounding Afghan President Hamid Karzai's unwillingness to sign a security deal with the United States that would allow some Western troops to remain in the country.
While the impending U.S. draw down veritably begs for comparison to the Soviet pullout, Brookings Institution security expert Michael O’Hanlon says to think twice before drawing explicit parallels.
"There are really no parallels in how we got to the war in the first place or how we fought the war," O'Hanlon said. "And now the United States, as part of the coalition, is spending five years on a gradual process of reducing its forces in Afghanistan. But the Soviets had decided at one point that they had lost, and they left."
While a bloody civil war followed the Soviet departure, such a massive conflict may be less likely in today’s Afghanistan, which appears to be in better shape than it was 25 years, says Ahmad Majidyar of the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.
"It is the first time that the Afghans have an elected government, whereas during the Soviet time, the Afghan leaders were appointed by the Kremlin," he said. "And the second key difference is that the insurgency in Afghanistan is very much limited compared to the insurgency of Mujahideen in 1980s. There are perhaps 25,000 active Taliban fighters, but during the 1980s, that number surpassed 100,000."
But according to O'Hanlon, the most critical lesson Washington could learn from a post-Soviet Afganistan isn't likely to be found at the end of 2014, but in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001.
"I think the first lesson the United States learned it learned after 9/11, and that lesson was [that] we cannot ignore or abandon Afghanistan," O'Hanlon said. "After the Soviets were defeated, we essentially stopped paying attention, and through the 1990s, the United States basically ignored Afghanistan and let it descend into sectarian conflict, anarchy, and then of course the rise of the Taliban and, of course, sanctuaries resulted from that."
While some experts dismiss similarities between the Soviet's 1989 withdrawal and the 2014 U.S. draw down, they agree that the world cannot afford to let the country revert into a terrorists' safe haven.
"The Taliban does not have the means to re-establish itself or recapture Kabul, so the real threat is not from a Taliban military offensive after the NATO withdrawal," Majidyar said.
He added that commitment from the international community will be vital to Afghan governance and that Afghans themselves should be united to save the political structure they now have.
"It's about the sustainability of the Afghan institutions," Majidyar said.
Earlier this week, Afghanistan has released 65 accused militants from a former U.S. detention facility near Bagram Air Base, despite warnings from the United States.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called the release was a "major step backwards" for the rule of law in Afghanistan, and poses serious security concerns as U.S. troops prepare to leave.