The Soviet Decision to Withdraw, 1986-88

The Soviet Decision to Withdraw, 1986-88

These changes in the war came at the peak of the fighting. In 1985-86 Sovietforces launched their largest and most effective assaults on the mujahidinsupply lines adjacent to Pakistan. Major campaigns had also forced the mujahidininto the defensive near Herat and Qandahar.

At the same time a sharp increase in military support for the mujahidin fromthe United States and Saudi Arabia allowed it to regain the guerilla warinitiative. By late August 1986, the first Stinger ground-to-air missiles wereused successfully. For nearly a year they would deny the Soviets and the Kabulgovernment effective use of air power.

These shifts in momentum reinforced the inclination of the new Gorbachevgovernment to view further escalation of the war as a misuse of Soviet politicaland military capital. Such doubts had developed prior to the decision to installNajibullah. In April 1985, one month after Mikhail Gorbachev assumed the Sovietleadership, its May Day greeting to the Kabul government failed to refer to its"revolutionary solidarity" with the PDPA, a signal in Marxist-Leninistrhetoric that their relationship had been downgraded. Several months later,Karmal suggested the inclusion of non-party members in the Revolutionary Counciland the promotion of a "mixed economy." These tentative concessionstoward non-Marxists won Soviet praise, but divergence in policy became obviousat the Twenty-Seventh Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union inFebruary 1986. Gorbachev's "bleeding wound" speech hinted at adecision to withdraw "in the nearest future." In his own speech Karmalmade no reference to withdrawal. In early May he was replaced by Najibullah.

Najibullah was obliged to move toward the evolving Soviet position with greatcaution. Karmal's followers could use any concessions to non-Marxists oracceptance of a Soviet withdrawal against him. Accordingly, he moved inconflicting directions, insisting there was no room for non-Marxists ingovernment, only offering the possibility of clemency to "bandits" whohad been duped by Mujahidin leaders into resisting the government. In additionto air strikes and shelling across the border, KHAD terrorist activity inPakistan reached its peak under Najibullah.

Late in 1986 Najibullah had stabilized his political position enough to beginmatching Moscow's moves toward withdrawal. In September he set up the NationalCompromise Commission to contact counterrevolutionaries "in order tocomplete the Saur Revolution in its new phase." Allegedly some 40,000rebels were contacted. In November Karmal was replaced as now-ceremonialpresident by a non-party member, Haji Muhammad Samkanai, signaling the PDPA'swillingness to open government to non-Marxists.

At the end of 1986 Najibullah unveiled a program of "NationalReconciliation." It offered a six-month cease-fire and discussions leadingto a possible coalition government in which the PDPA would give up itsgovernment monopoly. Contact was to be made with "anti-state armedgroups." Affiliation was suggested, allowing resistance forces to retainareas under their control.

In fact much of the substance of the program was happening on the ground inthe form of negotiations with disillusioned mujahidin commanders who agreed tocooperate as government militia. The mujahidin leadership rhetorically claimedthat the program had no chance for success. For his part Najibullah assured hisfollowers that there would be no compromise over "the accomplishments"of the Saur Revolution. It remained a standoff. While a strenuous propagandaeffort was directed at the both the Afghan refugees and Pakistanis in Pakistan'sNorthwest Frontier Province, the program was essentially a sop to Moscow's hopeto tie a favorable political settlement to its desire to pull its forces out.

Najibullah's concrete achievements were the consolidation of his armedforces, the expansion of co-opted militia forces and the acceptance of hisgovernment by an increasing proportion of urban population under his control. Asa propaganda ploy "National Reconciliation" was a means of gainingtime to prepare for civil war after the Soviet departure.

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