By David Kurlander
Last Sunday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin landed in Kabul for an unannounced meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. The set date for U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan—May 1st—hangs in the balance as the fundamentalist opposition, the Taliban, continues to orchestrate violent attacks on Ghani’s allies. Meanwhile, ISIS—aggressively opposed to both Ghani and the Taliban—is possibly poised for a resurgence. President Biden, then, must weigh ending U.S. involvement in the 20-year-Afghan conflict against the very plausible prospect of Ghani’s collapse. Austin’s attempts to take the pulse of the nation’s stability are the latest in a difficult diplomatic history in the region. Many of the difficulties in securing peace in Afghanistan were already clear in 1988, when the Reagan administration struggled through lengthy negotiations to end the Soviet-Afghan War.
In 1979, Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan to prop up its struggling Marxist government against anti-Communist, fundamentalist guerilla groups, collectively called the mujahideen. President Carter condemned the brazen intervention and organized initial CIA support for the mujahideen. When President Reagan took office in 1981, he boosted the programs, ultimately giving the rebels billions in aid, including shoulder-fired missiles called Stingers. Afghanistan’s regional rival Pakistan, led by the military strongman Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, collaborated with the U.S. in these efforts and provided safe harbor for the rebels. The mujahideen famously included Osama bin Laden.
In 1985, the reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in Moscow. Gorbachev, in stark contrast to his hard-liner forbearers, quickly spoke out against the war, which killed more than 1 million Afghan civilians and 15,000 Soviet troops. “If one recalls how many lives this war cost us, how many young people were crippled for life, and the loss and sufferings of the Afghan people, one can understand the explosion of hope that came from the promise to end this conflict that had brought shame on our nation,” Gorbachev wrote in his memoir.
When Gorbachev first met with President Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz in Geneva in November 1985, the new Soviet leader raised the Afghanistan question. “We have no secret plans for world domination,” he assured the Americans. He then, however, accused the U.S. of artificially lengthening the conflict to further push Moscow toward economic and military crisis. “You say the USSR should withdraw its troops, but actually you want them there, and the longer the better,” he accused.
The mutual mistrust had profound consequences; almost four years would pass between this first Geneva conversation and the full withdrawal of Soviet troops. “We probably could have solved the problem during 1985, but of course history does not like the subjunctive mood,’ Alexander Yakovlev, one of Gorbachev’s top aides, later wrote.
The sticking point in subsequent negotiations—as with the current crisis—concerned what kind of government would control Afghanistan if Soviet forces left. The Soviets had installed a succession of pro-Moscow Afghan presidents, culminating in 1986 with the ascension of Mohammad Najibullah, who had led the KGB-backed, decidedly brutal Afghan secret police. Both the Reagan administration and Pakistan’s Zia were reluctant to sign any agreement that kept Najibullah in power.
Gorbachev, however, was just as wary of opening the door for any faction of the extremist mujahideen resistance to take political control over the country. He believed—presciently—that the rebels would refuse to negotiate with the U.N. and would open the door to other violent fundamentalist groups. Gorbachev doubted Washington’s ability to make bilateral agreements with the rebels: “I don’t think that even if they had wanted to do so, they could have got the support of the mujahideen for the settlement we had both been negotiating with the United Nations,” Gorbachev said of the U.S. “That was the problem all the way to the very end.”
To make matters more complicated, Reagan upped his rhetorical support for the rebels. In November 1987, he invited Yunis Khalis, one of the mujahideen leaders, to the White House, where he doubled down on his support for their cause and criticized Moscow’s slowness in departing from Afghanistan. “The Soviet answer on a date for rapid withdrawal has been silence,” Reagan told reporters. Reagan also promised Khalis and his allies more weapons: “The support that the United States has been providing the resistance will be strengthened, rather than diminished, so that it can continue to fight effectively for freedom.” He ended his remarks on a soaring note: “I salute Chairman Khalis, his delegation, and the people of Afghanistan themselves. You are a nation of heroes. God bless you.”
The Secretary General of the United Nations, Javier Pérez de Cuellar, worked furiously to get all parties—including the even more anti-Moscow Zia—to agree to a treaty. The Secretary was an exceedingly busy man in the late 1980s, simultaneously negotiating the end of hostilities between Iran and Iraq, South Africa and Namibia, and Cuba and Angola. His chief negotiator, the Ecuadorian Diego Cordovez, engaged in hectic shuttle diplomacy, urging all sides to withdraw both troops and military aid.
Given the mutual unease about Afghanistan’s future government, however, neither Reagan, Gorbachev, nor Zia would commit to ending weapons sales to their respective proxies. Reagan and Gorbachev decided, thusly, to move forward with troop withdrawal while continuing to arm the Afghan combatants.
The April 1988 Geneva Accords, signed by Pakistan and Afghanistan and “guaranteed” by the Soviets and the U.S., provided a year-long timetable for Soviet withdrawal of their 115,000 troops and a framework for avoiding direct Pakistani, American, or Soviet military intervention in the future. Glaringly absent, however, were weapons stipulations or a plan for a new government. “How could national reconciliation be brought about when the various factions were continuing to receive arms to carry on the search for victory?” Pérez de Cuellar plaintively asked in his own autobiography.
Days before the signing, Secretary of State Shultz had sought final approval from Reagan. Shultz told the President a reassuring CIA assessment suggesting that Najibullah—even with continued Soviet weapons—would fall shortly after the troops withdrew.
This was not to be. Najibullah and the mujahideen would continue the civil war raging between them—with weapons from Washington and Moscow—until 1992, when Najibullah fell. Within weeks, another civil war between disparate rebel factions swept the country, eventually resulting in the 1996 installation of the Taliban. Taliban forces hung Najibullah, and the new government, of course, served as a haven for international terrorists, bin Laden chief among them.
“The CIA prediction turned out to be completely wrong,” Shultz reflected. “Najibullah maintained a position of control in a situation of disarray in Afghanistan. That was disappointing.” Even given the failures of the Geneva Accords, however, Shultz viewed Soviet troop withdrawal as a victory. “The Reagan Doctrine of support for people who fight for freedom had won out over the Brezhnev Doctrine of perpetual control by the Soviets…This was a new day and a major signal to restive Soviet satellites throughout the world,” he summated.
The Geneva Accords may have been a potent psychological victory at the end of the Cold War. The unresolved ghosts of the partial agreement, however—the continued role of the Taliban, the proliferation of other extremist groups, and the legacy of post-9/11 American intervention—have continued to haunt the United States and the Afghan people. President Biden and Secretary of Defense Austin have a difficult path forward, but they also have a shot at finally providing some closure to a generations-long tragedy.
For a fascinating collection of documents related to the Geneva Accords, check out the National Security Archive’s portal about Soviet withdrawal. For a comprehensive account of the United Nations negotiations that led to Accords, read negotiator Diego Cordovez and Selig S. Harrison’s 1995 Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal. And for an in-depth examination of the CIA’s role in Afghanistan, read Steve Coll’s 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001.
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