Reagan, Gorbachev, the Soviet Pull Out, and Now
Despite the heavy pounding by Red Army and Soviet Air Force firepower, the Mujahidin hung on, largely with the help of U.S. and other Allied finances and weapons. China supplied them with SA-7 handheld surface-to-air (SAM) missiles and long-range 107mm and 130mm artillery. The Soviet Air Force, however, brought in new MiG 27 fighter-bombers and new SU-25 Frogfoot attack-bombers, roughly equivalent to the U.S. A-10 Warthog. The SU-25s were amazingly effective in making steep dives into narrow mountain valleys and canyons. Red Army mechanized units also upgraded the firepower of their tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and armored personnel carriers, and the infantry now carried new AK-74 assault rifles.
Constantine Chernenko died in March 1985 and was replaced by Mikhail Gorbachev, who intended to concentrate on improving economic conditions within the Soviet Union and loosening the tight Soviet grip on its European satellites. He was not interested in pursuing foreign policies that included significant military involvement in Afghanistan. However, he owed much of his support to the Soviet military and gave them a year to pursue whatever military tactics they wanted in Afghanistan, with the objective of victory and then withdrawal. Consequently, they continued their policy of attrition, adding a new weapon to their arsenal, the anti-personnel Frog-7 cluster-bomb missile. By these means, the Soviets were inflicting combat deaths on the Mujahidin at a ratio of better than thirty-to-one. They were also successful in building up the Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Army (PDA) to 302,000 by 1986.
Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan, empowered by a reelection landside, signed a national security directive committing U. S. support to Afghan resistance “by all available means.” The CIA was also successful in persuading Reagan to supply the Mujahidin with the new shoulder-fired, heat-seeking Stinger anti-aircraft missile.
It was a turning point in the war. On September 25, 1986, eight of the dreaded Hind helicopter-gunships on a routine mission to Jalalabad were approaching their landing zone, when the lead gunship suddenly exploded in midair. The second Hind was also hit by a Stinger and burst into flames. The other six quickly dropped low to avoid the danger, but another exploded and spread its debris across the landscape. On the ground, an American trained Mujahidin team shouted “Allah akbar.” Soviet air superiority had been severely jolted.
This clinched Gorbachev’s decision to pursue domestic reforms and foreign policy moderation rather than an extended war in Afghanistan. Beginning in January 1987, Soviet forces in Afghanistan participated in only one major offensive operation to smash the Mujahidin forces besieging Khost near the Pakistani border. Otherwise, they only defended against Mujahidin attacks.
At the end of 1987, Gorbachev informed Mohammad Najibullah, who had replaced Babrak Karmal as Afghan leader in May 1986, that Soviet troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan.
When the last Red Army units crossed Friendship Bridge back into the USSR on February1989, more than 14,500 Soviet soldiers and 18,000 of their PDA allies had died in over nine years of war. Conservative estimates of Mujahidin battle deaths range from 75,000 to 90,000, but it is difficult to number Afghan casualties and to distinguish between Mujahidin and civilian casualties from horrific Soviet Air Force bombing and strafing attacks. Many of the helicopter gunship attacks on Mujahidin have been described as massive slaughter.
Some estimates place total Afghan dead at 1.5 million of which 500,000 were at least loosely associated with the Mujahidin and the remaining one million were civilians. There were 17 million people in Afghanistan at the beginning of the war. In addition, to the deaths, 3.5 million refugees fled to Pakistan and another million to Iran—a total of 4.5 million. Moreover, another 2.0 million Afghans were displaced internally within Afghanistan. The Soviets never had more than 118,000 military personnel in Afghanistan, but there are more than 500,000 veterans of the war in the present Russian Federation.
On June 12, 1987, at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, U.S. President Ronald Reagan had given his famous speech that included the famous words:
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Reagan and Gorbachev had met cordially for six days at the Geneva Summit in October 1985 and less cordially in Reykjavik, Iceland, for just two days in October 1986. Gorbachev met Reagan again on a very cordial basis at the White House for three days in December 1987. They met again in Moscow for four days in May 1988 and again at Governors’ Island in New York in December 1988.
Gorbachev’s decision to loosen the Soviet yoke on the countries of Eastern Europe created an independent democratic momentum that led to the collapse of the Berlin wall in November 1989, and then to the overthrow of Communist rule throughout Eastern Europe. Gorbachev, whose politics were closer to democratic socialism than hard-nosed communism continued to serve as Supreme Soviet leader until March 1990, when he became President of the Soviet Union. He served until his resignation on December 25, 1991. The next day the Soviet Union was formally dissolved. Boris Yeltsin, originally an ally of Gorbachev, was the first democratically elected President of the new Russian Federation. Yeltsin tried to transform Russia’s socialist economy into to a capitalist market economy at chaotic speed. This essentially turned Russia over to a small number of business oligarchs able to acquire a majority of significant national assets and properties and then command international monopolies. He served until December 31, 1999, when he resigned because of health problems.
Yeltsin was succeeded by law by his Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, who had been one of his allies in economic and democratic reform. Putin won his fourth term as President in May 2018 with 76 percent of the vote.
Putin is popular with the Russian people, but many in the U.S. cannot get over the “Cold War” image of the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin’s 40-year reign of murder and terror. The late Senator John McCain called Putin “an unreconstructed Russian imperialist,” and a brutish and cynical “KGB apparatchik.” Democrat 2016 Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton called Putin
“a KGB agent. By definition, he doesn’t have a soul…If this sounds familiar; it’s what Hitler did back in the 1930s.” Henry Kissinger has pointed out, however, that “The demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy. It is an alibi for not having one.” It should also be noted that the Russian Orthodox Church has thrived and is growing rapidly since the Communists are out of power, and while he has not driven that growth, Putin has enthusiastically supported it.
In his recent book, War with Russia, Stephen F. Cohen points out that political scientists are generally agreed that Putin could be called a “soft authoritarian” leader, but demonizing him as some combination of Stalin and Hitler is so totally unfounded that behind it must lie some extremely devious and dangerous agenda to relentlessly perpetuate uneasy relations with Russia. Perhaps it is just part of the fanatical attempt to discredit President Donald Trump and remove him from office. It has certainly made diplomacy with the Russian Federation much more difficult.
Putin is undoubtedly a Russia-first Russian nationalist, just as Donald Trump is an America-first American nationalist. For a political leader to place his country and his people first among the nations in the priorities of policy is natural and good. Only leftist or globalist fanatics believe patriotism is treason. It helped, not hurt, the U.S. and Europe for Reagan to get to know and understand Gorbachev. Competitors may by necessity compete hard, and they may find legitimate cause for concern, but they do not need to add demonization, insults, disrespect, and hatred to it. Nobody outside of a madhouse would rather have war than détente.
But now that the U.S. has been in Afghanistan for 17 years, what should we do? I am willing to go with Trump on Syria and Afghanistan, but as a Vietnam veteran, my personal experiences give me some sympathy with the concerns of General Mattis. We should not make withdrawal a total abandonment of allies—like the Kurds in Syria and the tribes of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan—as the U.S. Congress did the South Vietnamese and Cambodians in 1975. We should not keep troops there, but we must be demonstratively committed to aid them, if future circumstances warrant.
In the Middle East, we must also embrace a realistic understanding of Islam that is based on the Koran, the teachings and example of Muhammad, and 1400 years of history rather than politically correct wishful thinking.