On February 15, 1989, just over nine years after the first tanks rolled over the border from the then-Uzbek SSR, the Red Army withdrew its last troops from Afghanistan in what was a deeply humiliating and costly defeat that was ultimately the last, and most fatal, blow to the fate of the Soviet Union.
Much like the American experience in Vietnam, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was meant originally as a limited affair aimed at propping up a friendly Communist government that had been one of Moscow’s closest allies in the Muslim world.
But nine years on, and tens-of-thousands of causalities later, the Soviets found themselves in a situation not unlike the French and Americans in Indochina in the two preceding decades before the Soviets crossed the Amu-Darya River; and similar to the British in Afghanistan a century early, were running from a wild nation and people who had no concept of defeat or subjugation.
The legacy of that war has been controversial in the 15 republics that once made up the Soviet Union. Little is written about and even spoken of about the decade-long war that saw Soviet troops fight a war of attrition with lightly-armed Afghan mujahidin.
Afghan veterans now fight on opposite sides in the war in eastern Ukraine and the Russian government of Vladimir Putin has attempted to white wash the war by attempting to overturn a December 1989 ruling by the perestroika-era congress – the first and, to-date, only democratically elected legislative body in Russia’s history – which said “The Congress of People’s Deputies of the Soviet Union holds that the decision (to invade Afghanistan) deserves moral and political denunciation.”
Putin’s rubberstamp parliament, the State Duma, is moving to overturn the resolution during the late Mikhail Gorbachev-era and pronounce the invasion as “a just and necessary move”.
The 1979-89 Soviet-Afghan War killed hundreds of thousands of Afghans and drove more than one-third of the population into exile in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan. The vacuum left by the defeating pro-Soviet government and the withdrawal of Red Army troops from the historically volatile and tribal Central Asian nation left the country devastated and in disarray.
The mujahidin later turned on each other and fought a brutal civil war through most of the 1990s that ended with the rise of the Taliban.