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Taliban Parallels U.S. Withdrawal Strategy To Soviet Defeat

Erin Dwyer

To mark the 23rd anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan on Wednesday, the Taliban sent an inauspicious message to U.S. and NATO security forces. While playing rolling footage on Afghan state TV of Soviet troops retreating from the country in 1989, the Taliban released a statement proclaiming that, “Selfish Americans must learn a lesson from… the Russian defeat and no longer fight a meaningless battle with zealous Afghans and take their invading forces out as soon as possible.”

Following the absence of Soviet influence, Afghanistan’s communist government crumbled, presenting the opportunity for the Taliban to rise to power in 1996. As author Gregory Feifer explains, “Like the Soviets, NATO will be leaving behind an impoverished country crippled by corruption, a government whose writ doesn’t extend to many places outside Kabul, and where insurgent fighters are presumably waiting out foreign forces to assert themselves.” A scary scenario indeed.

Soviet soldiers wave to crowds in Kabul as part of their withdrawal from Afghanistan on May 15, 1988.

According to a NATO report based on the interrogation of 4,000 enemy prisoners, the Taliban believes it has been successful and that its persistence will surpass U.S. commitment in Afghanistan. And the Taliban is probably not far off — U.S. and NATO security forces are currently working to train 350,000 Afghans before their planned withdrawal in 2013. However, unlike the Soviet exit over two decades ago, U.S. officials are pursuing peace negotiations with the Taliban where they are discussing trust-building measures and potential prisoner transfers from Guantanamo Bay.

Negotiating with the Taliban could potentially create a path to peace; however, it also lends itself to furthering the political legitimacy and goals of the militant extremist group. While there will be many unforeseen consequences once U.S. and NATO forces withdraw, it can be predicted that the transition to a stable and democratic Afghanistan won’t go unchallenged.