U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan: 1989 Vs. 2021
BANGKOK, Thailand -- President Biden's announced withdrawal from
Afghanistan will be the second time since 1989 that the U.S. retreats
from that country -- and twice after years of boosting war but losing
control over Islamist insurgents.
When previously enthusiastic,
then-Senator Joe Biden arrived in Kabul
in January 2002 in response to 9/11, he voiced a gung-ho call for U.S.
"Make it clear, I'm not
talking about [international] peace keepers.
I'm not talking about [U.N.] blue helmets. I'm talking about people
who shoot and kill people," the senator told reporters on January 12,
2002, standing in front of the embassy in a cold, clear, bone-dry
"I'm talking about people who are a bunch of
bad asses who will come
in here with guns, and understand that they don't have to check with
anybody before they return fire.
"I am talking about pursuers. I'm talking
about a tough, rough,
militarily controlled -- no 'sign-off by' -- no diplomatic requirement
to determine whether they can return fire.
"If we have these guys
here, I want them to be able to return fire or
"I ain't talking about peace, love and
brotherhood," said Mr. Biden,
who was also chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
"Unless we are part
of a multinational effort to provide for the
rudimentary needs in this country of basic housing, water being able
to flow, toilets able to flush, sewers able to flow, traffic lights
able to turn on, it's very, very difficult...for government to be able
"We are not talking about rebuilding Paris.
This is not the Marshall
Plan after World War Two.
"It is in our naked self-interest," Mr. Biden said.
A few months earlier in 2001, U.S. forces had
invaded to oust the
Taliban and neutralize Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
The Americans were surprised
when they discovered eerie artifacts
silently entombed in the hulking, concrete U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
documents, the diplomats' hurriedly abandoned half-smoked
and thick spider webs lay inside.
American Embassy's worried diplomats had fled in a snowstorm
years earlier in January 1989 while the Soviet Union withdrew the last
of its 115,000 Red Army troops.
The Kremlin's 10 years of unwinnable war
killed an estimated one
million people on all sides.
When Moscow abandoned the vulnerable Afghan
regime to its doom,
Americans feared their own U.S.-armed "holy warrior" mujahideen
guerrillas would turn the Afghan capital into a bloodbath.
The new Biden
withdrawal -- scheduled before September 11 --
benefit from lessons learned during that 1989 retreat by the Soviets
is that it will become very unsafe in Kabul after
Soviets leave, although it appears placid at the moment," the U.S.
Embassy's then-Political Officer James Schumaker told us while he was
evacuating Afghanistan on January 30, 1989.
U.S. Marine guards meanwhile
solemnly folded the embassy's Stars and
Stripes in a tight triangular bundle to take with them.
before, the handful of Marines drank as much as they
of the embassy's stash of alcohol.
honored to have served and helped the Afghan people
peace and freedom," then-Charge d’Affaires John Glassman said in a
"We will be back as soon as the conflict is over."
snowfall blocked the embassy's air evacuation later
day, Glassman joked:
"Send in Rambo! Send in
the Delta Force! I have a Harley Davidson
parked under the U.S. Embassy, so nothing is going to stop me from
getting out of Afghanistan.
"If I can't fly
out today, I'll ride right through 'mooj'
territory and through the Khyber Pass to Pakistan. Every biker in
America will cheer me."
would have been an awesome sight, Mr. Glassman on a
hurtling down the road, east through Jalalabad.
It didn't happen.
The following day, their chartered Indian Airlines flight arrived from
New Delhi and ferried the last U.S. diplomats, Marines and other staff
abandoned its fleet of black official
intentionally disabled so no one could drive them.
The embassy's doors were locked, to be guarded
by Washington's enemy,
the Soviet-backed Afghan Marxist regime.
Years passed. Afghans fought greedy civil wars, destroying much of Kabul.
The tan-colored embassy eventually suffered scars from failed break-ins.
Heavy gunfire damaged the gray metal gate along the street.
Apparently, no one had gained access to the embassy since it was locked in 1989.
Most other embassies had also shut down, including the Soviet Union's.
In November 2001, I
approached the U.S. embassy's thick,
bullet-shattered glass front door, where someone had placed a vinyl
record album attached to thick electric wires, resembling a
The album was "Rejuvenation" by The Meters, a funk band.
The wires were a ruse.
Next to the embassy, two burnt U.S. automobiles lay charred.
One appeared to be a Lincoln Continental or a
Cadillac, most likely
used by the ambassador.
The other blackened vehicle was a station wagon.
post-9/11 U.S. invasion soon brought fresh American
officially re-opened the dirt-encrusted embassy on December 17, 2001
after searching for explosives.
Walking with them, through spacious rooms
and empty hallways, felt
like strolling into a lost world.
In the American ambassador's musty office, his
black, rubbery gas mask
hung next to a dust-covered record player.
Then-Secretary of State George Shultz's
framed portrait grinned on the
On a coffee table, a 1988 Department of State
"Salary Chart" lay open
next to a colorful booklet describing how to decorate "Diplomatic
A gray filing cabinet displayed metal drawers
haphazardly yanked and
extended, after priority folders were quickly extracted.
Half-drunk cans of Coca-Cola, Fanta and 7-Up stood on tables in other rooms.
basement's snack bar, a menu offered hamburgers and
American fast food.
checkered tablecloths gave a cheerful, albeit
mummified look to the snack bar which displayed peeling wall paper, a
dangling 1989 calendar, warped floors, and a ceiling marred by fallen
Upstairs in the deputy
chief of mission's office, documents included a
Defense Intelligence Agency's "Warsaw Pact Ground Forces Equipment
Identification Guide to Armored Fighting Vehicles."
A pamphlet from the Bureau of Diplomatic
Security lay on a shelf near
other documents stamped UNCLASSIFIED.
Walls displayed maps of Afghanistan. Red
circles marked Soviet
military sites during the Kremlin's 1979-1989 occupation.
In the embassy's lobby, a
wrinkled copy of Afghanistan's
government-controlled Kabul Times newspaper lay on the floor,
trumpeting news about Soviet-installed Afghan President Najibullah.
The U.S. expected Mr. Najibullah would be
overthrown six months after
Moscow's withdrawal finished on February 15, 1989.
Mr. Najibullah, a fearsome
barrel-chested authoritarian, remained in
power until 1992.
Then some of his army, led by warlord General
Abdul Rashid Dostum up
north in Mazar-i-Sharif, mutinied.
General Dostum joined the insurgents and
helped enable U.S.-backed
Islamist guerrillas to finally seize Kabul.
Najibullah meanwhile waited too long before trying to escape.
Unable to reach the airport, he retreated to the Indian Embassy until 1996.
Victorious Taliban seized and hung Mr.
Najibullah in the street from a
lamp post, with two cigarettes dangling from his dead nostrils.
Biden might also learn a grim lesson from a poem written
"What has war brought
Grave instead of shelter.
Shroud instead of clothes.
Bullet in the stomach instead of food."
Richard S. Ehrlich traveled across
Afghanistan in 1972, and reported
from Afghanistan during the Soviet Union's 1979-1989 war and
withdrawal, the U.S.-backed mujahideen victory in 1992, and the U.S.
invasion during November 2001 through January 2002. Excerpts from his
new nonfiction book, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India,
Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" are available