That Afghanistan is a grave of empires is one of those endlessly recycled cliches with Russian experience sited as an example.
Soviet involvement in Afghanistan lasted from 1979 to 1988; during this period 14,453 Soviet troops were killed, or about 1,500 a year. What’s 15,000 men for a country like Russia? For comparison, the Soviet Union lost almost 27,000,000 soldiers and civilians in four years of the Russian involvement in World War II, with 80,000 dead in the final battle of the war alone. Of course, that was under very different circumstances, the country was attacked, and the German onslaught stopped only on the outskirts of Moscow. That’s true. But imagine the mentality of people weaned on stories of the Great Patriotic war and the many millions lost. While the Afghan war was unpopular, the 15,000 figure did not weigh too heavily on the Russian psyche, and in any event, even during Perestroika, the Soviet Union was not a Western-style democracy, we didn’t have a large-scale anti-war movement, and there was a draft. If the Politburo wanted to stay in Afghanistan, they would.
In any event, the Soviet empire fell apart a few years after the withdrawal from Afghanistan for domestic political and economic reasons. Russia lost such prized possessions as Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Socialist Republic of Estonia and the Early Medieval Russian capital of Kiev. Because of alcoholism, 25% of Russian men today are expected to die before age 55. So, again, what’s 1,500 war dead a year? I’m not even mentioning the Chechen wars. OK, I just mentioned them.
Certainly, the war wasn’t free, but the cost of the Afghan war should be looked at in the context of the stagnant economy. To make things worse, in the second half of the 1980s revenue fell as Gorbachev launched his anti-alcoholism campaign, significantly reducing the monies collected from vodka taxes. Incredibly, vodka taxes constituted a quarter of Soviet budget. All that as the Soviet Union was also trying to keep up with the arms race. Withdrawal from Afghanistan didn’t save the Soviet economy.
Not to say that the Soviet Union wasn’t overstretched. Afghanistan is a land-locked country, and by the time you get there you know you are overstretched. One of the reasons Afghanistan is not much of a nation today is because no foreign power really bothered to do much nation-building there.
Today, American war dead are a different story. We mourn each and every hero, like the 31 killed in the recent helicopter crash. But if we don’t fight wars for treasure, what exactly is our end game in that land-locked country, and how are we going to achieve it? Certainly the US is not obligated to do any nation building there just because we helped the Afghans to kick out the Soviets. Can we trust the current occupant of the White House to achieve anything at all in Central Asia?