Written by: Amanda Jarrett


In December of 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan beginning a war that lasted for ten years. After thoroughly exploring the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, three main contributors were determined: the implementation of the “new thinking” and the shift in Third World policy, external pressure from the United States, and the influence of the domestic climate within the Soviet Union. These elements, along with Mikhail Gorbachev’s guidance, explain the timing for Soviets to withdrawal from Afghanistan. With this knowledge, two international relations theories are applied: liberalism and neorealism. For liberalism, the internal conditions that effected the Soviet’s capabilities, domestic goals of “new thinking,” and the timing of withdrawal all contributed to this theory. For neorealism, the realization that a political shift from the “old thinking” to “new thinking” was necessary, internal change in the balance of power, and long-term survival are the arguments for this theory. I argue that neorealism has been used as an overarching reason for withdrawal, but liberalism encompasses a multitude of conditions that led to the ultimate decision. Therefore, liberalism is the stronger theory to explain the events of withdrawal.


During the Cold War, the world was split between two superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union. Both these powers continuously pursued the spread of their ideologies through their involvement in the Third World. While the United States’ goal was to spread democracy and liberalism, the Soviets were bent on defending their socialist ideals. By waging competition between states—the main prospect of the “old thinking” for foreign policy—the Soviet’s created solidarity among the Third World states that surrounded their borders, including Afghanistan. The Afghan relationship with the Soviets in the 1970s was largely based on the Afghan leadership’s continuous request for military aid due to the “people’s revolution” becoming very violent and widespread.[1] The Soviets provided the aid they had requested, mostly in hopes for their ideology to spread naturally to Afghan leadership. This would have created an  advantage for the Soviets by coming closer to their goal of regional hegemony. At the end of 1979, the Soviet Union got agitated with Hafizullah Amin, Afghanistan’s leader, for not gaining control of the situation and decided to no longer provide aid to Afghanistan. Yury Andropov attempted to assassinate Amin, but the mission failed and led to Andropov’s decision to invade Afghanistan. He wanted Soviet troops physically remove Amin and put the Karmal group in power to implement a transitional government that conformed to Soviet communism. Also, the decision to get involved in Afghanistan was influenced by the lack of US action on the account of retracting the “non-threatening” missile placement in Turkey, which made the Soviets feel as if there was some legitimacy for their intervention. The decision to invade was highly opposed by an assortment of experts and specialists, but they were systematically shut out from the decision making process. Opposition also came from the political party Politburo, but were persuaded into agreement based on the argument to act before Afghanistan could retaliate.[2] The window for action was extremely narrow.[3]

After the initial occupation, the Soviet Union found itself in a long stalemate. The Soviet army was unable to get their offensive maneuvers to work. The tactics they used were recycled from the European Central Front without any consideration for the difference in terrain. Additionally, the army was “poorly prepared, ill-equipped, and not suitably trained to fight counter-insurgency warfare.”[4] Furthermore, the stalemate occurred because there was attempt to mediate the war beginning in 1982.

The decision to withdraw from Afghanistan occurred under Mikhail Gorbachev, who was in power from 1985 to 1991. After he came to power, he started negotiating with Afghanistan about the Soviet withdrawal of troops in 1986. During this time frame, Gorbachev realized that there needed to be a drastic change in Soviet domestic politics, which inevitably affected their foreign relations. By doing so, the Soviet Third World policy moved away from the goal of regional hegemony and would only intervene when the Third World faced imperial attacks. Also, the United States was supporting the counterpart of the Soviet-Afghan War, making the Soviets feel as if there was a limitless supply of arms being feed to their enemies, the Mujahedeen. This led to the feeling that the war was a lost cause because the Soviet’s did not have the military and economic means to properly supply it. Even so, if the Soviets had the means and won the war, it was likely that they would have only had control for a short time before the state feel back to its original Islamic system. During Soviet occupation, within the territories that the Soviets inhabited, they had no authority and therefore could not implement anything worthwhile. The war in total was quite costly, they did not have enough military personal, there were internal and external pressures, political instability, low morale, and a huge economic downturn. All these reinforced the ultimate decision of withdrawal by the Soviets.[5]

The timing of the decision to withdraw was based on the fact that, under Gorbachev, a new foreign policy called “the new thinking” was rising within the Soviet Union. The “old thinking” was slowly being pushed away by lack of popularity and knowledge that there needed to be a change in policy making if the Soviet Union was going to survive the Cold War. Also, another contributor to the decision was the change in leadership. The two previous leaders, Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, showed support for the “old thinking.” With Gorbachev as the new leader, he realized the need for cooperation between the Soviet Union and the United States and the important role the “new thinking” would have in that. Pulling out of Afghanistan was a move observed through liberalism, but also through neorealism.


Liberalists state that the domestic climate of a state determine a state’s foreign policy, as can be seen the case of the Soviet-Afghan War and the decision to withdraw. The Soviet Union’s domestic economy was deteriorating, the political change towards the end of the Soviet-Afghan War created an unstable environment, and the morale of the military lagged.

Firstly, the economy of the Soviet Union began its major struggles in the 1960s. This is largely due to the development and growth of the second economy. The second economy can be described as the informal economy, the “shadow economy” of the first, official economy. It is largely made up of private markets and black markets. This concept within the Soviet Union was already accepted as a norm on an informal level and further reimbursed when the government chose to overlook the second economy, which caused an official ignorance of a large sum of their national income. The blame for economic disaster was put on the mismanagement of the economy by administration. In the 1980s there was a drop in the surplus of income due to the drop in price for raw materials. The Soviet’s major national income came from exporting oil and gas, but then the global prices decreased. This caused GDP and the economy suffered due to their dependency on those exports. There were also issues within the Soviet Union where they tried to jumpstart the economy once again in the late 1970s by setting goals of production, but these goals were unrealistic and sectors failed to meet the requirements.[6] Overall, the Soviet economy suffered the most in the 1970s and the 1980s. The main reason being stagnation caused by the Nixon Shock and the war in Afghanistan. The Nixon Shock was the United States decision to stop the conversion of the US dollar to gold.[7] This effected the Soviet Union greatly due to their terrible economy that caused them to dip into their gold reserves in order to maintain trade relations. To add on to this, the United States supplied the Soviet Union with wheat while paying for it in gold. Once the Nixon Shock took place, the Soviet Union negative repercussions economically and on their food supply.[8]

Secondly, the political instability within the state is due to the continuous switching of leadership and a major political shift. Within the span of ten years, the Soviet Union had four separate leaders. First off, it was Leonid Brezhnev who made the decision to invade Afghanistan. Then Yury Andropov, who was the general secretary for the Communist Party, was only in power for two years (November 1982-February 1984) before he died. Konstantin Chernenko was then elected as general secretary and was only in power for a year before he died. Gorbachev was the longest standing leader during the Soviet-Afghan War.[9] The continuous changing of leadership left the population feeling unease. On top of the political instability of just leadership, there was political shift from the tradition institutions to a system more open to reformist ideas of economic liberalism and different foreign policy that endorsed the possible collapse of the state during this transition. This is because the traditionalists were still attempting to push their agenda, especially with rejecting the proposal to withdrawal from Afghanistan.[10]

On the last aspect of how the internal climate affected the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was the morale of the military. Though technically the 2.1% of the military that was in Afghanistan were outside of the state, they still reflected the morale of the people.[11] Since the 1980s were a time of economic crisis and political instability, low morale was widespread to all of the population. But for the soldiers in Afghanistan, drugs became an issue along with poor sanitation and hygiene. There was sickness spreading through the ranks such as hepatitis. Morale was also low due to the inability to effectively fight the Afghan rebel group, the Mujahedeen. The tactics that the Soviet’s used were suitable for the plains of Europe but not the mountainous Afghanistan. Also, since they were in a foreign state, they did not know the terrain as well. So whenever they would use a specific tactics the guerrillas would melt into the hills when the advance was too much to face.[12]


The neorealism theory can be applied through the process of implementing the “new thinking” under Gorbachev’s leadership, internal shift in power, and the pressure exuded by the United States through Third World tactics.

The term “new thinking” was coined during Gorbachev’s leadership, previously this kind of thinking was associated with the reformists. Though Gorbachev was the one to implement this thinking and shy away from traditional governance, “new thinking” began years before he became head of the state. Previous attempts to overthrow the traditionalist institutions were made in the 1960s. During this time, the competitive edge that Stalin-Lenin enforced weighted heavily on Soviet foreign policy. The government was not yet interested in drawing back; they did not think there would be a security threat to themselves in the future. Additionally, the decision makers who wished for change did not mobilize outside of the established institutions. When Andropov came to power, he realized that the war in Afghanistan was a military lose but could not do anything politically to advocate withdrawal. He knew that he was not the one who needed to make the decision of withdrawal, but he created conditions that allowed for “new thinking” to be institutionalized later on like launching an anti-corruption campaign that threatened the bureaucratic parties.[13]

Andropov mentored Gorbachev by assisting him politically. With Andropov’s aid, Gorbachev moved up the ranks quickly and was encouraged to create a large network. Gorbachev, starting in the early 1980s, began reaching out to experts and critical thinkers outside of the traditional institutions as well as mobilize outside side of them. By the time Gorbachev came into power in 1985, the state was in economic stagnation. This economic devastation encouraged the reformists the push their agenda further by making it clear that if there was not a political change then the Soviet Union would not survive.

With the push from the reformist, Gorbachev’s ideological plans, and his connections throughout the government allowed for there to be an internal shift in the balance of power. Gorbachev managed to shift power from the “old thinking” to the “new thinking.” Still in transition, two communities began to form: those who wanted to leave Afghanistan (new thinkers) and those who did not want to withdraw without a clear victory (old thinkers). That same year, Gorbachev gave the military one last shot with the “old thinking.”[14] That year of the war ended up being the bloodiest for the Soviets by having the most casualties.[15] This further proved to Gorbachev that the best way forward for this state was to move away from the “old thinking.” The “new thinking” not only changed the Soviet Union’s policy in the Third World, but also made dramatic changes internally. Gorbachev knew that if there was no economic reform in the management of the economy or in the redistribution of wealth, the Soviet Union would not be able to recuperate. This put him in a tough position. Gorbachev had to not only shift the political climate of this state, but also convince his fellow members of government that it was in the Soviet Union’s best interest to withdraw from Afghanistan. Eventually, the only way that Gorbachev was able to convince others to withdraw was to link it to the Soviet Union’s economic prosperity.

Additionally, Gorbachev knew that “new thinking” would not succeed in the long term, nor his state, if there was not a heavy emphasize on the importance of international cooperation. This form of cooperation was much needed with the United States. The aggressive policy that influenced the Soviet Union’s decision to invade Afghanistan are the same acts in policy that influenced their leave. The Soviet’s understood that the United States could continuously invest in the counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. From the early to mid-1980s, the United States invested upwards to $470 million dollars towards the Mujahedeen. With the state of the Soviet economy and the political shift that favored less involvement in the Third World, Gorbachev convinces the other government members that it was time to cut their losses and move on.[16]

The term “new thinking” envelops the idea of a more nationalistic foreign policy. Instead of intervening to promote ideology, the Soviet Union’s motives and decision making would be more so based on their domestic conditions. The need for protecting ideology through the “old thinking” put the Soviet Union at risk to its own security. But if it were not for the shift of the internal balance of power followed by the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, the Soviet Union would have collapsed a lot sooner than it did.


In the context of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, liberalism and neorealism evidently played a role. The conditions in which the Soviet Union were under domestically with the shift in politics, which favored a more nationalistic approach to foreign relations, made it seem like neorealism is the best theory to explain the withdrawal. The competiveness and aggression experienced towards the end of the Soviet-Afghan War by the United States made the Soviets realize the position they were in under the security dilemma. The Soviet Union grasped that they lost their competitive edge and that it would work in their favor to cooperate with the United States, which meant admitting defeat in the Third World. In this situation, the security dilemma favored the United States and caused the Soviet’s to lose out.[17] Additionally, since the world is based on a state centered world, the global system is anarchic. The Soviet Union and the United States created a bipolar world. This world forced one or the other to choose survival over power. The United States succeeded with its agenda causing the Soviet Union to choose survival of its own state, meaning that it had to give up its position in the Third World.[18] Although neorealism is a great contender to explain the withdrawal of the Soviet’s from Afghanistan, liberalism was the main driver behind the decision.

Liberalism perfectly explains the timing of the withdrawal along with the effect of the domestic climate had on the official decision to withdrawal. The timing of withdrawal was largely influenced by the shift in the political climate that would not have been made possible without the influence of liberal ideas. The implementation of glasnost—the open door policy—encouraged a shift away from a strictly command economy to one that could have some more self-governance by supporting ideas from capitalism. The fact that the economic situation of the state, the shift to a more liberal system, and the ability to adjust were the domestic factors that influenced the Soviet Union’s foreign policy, especially in the Third World. They realized that the only interest they had in Afghanistan was solely based on ideological preservation and achieving regional hegemony, when in reality there was not interest for them economically. Gorbachev aimed at having the domestic climate, especially the economy, drive its foreign policy goals.[19] Furthermore, the political shift to “new thinking” changed the Soviet Union’s foreign policy from one that was focused on competition to on more focused on genuine cooperation.[20]

In conclusion, neorealism may have contributed in terms of national security as the reason for the withdrawal from Afghanistan, but liberalist ideas and agendas were the end all patron to the decision. The main argument for the neorealist perspective to the withdrawal from Afghanistan was to help ensure the long-term survival of the Soviet Union. While this may be true, the neorealist ideas driving the security aspect was based off of domestic needs, which in turn influenced foreign involvement and shifted the perspective for the need to stay in Afghanistan. The decision for withdrawal was largely based off elements of liberalism.




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[1] Mendelson, Changing Course

[2] Mendelson, Changing Course

[3] Westard, The Global Cold War

[4] Mendelson, Changing Course, 67

[5] Westard, The Global Cold War

[6] Tremi and Alexeev

[7] Ghizoni, Nixon Ends Convertibility of IS Dollars to Gold and Announces Wage/Price Controls

[8] Castellano, Causes of the Soviet Collapse

[9] Britannica

[10] Mendelson, Changing Course

[11] Mendelson, Changing Course

[12] Trainor, Military Analysis; Afghan War: In Year Seven, a Deadly Stalemate

[13] Mendelson, Changing Course

[14] Mendelson, Changing Course

[15] Rubin, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan

[16] Mendelson, Changing Course                         

[17] Jervis, Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma

[18] Mearsheimer, Anarchy and the Struggle for Power; Wendt, Anarchy is What States Make of It

[19] Doyle, Liberalism and World Politics

[20] Putman, Diplomacy and Domestic Politics