Fact Check: Soviet Union Did NOT Take All Of Its Military Equipment From Afghanistan After the Soviet-Afghan War

Fact Check

  • by: Lead Stories Staff
Fact Check: Soviet Union Did NOT Take All Of Its Military Equipment From Afghanistan After the Soviet-Afghan War Some Was Left

Did the Soviet Union take all of its military equipment from Afghanistan after the Soviet-Afghan War? No, that's not true: Some of the Soviet equipment was abandoned in Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew from the country. Even further, according to experts on the conflict, the Soviet Union still supplied equipment to Afghanistan after the war was over.

The claim appeared in a Facebook post (archived here) published on August 21, 2021. It featured a graphic with an image of Soviet personnel on a line of armored vehicles as they cross a bridge. Text in the graphic read:

When the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, they took their equipment with them.

This is what the post looked like on Facebook on August 23, 2021:

Facebook screenshot

(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Mon Aug 23 18:07:14 2021 UTC)

The Facebook claim was published during the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August, 2021 following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country. The takeover coincided with reports that military equipment that was used by the U.S. and supplied by the U.S. to the Afghan military was left in Afghanistan. As a result, it was estimated that the Taliban had access to thousands of pieces of U.S. military equipment, including aircraft and armored vehicles.

However, the Soviet armed forces abandoned some of their equipment in Afghanistan after the Soviet-Afghan War, which lasted from 1979 to 1989. According to photographic and video evidence from Vice and BBC, the Soviets left "graveyards" of military equipment in the country.

And while the Facebook post appeared to take aim at the U.S. and Afghan militaries' strategies, Olga Oliker, the International Crisis Group's program director for Europe and Central Asia, told Lead Stories that the claim did not consider the relationship between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan after the Soviet-Afghan War. During the war, the Soviets, who aimed to maintain and strengthen the then-fresh communist regime in Afghanistan, were foiled by the Afghan mujahedeen, who were insurgent groups that opposed the Soviet occupation. In an email to Lead Stories on August 23, 2021, Oliker provided more context:

The Soviets withdrew after 10 years of building up the Afghan forces, to whom they provided equipment that whole time, and to whom they continued to provide equipment for the next three years, with the Afghan government and its forces holding on until the Soviet Union itself collapsed and the aid stopped coming.

So think of it as two categories of Soviet-made equipment, which included some of the same sorts of things.
1) Soviet-made equipment that was directly provided to the Afghan forces, some before, and some after the Soviets left. So it was Soviet-made equipment, but it belonged to the Afghans.
2) that which belonged to the Soviet troops and was operated by them. Most of that went home with them, but some was handed over to Afghan forces as they left, so one could argue that it was equipment the Soviets "left".

So the ... post is a bit odd, since it seems to forget or ignore the fact that that the Soviets continued to support, including with armaments, the Afghan forces, and that they had handed over supplies to them as they withdrew.

In an email to Lead Stories on August 23, 2021, Barnett Rubin, a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, gave us similar information:

The Soviets continued an accelerated program of supplying military equipment to the Kabul government of [then-President of Afghanistan] Najibullah. I don't know what they 'left behind,' but they continued active military resupply.

According to an additional email sent by Rubin on the same day, a big contrast between the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was the geographical difference. While the Soviet Armed Forces only had to transport its equipment across the Afghanistan-Uzbekistan Friendship Bridge, located on the river border between Afghanistan and then-Soviet Uzbekistan, U.S. troops had a much greater distance to travel:

If the US could drive its equipment across a bridge, I am sure we would. But there is geography to consider.

Lead Stories previously debunked a claim about the Taliban's possession of dozens of Black Hawk Helicopters after the U.S. withdrawal in 2021.

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