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Essence of Decision in Moscow: The 1986 Sham Withdrawal from Afghanistan

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Master's thesis

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On July 28 1986, during a major foreign policy speech in the Soviet Far Eastern city of Vladivostok, Mikhail Gorbachev announced that six Soviet regiments would be pulled out of Afghanistan. This was Gorbachevs first public move in the long and contentious struggle to leave Afghanistan. In October of 1986, amid considerable fanfare, the six regiments were indeed withdrawn. The problem, however, was that the only militarily-significant elements had been introduced into the country shortly after Gorbachevs speech, without any serious efforts to camouflage their arrival. Western governments immediately denounced the sham withdrawal and the Soviets gained nothing from the maneuver. In fact, Gorbachevs credibility in the West suffered considerably from the episode. The timing was particularly damaging because it occurred on the eve of the Reykjavik Summit when Gorbachev was preparing to unveil a radical proposal for unprecedented cuts in nuclear arms. In retrospect, the incident is even harder to explain, since it turned out to be the first step in the genuine Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Western analysts who have studied the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan have been at a loss to explain this sham withdrawal. Indeed, if we simply use Graham Allisons rational actor model, the episode is inexplicable. If, however, we combine it with Allisons other two models of government politics and organizational process we can construct a number of possible scenarios that could have created the sham. As Allison points out, we know far too little about the inner workings of the Soviet system to pursue any of these models seriously. This paper is merely a preliminary attempt to explore the issues, personalities and bureaucratic institutions and procedures that could have combined to produce this bizarre episode.

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  • Military Forces and Organizations

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