The Withdrawal of Soviet Troops from Afghanistan: 35 Years on. UN General Assembly Resolutions

The diplomatic alignment of forces during the Afghan conflict of the 1980s is very indicative. Not all countries friendly to the Soviet Union (Romania, India, Nicaragua, etc.) agreed with its position. The opponents of the USSR were able to create a fairly strong coalition in the UN. Incidentally, a somewhat similar situation has developed now, during the voting on Russia in the General Assembly in recent years, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.

February 15, 2024 marks the 35th anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. This conflict had a serious impact on international relations, both in the surrounding region and throughout the world. It became a significant element in the escalation of the Cold War in the first half of the 1980s.

The Afghan conflict immediately received its own diplomatic dimension. During 1980-87, the UN General Assembly repeatedly adopted resolutions on Afghanistan calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops. In a comparative historical context, it’s interesting to consider the results of these votes and the balance of power between countries. Previously, in relation to modern voting in the UN General Assembly, we have already turned to the analysis of the position of African countries on resolutions on Russia after February 24, 2022, as well as to the global balance of power on resolutions on Israel and Palestine in recent years. Now the memorable date provides us with an opportunity to turn to history.

On January 7, 1980, a week and a half after the storming of Amin’s palace and the entry of Soviet troops into Afghanistan, the UN Security Council considered this issue. The request for an urgent meeting of the Security Council on January 3-5 was signed by 52 countries (SC documents S/13724, S/13724-Add.1, S/13724-Add.2). In the Security Council, the USSR vetoed draft resolution S13729, and it was not adopted. The GDR, which was then a non-permanent member of the Security Council, also voted against the resolution. All other 13 members of the UN Security Council voted in favour. These included the Soviet Union’s fellow permanent members: the USA, Great Britain, France and China; as well as non-permanent members of the Security Council: Bangladesh, Philippines, Norway, Portugal, Jamaica, Mexico, Zambia, Niger and Tunisia. Two days later, on January 9, 1980, the Security Council raised the issue of convening an Emergency Special Session of the General Assembly on Afghanistan. Here, according to the normative provisions, the veto could not be used, and as a result, the UN Security Council adopted resolution S/RES/462 on the convening of the session. The USSR and the GDR once again voted against, Zambia abstained, and the remaining 12 members of the Security Council were in favour.

The Sixth Extraordinary Special Session of the UN General Assembly on Afghanistan took place on January 14, 1980. Let us recall that according to the UN’s normative documents, these sessions can meet in the event of an acute threat to peace, and when the UN Security Council cannot itself adopt a resolution. Prior to this, the Soviet Union was the focus of attention at the Second Extraordinary Session after the events in Hungary in 1956, and later Russia — at the Eleventh Extraordinary Session after February 24, 2022. Most of the Extraordinary Sessions were held on Israel and related conflicts.

At Extraordinary Sessions of the UN General Assembly, the same mechanism for adopting resolutions applies as at regular annual sessions: there is no veto, and the resolution is adopted by a majority vote. As a result, the session adopted resolution ES-6/2, which called for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. However, both this and subsequent UNGA resolutions were distinguished by a kind of diplomatic equivocation. They did not directly mention the Soviet Union, but spoke only of formally abstract “foreign troops.” This is not without interest in the historical context of symbolic politics, since there was nothing of the kind in the resolutions of the aforementioned 11th Extraordinary Session of the General Assembly, and Russia was mentioned directly, without any euphemisms. The results of the voting on that resolution ES-6/2 of January 14, 1980 are as follows: 104 countries were in favour, 18 were against, 18 abstained, and 12 did not vote.

Global Governance
Afghanistan: New Old Problems
Mikhail Konarovsky
The unexpected COVID-19 pandemic, which for a time occupied the minds of the world's political elites, did not justify the timid hopes that it could provide some kind of healing effect, mitigating the overwhelmingly high degree of tensions in international relations. The pandemic only superficially and briefly distracted the attention of the public, the media and the Internet. The processes themselves, both at the global and regional levels, followed their own course, evolving towards further uncertainties and new challenges.

After the Emergency Session, the issue of the situation in Afghanistan was regularly introduced at the regular annual sessions of the UN General Assembly. A number of resolutions were adopted: 35/37 of November 20, 1980 (for — 111, against — 22, abstained — 12, did not vote — 9), 36/34 of November 18, 1981 (respectively, 116-23-12- 6), 37/37 of November 29, 1982 (114-21-13-9), 38/29 of November 23, 1983 (116-20-14-6), 39/13 of November 15, 1984 (119-20-14-6), 40/12 of November 13, 1985 (122-19-12-6), 41/33 of November 5, 1986 (122-20-11-6), 42/ 15 of November 10, 1987 (123-19-11-6). Also, starting in 1985, the UN General Assembly adopted separate resolutions on human rights in Afghanistan: 40/137 of December 13, 1985 (80-22-40-17), 41/158 of December 4, 1986 (89-24-36 −10) and 42/135 of December 7, 1987 (94-22-31-12). Due to the process of decolonisation and the admission of new UN states during this period, the total number of UN members gradually increased from 152 countries in January 1980 to 159 as of late 1984. Therefore, the total amount of all votes varies from year to year. In total, 12 resolutions were adopted on Afghanistan during this period. Beginning in November 1988, the USSR stopped challenging these resolutions, and they began to be adopted by the General Assembly by consensus without voting.

As we can see, the results of these votes were not in favour of the Soviet Union. Regarding resolutions on the situation in Afghanistan, the number of voters voting “for”, i. e. against the USSR, ranged from 104 to 123 states, with a clear tendency to increase from year to year. Between 18 and 23 countries voted against the resolution, i. e. in solidarity with the USSR. It should also be noted that resolutions on human rights in Afghanistan received far fewer votes in favour than general resolutions on the situation in the country. From 80 to 94 countries voted for them; their number also increased from year to year. At the same time, approximately the same number of countries voted against these resolutions: from 22 to 24. The rest of the three dozen countries that voted for the general resolutions, but did not do so on human rights, preferred to abstain or not vote. This pattern, by the way, is generally consistent with the general practice of voting in the UN General Assembly on other conflict zones. Fewer countries usually vote for resolutions on human rights than for general resolutions on the situation in a conflict zone. As a rule, these are developing countries.

Now let’s look at how individual countries voted on these 12 Afghan resolutions. The USSR itself, the Ukrainian SSR and the Byelorussian SSR always voted against. Afghanistan also always opposed them. Of the socialist countries, allies of the USSR in the Warsaw Pact Organization and partners in the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA), the position of Romania is the most interesting and indicative here. The country did not vote on any of the nine resolutions on the situation in Afghanistan and only opposed three resolutions on human rights. The special confrontational position of Nicolae Ceausescu within the socialist community was here rather demonstratively expressed through diplomacy. All other members of the Warsaw Pact/CMEA were always against the resolutions (Bulgaria, Hungary, East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Vietnam, Mongolia, Cuba).

Of the other socialist countries which were not members of the Warsaw Pact of CMEA, all 12 resolutions were voted for by then-opponents of the Soviet Union: China and Albania. Yugoslavia was in favour of nine general resolutions on the situation in Afghanistan and abstained on 3 resolutions on human rights. Laos and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen were against all 12 resolutions. In Kampuchea, after the overthrow of the Pol Pot regime and the coming to power of pro-Soviet and pro-Vietnamese authorities in 1979, the powers of their representatives were not recognized by the UN (perhaps, not counting apartheid-era South Africa, this is the first case of this kind, but now this practice has received sufficient attention); however, the former anti-Soviet delegation of Kampuchea remained in the General Assembly, which voted for all 12 resolutions. The DPRK was not a member of the UN at that time.

Among other Asian countries, the position of India should also be noted (abstaining from the nine general resolutions and against the three resolutions on human rights). Iraq voted in favour three times, abstained eight times and did not vote once. The Yemen Arab Republic either abstained or did not vote 12 times. Syria was against it 11 times and only abstained during the very first resolution at the Extraordinary Session. Bhutan was in favour once, did not vote 8 times, and abstained from voting on the three human rights resolutions. Burma, Indonesia, Iran, Kuwait, Lebanon, Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka voted for 9 general resolutions, but abstained or did not vote on the three human rights resolutions. Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates abstained or did not vote on the first resolution on human rights, while the rest were in favour 11 times. The other Asian countries (Bangladesh, Brunei (out of 7 votes), Israel, Jordan, Malaysia, Oman, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey, Philippines and Japan) voted for all 12 resolutions.

Among Western European countries, the positions of Cyprus and Finland stand out (both abstained all 12 times). Malta abstained twice on human rights; 10 times it was in favour. All other countries of Western Europe which were then members of the UN (Austria, Belgium, Great Britain, Germany, Greece, Denmark, Ireland, Iceland, Spain, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, France, Sweden) were in favour of all 12 resolutions.

With regards to Africa, Angola and Ethiopia were all against all 12 resolutions. Libya — 10 “against”, Madagascar — 8 “against”, Mozambique — 6 “against”, Algeria, Benin and Seychelles — 2 “against”, in other cases these countries abstained or did not vote. The Cape Verde Islands (Cabo Verde since 1986) and Mali consistently abstained or didn’t vote. Sao Tome and Principe was 2 times “against” and 2 times “for”, in other cases it abstained or did not vote. Guinea-Bissau and Uganda were twice “for”, Zimbabwe voted “for” seven times (out of 11 votes), Zambia and Equatorial Guinea voted “for” eight times. Guinea, Zaire, Cameroon, Mauritania, Nigeria, Tanzania, Central African Republic and Chad voted “for” nine times. Burundi, Ghana, Comoros, Liberia, Mauritius, Malawi — 10 “for”, Lesotho, Swaziland, Sudan, Tunisia — 11 “for”, in other cases these countries abstained or did not vote. Upper Volta (from 1984 Burkina Faso) before the revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara came to power in 1983, was in favour all 4 times, under Sankara it voted against twice, abstained 3 times and voted “for” once. After Sankara’s murder in 1987, it abstained both times. The remaining African countries (Ivory Coast (since 1986 Cote d’Ivoire), Botswana, Gabon, Gambia, Djibouti, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Togo) — voted “for” all 12 of the resolutions. While then-apartheid South Africa was formally a member of the UN, the powers of its delegation were not confirmed by the General Assembly, and therefore it did not vote.

The USA and Canada, of course, voted for each of the resolutions. With regards to the countries of South and Central America (including Mexico) the situation is as follows. Nicaragua, although it was a partner of the USSR, abstained from the nine general resolutions and was against only the three resolutions on human rights. Bolivia was in favour 7 times, abstained twice and did not vote three times. Belize did not vote on one occasion, but otherwise voted in favour. Guyana, Suriname and Ecuador were in favour of the nine general resolutions, and abstained or did not vote on human rights. Guatemala did not vote for the first human rights resolution, but voted in favour of the others. Other countries in the region (Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Honduras, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, El Salvador, Uruguay, Chile) voted in favour of all of the resolutions.

In the Caribbean, in addition to CMEA member Cuba, the situation is as follows. Grenada, during the revolutionary government of Maurice Bishop, voted against the resolutions four times. After his assassination and the US intervention in 1983, the situation changed radically: 7 times it voted “for” and once it did not vote. Dominica was 6 times in favour, Trinidad and Tobago — 9 in favour, Bahamas — 10 in favour, Haiti and Dominican Republic — 11 in favour, Saint Kitts and Nevis — 7 in favour (out of 8 votes), Saint -Vincent and the Grenadines — 9 “for” (out of 11 votes), in other cases these countries abstained or did not vote. The other states in the region (Antigua and Barbuda (out of 10 votes), Barbados, Saint Lucia and Jamaica) always voted in favour.

In Oceania, Vanuatu — 6 times “for” (out of 10 votes), Solomon Islands — 10 times “for”, in other cases they abstained or did not vote. Other countries in the region (Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Western Samoa, Fiji) were always in favour.

This diplomatic alignment of forces during the Afghan conflict of the 1980s is very indicative. Not all countries friendly to the Soviet Union (Romania, India, Nicaragua, etc.) agreed with its position. The opponents of the USSR were able to create a fairly strong coalition in the UN. Incidentally, a somewhat similar situation has developed now, during the voting on Russia in the General Assembly in recent years.

Americans in Afghanistan: Ignoring Lessons of the Soviet Intervention
Olga Oliker
Eighteen years after the U.S. went to war, the parallels with Russia’s experience seem obvious. Not least of them is the difficulty of leaving Afghanistan. Donald Trump promises American troops will be gone by November of 2020. Barack Obama made similar promises in 2014 and 2016. Similarly, Mikhail Gorbachev decided it was time to get out in 1986, but Soviet forces only left in 1989.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.