During his freewheeling, 90-minute cabinet meeting Wednesday, President Donald Trump briefly argued that the Soviet Union “was right” to invade Afghanistan in 1979 because “terrorists were going into Russia,” a head-scratching aside that was widely criticized as historically inaccurate.
“Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan. Russia. So you take a look at other countries. Pakistan is there. They should be fighting,” Trump said.
“But Russia should be fighting. The reason Russia was in, in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there. The problem is it was a tough fight. And literally they went bankrupt. They went into being called Russia again as opposed to the Soviet Union,” he added.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board reacted strongly to Trump’s comments in an op-ed Friday: “Right to be there? We cannot recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American President. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan with three divisions in December 1979 to prop up a fellow communist government.”
The Soviet Union, which was comprised of Russia and several now independent Eastern European and Asian nations, did in fact invade Afghanistan amid Cold War tensions with the US.
But Trump’s assertion that Russia was “right to be there” conflicts with the fact that the US strongly opposed the invasion and supported the guerilla insurgency that ultimately forced the Soviets to leave in 1988.
His claim that the incursion was a response to “terrorists going into Russia” also diverges with what the US believed, that it was part of the Soviet effort to spread communism.
The Kremlin’s bloody nine-year campaign to support the Marxist government in Kabul cost the lives of more than 14,000 troops and hit the Soviet economy before its 100,000-strong army was forced into a humiliating withdrawal.
While the Soviet economy did ultimately collapse, it did not go bankrupt, contrary to Trump’s claim. Additionally, that collapse was not solely caused by the invasion into Afghanistan but rather a myriad of factors, including systemic issues within the Soviet Union’s communist economy.
Trump has long been critical of the US’ own presence in Afghanistan, which began after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and his latest comments come as the US military has been ordered to begin planning to withdraw about half the troops in from the country.
That decision was made last month, at the same time as Trump’s decision to withdraw the US military from Syria – moves that precipitated Defense Secretary James Mattis’ resignation announcement.
Trump criticized Mattis during Wednesday’s meeting, specifically mentioning his handling of Afghanistan.
“What’s he done for me? How has he done in Afghanistan? Not too good. Not too good. I’m not happy with what he’s done in Afghanistan and I shouldn’t be happy,” Trump said.
The US has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, most of which are present as part of a larger NATO-led mission to train, advise and assist Afghan forces. Any withdrawal would be complicated by the fact that the United States is part of NATO’s Resolute Support mission.