End of the war dragged on for years
It took General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev years to make the decision to pull out of Afghanistan. On the one hand, he feared an attack by the traditionalists and public opinion as the decision would have been interpreted as defeat. He was also a hostage of corrupt generals and other high-ranking officers who made millions trading in guns and drugs in Afghanistan. On the other hand, the collapsing empire needed the West’s support, and it was USA that was most insistent on the Soviet Union ending the war.
Former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze writes in his memoirs that Gorbachev talked about a troop pullout with Afghan leaders Babrak Karmal and Mohammad Najibullah in December of 1985. “Our army will withdraw, we will give you all the weapons you want, we will give you everything so you can fight,” the general secretary allegedly promised. Alas, nothing happened.
During the 27nd congress of the Communist Party in early 1986, Gorbachev uttered a single sentence on Afghanistan: “We want our army in Afghanistan to return home in the near future.” Nothing happened.
It was only in 1988 that Western countries managed to achieve an agreement in the UN for a ceasefire signed in Geneva. The Soviet Union started pulling out its troops in May of the same year. Over 100,000 soldiers were brought home over nine months.
Nigul and Lipand say that February 15, 1989 that saw the last armored car pull out of Afghanistan left them feeling nothing.
“I’m being honest when I say that I didn’t lose any sleep or have a nervous breakdown when I returned from Afghanistan. A friend of mine once told me it was unreal. Today, I cannot remember the last convoy leaving Afghanistan to have sparked emotion in me,” Lipand says.
Nigul agrees. “I do not recall being emotional during the troop pullout 30 years ago. I was neither overjoyed nor angry. There was nothing,” he says. Nigul admits he was tense for a while after returning from Afghanistan.
We had a very cold fall in 1986. I remember waiting for the bus to Tartu with my mother one morning when suddenly pales started to go bang. I instinctively hit the ground behind the ramshackle bus stop structure; my mother was in shock. The sound of a pale going bang because of the cold is a kind of sharp crack, exactly like a gunshot in your direction,” Nigul says. “I was also afraid I might instinctively use lethal moves if I had to fight someone. We did learn how to kill people in Afghanistan after all.”