With the completion this week of Russia's withdrawal from Afghanistan, some important history has been made.
This marks the first time the Soviets - who voluntarily left northern Iran, Eastern Austria, and parts of Finland in the 1940's and `50's - have pulled troops out of a foreign territory as a result of political and military failure.This week's withdrawal sends Soviet satellite countries the message that the Kremlin can be forced into retreat.
It also tells those in voluntary alliance with Moscow that the Kremlin is an unreliable cohort. This message will be reinforced if the puppet regime left behind in Kabul falls as expected.
Moreover, the pullout deprives Russia of a major geopolitical plum. If Russia had succeeded in quelling Afghanistan, the Soviets would have been in a position to dismember neighboring Pakistan and gain the age-old dream of the czars, a warm-water port on the Arabian Sea.
Despite all these setbacks for the Soviets, there are sharp limits to how much satisfaction the Free World can take from this situation. While most countries are weakened by military failure, Russia could emerge from Afghanistan with greater influence throughout the world.
Already, Moscow is getting applause from Western Europe and even from China and Iran for pulling out of Afghanistan. Arab countries can be expected to look more favorably on Russia now that the Soviets are no longer killing fellow Moslems in Afghanistan. The upshot is that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev could now find it easier to convince the world that he is sincere about eschewing aggression.
At the same time, India is snuggling up to Russia in reaction to the growing strength of long-time enemy Pakistan, which was bolstered by the siphoning of U.S. arms into Afghanistan via Pakistan.
Then there's the way the withdrawal ends a serious drain on the Soviet economy and enables the Kremlin to ease dissatisfaction within Russia by coming to grips with chronic shortages of crops and consumer products.
Also, don't overlook the military benefits that Russia gained despite the loss of 15,000 Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan. The nine-year campaign shook up the complacent Soviet military establishment and produced several innovations in weaponry.
Moreover, the rugged terrain of Afghanistan forced Soviet military planners to evolve new battlefield techniques. Soviet troops who survived the ordeal also gained a wealth of experience that could prove useful on a Central European battlefield.
Let's hope their painful experience in Afghanistan also taught the Soviets the lesson the United States should have learned from Vietnam: That raw military power has limited usefulness in the modern world.