Over the centuries, various would-be conquerors have thrown their armies against the sere mountains and valleys of Afghanistan. In just the past two centuries, great powers have invaded Afghanistan at least four times. It has not turned out well for the invaders. As former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski put it, "They (the Afghanis) have a curious complex: they don't like foreigners with guns in their country."
In 1979, the Soviet Union decided to try its luck in Afghanistan, long a target of Russian foreign policy. Many historians believe that in the end, the Soviet War in Afghanistan was key in destroying one of the Cold War world's two superpowers.
Background to the Invasion
On April 27, 1978, Soviet-advised members of the Afghan Army overthrew and executed President Mohammed Daoud Khan. Daoud was a leftist progressive, but not a communist, and he resisted Soviet attempts to direct his foreign policy as "interference in Afghanistan's affairs." Daoud moved Afghanistan toward the non-allied bloc, which included India, Egypt, and Yugoslavia.
Although the Soviets did not order his ouster, they quickly recognized the new communist People's Democratic Party government that formed on April 28, 1978. Nur Muhammad Taraki became Chairman of the newly-formed Afghan Revolutionary Council. However, infighting with other communist factions and cycles of purging plagued Taraki's government from the start.
In addition, the new communist regime targeted Islamic mullahs and wealthy landowners in the Afghan countryside, alienating all of the traditional local leaders. Soon, anti-government insurgencies broke out across northern and eastern Afghanistan, aided by Pashtun guerrillas from Pakistan.
Over the course of 1979, the Soviets watched carefully as their client government in Kabul lost control of more and more of Afghanistan. In March, the Afghan Army battalion in Herat defected to the insurgents, and killed 20 Soviet advisers in the city; there would be four more major military uprisings against the government by the end of the year. By August, the government in Kabul had lost control of 75% of Afghanistan - it held the large cities, more or less, but the insurgents controlled the countryside.
Leonid Brezhnev and the Soviet government wanted to protect their puppet in Kabul but hesitated (reasonably enough) to commit ground troops to the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. The Soviets were concerned about the Islamist insurgents taking power since many of the USSR's Muslim Central Asian republics bordered on Afghanistan. In addition, the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran seemed to shift the balance of power in the region toward Muslim theocracy.
As the Afghan government's situation deteriorated, the Soviets sent in military aid - tanks, artillery, small arms, fighter jets, and helicopter gunships - as well as ever-greater numbers of military and civilian advisers. By June of 1979, there were approximately 2,500 Soviet military advisers and 2,000 civilians in Afghanistan, and some of the military advisers actively drove tanks and flew helicopters in raids on the insurgents.
Moscow Secretly Sent in Units of the Spetznaz or Special Forces
On September 14, 1979, Chairman Taraki invited his chief rival in the People's Democratic Party, Minister of National Defense Hafizullah Amin, to a meeting at the presidential palace. It was supposed to be an ambush on Amin, orchestrated by Taraki's Soviet advisers, but the chief of palace guards tipped off Amin as he arrived, so the Defense Minister escaped. Amin returned later that day with an Army contingent and placed Taraki under house arrest, to the dismay of the Soviet leadership. Taraki died within a month, smothered with a pillow on Amin's orders.
Another major military uprising in October convinced the Soviet leaders that Afghanistan had spun out of their control, politically and militarily. Motorized and airborne infantry divisions numbering 30,000 troops began preparing to deploy from the neighboring Turkestan Military District (now in Turkmenistan) and the Fergana Military District (now in Uzbekistan).
Between December 24 and 26, 1979, American observers noted that the Soviets were running hundreds of airlift flights into Kabul, but they were unsure whether it was a major invasion or simply supplies intended to help prop up the tottering Amin regime. Amin was, after all, a member of Afghanistan's communist party.
All doubt vanished over the next two days, however. On December 27, Soviet Spetznaz troops attacked Amin's home and killed him, installing Babrak Kamal as the new puppet-leader of Afghanistan. The following day, the Soviet motorized divisions from Turkestan and the Fergana Valley rolled into Afghanistan, launching the invasion.
Early Months of the Soviet Invasion
The Islamic insurgents of Afghanistan, called the mujahideen, declared a jihad against the Soviet invaders. Although the Soviets had vastly superior weaponry, the mujahideen knew the rough terrain and were fighting for their homes and their faith. By February of 1980, the Soviets had control of all of the major cities in Afghanistan and were successful in quashing Afghan Army revolts when army units marched out information to fight the Soviet troops. However, mujahideen guerrillas held 80% of the country.
Try and Try Again - Soviet Efforts to 1985
In the first five years, the Soviets held the strategic route between Kabul and Termez and patrolled the border with Iran, to prevent Iranian aid from reaching the mujahideen. Mountainous regions of Afghanistan such as Hazarajat and Nuristan, however, were completely free of Soviet influence. The mujahideen also held Herat and Kandahar much of the time.
The Soviet Army launched a total of nine offensives against one key, guerrilla-held pass called the Panjshir Valley in the first five years of the war alone. Despite the heavy use of tanks, bombers, and helicopter gunships, they were unable to take the Valley. The mujahideen's amazing success in the face of one of the world's two superpowers attracted support from a number of outside powers seeking either to support Islam or weaken the USSR: Pakistan, the People's Republic of China, the United States, the United Kingdom, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
Withdrawal From the Quagmire - 1985 to 1989
As the war in Afghanistan dragged on, the Soviets faced a harsh reality. Afghan Army desertions were epidemic, so the Soviets had to do much of the fighting. Many Soviet recruits were Central Asians, some from the same Tajik and Uzbek ethnic groups as many of the mujihadeen, so they often refused to carry out attacks ordered by their Russian commanders. Despite official press censorship, people in the Soviet Union began to hear that the war was not going well and to notice a large number of funerals for Soviet soldiers. Before the end, some media outlets even dared to publish commentary on the "Soviets' Vietnam War," pushing the boundaries of Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost or openness.
Conditions were terrible for many ordinary Afghans, but they held out against the invaders. By 1989, the mujahideen had organized some 4,000 strike bases across the country, each manned by at least 300 guerrillas. One famous mujahideen commander in the Panjshir Valley, Ahmad Shah Massoud, commanded 10,000 well-trained troops.
By 1985, Moscow was actively seeking an exit strategy. They sought to intensify recruitment and training for the Afghan armed forces, in order to transition responsibility to local troops. The ineffectual president, Babrak Karmal, lost Soviet support, and in November of 1986, a new president named Mohammad Najibullah was elected. He proved less than popular with the Afghan people, however, in part because he was the former chief of the widely-feared secret police, the KHAD.
From May 15 to August 16, 1988, the Soviets completed phase one of their withdrawal. The retreat was generally peaceful since the Soviets first negotiated cease-fires with mujahideen commanders along the withdrawal routes. Remaining Soviet troops withdrew between November 15, 1988, and February 15, 1989.
A total of just over 600,000 Soviets served in the Afghan War, and about 14,500 were killed. Another 54,000 were wounded, and an astonishing 416,000 became ill with typhoid fever, hepatitis, and other serious diseases.
An estimated 850,000 to 1.5 million Afghan civilians died in the war, and five to ten million fled the country as refugees. This represented as much as one-third of the country's 1978 population, severely straining Pakistan and other neighboring countries. 25,000 Afghans died from landmines alone during the war, and millions of mines remained behind after the Soviets withdrew.
The Aftermath of the Soviet War in Afghanistan
Chaos and civil war ensued when the Soviets left Afghanistan, as rival mujahideen commanders fought to enlarge their spheres of influence. Some mujahideen troops behaved so badly, robbing, raping, and murdering civilians at will, that a group of Pakistani-educated religious students banded together to fight against them in the name of Islam. This new faction called itself the Taliban, meaning "the Students."
For the Soviets, the repercussions were equally dire. Over the previous decades, the Red Army had always been able to quash any nation or ethnic group that rose in opposition - the Hungarians, the Kazakhs, the Czechs - but now they had lost to the Afghans. Minority peoples in the Baltic and Central Asian republics, in particular, took heart; indeed, the Lithuanian democracy movement openly declared independence from the Soviet Union in March of 1989, less than a month after the withdrawal from Afghanistan finished. Anti-Soviet demonstrations spread to Latvia, Georgia, Estonia, and other republics.
The long and costly war left the Soviet economy in shambles. It also fueled the rise of a free press and open dissent among not only ethnic minorities but also from Russians who had lost loved ones in the fighting. Although it was not the only factor, certainly the Soviet War in Afghanistan helped to hasten the end of one of the two superpowers. Just over two and a half years after the withdrawal, on December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union was formally dissolved.
MacEachin, Douglas. "Predicting the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan: The Intelligence Community's Record," CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence, Apr. 15, 2007.
Prados, John, ed. "Volume II: Afghanistan: Lessons from the Last War. Analysis of the Soviet War in Afghanistan, Declassified," The National Security Archive, Oct. 9, 2001.
Reuveny, Rafael, and Aseem Prakash. "The Afghanistan War and the Breakdown of the Soviet Union," Review of International Studies, (1999), 25, 693-708.