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The war to start all wars 30 years later, ‘Meduza’ answers key questions about the Soviet-Afghan War

Meduza
A Soviet mechanized unit rests near the Bala Hissar fortress in Kabul, Afghanistan. February 1, 1988
A Soviet mechanized unit rests near the Bala Hissar fortress in Kabul, Afghanistan. February 1, 1988
Andrey Solomonov / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA

February 15 marks 30 years since the day the last Soviet soldiers were withdrawn from Afghanistan. The Soviet-Afghan War lasted nine years: it was Russia’s longest war in a century that also included a civil war, two world wars, and a number of international conflicts. Why did Soviet leaders decide to invade Afghanistan despite internal opposition? What role did the United States really play in the conflict? What do present-day Russian government officials think about the war? Meduza answers these and other questions below.

Was Afghanistan a Soviet enemy? Is that why they invaded?

Afghanistan’s geographic position gave it strategic significance even for the Russian Empire. After the tsarist government conquered the region now called Central Asia (including present-day Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan), only Afghanistan stood between Russian colonial power and British-controlled India. In the second half of the 19th century, tensions between the British and Russian Empires surrounding Afghanistan nearly led to open conflict. British officials worried that the Russian military would annex Afghanistan and march toward the border of Britain’s largest colonial territory.

The two empires ultimately agreed to allow Afghanistan to remain a neutral buffer state. The Soviet Union did not dispute that status. However, shortly after its formation, the USSR also began actively providing Afghanistan with economic aid despite the persistence of a monarchic government there. Gradually, Soviet influence in Afghanistan increased, especially after the collapse of the British Empire and the departure of colonial officials from the region. A particularly important driver of change was the Marxist, antimonarchist People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which the Afghan government did not have the authority to ban. The party’s influence spread both among civilians and in the Afghan army. In April of 1978, PDP members initiated what is now known as the Saur Revolution or the April Coup, overthrowing the ruling government and killing its leaders.

Did the USSR use the coup to increase its influence in Afghanistan?

The new Afghan government promised to increase the country’s quality of life, implement land reform that would favor agricultural laborers in rural areas, and strengthen the government-owned sector of the Afghan economy. The country’s new leaders also said they would bring about women’s equality and democratize political activity. However, after freeing rural laborers from paying back their debts to landowners and prohibiting usury, the government did not take additional measures to ensure that laborers could receive credit to build new lives on their own land. New property owners did not have access to water, seeds, farming tools, or fertilizer. Authorities also ignored the traditionally significant social role of the Islamic clergy and antagonized religious leaders. Even Soviet advisors recommended that the Afghan reformers take local cultural realia into account.

Before long, armed attacks on the PDP began. Religious leaders largely supported the new opposition, and thousands of soldiers and officers joined its ranks as well. The government escalated its violent repressions: estimates of the total number of those killed by the PDP regime before the Soviet invasion range from 17,000 to 45,000. In the years leading up to the Soviet invasion, approximately 600,000 people fled Afghanistan.

PDP officials turned to the USSR multiple times with requests for direct military support, but Soviet leaders turned them down in every case. Archival documents indicate that Moscow understood the possible consequences of bringing troops to Afghanistan very well: Soviet leaders knew they could expect a drawn-out insurrection and an extremely negative international response. Members of the Soviet Communist Party’s Central Committee reasoned that the regime in Afghanistan would remain friendly to them regardless and should be expected to deal with internal affairs on its own. Soviet officials were also dissatisfied with then-PDP head Hafizulla Amin, who not only ordered the execution of his predecessor, PDP founder Nur Muhammad Taraki, but also may have collaborated with the CIA, though those rumors remain unproven to this day.

Why did the Soviet Union invade Afghanistan anyway?

The main factors in the Soviet government’s decision to initiate a military operation appear to have been the broader international situation and deteriorating relations with the U.S. and its allies. The U.S. Congress voted down a proposed deal to limit the development of strategic arms in both countries, and in late 1979, NATO decided to place Pershing rockets in West Germany within firing range of Soviet territory. Soviet leaders decided that establishing full control over Afghanistan would be a way of achieving balance between the two sides of the Cold War. The Politburo’s decision to send troops to Afghanistan was made the same day NATO announced its decision to move the Pershing rockets.

Soviet Foreign Affairs Minister Andrey Gromyko meets with his then-counterpart Hafizulla Amin of Afghanistan. May 18, 1979
Vasily Yegorov / TASS

That said, the Soviet government was not just attempting to counterbalance the influence of the United States. In February of 1979, the Islamic Revolution took place in Iran, which borders Afghanistan to the west. Iranian revolutionary figures actively supported early revolts against the Afghan PDP. Some Soviet officials believed that Hafizulla Amin’s radical policies were bolstering the Islamists’ popularity and that it was therefore necessary to end his regime as soon as possible.

There were three main advocates for military intervention within the Soviet leadership: KGB head Yury Andropov, Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov, and Foreign Affairs Minister Andrey Gromyko. The chairperson of the Council of Ministers, Alexey Kosygin, was categorically opposed: among the 12 members of the Central Committee’s Politburo, he was the only one not to sign on to the order sending Soviet soldiers to Afghanistan, which soon cost him his seat on what was then the Communist Party’s highest political body. The deciding vote fell to then-General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev. After the fact, some of Brezhnev’s aides said the general secretary’s health had deteriorated to such a degree at that stage in his life that he may not have been capable of giving full consideration to the possible consequences of his actions.

The American military had already made a similar decision in Vietnam with disastrous results. Why repeat that mistake?

The parallels between the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Vietnam War were obvious to everyone involved, including Soviet politicians. Soviet leaders refused to help their Afghan “comrades” a number of times, arguing that the Soviet Union could not criticize American militarism in Vietnam and simultaneously mirror those actions in Afghanistan. However, Soviet leaders of that generation also had their own memories of a different sort: the suppression of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and of the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary.

In both cases, Soviet forces were able to remove unfavorable leaders from power and bring the resulting situation back under Soviet control in the course of just a few days. The international response to those operations was stormy but short-lived, and the protests that followed died down quickly. In addition, while the leaders Soviet troops overthrew in Czechoslovakia and Hungary were both relatively liberal, the Afghan leader they were planning to unseat was a dictator with obvious totalitarian leanings. That fact added to Soviet leaders’ hopes that the situation would be received without too much outrage both internally and internationally.

Nonetheless, it seems that Soviet authorities underestimated the fact that by late 1979, a full-blown civil war was raging in Afghanistan. Armed conflict was ongoing in 18 of the country’s 26 provinces. On one hand, that meant the republic would likely have been doomed even without Soviet intervention. On the other hand, the severity of the civil war made it a foregone conclusion that the Soviet military was about to enter willingly into a long-term conflict.

On December 27, 1979, Soviet special forces stormed Hafizulla Amin’s residence in Kabul and took the building by force. In the course of the operation, the Afghan head of state was killed. However, the official Soviet version of events was that Amin’s dictatorial regime had been overthrown by “a patriotic, healthy majority of the PDP along with the Revolutionary Council and military forces of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan” in an internal armed mutiny, while Amin himself was executed on the orders of a revolutionary court. The presence of Soviet troops in Kabul at the same time was presented as pure coincidence. The relatively moderate politician Babrak Karmal, who had escaped to the USSR under Amin’s regime to avoid repression, became Afghanistan’s new head of state.

The Soviet-Afghan War (1979–1989)

Who fought against the Soviet Union? The Taliban?

Even before the Soviet invasion, the Kabul government had faced resistance from the Hazaras, a Persian-speaking ethnic group living primarily in central Afghanistan. The Hazaras had survived particularly severe repressions under Amin, and they had the support of the new Islamist leaders of Iran. As early as August 1979, an “independent Islamic republic” was declared in the Hazarajat region under the leadership of the “Union of Islamic Warriors of Afghanistan.”

The region of Nuristan was also practically independent. In the 1980s, its residents fought both against Soviet troops and against the main forces of the Afghan opposition, earning them the nickname “mujahideen,” or warriors of jihad. The mujahideen were based in Pakistan and returned to that country to rest or make military preparations. Pakistan also served as a potential safe zone in cases of mass Soviet advances. By the mid-1980s, fighters from Nuristan controlled a significant portion of Afghanistan’s rural territory. The mujahideen were not a single political force, however. Each party among them asserted ownership over the territory where its members had family roots. They did not profess a single ideology, but most stood against the “godless” communists.

The Taliban had no relation to the mujahideen. On the contrary, that group, whose title translates as “students,” arose in response to the inability of the mujahideen to end the war; the Taliban began to form only several years after the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Its members pointed to the older generation’s insufficient adherence to Islam to explain the mujahideen’s military failure and became the first in a new generation of Islamist groups that would soon come to rely heavily on terrorist methods.

Is it true that the U.S. gave military aid to the USSR’s opponents?

Soviet leaders believed that by invading Afghanistan, they were defending the USSR’s strategic interests and protecting the country from a potential invasion from the south. In the West and in the United States, naturally, the situation made a different impression. There, the installation of a pro-communist regime in Afghanistan was received as a Soviet attempt to broaden its sphere of influence amid the defeat of the U.S. in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal in Washington, and the rise of leftist terrorism in multiple European countries. The internal order of the Western world had never seemed less stable. American enmity toward pro-Soviet Afghan leaders was also augmented by the fact that U.S. Ambassador Adolph Dubs had been killed under their rule. Dubs was kidnapped by radical fighters and killed during a rescue operation.

However, another popular perspective holds that the U.S. consciously drew the USSR into the Afghan conflict in hopes that the Soviet army would itself be forced to live through a “Vietnamese nightmare” and loosen its hold on Eastern Europe as a result. Proponents of this interpretation typically portray Soviet leaders as the victims of American political provocation. They often rely on an interview given by Zbigniew Brzezinski, an aide to then-President Jimmy Carter, as evidence for their claims. In a mid-1990s interview, Brzezinski said, “We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.”

In fact, Islamic opposition groups received much of their aid from neighboring Pakistan, whose government had long been making unsuccessful attempts to persuade the United States to follow suit and provide its own support. In the spring of 1979, the American administration’s position began to change. However, that change arose less because the U.S. hoped to draw the USSR into the conflict than because American officials felt certain that the Soviet Union would invade Afghanistan regardless. Of course, that prediction was soon confirmed. In short, the U.S. had an interest in ensuring that the USSR would not be able to attain a quick and easy victory.

By the end of 1979, approximately 35,000 troops had trained in Pakistan in preparation for fighting first against the pro-Soviet Afghan regime and then against Soviet troops themselves. Beginning in the early 1980s, after Ronald Reagan was elected president in the United States, the U.S. drastically increased the aid it provided to the mujahideen. The CIA initiated Operation Cyclone with the aim of arming the rebels, preparing them for battle, and attracting volunteers from other countries to their ranks. That aid included shipments of highly mobile Stinger rocket launchers that ultimately did great damage to Soviet aerial forces. It is also worth noting that some Russian scholars believe the United States made efforts to inhibit a peaceful settlement in the conflict.

Residents of the Afghan regional capital Khost greet Soviet soldiers returning from an operation against the mujahideen. May 26, 1986
Viktor Budan / TASS

Is it true that the U.S. helped terrorists like bin Laden?

The international aid the mujahideen received had a number of spillover effects. On one hand, it served as a stimulus to the Pakistani economy. On the other, because local authorities tended to be extremely corrupt, a large number of illegal weapons resurfaced in the black market and ultimately landed in the hands of criminal groups. In addition, the Pakistani government used the sudden burst of economic growth to increase its own military activities in opposition to its neighbor, India, and those efforts included the development of a Pakistani nuclear arsenal.

However, the best-known unintended consequence of international involvement in the conflict was the radicalization of political Islam and the growing reach of the jihadist ideology, which advocated for a total terrorist war against all non-Muslim nations. Those who believe this interpretation of history argue that the United States and its allies themselves enabled the training of the terrorists responsible for attacks like 9/11.

This story of the Afghan war does lead in a certain respect to the figure of Osama bin Laden, who participated in the war against the Soviets in the 1980s. Although no direct ties between bin Laden and the CIA have yet been demonstrated, the fact that many mujahideen who received American financial aid in Afghanistan later became terrorists is beyond doubt.

All in all, it seems that the American administration did not lend enough significance to the anti-Western leanings of radical Islam in the 1980s. Even more importantly, the U.S. government was unprepared for the very rapid collapse of the USSR, which left Western countries and Israel to become the fundamentalists’ most obvious enemies. However, critics of this narrative argue that the American government knew very well who it was dealing with and did its best to finance only internal Afghan opposition fighters. Supporters of that narrative argue that the U.S. simply couldn’t control the actions of the Pakistani government.

Is it true that the U.S. almost got the 1980 Olympics canceled because of the war in Afghanistan?

The American government sought to pit the USSR against the rest of the world. One of the diplomatic measures it took to that end was the boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympic Games, which were hosted in Moscow. The idea for a boycott was first expressed by the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, who publicly opposed the Soviet invasion and was sent to exile in Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) as a result. The idea then caught on quickly with the Carter administration. American diplomats persuaded their international allies that a boycott would not only leave the USSR isolated but also allow Soviet citizens to realize how strong the opposition to the Afghan War really was on a global scale.

At first, Carter’s initiative met with disapproval even among many Western governments, whose members insisted that the boycott would amount to a politicization of sports. Some U.S. allies never joined the boycott. France sent a substantially smaller delegation to the USSR than its government had initially planned. The British and Australian delegations also flew to Moscow in unusually small numbers using private rather than state finances. That said, countries like China, Albania, and Iran joined the boycott in full: although they were not U.S. allies, they had their own scores to settle with the USSR.

In the end, teams from 88 countries were in attendance at the Moscow Olympics — the smallest group since the 1956 games. In 1984, the Olympics took place in Los Angeles, and although the Soviet Union boycotted that event, 140 delegations from International Olymbic Committee member nations ultimately attended.

Why did the Soviet Union withdraw its troops? Did it win the war?

One could say the USSR lost the war as soon as the conflict went on longer than several weeks. Given that the strategic aim of the invasion was to install a stable pro-Soviet regime, it can be said that the USSR lost from that point of view as well: almost immediately after the withdrawal of Soviet troops, the civil war in Afghanistan began raging as furiously as ever, and that conflict eventually led to the overthrow of the regime the Soviet Union had established.

The first column of Soviet troops to return from Afghanistan crosses the Soviet-Afghan border. May 18, 1988
Viktor Budan / TASS

The Soviet Union began its attempts to initiate a peaceful settlement in the early 1980s, but its negotiators long insisted on allowing its local supporters to surrender only if their safety would be guaranteed. The situation began to change only when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. As Perestroika began in the USSR, the Afghan War permanently became a matter of internal and not only external politics. Public dissatisfaction with the ongoing conflict increased. The term “Cargo 200,” a code word for the zinc-lined coffins used to transport Soviet troops killed in Afghanistan, became a cultural symbol of the era.

Gorbachev, who had staked his reputation on the normalization of Soviet relations with the rest of the world, believed that the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan would be received well both within and outside the USSR. On the whole, he was right: the withdrawal enabled negotiations with the United States to limit the arms race that Gorbachev considered to be one of the most significant drags on the Soviet economy. Soviet relations with China also began to normalize.

At the same time, it was under Gorbachev that Soviet troops, hoping to leave the official Afghan government in as favorable a position as possible in advance of their withdrawal, undertook one of its most massive advances in the war. In 1987, more than 20,000 people died as a result of the carpet bombing of Kandahar. The bombing lasted more than a month.

How many people died?

To this day, no precise data on the number of Afghans killed in the war is available. Estimates range from 560,000 to two million people. It is even harder to determine the number of mujahideen who were killed. Pakistani intelligence services put that number at around 90,000 people. Approximately 6 million Afghans fled the country during the war. The number of official casualties among Soviet forces stands at 15,000 people, though alternative sources suggest that the figure could be as high as 26,000.

Is it true that the war in Afghanistan caused the USSR to collapse?

The internal processes that made the collapse of the USSR inevitable were seriously aggravated by the Afghan War. Some scholars believe the Soviet army’s inability to prevail over the mujahideen forced Gorbachev to refrain from taking active military action against a variety of separatist movements within the USSR. They also argue that the Soviet withdrawal provided a signal to separatists that they could effectively resist the central government’s authority. Many veterans of the war who were dissatisfied with the country’s leadership also began taking an active part in independence movements in their home regions. The best-known example is Dzhokhar Dudayev, the first leader of the Chechen separatist movement and a former general in the Soviet army who had often resorted to carpet-bombing enemy positions.

What is the Russian government’s position now? Has it admitted responsibility for the war?

In 1989, Andrey Sakharov proposed an official condemnation of the Afghan War at the Congress of People’s Deputies, which was then the center of power in the Soviet government. Other deputies tried to drown him out by clapping, whistling, and stomping their feet, but he did not stop talking. Sakharov died on December 14 of that year. Ten days later, the Second Congress of People’s Deputies condemned the introduction of Soviet troops into the Afghan conflict. Its announcement was based on research conducted by a committee within the High Council for International Affairs.

The deputies noted, “This action placed us in contrast with the majority of the global community and with the norms of behavior that should be accepted and observed in international communication. The many other violations of these norms committed by other governments both then and, unfortunately, in our time, cannot be considered an adequate justification for similar actions taken by our government.” No other official statements evaluating the Soviet government’s decisions during the war have since been released.

In February 2015, Vladimir Putin said that although the Soviet war effort included “very many mistakes,” there were also “real threats” that led to the invasion of Afghanistan. In November 2018, a faction of the Russian Communist Party proposed that the State Duma revise the Soviet government’s official condemnation of its actions in the Afghan War. The Duma’s Defense Committee supported that proposal, arguing that “the conditions under which Soviet troops were brought into Afghanistan were the same as the conditions under which the Russian army interfered in Syria [in the current war].”

Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said the question was not “the order of the day” and left the deputies’ initiative “without comment.” At the time of this publication, the Duma has not yet made a final decision with regards to the Communist Party’s proposal.

Dmitry Kartsev

Translation by Hilah Kohen