In December 1979, The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, aiming to bolster the newly established communist regime and suppress the Mujahideen rebellion against the government. Intending to sustain the Soviet-friendly socialist government in a strategically important neighboring Afghanistan, the Soviet invasion represents the only time the Red Army entered a country outside the Eastern Bloc. About 100,000 Soviet soldiers seized major Afghan cities and strategic locations, causing violent and bloody clashes with Mujahideen rebels and those who supported them.
The conflict lasted almost ten years, ceasing on February 15, 1989. One million people died, and Afghanistan was left in ruins and destroyed socio-politically. Following the infamous withdrawal of Soviet troops, a wave of mass unrest and civil war raged in Afghanistan, contributing to the Taliban’s takeover of the country in 1996. The invasion of Afghanistan marked the Soviet Union’s final foreign military intervention before its eventual collapse in 1991.
The Strategic Importance of Afghanistan Before the Soviet-Afghan War
Afghanistan, located in Central Asia, was dominated by several Empires throughout its history. Beginning with the Persian Empire and the Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great, it wasn’t until the 18th century that Afghanistan was formed into a nation under the rule of Ahmad Shah Durrani. However, Afghanistan’s history did not remain peaceful. During 1813–1907, in the framework of the so-called Great Game, the British Empire and Tsarist Russia struggled to acquire dominance over the country. The rivalry lasted almost a century, resulting in three wars between the British and Russian Empires. Britain’s primary interest was to form a buffer zone in Afghanistan and to prevent Russian expansion in Central Asia, particularly in India, the jewel of the British Empire.
The world order underwent significant changes at the beginning of the 20th century. As a result of the Anglo-Afghan Treaty, Afghanistan gained independence in 1919 from a British protectorate. Afghanistan was among the first countries to recognize the legitimacy of the newly-established Bolshevik regime in Russia in 1919, marking the start of an active interaction between the two nations. Throughout the entire 20th century, this pattern never changed: in order to maintain control over its southern border, the Soviet Union provided economic and military assistance to its neighboring Afghanistan, which eventually resulted in Afghanistan’s socio-political dependency on the Soviet Union.
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The reasons behind the Soviet interest in Afghanistan can be found in Afghanistan’s strategic location, its natural resources, and Cold War struggles: the Soviet Union perceived Afghanistan’s strategic location in Central Asia as a unique opportunity to access the Indian Ocean, connecting Central Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia. Additionally, Afghanistan was rich in copper, iron ore, and gold; abundant natural resources created additional incentives for the Soviet Union to strengthen its influence in Afghanistan. Finally, amid the Cold War era international struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union for global dominance, the Soviet Union considered Afghanistan a key country to counteract the United States’ influence in the region, particularly in Pakistan and Iran.
Power Struggles in Afghanistan
On July 17, 1973, Mohammed Daoud Khan overthrew Afghanistan’s last king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, who was also his cousin. He then declared himself President of Afghanistan’s Republic and, unexpectedly to the Soviet government, refused to blindly follow Soviet directions. Daoud Khan was authoritative and had his own vision of Afghanistan’s development. Seeking greater freedom of action and disturbing his nation’s financial and military dependence on the Soviet Union was a necessary step to this end.
Daoud Khan met with Leonid Brezhnev in April 1977, who seemed concerned about the president’s decision to invite experts from Western countries to Afghanistan for consulting. Daoud Khan’s response to the Soviet leader’s criticism clearly illustrated Afghanistan’s possible drift from the Soviet sphere of influence:
Thus, it was unsurprising when the Soviet Union tasked the KGB to assist in a revolution against Khan. The Saur Revolution, led by the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), resulted in the deaths of Daoud Khan and his 18 family members in 1978. The PDPA declared the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. The new government was fragile and split into two factions: the Khalq (majority from rural areas) and the Parcham (majority from urban areas). Despite Soviet pressure to unite the factions in 1977, the dichotomy and power struggle never de-escalated, and the party could not galvanize wider public support either. Internal opposition to the communist PDPA was growing. Extensive social and land reforms only intensified the already tense situation, especially in Muslim and anti-communist communities.
Soon, in 1979, the leader of the PDPA, Nur Muhammad Taraki, was murdered by Hafizullah Amin, who organized an internal party coup and took control of the government as President, marking the start of his short but brutal regime.
The Mujahideen, a coalition of Afghan rebel groups, fiercely opposed Amin’s political repression and push for communism and radical reforms. As Amin’s government was on the verge of falling by December of 1979, the Soviet decision-makers upheld the Brezhnev Doctrine, first introduced in 1968. It gave the green light to Soviet military intervention in third countries by declaring that any threat to a socialist nation was a threat to socialism in general. In Afghanistan’s case, the military invasion aimed to support the PDPA’s communist regime and stop Western or Islamic states from gaining influence over Afghanistan. On the other hand, Western states were guided by the doctrine of communist containment and could not leave the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan without taking appropriate measures to sustain communism’s spread.
The leadership of the Soviet Union, concerned with the development, launched a military operation of 30,000 soldiers, who reached Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. The operation aimed to overthrow Amin and strengthen the communist regime of a new leader, Babrak Karmal.
Karmal, like other Soviet candidates, lacked popular support. The entry of Soviet troops into Kabul only intensified the already volatile attitude of traditional Muslim communities towards the communist-backed government. The Mujahideen started guerilla warfare, and their jihad was in defense of both their religion against largely atheist (or Christian) Soviet troops and the Soviet occupation of their nation. The Afghan army proved ineffective in suppressing the Mujahideen rebellion. In a matter of days, 100,000 Soviet troops entered Afghanistan, marking the start of a decade-long conflict.
The Military Campaigns & International Involvement
The Soviet Union’s entry into Afghanistan did not have the effect the Soviet government envisaged. Their invasion enhanced Afghan nationalistic sentiment even more and caused the insurgency to spread throughout the country. The rebels attacked the Soviet troops in the city of Kabul starting in the first week of January 1980. The government and the Soviet military forces had taken control of the entire city, strategic facilities, and military bases by then. The attacks were bloody and brutal, eventually forcing the Soviet army to stop patrolling Kabul the same month.
The situation escalated due to the Three Hoot Uprising on February 22, 1980. The uprising resulted from the mass arrests targeting religious and civil leaders, mainly from the Shia community. A 6-day protest resulted in the deaths of hundreds of protesters.
To suppress the Mujahideen’s support, the Soviet government adopted a strategy of depopulating rural areas in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union heavily bombed and used armored ground attacks in remote villages near the guerrilla attacks, where the Mujahideen could gain the support of the local population. Additionally, the Soviet Union was widely using the strategy of subversion. The Soviet spies joined the resistance groups, gathered information, and shared it with the government or Soviet forces. The bombing and attacks deprived the local population of resources, and the daily military campaign made survival impossible. Inhabitants of the villages occupied by the Soviet soldiers were often tortured and killed for information. As a result of these strategies, by 1982, some 2.8 million Afghans were forced to relocate to asylums in Pakistan, and an additional 1.5 million people fled to Iran.
The initial response of the United States under the Jimmy Carter administration was to impose an embargo on American grain in the Soviet Union and a boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980. The Administration also decided that it would not be in the national interest of the United States to oppose the Soviet Union directly during the Soviet-Afghan War. On January 4, 1980 in his State of the Union address, Jimmy Carter denounced the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and declared his own doctrine, promising to safeguard Middle Eastern oil supplies from the Soviet Union.
By 1986, the United States, concerned with the hostile development of the Soviet-Afghan War, launched Operation Cyclone in an effort to provide rebels with weapons and financial resources through Pakistan. This move significantly improved the Mujahideen resistance, as they could now combat Soviet aircraft. From this point on, the conflict in Afghanistan quickly transformed from national resistance and a civil war to a proxy war. The communist PDPA government was supported by the Soviet Union, and the rebellions were supported by the United States. Détente, the period of easing Cold War tensions between these superpowers, came to an end.
Over time, the United States’ military and financial assistance to the Mujahideen increased, and during the Reagan administration in the mid-1980s, it reached $400 million (approximately $1,130,583,000 today) per year.
Besides the United States and Pakistan, the Soviet-Afghan War saw wide international involvement. Great Britain, particularly, played an important role in direct combat. The British Special Air Force supported rebels and resistance groups in executing practical maneuvers, marking Britain’s most expensive foreign operations after World War II.
China perceived the Soviet invasion as a threat to its security, as both Afghanistan and the Soviet Union shared a border with it. During the Soviet-Afghan War, China enhanced its military presence in Afghanistan’s neighboring Xinjiang and assisted the Mujahideen by organizing military training in Xinjiang and near the Pakistani border. Egypt and Turkey also provided the Mujahideen with older military equipment after upgrading their own military sectors.
The End of the Soviet-Afghan War & Legacy
The Soviet Union anticipated a swift victory in Afghanistan, but the war lasted about ten years. The Soviet Union had lost an estimated 15,000 soldiers during the war and was financially and militarily worn out by 1988. The brutality of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, frequently referred to as “Russia’s Vietnam,” was also fueling domestic unrest among the Soviet population. One million people, 90,000 Mujahideen fighters, and 18,000 Afghan soldiers were killed during the Soviet-Afghan War.
The new leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, saw the decade-long Soviet intervention in Afghanistan as a political mistake, a move that was depriving the already trembling Soviet economy of important resources. In October 1985, the Politburo, under Gorbachev’s order, decided to start the withdrawal process of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
In April 1988, as a result of the Agreements on the Settlement of the Situation Relating to Afghanistan, or the 1988 Geneva Peace Accords, Gorbachev’s decision materialized, though the Soviet Union continued to provide non-military assistance to the Afghan government until its demise in 1991. The Mujahideen resistance finally won, but the prospects of the peaceful development of a new Democratic Republic of Afghanistan were shattered. Various rebel groups continued to fight for power, and civil war raged until the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist group, took over the country in September 1996. Afghanistan fell into ruins following the Soviet invasion, and its governmental institutions were fragile, making it a haven for religious extremists. Osama bin Laden, a militant from Saudi Arabia and the leader of the pan-Islamic militant organization Al-Qaeda, later used these circumstances to plot terrorist attacks worldwide.