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  • James Houser

December 27, 1979 - The Soviet-Afghan War

Updated: Jun 11, 2021

December 27, 1979. It’s a tale as old as time. A global superpower sees chaos and turmoil in Afghanistan as a threat to its interests, and decides to intervene and install a friendly government. They’re about to learn a hard lesson, and a decade later realize that the only way to win in Afghanistan is…don’t invade Afghanistan. Of course, it’s the Soviet Union learning this lesson in the 1980s. Too bad the United States wasn’t paying attention.

There exists an inaccurate meme that “no one has ever conquered Afghanistan.” This is only true if we ignore all history before the 1840s. Afghanistan was for millennia one of the most critical pieces of terrain in world history, a crossroads for the Silk Road that sits at the meeting of Persia, Central Asia, China, and India. It was rarely important for its own resources – Afghanistan has few resources on its own – but more for its central position in the vast network of Eurasian trade. The only feasible land route into India from the rest of Asia runs through the Khyber Pass southeast of Kabul. Control of the Khyber was important for every empire that ever sprang up in Central Asia, Persia, or northern India, including but not limited to: the Persians of Cyrus and Darius, Alexander the Great, the Maurya of India, the Sassanid Persians, the Arab Caliphate, the Ghaznavid Turks, the Ghorid Turks, the Delhi Sultanate, the Mongols, the Mughals, and finally the British. (Whew.)

So Afghanistan was usually a fault line between empires, not the center of an empire of its own. Whether that empire was based in Persia, India, or the Silk Road lands of Central Asia, Afghanistan’s population was usually in the hands of some larger power. The people of Afghanistan usually didn’t have much to complain about, because that meant they were left to their own devices, usually paid off with tribute to keep the mountain passes open. No one interfered in the daily lives of the Afghans or tried to rule with too heavy a hand, lest that critical trade route snap shut.

With no strong central authority to beat its peoples into submission, “Afghanistan” never unified around a central political system or ethnic group. The lands that today make up Afghanistan are a mind-melting cacophony of different tribal and ethnic groups, all practicing their own distinct brand of Islam and few respecting any authority higher than the local leader. This is in spite of repeated, determined attempts by various Western powers for the last 200 years to impose some sort of order and rule on the country. For many minorities, succumbing to the rule of Kabul has never been an option; Kabul, along with Kandahar and the critical Khyber Pass, are within the territory of the Pashtun. The Pashtun are the largest single ethnic group in Afghanistan, but they only make up around 42% of the population. Another 27%, the majority in Herat and a distinct minority across the northern country, are Tajiks. The remaining 31% of Afghanistan basically falls into the category of “other.”

Good luck getting these guys to agree on jack shit, especially since the Pashtuns are always fighting amongst themselves anyway. Why would the Tajiks want to be ruled by Pashtun Kabul? Why would the Hazaras of central Afghanistan want to be ruled by either? And what about the Uzbeks, strongly concentrated in the north but weak everywhere else? Who’s gonna tell THEM what to do from Kabul?

In the 1740s, a Pashtun warlord named Ahmad Shah Abdali – who had been in the service of the late Persian conqueror Nader Shah (star of one of my posts back in April I think?) – brought his units to his home country and set up a short-lived Afghan Empire. The remnant of this empire fell into the borders of what is modern Afghanistan, but Abdali’s successors exercised very little control out of the Pashtun-heavy areas of Kabul and Kandahar. Soon the Emirs of Afghanistan were nominally the monarchs of this dense mountain country, but they never had real control of the outlying regions, and the times were changing. Trade through the Khyber Pass was beginning to dry up, since a new force had arisen in India and on the high seas to circumvent the old Silk Road trade routes. This, of course, was the British Empire.

With the British domination of India and the opening of large global trade networks across the world’s oceans, the importance of the Khyber as a great trade artery began to diminish significantly. No longer were great conquerors trying to take the Khyber Pass and dominate trade into India; now the British East India Company dominated trade into India, and the Khyber – along with Afghanistan itself – became a backwater. No longer would Afghanistan be a prize, an integral link in the world economy, which had always stimulated its culture and enhanced its prestige. Now it was a no-man’s-land, a barrier between great powers, a security threat. Starting in the 1800s, outside (Western) powers viewed Afghanistan not as a prize to be won, or its people as necessary allies who needed to be catered to in order to keep the trade routes open. Now Afghanistan was a PROBLEM. This was the reversal, the great shift, the pivotal period in the history of this land that had once been the crossroads of civilization. Now it had become the “graveyard of empires.”

The first great Western empire to fall victim to Afghanistan’s tempting, vulnerable appearance was the British. The Russians were expanding their reach into Central Asia in the 1820s and 1830s, and a wave of Russophobia swept Britain, rousing fears that Russia would invade the “Crown Jewel” of India through the Khyber Pass by currying favor in Afghanistan. The British invaded Afghanistan in 1839 to “secure” it from Russian influence by removing the sitting Emir and placing a new monarch in his place. The result was an infamous disaster, with a British army being slaughtered in the mountains by Pashtun tribes in 1842. Singed, the British withdrew from Afghanistan, only to try again and receive yet another mauling in 1880 – though they at least avoided complete disaster this time. In both cases, Britain claimed victory, but notably left as soon as they could. Afghanistan had stood against the world’s most powerful empire twice in the 19th Century, and come out with its independence intact. Few others could say that.

British soldiers stationed in India manned the frontier with Afghanistan for over a century, and the “Northwest Frontier” became one of the most dangerous and taxing combat deployments a British soldier could expect. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Dr. Watson, before his friendship with Sherlock Holmes, had been wounded in Afghanistan – demonstrating the prominence of that unconquerable land to British minds. By 1947, though, the British had given up the issue for good when the former lands of British India declared independence. Now it was someone else’s problem.

That “someone else” ended up being the Soviet Union. The Afghan state had often sought Russian assistance in order to preserve its independence from Britain, and when Lenin took power in the Russian Revolution, the Afghans shrugged and said “Tsar, Chairman, apples and oranges.” This relationship quickly soured during Stalin’s brutal suppression of the Afghans’ ethnic kinsmen in Central Asia, and only a pair of limited Soviet interventions quelled Afghan assistance to their brethren. From that point on, Afghanistan was firmly in the Soviet sphere of influence.

This wasn’t completely bad. Soviet investment in Afghanistan resulted in the construction of a lot of infrastructure, and Soviet military assistance helped train the Afghan army. There was a catch, of course; Soviet agents flooded the Afghan government, and their influence was keenly felt in economic and social policy. Afghanistan’s Emirs began to transition slowly from an absolute monarchy, in the old Turkish-Persian style, to a constitutional one. This wasn’t enough for the Soviets, of course. Their long-planted seeds included an underground movement, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, that in 1973 launched a long-awaited coup. They overthrew the King of Afghanistan, sending him into exile, and installed Prince Mohammed Daoud as Prime Minister of a new, more socialist Afghanistan.

Even this might have been a successful government. Daoud quickly revealed himself to be a canny politician. He had come to power with the assistance of the left and the Communists, but he was still an Afghan prince and he understood the realities of his nation. Daoud eschewed traditional communist ideals and influences and began a careful program of balancing Afghan tribal politics and power bases. To the Soviet Union, though, this wasn’t good enough. To the stagnant dead-hand rule of Chairman Leonid Brezhnev, anything short of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy was unacceptable. Brezhnev ordered the Afghan Communists to take action. In a coup that the KGB was certainly aware of and likely helped organize, on April 24, 1978, Daoud was murdered in a coup that left around 2,000 dead.

The new Afghan Communist government of Prime Minister Nur Mohammed Taraki, backed to the hilt by the Soviet Union, began a program of total communism. A radical series of reforms aimed to uproot old Islamic and tribal traditions, including a total overhaul of the sharia and “feudal” law that was so central to Afghan ways. The result was near-universal resistance. By early 1979, there was armed resistance in 25 of Afghanistan’s 28 provinces. Open war followed, and the government did its best to crush all resistance. The Communist government committed many atrocities, including the brutal massacres of nearly 27,000 Afghan prisoners, many at the infamous Pul-e-Charki prison. Non-Communist intelligentsia were either murdered or fled into exile.

As Afghanistan descended into utter chaos, with the entire society basically coming out against what most (correctly) perceived to be a government of Western puppets and foreign lapdogs, the Soviet Union began to contribute more and more resources to Afghanistan. It wasn’t enough. On September 14, 1979, Taraki’s murderous deputy Hafizullah Amin seized power, allegedly having Taraki suffocated with a pillow. But Amin quickly proved himself unable to control Afghanistan, or even Kabul itself. Much as the Americans had in Vietnam, the Soviets soon realized that they had staked far too much on Afghanistan. Their answer, predictably, was to double down. They began preparing to commit troops to overthrow Amin and install a puppet at the center of Afghanistan’s government.

It’s hard to see the Soviet decision as anything but a monumental error. Trying to force Marxist government on a country that had never been centralized and never WANTED to be centralized was asking for trouble. The Soviets were running into issues that had vexed the British before them and would vex the Americans after them: everyone knows your puppet government is a puppet government, and the more you try to keep your puppet government afloat, the more obvious it becomes that it’s a puppet government. If it COULD stand on its own, it would. If it CAN’T, what are they even good for?

But the Soviet reasons for invading Afghanistan point to a much deeper problem in Soviet policy. The Soviet Union envisioned something like their operations in Hungary 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968: a large armored column rolling into the capital city to crush the embers of open revolt. The Soviet Union could not afford an open defection from the Communist bloc. Any Communist government within Soviet reach that fell to its own people was an unacceptable PR disaster. Everyone remembered how embarrassed the United States had been in 1975 when South Vietnam fell. The Soviets, already aware of enormous weaknesses that were threatening their regime, could not afford a single crack in the façade.

On December 27, 1979, the Soviets struck. Elements of the 105th Guards Airborne Division had been building up in Kabul, and on this date moved out from the airport to seize the capital. The Afghan Army was prevented from interfering by Soviet agents. Spetsnaz took control of the critical government buildings and infrastructure, and paratroopers with BMD armored vehicles took control of the central palace. Muhammad Amin was executed by the Soviets, and an exiled Afghan Communist was flown in to be the new puppet Prime Minister. Two other infantry divisions were soon flooding into Afghanistan from the northern border with the Soviet Union. The coup was complete. The war was over.

LOL! No it wasn’t. This is Afghanistan. It’s never over when you think it is.

By 1980, the Soviets realized they were facing one of the largest national uprisings of the 20th Century. The new puppet regime in Kabul had planned to rely on the Afghan National Army to keep order within the new Marxist state, but the Army rapidly dissolved, falling from 80,000 men to 20,000 as Afghan soldiers abandoned their posts – but took their weapons with them. The Soviet troops were swamped, in an unfamiliar land surrounded by hostile peoples that saw them as just the newest foreign oppressor to be overthrown. Despite brutal reprisals, including the machine-gunning of peaceful demonstrations, popular resistance and open revolt swept the major cities. On February 21, 1980, the city of Kabul was swept with cries of “Allah Akbar” (“God is Great!”) as a sudden burst of religious fervor nearly overran the Soviet garrison.

The Soviet Army ran into a major problem very fast: they had no knowledge or policy of counterinsurgency. If the United States is not very good at counterinsurgency, the Soviets were some orders of magnitude worse. Throughout the first few years of the war, their response to basically everything was brute force. Helicopter gunships, tank regiments, motor rifle divisions, all responded to guerrilla warfare with saturation bombing and open assault. The Soviets had been training for years to fight NATO on the North German Plain, the great Cold War battle of annihilation that would envelop and destroy American and German armored divisions.

Unlike the Americans, who had experience in the Philippines and in Vietnam with guerrilla warfare, the Russian answer to guerrillas had always been uncompromising and severe. Now, with the need to pacify a country and give the appearance of a stable national government free of obvious Soviet interference, they were lost in the woods. This was a war unlike anything the Soviet Union had ever prepared for, and their military methods of rocket-flying conventional warfare had nothing to do with the requirements of counterinsurgency.

Their instruments of warfare were certainly not suited to the task. The Soviet military, much like the Americans in Vietnam, was full of conscripts who had little interest in the war they were fighting. Leadership would do brief tours in the country before being rotated back home. Many of the initial invasion units were composed of conscripts from Central Asia, who had more in common culturally and religiously with the Afghans than their Russian overlords, and tended to be sympathetic towards the cause of their opponents. Soviet small-unit tactics and initiative proved wanting in Afghanistan, but they began to improve as time went on. Nevertheless, the Red Army was soon experiencing serious morale and drug problems, and these only increased as the Cold War wound down and the Soviet economy and political structure began to crumble. (If this sounds familiar, it’s basically a reskin of the American experience in Vietnam.)

The Afghan mujahideen, or the resistance movement, was remarkably resilient in their war against the overwhelming firepower of the Soviet Union. Contrary to some popular myths, the mujahideen did not become the Taliban. The Afghan resistance was a complicated and diverse group of organizations that never had a clear leader. Its ideologies ran the gamut from traditional Pashtun nationalism, to Maoist communism (notably the SAMA, controlling territory north of Kabul), to the powerful and modernist Tajik movement of Ahmad Shah Massoud, to the radical Jihadist movement of Osama bin Laden – a Saudi exile. Many of these organizations were as hostile to each other as they were to the Soviets, but they put this bitterness aside until the war was over. Bin Laden in particular never led a major faction of the mujahideen, only commanding 2,000 of the estimated 250,000 Afghan insurgents during his time, yet he is the most famous for obvious reasons.

The ethnic, religious, and regional divisions of Afghanistan led to a decentralizing tendency amongst the mujahideen. There was no clear leader, and most of the bands followed tribal or religious lines of organization. In Pashtun regions especially, the tribal structure provided the command basis, and these confederations could grow as large as 10,000 members during serious Soviet offenses. In Tajik, Uzbek or Hazari sections of Afghanistan, religious leadership tended to be more important since these communities lacked political leaders in the Pashtun-dominated country. Afghanistan’s diversity became one of its greatest strengths in a time of guerrilla war since there was no shortage of local leaders prepared to act on their own initiative.

The guerrilla tactics of the mujahideen caused no end of trouble to the Soviets. They favored sabotage, surprise rocket or mortar attacks, land mines and assassination. They employed what today might be called “terrorist” tactics, including shooting down civilian airliners and the bombing of civilian work parties. The mujahideen even launched cross-border raids into the Soviet Union. Despite often suffering heavy casualties from Soviet firepower and carpet-bombing airstrikes, the mujahideen proved irrepressible.

The United States was eager to support the mujahideen, and their primary source of aid was Pakistan – the primary source of support for Afghan insurgents to this day. Both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan gave substantial support to the mujahideen, using the Pakistani intelligence service ISI as an intermediary for American support. Almost all this support went to the Sunni mujahideen, since the Shia mujahideen groups were allied with Iran, an enemy of both Pakistan and the United States. The direct shipment of arms to the Sunni mujahideen was a personal interest of Democratic Congressman Charlie Wilson, who became entranced with the romantic anti-Communist cause.

Soon the CIA and other agencies were also involved in Afghanistan to assist the resistance to the Soviets. Included in this aid were large shipments of Stinger missiles, which accounted for many Soviet helicopters. Of course, the Soviets had provided anti-air operators and defense to North Vietnam back in the 1960s and 1970s, so the United States just felt like it was returning the favor.

Ultimately, American involvement – though much ballyhooed then and now – had very little to do with ultimate Afghan success in their war throughout the 1980s. The United States did not force the Soviets to invade Afghanistan, or make the numerous mistakes they made in the country. Much like Americans would later blame Iran for their difficulties in Iraq, the Soviets tended to assert that the Americans were to blame for failures in Afghanistan. The Afghans were also funded by the British, OPEC, and the Chinese of all people. The real credit goes to the Afghans themselves, of course, and their famously hostile country.

By 1985, the Soviets were looking for a way out. After committing atrocities across Afghanistan, including widespread rape and massacres, and launching multiple air and land operations to clear areas of insurgents, the Soviets had almost 115,000 soldiers in the country that were accomplishing basically nothing. 80% of Afghanistan was outside the control of the Soviets or their puppet government. The military, diplomatic, and economic costs were becoming unsustainable. The Soviets tried to transfer the burden of the war to the Afghan National Army, but the puppet forces were incapable of withstanding the pressure. Much like in Vietnam, once again, the Soviets had to keep intervening to save face.

In mid-1987, the Soviets finally gave up. Mikhail Gorbachev announced that the Soviet Union would start withdrawing their forces from Afghanistan. Gorbachev’s ascendancy in the Soviet Union had prompted much of the rethinking on Afghanistan, since he saw it as an unwise and unnecessary drain on their resources. He had also been trying to patch up relations with China, which was withholding the normalization of relations until the Soviets had withdrawn from Afghanistan. After a symbolic “victory” in Operation Magistral from 1987 to 1988, the Soviets began pulling their troops out. The last Russians left Afghanistan on February 15, 1989. They had lost 14,453 killed in action, and had inflicted 57,000 dead mujahideen and as many as 2,000,000 civilian casualties – but kill-death ratios do not tell the whole story. The Soviet Union had lost Afghanistan, and fatally weakened itself in the struggle.

The Soviet withdrawal, of course, left a power vacuum in the fractious region of Afghanistan. The puppet government lasted until 1992, when it was finally overthrown by the mujahideen. But the killing did not end. The Soviet destabilization of the country continued to roil the land, as the largest Pashtun mujahideen faction – the Hezb-e Islami Gulbaddin – seized Kabul and tried to overwhelm the other groups. From this wreckage arose a radical Pashtun group known as the Taliban, under the leadership of Mohammed Omar, who aligned themselves against the Northern Alliance of Ahmad Shah Massoud. As Afghanistan degenerated further into civil war, it became a hiding place for radical Islamist groups of all stripes.

Massoud, leading his Northern Alliance in the Balkh region of Afghanistan, may have represented the best hope for a future Afghanistan due to his political and military skills – but he, like so many other rulers, failed to achieve dominance over the fractured land that has never truly acknowledged any ruler. In 2001, while he was still leading the resistance to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, he made a public speech to the European Parliament warning of an imminent terrorist attack on a major Western power by the very bands he was fighting. He was assassinated, probably by al-Qaeda, on September 9, 2001 – just as the attack he had warned about was already in motion.

Two months later, as a result of those same 9/11 attacks, the United States would intervene in Afghanistan…to remove a potential threat, restore order to the country, and place a government to their liking in power. 20 years later, the war is not over, and America has lost much blood and treasure in this distant land of fractured peoples.

Who will be next to fall into the graveyard of empires? In 2011, historian William Dalrymple traveled to Afghanistan to do research for a book on the British wars in that country. He met with Afghan tribal chiefs to hear their stories. What they said speaks volumes.

“In truth, all the Americans here know their game is over. It is just their politicians who deny this.”

“These are the last days of the Americans,” said the other elder. “Next it will be China.”

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