The Soviet Union’s Invasion Of Afghanistan
The Soviet Union’s Invasion Of Afghanistan
The Soviet Union launched an invasion of Afghanistan, its southern Central Asian neighbor, on Christmas Eve 1979. It began by airdropping elite forces into major Afghan cities. It quickly sent motorized divisions across the border. Within days, the KGB, which had penetrated the Afghan presidential palace, poisoned the president and his ministers, assisting in the launch of a Moscow-backed coup to install Babrak Karmal as the new puppet leader. The invasion sparked a nine-year civil war in Afghanistan.
The fighting had claimed the lives of an estimated 1 million civilians and 125,000 Afghan, Soviet, and other soldiers by the time the last Soviet troops left in early 1989, roaring back across the ironically called “Friendship Bridge.” The war inflicted damage not just on Afghanistan, but also on the Soviet Union, destroying its economy and national reputation. The military misadventure would have a significant impact on the USSR’s eventual collapse and disintegration.
So, what was Moscow’s motivation?
Afghanistan had a long history of strategic significance.
A political cartoon of Nicholas II and General Obruchev looking over a ‘War Map’ with ‘Russia’ on one side, ‘England’ on the other, and ‘Afghanistan’ in the middle,’ c. 1885; beneath the table, ‘the Herald’s Special Correspondent’ has entered through a trap door.
Afghanistan became a geopolitical player in what became known as “The Great Game” between Tsarist Russia and the British Empire in the early nineteenth century. Fearing that Tsarist Russia’s progress into Central Asia would bring it dangerously near to India’s imperial jewel, the United Kingdom fought three wars in Afghanistan to maintain a buffer against Russian aggression.
Afghanistan’s geopolitical significance was not altered by the 1917 Russian Revolution or the end of British colonial control in India. The Soviet Union became the first country to establish diplomatic relations with Afghanistan in 1919, the year Afghans gained independence to conduct their own foreign policy, and Afghanistan was one of the first countries to publicly recognize the Bolshevik government. Over the next few decades, the Soviet Union provided both economic and military assistance to a neutral Afghanistan. Afghanistan remained on the front lines of the Cold War when the British empire crumbled after World War II and the United States emerged as the world’s leading power.
Moscow Struggled To Secure Afghan Support.
In 1973, Afghanistan’s last king was deposed by Mohammed Daoud Khan, his cousin and brother-in-law, who established a republic. The Soviet Union was pleased by this shift to the left, but their joy was short-lived when dictatorial Daoud Khan refused to be a Soviet stooge. He promised Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in a private meeting in 1977 that he would continue to hire foreign professionals from countries outside the USSR. “If necessary, Afghanistan will stay poor, but free in its actions and judgments.” Leaders in the Soviet Union, predictably, were not pleased. In what became known as the Saur Revolution, the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) deposed Daoud Khan in 1978. Daoud Khan and 18 members of his family were killed.
Despite the fact that Afghanistan’s government was ostensibly communist, Soviet commanders couldn’t relax. The new PDPA leadership, divided and insecure, faced significant cultural opposition from conservative and religious figures, as well as opposition to the communists’ radical agrarian reforms across much of Afghanistan’s countryside. Hafizullah Amin, a revolutionary, organized an internal PDPA coup in the fall of 1979, killing the party’s founding head and ushering in his brief but violent reign. National unrest grew, and Moscow’s hand-wringing became more pronounced.
Moscow Was Concerned About The United States’ Increasing Involvement.
The turmoil in Afghanistan frightened Soviet policymakers because it raised the chances that Afghan leaders would seek assistance from the US. In late October 1979, top Politburo members told Brezhnev that Amin was pursuing a more “balanced approach” and that the US was detecting “the prospect of a change in Afghanistan’s political line.”
Only a few weeks later, KGB chief Yuri Andropov joined foreign minister Andrei Gromyko and defense minister Dmitri Ustinov in raising the alarm. They persuaded Brezhnev that even if the Americans were not actively attempting to undermine Soviet influence in Afghanistan, Amin’s brutal but unpredictable administration would create vulnerabilities that the US could exploit later. They argued that Moscow would be forced to act.
The ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ Was Upheld By The Soviets.
Those warnings are likely to have reached receptive ears. Brezhnev had presented his new credo a decade before, in 1968: all socialist (read: Moscow-friendly communist) regimes had a responsibility to uphold others, including using military force if necessary. The “Brezhnev doctrine” was a reaction to the “Prague Spring,” a brief period of liberalization led by Czechoslovakia’s new president, Alexander Dubek. Even Dubek’s minor defection from hardline communism was sufficient for the Soviets to invade Czechoslovakia and kidnap him.
By 1979, Afghanistan, a crumbling, once-friendly country, gave the USSR with yet another opportunity to apply the Brezhnev policy militarily. Failure to act, authorities knew, could jeopardize the Soviet Union’s willingness to support other regimes on its side of the so-called “Iron Curtain,” the physical and ideological barrier that separated the USSR from the rest of Europe after WWII.
Afghanistan May Aggravate The Soviet Union’s ‘Nationalities Problem.’
Throughout its history, Russia’s vast area has been home to a diverse range of national and ethnic groups who have lived in their ancestral homelands. During the Soviet era, when an oppressive system of centralized power was installed, communist officials were concerned about internal conflicts emerging in its satellite governments, notably the fast-growing Muslim-majority Central Asian states. While Soviet propaganda depicted life as a pleasant, multi-ethnic melting pot where varied traditions flourished within the backdrop of national unity, the reality for some groups included purges, deportations, and labor camps. To the Soviets, any dissent or shift in affiliation from Afghans—even those claiming to be communists—raised the prospect of similar movements in neighboring republics such as Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan, all of which shared ethnicity, religion, and history with Afghanistan.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear to see that invading Afghanistan to prop up an unpopular ruler was a foolish and futile undertaking. During the brief winter days of December 1979, however, the decision to do so looked logical—and unavoidable—to Soviet officials in Moscow.