The Soviet-Afghan War

Mujahideen fighters in the Afghan mountains. (Al jazeera)

As the 1970s came to a close, Soviet power seemed to be on the ascent. New military technology contributed to a rising fear of nuclear war, regime change in Iran marked a rebalancing of power in the Middle East and the aggressive foreign policy of Russian leadership had many in the West concerned. The Cold War seemed far from over, and as the unbeaten Red Army rolled into Afghanistan in December of 1979, they had every reason to be confident of success. But as the war dragged on, Russian casualties mounted and the Soviet state edged closer to bankruptcy, it became clear that Afghanistan was to be the USSR’s first decisive military loss – and its last battle.

ASAP: The previously invincible Red Army met its match in Afghanistan, the Graveyard of Empires – a defeat that sent shockwaves through the entire world.

A map of Afghanistan showing the complex nature of the disparate resistance movements known as the mujahideen. (Library of Congress)

Lead-up to Invasion

In 1978, the Saur Revolution brought a new, Soviet-friendly government into power in Kabul. The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (or PDPA) and its harsh “modernizing” reforms were massively unpopular with the country’s largely rural population. In September of 1979, PDPA president Nur Mohammad Taraki was murdered by members of his own party. Soviet-Afghan relations took a turn for the worse, and on Christmas Eve of 1979, Russian General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev ordered the deployment of the 80,000-strong 40th Army to Afghanistan. The invasion (which was massively unpopular in the West) was in line with the “Brezhnev Doctrine”, a policy that advocated for Russian intervention in the affairs of any communist state.

Women studying at a university in Kabul in the 1970s. Before the Soviet-Afghan war – and ensuing Taliban rule – women enjoyed considerably more rights. (Daily Mail)

At this point, the Soviet Red Army had a (mostly factual) reputation for being unbeatable on the battlefield, and was well armed and equipped. Initially, rebel Afghan Army units and lashkar tribal forces engaged the Red Army in the open, but were quickly slaughtered. After the initial invasion, the main Soviet opponents were the mujahideen – or, “those engaged in a holy struggle” – a diverse group of freedom fighters who took refuge in the mountains near Pakistan. Many were armed with hundred-year old British Lee Enfield rifles, legacies of the failed British invasion in the late 1800s.

Mujahideen fighters pray with their weapons close at hand. Their tenacity and familiarity with the unforgiving Afghan mountains made the Soviet mission incredibly hard. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Offensives

The Red Army controlled Kabul, but the countryside remained relatively free. Some Afghans living in Nuristan were completely unaware of the invasion. In order to “pacify” the rural areas, the Red Army launched numerous offensives through the Panjshir Valley and elsewhere. Columns of BMP and BTR armoured vehicles pushed into towns and hamlets while terrifying Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters patrolled the skies. Resistance from the mujahideen brought massive retaliation from the Red Army; a shot fired from a village resulted in the annihilation by artillery of said village. Any remaining inhabitants were often tortured or killed. Millions of anti-personnel mines – like the PFM-1, which was designed to look like a toy to attract children – were airdropped over the countryside in an effort to degrade Afghan morale.

The PFM-1 – or, “Perfect Family Murder” as Western military forces refer to it – a mine designed to maim children. Millions were dropped on Afghanistan, and millions remain there today. (Wikimedia Commons)

This unrefined approach was not only inhumane, but counterproductive. The mujahideen were usually able to escape after their ambushes on Red Army columns, and the ensuing destruction of civilian property only shored up support for the Afghan resistance. The Red Army’s reputation – largely earned during WWII at Stalingrad and the steppes of Eurasia – was well-deserved; but their tactics had always relied on overwhelming artillery power and massed human-wave attacks to clean up any survivors. This blunt force doctrine, where the enemy was to be trapped between the “hammer and anvil” of artillery and mechanized infantry, was ill-suited to asymmetric warfare like the Russians encountered in Afghanistan. Additionally, many historians tended to forget that the Red Army had actually been beaten many times before in the Winter War with Finland, a guerilla conflict very similar to the one they were now engaged in.

Red Army troops, dismounted from their AFVs and IFVs, engage in some rare “heart and minds” activities with local Afghans. (AP)

As the war progressed and almost no palpable change occurred, the Soviets began aggressively deploying the Khadamat-e Aetla’at-e Dawlati (or KHAD) – Afghan secret police – in an effort to infiltrate mujahideen cells and identify enemy positions. Although the KHAD did succeed in setting off some ethnic rivalries between mujahideen groups, they were hated by the Afghan populace for their brutal and ham-handed tactics. Additionally, spetsnaz (special purpose) troops of the GRU and FSB Alfa enjoyed some measure of success against the mujahideen. Spetsnaz troops – unlike the usual Russian conscript soldier – were incredibly tough and resourceful, and managed to close down a number of mujahideen supply routes from Pakistan.

A captured mujahideen fighter is interrogated by Spetsnaz (special-purpose) troops in the mountains. (Public Domain)

Red Army efforts at blasting the Afghans into submission only strengthened mujahideen resolve. The fierce guerillas learned to attack Red Army convoys suddenly before melting back into the mountains. They learned that they could hide from the ever-present Mi-24 Hind helicopters – and their advanced thermal imaging scanners – by laying on sun-baked rocks under prayer blankets. Armed with hundred-year-old British rifles and captured Soviet Kalashnikov systems, the mujahideen became adept at infiltrating Russian bases at night and carrying off terrified Russian teenage soldiers into the hills. The few who returned told tales of savage mujahideen torture, and soon, Russian morale was plummeting.

An Mi-24 Hind gunship on a “show of force” run in Afghanistan. The massive helicopter was heavily armed with cannons, machine guns and rockets, and could spot a human target from miles away. (The Atlantic)

American Involvement

As war in Afghanistan dragged on into the 1980s, tensions began to rise with NATO and the Western alliance. The Americans were already upset about the death of Ambassador “Spike” Dubs in 1979, and relations soured further in the following years. The election of US president Ronald Reagan in 1980, and the aggressive anti-Soviet policies that followed, made matters worse. In 1983, a NATO exercise codenamed Able Archer 83 took place in Central Europe; the Soviets, made paranoid by Reagan’s aggressive rhetoric, assumed the worst and believed the exercise to be a real attack. Disaster was averted at the last minute, but tensions remained high.

Charlie Wilson (centre, caucasian), the “champion” of the mujahideen in the United States congress and the FIM-29’s biggest fan. (Public Domain)

Concurrently, many Americans had come to identify with the mujahideen and their cause. Christian groups began fundraising for the Afghan freedom fighters, and one congressman by the name of Charlie Wilson adopted the Afghan cause as his own. For many Americans, Afghanistan represented an opportunity for revenge for the Vietnam War (and the Soviet involvement in the conflict). In 1986, Wilson learned of the FIM-92 Stinger, a relatively advanced anti-aircraft weapons system; the eccentric congressman fixated on the weapon as a sort of “wonder weapon” that he hoped would win the war. Soon, thousands of Stingers were flowing into Afghanistan, and Mi-24 Hinds – seemingly the only Soviet weapon the mujahideen feared – were now vulnerable. By the end of the conflict, a total of 74 Hinds had been shot down. Support for the mujahideen from Charlie Wilson and the CIA certainly did not “win the war”, as American historians like to claim (Afghan tenacity and determination was largely responsible) but it certainly helped speed things along.

An artist’s rendering of the “First Sting”. (Wikimedia Commons)

Impacts in Russia

The Soviet government kept disastrous information about the war secret. Casualty lists were kept under wraps, and returning dead soldiers were not granted state funerals. Wounded veterans were discouraged from talking about their experiences, but word gradually spread – word of the unbeatable mujahideen, the brutality of the KHAD allies, and, perhaps worst of all, the Red Army’s inability to pay its soldiers’ salaries and pensions. The war in Afghanistan wrecked the Russian military’s image as an invincible force and degraded public support for the institution as a whole.

Mikhail Gorbachev (R) with Ronald Reagan (L) in the late 1980s. (History.com)

In March of 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev took office as leader of the USSR. Unlike his predecessors, Gorbachev was young, well-traveled, well-educated and seemingly immune to the Soviet aversion to self-criticism. After taking office, Gorbachev uncovered massive weaknesses in the Soviet system; the economy was stagnant, the military was unable to keep pace with American advancements, and the state was running out of money. The war with Afghanistan’s “primitive” freedom fighters was rapidly draining the public purse, and Gorbachev knew things had to change. Reforms were announced in the shape of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness, freedom of speech and transparency), and in 1987, talks began with Afghan powerbrokers. Troop withdrawals began that year and concluded in 1989 after 9 years of fighting. Soon after – despite Gorbachev’s best efforts – the Soviet Union collapsed.

The Red Army retreats from Kabul on the 15th of February, 1989. (Leonid Yakutin/Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

Impacts in Afghanistan

Needless to say, the war was a disaster for Afghans. Between 500,000 and 2 million civilians were killed, and 7 million refugees displaced throughout the region. Some rural Afghans – like those in Nuristan – remained blissfully unaware that any war was going on at all, but the vast majority of Afghans suffered. The power vacuum left by the retreating Red Army resulted in years of bloody civil war, out of which emerged the Taliban, a violent Islamic extremist movement that drastically limited civil freedoms. Arms, training and financial aid left over from the proxy war waged by the USSR and United States during the 1980s had a lasting impact on Afghanistan and contributed to decades of regional instability – and suffering for the Afghan populace. Afghanistan’s reputation as a “graveyard of empires” has proven historically very accurate: no modern state, from the British to the Americans, has succeeded in “winning” there. But let’s not forget the impacts of centuries of combat on the ordinary Afghans who live there, caught in between the struggles of “greater nations”.

Mujahideen fighters mixing with Afghan children near Wanna, on the border with Pakistan. (AP Photo/Christopher Gunness, File)

ASAP Notes

In a hurry? Here are the ASAP notes on this topic.

  • Who? The invasion was launched by the Soviet 40th Army and the 5th Spetsnaz (Special Purpose) Brigade; 620,000 Russians served there in total. They faced off against rebel Afghan Army units at first, but as the war progressed, the main Soviet opponent became the mujahideen: tribal guerilla fighters.
  • Where? Afghanistan.
  • When? From Christmas eve of 1979 to February 15th, 1989 – over 9 years.
  • What? The 40th Army invaded the country rapidly and Kabul, the capital city, was seized quickly. However, the Red Army had trouble securing the rural areas of Afghanistan. A brutal policy of “search and destroy” rapidly eroded civilian support for the Soviet invaders, and the war dragged on without much measurable result. Eventually, American support and the mujahideen tenacity won out over superior Russian numbers. Over 30,000 Soviet and Afghan Army soldiers were killed; 57,000 mujahideen were killed; and between 500,000 and 2 million civilians died.
  • Why? The invasion was justified by the Soviet “Brezhnev doctrine” as a necessary act to support a friendly communist government. Red Army reliance on overwhelming force meant that the nuance required for counter-insurgency operations (or asymmetrical warfare) was severely lacking in the Soviet approach.
  • Result: Decisive Afghan victory (and proxy victory for the US and NATO). Afghanistan descended into civil war and the Taliban – a repressive Islamist movement known for sheltering terrorist groups – took control of the country.

Food for Thought

Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.

  • Compare and contrast the Brezhnev Doctrine with American interventionist policies. Compare the two policies in practice (e.g the Vietnam War vs the Soviet-Afghan War).
  • What was the initial Afghan reaction to the Soviet invasion?
  • What was the initial Western reaction to the Soviet invasion? What forms did protests take?
  • Compare Afghanistan before the war to Afghanistan in the present day. What are some of the most devastating losses suffered by the country throughout decades (or centuries) of war?
  • The British experienced a similar military humiliation in Afghanistan a hundred years before the Soviet invasion. Compare and contrast the two events.

Further Reading & Citations

Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!

  • Sikorski, Radek. 1987. Moscow’s Afghan war: Soviet motives and Western interests. [Great Britain]: Alliance for the Institute for European Defence & Strategic Studies.
  • Baitenmann, Helga. “NGOs and the Afghan War: The Politicisation of Humanitarian Aid.” Third World Quarterly 12, no. 1 (1990): 62-85. Accessed January 30, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3992448.
  • Khalili, Masood, and Mahmud Khalili. 2017. Whispers of war: an Afghan freedom fighter’s account of the Soviet invasion.
  • Crile, George. 2003. Charlie Wilson’s war. New York: Grove Press.

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