Afghanistan: Soviet Intervention in
AFGHANISTAN: SOVIET INTERVENTION IN
Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 to preserve a shaky Communist government, but after failing to quell guerrilla resistance, they withdrew in February 1989. A cutoff of military and economic aid from the collapsing Soviet Union led to the Afghan govern-ment's fall to a resistance coalition in April 1992.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) secretly encouraged and financed Afghan communists from before the formation of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in 1965 until the party unexpectedly came to power through a military coup d'état on 27 April 1978. There was no evidence that the USSR organized or controlled the coup, but it rushed advisers to Kabul to help consolidate the new regime under the PDPA leader, Nur Muhammad Taraki. When popular opposition to the regime's economic and social changes provoked armed resistance, Moscow supplied weapons and military advisers who took unofficial command of the Afghan armed forces. In mid-1979, the Soviets sought the removal of Taraki's deputy, Hafizullah Amin. They blamed Amin for antagonizing the Afghan people into rebellion.
Soviet President Leonid I. Brezhnev was angered by Amin's overthrow of Taraki on 14 September 1979 and Amin's later order to murder Taraki. Brezhnev and other Soviet officials also feared that Afghanistan's communist regime might be defeated by strengthening Muslim guerrillas, that such a defeat would damage Soviet prestige worldwide, and that the adjacent Muslim areas of the USSR would be destabilized. Brezhnev decided on 12 December 1979 to send the Soviet army into Afghanistan.
The Soviet army seized control of Kabul on 27 December, killing Amin and installing Babrak Karmal as president. Moscow claimed its army had been officially invited into Afghanistan. Through advisers, the USSR ran Karmal's government until Moscow decided he was a failure and replaced him in May 1986 with Mohammed Najibullah.
The Soviet invasion turned what had been a civil war into a defense of nationalism and the Islamic religion against foreign atheists and their Afghan puppets. A Soviet force that reached about 118,000 men fought an estimated 200,000 or more mojahedin (Islamic holy warriors). The Soviet army was
not trained or equipped for counterinsurgency warfare, and it never mastered the situation. Although it could mount offensives that temporarily seized control of any desired part of the Texas-sized country, it and the weak Afghan army were unable to maintain lasting control of much more than main towns and key communications lines. Soviet military operations drove some 5 million Afghans into refuge in Pakistan and Iran, and another 2 million sought shelter in towns from Soviet devastation of rural areas. Soviet soldiers slaughtered unarmed civilians in retaliation for guerrilla attacks—unproven reports said they used poison gas on unprotected villagers—and they spread millions of land mines that continued to kill and maim long after the war ended.
The mojahedin, armed by the United States and its allies, and trained and directed by Pakistan's military intelligence service, ambushed roads and harassed garrisons. Soviet adaptations for more mobile warfare, including sending raiding teams into guerrilla territory to interrupt supply lines, had only limited success. The guerrillas' introduction in September 1986 of U.S.-supplied Stinger antiair-craft missiles curtailed the Soviet advantage of air power to attack guerrillas and move troops over the rugged terrain. The military advantage began shifting to the resistance as the Soviets lost heart. Non-aligned nations voted in the United Nations against the Soviet troop presence in Afghanistan, and Western countries restricted ties with the USSR.
After becoming the Soviet leader in March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev decided that the economically staggering USSR needed to improve relations with the West to reduce its military spending burden and obtain technical aid. He recognized the Afghanistan war as an obstacle to better Western relations as well as a source of Soviet public malaise. Therefore, Moscow coerced Afghanistan into signing agreements—under UN auspices in Geneva 14 April 1988—that the Soviet army would withdraw from Afghanistan. (Pakistan was also a signatory.) After the withdrawal was completed on 15 February 1989, the USSR said 14,453 of its personnel had been killed in Afghanistan and 11,600 had been rendered invalids. The number of Afghans killed—among the regime, mojahedin, and noncombatants—was estimated between 1 and 1.5 million, with tens of thousands of others crippled.
The Soviet Union continued to arm and finance the Najibullah regime after the withdrawal, enabling its survival against disunited mojahedin groups. The USSR and the United States had agreed in 1988 to terminate their support of their respective clients in the ongoing civil war on or before 31 December 1991. As it happened, the USSR was formally disbanded a few days before that. Deprived of aid, Najibullah's regime lost support and collapsed. The mojahedin who had fought the Soviet Union took control of Kabul on 28 April 1992.
The USSR's bitter Afghanistan experience created an "Afghan syndrome" that Moscow commentators compared with the "Vietnam syndrome" of U.S. wariness about foreign commitments after 1975. As a result, the Soviet Union was unwilling to get involved in the Gulf Crisis in 1991, and later some Russian soldiers wanted to avoid commitment to regional conflicts in republics of the former USSR.
see also amin, hafizullah; brezhnev, leonid ilyich; gulf crisis (1990–1991); karmal, babrak; najibullah.
Henry S. Bradsher
Updated by Robert L. Canfield