The Soviets in Afghanistan (1979-1989)


In April 1978, the government of Afghanistan was overthrown in a Leftist military coup putting the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan into power. This unpopular new government, backed by the Soviet Union, proceeded to begin to purge it’s political adversaries and dissidents. This coupled with the radical modernization and anti-religious policies of the Communist party led to an uprising that ranged throughout both the rural and urban regions of the devoutly Islamic country. In addition to the revolt against the government, the PDPA was also rife with infighting between it’s two main factions which each vied for control of the Party. In September of 1979 the leader of Communist Afghanistan Nur Mohammed Taraki was assassinated by his second in command Hafizullah Amin. Seeing the inherent chaos in Afghanistan and fearing the collapse of a friendly neighboring communist state, Leonid Brezhnev decided to deploy the Soviet 40th Army. On Christmas Eve 1979, Soviet troops took the Afghan capital of Kabul, overthrowing Amin and replacing him with Soviet puppet, Babrak Karmal.

The USSR’s intervention in Afghanistan was widely decried by both its Western rivals and Islamic countries alike. Most outspoken was Pakistan, who with a Soviet controlled Afghanistan, was surrounded on both sides by enemies with India already breathing down its neck. The war itself quickly became a fiasco as Soviet troops could quickly seize the population centers but could not nail down the rural districts which were rife with insurgents. Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain made it difficult to move armored vehicles through anywhere but main roads which made them easy targets for ambushes. The Soviets found in Afghanistan, as the United States did in Vietnam, that air power, particularly helicopters, were essential in hunting down and destroying cells of the “Mujaheddin”.

The Mujaheddin were a loose collection of Liberals, Islamic fundamentalists, and Arab volunteers all grouped together in a disorganized group of cells. They share an ironic similarity to modern terrorist groups in fact. It must be pointed out that each group was decentralized and not particularly skilled at fighting. These men were often just farmers who picked up whatever they could find to fight for their God and their tribe. The Mujaheddin used a wide range of ambush tactics, taking advantage of the hills and caves of rural Afghanistan to make quick attacks and melt away before the Soviet forces could mount a counterattack. Their weapons were initially poor, with some carrying British rifles captured by their great great grandfathers during the wars with the British in the late 1800s. However, as it progressed both their weapons and tactics became more sophisticated with help and assistance.

Part of the Soviet strategy to defeat the Mujaheddin in their rural enclaves involved the heavy bombing of the countryside, murdering thousands of innocents and displacing over 2 million people. Unfortunately for the Soviet Union, support from the CIA and Arab sympathizers in the form of weapons and advisors would make their efforts almost useless. New anti material weapons, effective against soviet armored vehicles and aircraft, began increasing the Soviet casualty rate. It was clear that there was no victory in sight. It was not that the soviets were being defeated on the battlefield by the ill-equipped Afghan rebels, but that it would forever be an expensive occupation with no real benefit.

The conflict continued into the late 80’s when it was clear that the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc in general were falling apart. With over 15,000 killed and almost 50,000 wounded, the Soviets decided to cut their losses and withdraw from Afghanistan signing a Peace accord with the US, Pakistan, and Afghanistan in 1988. In February 1989 the last Soviet soldiers left Afghanistan, abandoning the Communist government and letting the Mujaheddin sort out the rest.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is a relatively unknown conflict. However, it laid the groundwork for the fall of the Soviet Union. The high cost of the war, coupled with international pressure abroad really helped in isolating and accelerating the death of the Soviet bloc. The failed Soviet intervention also laid the groundwork for the Taliban and inspired the growth of radical Islamic groups such as Al-Qaeda, Al Shabab, and ISIS. The lessons learned by the Islamic fighters in this war are still being used against NATO forces in Afghanistan to this day entrenching the US in a similar hopeless quagmire.

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