Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires

Afghan mountains

These mountains have caused trouble for armies as far back as the hoplites of Alexander the Great.

On Christmas Eve 1979, four Soviet motor rifle divisions entered Afghanistan via two routes across the northern border, while another airborne division airlifted directly to Bagram airfield, near Kabul. Within days there were over 50,000 Soviet soldiers rampaging through Afghanistan. The objective: eliminate and replace the Amin government with one that was more loyal and sympathetic to Soviet demands.


Looks like a solid plan….except for the mountains and feisty natives

The Soviets moved rapidly on the Capitol, Kabul. On December 27th, spetsnaz operatives unsuccessfully poisoned Afghanistan’s President Hazifullah Amin in a sad attempt to make the political transition seem like something other than a strong-armed, Soviet-backed coup. When this failed however, the Soviets were quick to abandon any sense of finesse and immediately employed more spetsnaz commandos to simply storm Amin’s holdout and execute him along with his two sons. Moscow masked this treachery under the guise of a legitimate response to requests from Afghanistan’s constitutional authorities to remove Amin for a more socialist-minded leader. Babrak Karmal fulfilled this role and endorsed Soviet actions as Amin’s replacement, thus offering a thinly veiled perception of legitimacy to the global community.

Already in the midst of the Iranian hostage crisis, President Jimmy Carter turned even more attention to the Middle East and harshly condemned the Soviet Union’s actions in his 1980 State of the Union Address. He went so far as to demand a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. The U.S. and NATO were convinced, and rightly so, that the move was nothing more than wanton Soviet aggression aimed at expanding their sphere of influence into the Middle East. In response, a February 8th Russian news publication firmly rebuked Carter’s accusations, claiming, “The American administration’s furious reaction to the recent events in Afghanistan is the result not at all of concern for an “independent Moslem people” but of the fact that plans for converting that country into an anti-Soviet military staging ground, into a stronghold of US policy in this region, have fallen through”. As was typical of most Soviet publications, such fabrications turned out to be far from the truth. The Soviets couldn’t have been more guilty in defying the independence of the “Moslem people” of Afghanistan.

Although American forces were held back from directly intervening, clandestine elements of the CIA trained and equipped the Afghan tribes hostile to the Soviet invasion, eventually known as the Mujahideen. Initial Mujahideen efforts against the invading Soviets were far from decisive but did manage to foil the Kremlin’s plans for a quick, low-cost campaign. Soviet forces were geared towards fighting a massive conventional war against their traditional adversary, NATO; as a result, they were ill prepared for a counter-insurgency effort against the many different Afghan tribes of the Mujahideen, which employed guerrilla-tactics to prey upon isolated Soviet units. Furthermore, Soviet tanks were ill suited for Afghanistan’s rugged mountainous terrain, making them even more vulnerable to ambush. The one saving grace for the Soviets was their air-superiority; heavily armed Soviet helicopter gunships initially gave them the upper hand as the Mujahideen simply had few ways of effectively countering such technological dominance.

soviet helicopters

Not a chill sight for early Mujahideen fighters

Soviet air-superiority didn’t hold up very long though. During the Reagan administration the CIA amplified its efforts, arming the Mujahideen with tons of portable, shoulder-launched anti-air missiles that spelled doom for Soviet pilots. Famously depicted in the movie, Charlie Wilson’s War, this was the decisive turning point of the conflict. Bogged down by the Mujahideen and unforgiving Hindu Kush Mountains, the Soviet campaign turned into a deadly quagmire. Losses of men and equipment continued to pile up, forcing the Kremlin to dump increasing amounts of money into an increasingly hopeless situation. For all intents and purposes, Afghanistan represented the Soviet Union’s version of the American nightmare in Vietnam.


Good luck to the Kremlin in spinning this as a success

Eventually, the Soviets simply lost the will to fight. September 1989 marked the withdrawal of the last Soviet troops from Afghanistan, ending nearly 10 years of fruitless, bloody conflict. Shortly afterwards, the Soviet Union collapsed. Without a doubt, this validated and refreshed Afghanistan’s reputation as the graveyard of empires.


Decades later, Soviet vehicles still litter the countryside