Graveyard of Empires

The Soviet-Afghan War has been a point of contention through the modern era. Many people have called it the Soviet’s Vietnam in reference to the long draw out fight that drained soviet resolve in the conflict. This paper will discuss the course and ultimate failure by the soviets to win the war and how that subsequently led to the fall of the Soviet Union. In order to gain insight into the intricacies of the conflict there will be a brief review of the Soviet afghan war. Then, we will continue on to how the war contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union.

The Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was created by the Saur Revolution on April 27, 1978. The new regime had close ideological connections with the Soviet Union. Under the leadership of Nur Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, The new government went about trying to create a new soviet state outside of the Warsaw Pact. Initially the Soviets were supportive to their new neighbor but as the soviets were pressured more and more about giving assistance to the new communist state. The Soviet Union had a few reservations about the new party in Afghanistan.  Many politicians in the Soviet Union believed that the New Afghan government was moving too fast into the Communist system and were annihilating the afghan people’s traditions.  The Soviets also saw the Afghan government start to fracture, first with the purges of rival factions within the government and then a move by Amin to over through the Revolutionary Council government. Amin brought an even harsher regime in and was assassinated by the Russians three months after taking power as part of Operation Storm.

Operation Storm marks the start of direct Soviet influence in Afghanistan. Once eliminating the old regime The Soviets then propped up a new government led by Babrak Karmal in December of 1979. After this point the Soviet Union did not leave Afghanistan until there withdrawal in 1989. Karmel acknowledged the need for Russian support for the regime was crucial for the new Afghan government to survive. Over the next ten years the Soviets fought to keep the mujahedeen at bay.


It is very important to study the soviet invasion in Afghanistan since it had effects of the rest of the world. As I talked about earlier, the Soviets had initial reservations about involving themselves in Afghanistan during the early attempts to create a communist government. Once the Soviet “fixed” the Afghan Government to a regime that was more in line with Soviet principles it brought along many new issues for the Soviet Union. Technically, this was the First time that the Soviet Union had invaded a country that was outside of the Warsaw Pact. This was a major step for the Soviet Union because it brought a lot more criticism from the international community since it seemed as though the Russians were pushing to expand their reach even farther than before. Many of the western nations believed the Soviet Union was trying to Expand South toward the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. This was especially important to the west since they want to protect all of the oil coming out of the Persian gulf as well as the fact that if the Soviets continued their offensive into either Iran or Pakistan it would have given the Soviets a warm water port on the Indian Ocean.

The Soviet Afghan War was broken up into four major parts. The initial phase of the Soviet occupation was the movement of soviet troops into Afghanistan. During this phase, the Soviets propped up the new government. The Soviets then invaded the country using a two pronged attack going south from the Soviet Union meeting at Kandahar city. This First phase extended from December of 1979 to February 1980. During this time the Soviets controlled most of the major cities in Afghanistan and help settle the country into the new government. There was little combat during this phase other than that was needed to quell different political factions that were opposed to the new government. During this first period the Soviet leadership believed that the bulk of the fighting could be handled by local military forces but as time went on it became apparent that the local troops could not be trusted to fight and win against the many resistance factions within the nation.

When the Soviets first entered Afghanistan they believed that if they helped stabilize the nation the new government of Afghanistan would be able to support itself with little to no outside intervention from the Soviet Union. The fact that Afghan Forces could not compete with the roving afghan forces throughout the country was a major tactical error on the part of the Soviets since it laid the groundwork for the rest of the conflict. By pledging support to Afghanistan, The Soviet tied itself to the success of the communist regime in Afghanistan. This commitment caused Russia to pour more and more military assets into the country.

The second stage of Soviet intervention lasted from March 1980 till April 1985. During this time there was wide scale warfare throughout the entire country. The original strategy of the soviets was to flush out the mujahedeen out of the country using standard Soviet military tactics that were developed for invading across the relatively flat grounds of Eastern Europe. However, these tactics did not work well in Afghanistan with its very mountainous topography. At first, the mujahedeen tried to fight pitched conventional style battles which they found that the Russians modern technology overwhelmed the rebels. The rebels then adjusted their tactics in order to take away from the Soviets advantage by using guerilla tactics by ambushing soviet troops and then quickly fading back into the local populations. This style of fighting frustrated the Soviets and caused them to change their tactics in order to effectively combat the mujahedeen.

The Soviet tactics at the start of the war all were based around those that were made to invade Europe and the flat lands of China. In the new mountainous areas of Afghanistan these tactics did not work well. At the start of the war Soviet tactics dictated that infantry units were to move along with their armored personnel carriers. In the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan the armored vehicles were not able to maneuver effectively. Also the heavy Russian Equipment limited the ability of Russian troops to maneuver outside of their vehicles once they dismounted in the mountains. This quote from the book, The Soviet-Afghan War: how a superpower fought and lost, sums up the Russian’s predicament in the early stages of the war.

At this time, the inadequacies of heavy military equipment, which had limited application in mountainous terrain, became apparent. Tanks, BMPs, and self-propelled artillery were road bound and lacked the operational expanse for their employment. Contemporary high-precision jet aircraft were unable to support ground forces effectively with air strikes. Using helicopter gunships, the Soviets were able, for the first time, to establish more effective methods of combating the Mujahideen in the mountains. This use of the helicopters was severely limited later by the introduction of the man-portable Stinger air defense missile. This appreciably decreased the results of and combat which frequently did not achieve their projected goals.[1]

Along with these problems the Russians lacked the initiative to change tactics to combat this new type of warfare. By the end of the second phase of the war the Russians started to change tactics and started to use helicopters to drop troops in behind the mujahedeen so that they would cut off their escape routes away from the main Russian. This was by far the bloodiest part of the war For the Russians since they were conducting full on combat operations throughout the country.

The third phase of the war was characterized by the limited withdrawal of Soviet troops and the formation of Afghan self-defense detachments. This phase lasted from April 1985- April 1986. The formation of the Afghani army was a way for the Soviet Union to lessen the amount of casualties and help the government of Afghanistan to start to support itself. During this time the frequency and scale of operations were scaled down in order to preserve troop strength and morale of Russian soldiers. On the political side it was decided that the afghan war was not going to be won by pure military strength because of the type of guerilla warfare that was employed by the mujahedeen.

During the fourth and final phase of the conflict there was very few military operation lead by the soviet army. At this point in the war, the soviets only held the major cities and rarely ventured into the mountains. The Soviets realized that they had lost the fight in Afghanistan but were not able to leave Afghanistan because they would lose face in the eyes of the world if they did not strike a deal with the western power and Afghanistan. Many top level politicians and military leader squabbled about whose fault it was that they got involved in the war.  In the Notes from the Politburo Session in 1987, members argued about how the cannot explain to the Russian people that “A million soldiers went through Afghanistan. And we will not be able to explain to our people why we did not complete it [i.e. the war]. We suffered such heavy losses! And what for? We undermined the prestige of our country, brought bitterness. What did we lose so many people for?”[2] They went on to talk about the fact that they were asked by the Afghans 11 times before finally sending troops into the country. The afghan government also began a campaign of national reconciliation in which the people reject and vow to continue the jihad until every Soviet soldier had left the country. On the 15th of February, 1989 the last Soviet units left Afghanistan.

The Soviet-Afghan War was a major event in the history of the Soviet Union and was one of the many causes for the fall of the Soviet Union. The ten year war placed both economic and social stresses on the Soviet Union. These stresses have been attributed to the fall of the Soviet Union. Over the course of the war Soviet Russia felt the strain on their resources as the war in Afghanistan continued and sapped the Soviet union of physical resources and man power.

During the Soviet-Afghan war the soviets lost approximately 13,310 soldiers, 35,478 wounded, and 311 missing.[3] This amount of lost was felt across the Soviet Union as every saw an entire generation of young men disappeared. That is from about 115,000 troops that had entered the country over the entire course of the war. Just these raw figures show how much of a toll the war had on the Soviet Union. Many people around the Soviet Union noticed the effect of the war on the population but it was never reported about the actual death toll of the war until 1988.

The war also drained critical resources in the Soviet Union where the production of good could not kept up with the demand of the war. From 1985 until the end of the war the Soviet Union experienced food shortages as the leaders of the Soviet Union focused on supplying the warfighter they neglected the rest of the Soviet Union. Obviously the standard of living was much lower in Russia compared to other western European countries, but with the increased strain of fighting the war politicians decide to send the majority of the food to the warfighters in Afghanistan and left the Soviet Union with widespread food shortages. Some of the effects of this policy were food rationing by the government, long lines for food, and overall food scarcity.[4]

Physiologically, the physical effects of the war started to were on the people of the Soviet Union. The large amounts of casualties were able to be seen by the general population by the lack of young men that were lost in a decade of war. Often times, families were not able to say that their sons had been killed in Afghanistan.  Many veterans from the war came back as drug addicts from the black tar heroin that was so prevalent in Afghanistan since opium was one of the few sources of revenue to the country. The veterans’ bad habits and poor morale also did not help the psychological stability of the Soviet Union. This level of censorship caused mistrust of the soviet system and would eventually lead to even more social issues.

The Soviet-Afghan War brought along a lot of questioning of the legitimacy of the Soviet regime within Russia. The public started to wonder if the government was at fault for the current situation the Soviet Union. This continued skepticism ultimately was one of the contributing reasons for the fall of the Soviet Union only a few years after the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Many people throughout the Soviet Union started to blame the problems that were occurring on the home front to the decision to invade Afghanistan and the lack of resolve to finish the fight there. This idea of a lack of confidence in the politicians made the people of the USSR loss faith in the capability to protect and run the country. The lack of confidence also was reflected on the military since they were directly responsible for fighting the war. Many people from the Warsaw Pact countries started to believe that the war was being fought by non-Russians. This was a major issue since the other satellite countries believed that the war was primarily sponsored by the Russian government but they were taking advantage of the satellite nations to do the heavy lifting of the war. This ideology then led to local nationalism in which the Warsaw pact states view themselves as being used by Russia versus being part of the larger soviet state. Some people started to believe that the Soviet Union was focusing too much on the military side and needed to worry about the social and economic issues that were occurring throughout the Soviet Union.

The Soviet economy also took a big hit during the period of the Soviet-Afghan War. The Era of Stagnation was a period between 1964 and 1985 in which the soviet economy slowed down to a virtual halt. No one has ever been able to pinpoint the reason why this happened to the Russian economy. It has been theorized that I might have been caused by the Soviet’s instance on defense spending while others believe that was due to systematic failures as part of the Soviet economic system.

The combination of both social and economic issues that were attributed to the Soviet-Afghan War were some of the major reasons behind the fall of the Soviet Union. The increase of local nationalism due to the combined feelings that Russia was taking advantage of the other Warsaw Pact countries help to spur on their fight for independence. This fight was also aided by the undermined respect of both the Russian government and military. The economic stagnation also forced the Soviet Union to let go of their long held ideas of central economic planning. As you can see, the effects of the Soviet-Afghan war were ultimately a major part of why the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

[1] Lester W. Grau and Michael A. Gress, trans., The Soviet-Afghan War : how a superpower fought and lost(Lawerence: University Press of Kansas,2002)


[2] “Volume II: Afghanistan: Lessons from the Last War Article 19,” The National Security Archive, Accessed May 5, 2015.

[3] “Soviet Lists Afghan War Toll: 13,310 Dead, 35,478 Wounded,” New York Times, Accessed May 5, 2015.

[4] “Everything You Think You Know About the Collapse of the Soviet Union Is Wrong,” Foreign Policy, Accessed May 5, 2015.

One thought on “Graveyard of Empires”

  1. This is a really great post! I thoroughly enjoyed the amount of history you were able to put into this post. I would certainly agree this war was the Soviet’s “Vietnam.” It also highlights how it is not sustainable to fight a war with limited resources.

Leave a Reply