On 27 December 1979, members of a Soviet airborne brigade were airlifted into Kabul, Afghanistan to overthrow the Afghan government and install a sympathetic regime, thus making the same mistake as several great empires had made before them. Within hours of the initial troop deployment, Soviet forces had overwhelmed the Afghan presidential guard and captured president Hafizollah Amin who was later executed (Phillips). Within days, Soviet armored units had advanced into the countryside to secure major population centers, airbases, and communication lines, and began a full-scale counter-insurgency operation against Muslim tribesmen who had been waging a guerrilla war against the Afghan central government (Phillips).
How did we get to this point?
Soviet involvement in Afghanistan can be loosely traced back to a loan of the equivalent of $100 Million granted to the Afghan government, headed by King Muhammad Zahir Shah, to finance the first Five-Year Economic Development Plan in 1957. The Plan was intended to develop the infrastructure and economy of Afghanistan, and was followed by a second five-year plan in 1962 (Kakar, 8). Soviet support came after Afghan appeals to the United States government for economic and military aid had failed and U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles determined that Afghanistan was of no “security interest” the the United States, forcing the Afghans to turn to the USSR for support (Kakar, 9).
Dependence = Independence?
On 17 July 1973, Muhammad Daoud Khan staged a coup and peacefully overthrew his cousin and brother-in-law King Muhammad Zahir Shah (Heller). Daoud Khan’s regime held power amid significant opposition throughout Afghanistan until Khan was overthrown and replaced by a pro-Marxist regime headed by Nur Muhammad Taraki in 1978 (Heller). Taraki’s regime began to transition Afghanistan into a socialist society by redistributing land, cancelling debts, repressing Islamic institutions and dignitaries, and “compulsory political-education classes under the guise of an anti-illiteracy campaign” before being succeeded by Hafizollah Amin (Heller). The result was widespread revolt among tribal groups in the countryside that were opposed to a secular regime that aimed to dissolve the religious fabric of Afghanistan. The Soviet government provided military and economic aid to Amin’s regime until December 1979 when ” a rump meeting of the Politburo elected to intervene militarily because of the region’s strategic importance, popular opposition to the Afghan government, and rumours that Kabul was making overtures to the American government” (Freeze, 446). The Soviets’ objective was to prop up the faltering Afghan government and install the more moderate Babrak Karmal as president to restore Afghanistan’s status as a Soviet client state (Britannica). However, Karmal was unable to achieve popular support, and the Mujahideen rebellion grew with the support of the United States to drag the USSR into a 10-year war that could not be won.
A Foreign War is a Great Way to Pull a Stagnant Economy out of Recession
When the Soviet military entered Kabul in 1979, the USSR was in no position to conduct a prolonged foreign military campaign. Despite the deployment of Soviet units to Afghanistan from as far away as Hungary and East Germany, a demonstration of the strategic mobility and flexibility of the Soviet military, the Soviet economy was in sharp decline under the stewardship of Leonid Brezhnev (Freeze, 440). Furthermore, the invasion was a shining example of Brezhnev-era foreign policy, where a close circle of advisors was consulted and raw military power was preferred over a nuanced understanding of events on the ground (Seventeen Moments). These two aspects were what ultimately doomed the Soviet effort in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union ultimately signed an accord with the United States, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to institute a full withdrawal from Afghanistan. The last Soviet troops departed Afghanistan on 15 February 1989 after failing to install a sympathetic regime and losing more than 15,000 soldiers.
The Soviet war in Afghanistan marked the beginning of the end for the USSR as a global superpower. The already strained economy was further hampered by the diversion of resources for the war effort that had no end in sight. Additionally, the tense relations with the west before the Soviet invasion were only made worse through the prolonged conflict. Lastly, the USSR’s reputation as a champion for the “third world” was ruined by the Soviets’ asymmetric response to the Afghan situation, making them appear no better than the imperialist powers of the capitalist west. The Soviet war in Afghanistan pushed the Soviet Union past the point of recovery economically, militarily, and diplomatically until its ultimate dissolution in 1991.
Britannica. Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. 4 December 2019. 22 April 2020.
Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Heller, Mark. “The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan.” The Washington Quarterly (1980): 36-59.
Kakar, Mohammed. Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion and the Afghan Response, 1979-1982. University of California Press, 1995.
Phillips, James. “The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan.” 9 January 1980. heritage.org. 23 April 2020.