Soviet-Afghan War

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Soviet-Afghan War
Part of Cold War
Date December 25, 1979-February 15, 1989
Location Afghanistan
Soviet Union
Mohammad Najibullah
Leonid Brezhnev
Yuri Andropov
Ahmad Shah Massoud
Ronald Reagan

The Soviet-Afghan War (1978–92) was a war in Afghanistan that matched the Soviet Union and its Afghan allies against a coalition of anti-Communist groups called the Mujahideen, supported from the outside by the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. The war ended the Détente period of the Cold War, and resulted in a humiliating defeat for the Soviets, who pulled out in 1989, and for their clients who were overthrown in 1992.



The world was stunned in 1979 when the Soviets sent their army into Afghanistan, which had always been neutral and uninvolved.[1]

The old monarchy was replaced by democratization and the rise of the Marxist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). The Afghanistan crisis began in April 1978 with a coup d'état by Afghan Communists called "the Saur Revolution".[2] They tried to impose scientific socialism on a country that did not want to be modernized—indeed, which was heading in the opposite direction under the lure of Muslim fundamentalism of the sort that had topped the Shah in next-door Iran. Disobeying orders from Moscow, the coup leaders systematically executed the leadership of the large Parcham clan, thus guaranteeing a civil war among the country's many feuding ethnic groups. In addition the Communists in Afghanistan were themselves bitterly divided between the Khalq and Parcham factions. Moscow confronted a quandary. Afghanistan had been neutralized for sixty years, and had never been part of the Cold War system. Now it appeared that radical fundamentalist Muslims, supported by Pakistan and Iran, and probably by China and the United States, were about to seize power. The Communist regime in Kabul had no popular support; its 100,000-man army had fallen apart and was worthless. Only the Soviet army could possibly quell the growing rebellion by Parcham, the fundamentalist "mujahideen", and allied tribes who opposed the anti-religious, feminist modernizers.

The Kremlin fully realized the dangers involved. Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko warned the Politburo in March 1979 that Soviet intervention in an Afghan civil war would violate international law and would be sharply condemned worldwide.[3] According to Leninist principles, Afghanistan was not ready for revolution in the first place. Furthermore, intervention would destroy détente with the United States and Western Europe. On the other hand, Gromyko insisted, "We cannot surrender Afghanistan to the enemy." Despite urgent calls from Kabul, the Kremlin hesitated. But factions within the Afghan People's Democratic Party (Communist) government that were hostile to Soviet interests gained ascendancy and raised the specter of an independently minded Communist state located on the southern border that might cause future trouble inside the Muslim parts of the USSR.[4] At this point Moscow decided not to send troops but instead stepped up shipments of military equipment such as artillery, armored personnel carriers and 48,000 machine guns; they also sent 100,000 tons of wheat (ironically, the latter was purchased from the U.S.) Washington followed events closely, worried about Soviet expansion plans and a possible breakthrough to the south.

Moscow's man in Kabul was prime minister Nur Mohammed Taraki (1913–79), who was murdered and replaced by his deputy Hafizullah Aminin (1929–79) of the Khalq faction in September 1979. Although Amin called himself a loyal Communist, and begged for more Soviet military intervention, Moscow thought Amin was planning to double-cross them and switch over to China and the US. They therefore double crossed him first. Moscow had Amin officially invite the Soviet Army to enter Afghanistan; it did so in December 1979, and immediately executed Amin and installed a Soviet puppet Babrak Karmal (1929–96), the leader of the more moderate Parcham faction pf the PDPA. Pressure for intervention seems to have come primarily from the KGB (secret police), whose efforts to assassinate Amin had failed, and from the Soviet Army, which perhaps was worried about the danger of a mutiny on the part of its many Muslim soldiers.

World reaction

In July, 1979, before the Soviet invasion, President Jimmy Carter for the first time authorized the CIA to start assisting the Mujahideen rebels with money and non-military supplies sent via Pakistan. As soon as the Soviets invaded in December, 1979, Carter, disgusted at the collapse of détente and alarmed at the rapid Soviet gains, terminated progress on arms limitations, slapped a grain embargo on Russia, withdrew from the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and (with near-unanimous support in Congress) sent the CIA in to arm, train and finance the Mujahideen rebels. The US had strong support from Britain, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, all of whom feared the Soviet invasion was the first step in a grand move south toward the oil-rich Persian Gulf. Carter enlarged his position into the "Carter Doctrine," by which the US announced its intention to defend the Gulf. Historians now believe that analysis was faulty and that the Soviets were not planning a grand move, but were concerned with loss of prestige and the possibility of a hostile Muslim regime that might destabilize its largely Muslim southern republics.[5] The boycott of the Olympics humiliated the Soviets, who had hoped the games would validate their claim to moral equality in the world of nations; instead they were pariahs again.

Iran's role

The Shiite community, which constitutes about 20% of the Afghan population, regards Iran as its religious center; however, Afghanistan is predominantly Sunni and has maintained cordial relations with Iran since 1921. After the PDPA took power in 1978 the Shah of Iran began to support opposition groups fighting the Kabul regime, as did the Khomeini regime and subsequent regimes in Iran. Refugees from Afghanistan fought for Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, and Iran sent nationals to Afghanistan to assist the rebels and to propagate Iranian politics and ideology. Iranian leaders supported the formation of an Islamic state by providing various provisions, including radio and television equipment, but also supported the Hizb-e-Wahdat faction, a traditional ally that opposed Burhanuddin Rabbani and his Afghan Interim Government that ruled 1992-96.[6]

Soviet troubles

Brezhnev by 1980 was sick, incompetent, corrupt and surrounded by satraps and yes-men. Politburo meetings were pro-forma. The critical decision to move militarily into Afghanistan in 1979 had been strongly opposed by most military and diplomatic planners, but their advice may not have reached Brezhnev. The decision to invade Afghanistan was made by Yuri Andropov (1914–84) (head of the KGB), and the Soviet Defense Minister Dmitriy Ustinov (1908–84) (who overruled his generals). They were maneuvering to succeed the ailing Brezhnev, and apparently discounted the risk of failure. The Soviet Union had never lost a war, and they never dreamed that Afghanistan would be as disastrous for them as Vietnam had been for the US.[7]

War operations

By 1985 the war was largely stalemated. The Soviet forces were mainly tied up in cities and in defending airfields and bases, leaving only roughly 15% of their troops for operations. There were few pitched battles. The challenge for the Soviets was to maintain control of all the cities, important towns and highways, and to protect the regime from sudden attack by guerrillas who could strike almost anywhere in the rural areas at any time. The Soviet military depended on air mobility to cover the large, mountainous land, using small airplanes and helicopters. Their tactic failed when the US in 1986 began supplying the rebels with over 500 shoulder-fired FIM-92 Stinger surface-to-air missiles that made it extremely difficult for Soviet aircraft to operate.

The CIA effort code-named "Operation Cyclone" began with funding of $25 million in 1980 and rose to $630 million per year in 1987, including matching funds from Saudi Arabia. Anti-Soviet mujahideen received American aid through Pakistan's Inter Service Intelligence Agency, which cooperated with the CIA. About 90,000 men were in the rebel units; about 20,000 were active at any one time, compared with 100,000 Soviet and 40,000 regime soldiers. Meanwhile, millions of civilians fled to neighboring countries, especially Pakistan and Iran, where a worldwide relief effort fed them.

The Soviets had multiple unexpected problems regarding the poor training, low morale and poor sanitation of their troops. They sent 85,000 men in the 40th Army, but it was entirely unprepared for the guerrilla warfare it encountered. Muslim soldiers in the Soviet forces were treated as second class citizens, had high desertion rates, and proved unreliable and unwilling; and were soon replaced by Slavs from Russia and Ukraine.[8]

By 1984, however, the Soviets had learned a great deal about fighting a guerrilla war, and had developed a far more effective mix of small unit tactics, helicopter assault capabilities, and strategic bombing. These innovations were so successful that they threatened to suppress the mujahideen during 1985 and 1986. The peak of the fighting came in 1985-86. The Soviet forces launched their largest and most effective assaults on the mujahideen supply lines from Pakistan and forced the mujahideen back to defensive positions near Herat and Kandahar. However the mujahideen also learned, and had good weapons and good funding, while their families (who had fled the country) could not be used as hostages. The mujahideen learned to deploy artillery, mines, and small arms. While they never captured a major city or base held by Soviet troops, they fielded about 20,000 men at a time (out of 90,000 or so available) and raised the cost of the war to levels that the Kremlin found unacceptable. Ultimately the Soviets failed because the people of Afghanistan did not want them or their puppets.[9]

Disease and poor field sanitation proved disastrous. Of the 620,000 Soviets who served in Afghanistan, 14,500 were killed or died from wounds, accidents or disease—a low rate of 2.3%, plus 53,800 (11.4%) were wounded or injured. However, the rate of hospitalization unusually high, as the 470,000 personnel hospitalized represented almost 76% of the men. In all 67% of those who served in Afghanistan required hospitalization for a serious illness. These illnesses included 115,000 cases of infectious hepatitis and 31,100 cases of typhoid fever, followed by plague, malaria, cholera, diphtheria, meningitis, heart disease, shigellosis (infectious dysentery), amoebic dysentery, rheumatism, heat stroke, pneumonia, typhus and paratyphus. Problems included lack of sufficient clean drinking water, poor field sanitation practices, infestations of lice and rodents, and poor official diet, and use of locally purchased foods that carried disease. These difficulties were compounded by the lack of a professional noncommissioned officer corps.[10]


Taking office in early 1981, President Ronald Reagan began a rollback strategy of supporting insurgencies in Nicaragua, Cambodia, Angola, and, above all, in Afghanistan. The goal, especially after 1984, was to bleed Moscow white—to create a Vietnam for them which would suck their military dry. "We control Kabul and the provincial centers, but on occupied territory we cannot establish authority," the Defense Minister explained to the Politburo in 1986. "We have lost the battle for the Afghan people."[11] Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985 and immediately realized the severe drain caused by trying to hold his empire together, especially as the U.S. was escalating military spending, threatening to build Star Wars, and the Soviet economy was faltering badly as revenues plunged from oil exports. It took him several years to get enough Politburo support, all the time the poor performance and prolonged presence of the Soviet military in Afghanistan created domestic financial and political problems. In 1986 he replaced Karmal with Mohammad Najibullah (1947–96) the head of the dreaded secret police (KHAD) and leader of the Parcham faction. Finally in 1988 to save the heart of the Communist system in Russia he admitted defeat and cut his losses in Afghanistan.[12]


The last Soviet troops left in February 1989, but Soviet military aid continued until the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union in 1991. The Najibullah regime lasted another three years, until a military offensive by the mujahideen captured Kabul with little fighting in April 1992. In the end, Afghanistan contributed significantly, perhaps decisively, to the collective loss of confidence that brought the Soviet Union to self-destruction. The lost war discredited the Soviet army, which had been the single most important institution holding the union together, eroded the legitimacy of the Soviet system in the eyes of non-Russian nationalities, and accelerated glasnost.[13]

Critics of U.S. foreign policy consider Operation Cyclone to be substantially responsible for setting in motion the events that led to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 commonly known as the term blowback.[14] However, scholars such as Jason Burke, Steve Coll, Peter Bergen, Christopher Andrew, and Vasily Mitrokhin have argued that Osama Bin Laden was "outside of CIA eyesight" and that there is "no support" in any "reliable source" for "the claim that the CIA funded bin Laden or any of the other Arab volunteers who came to support the mujahideen."[15]

After 1989 the United States provided relief and economic aid aid but stayed neutral in the ongoing tribal conflicts. After 1990 a new organization arose, the Taliban, a militantly anti-modern group that was strongly opposed to the mujahideen, and both anti-American and anti-Soviet. Primarily a youth group, the Taliban never received any aide from the US.[16] The Taliban militia took control of the Kabul in 1996, and installed a very harsh Islamist regime. Later it invited in Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda group, which established its base in Afghanistan.


  • Amstutz, J. B. Afghanistan: The First Five Years of Soviet Occupation. (1986)
  • Arnold, Anthony. The Fateful Pebble: Afghanistan's Role in the Fall of the Soviet Empire (1993)
  • Bradsher, Henry. Afghan Communism and Soviet Intervention (2nd ed 2001)
  • Coll, Steve. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004) excerpt and text search
  • Cordovez, Diego, and Selig S. Harrison. Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal (1995) excerpt and text search
  • Cordsman, Anthony H., and A. R. Wagner. The Lessons of Modern War. Vol. 3, The Afghan and Falkland Conflicts. (1991). online edition
  • Daley, Tad. "Gorbachev and Afghanistan, the Soviet Debate over the Lessons of Afghanistan and Consequent Directions in Russian Foreign Policy." PhD dissertation Rand Graduate Institute. 1995. 292 pp. DAI 1995 56(4): 1515-A. DA9528705 Fulltext: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  • Feifer, Gregory. The Great Gamble: The Soviet WEar in Afghanistan, (2009), colorful narrarive history
  • Galeotti, Mark. Afghanistan, The Soviet Union's Last War (1995), shows highly negative impact in Russia
  • Gibbs, David N. "Reassessing Soviet Motives for Invading Afghanistan: a Declassified History." Critical Asian Studies 2006 38(2): 239-263. Issn: 1467-2715 Fulltext: Ebsco
  • Granville, Johanna Cushing. "Soviet Decision-Making: A Comparative Analysis of the Interventions in Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), and Afghanistan (1979)." PhD dissertation Tufts U. 1992. 470 pp. DAI 1993 53(10): 3667-A. DA9301503 Fulltext: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  • Grasselli, Gabriella. British and American Responses to the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan (1996)
  • Grau, Lester W. "Breaking Contact Without Leaving Chaos: the Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan." Journal of Slavic Military Studies 2007 20(2): 235-261. Issn: 1351-8046
  • Grau, Lester W. "The Soviet-Afghan War: a Superpower Mired in the Mountains." Journal of Slavic Military Studies 2004 17(1): 129-151. Issn: 1351-8046 overall synthesis focused on Soviet military
  • Grau, Lester W. The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan (1998)
  • Halliday, Fred, and Zahir Tanin. "The Communist Regime in Afghanistan 1978-1992: Institutions and Conflicts." Europe-Asia Studies 1998 50(8): pp1357–1380. Comparative perspective. in Jstor
  • Hilali, A. Z. US-Pakistan Relationship: Soviet Invasion Of Afghanistan (US Foreign Policy and Conflict in the Islamic World) (2005) excerpt and text search
  • Hussain, Syed Rifaat. "From Dependence to Intervention: Soviet-Afghan Relations during the Brezhnev Era (1964-1982)." PhD dissertation U. of Denver 1993. 372 pp. DAI 1994 55(2): 370-A. DA9419261 Fulltext: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  • Kakar, M. Hassan. Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion and the Afghan Response, 1979-1982 (1997) complete edition online
  • Klass, R., ed. Afghanistan: The Great Game Revisited. (1987).
  • McMichael, Scott R. Stumbling Bear : Soviet Military Performance in Afghanistan (1991), stresses the poor performance of the Soviet army
  • Mendelson, Sarah Elizabeth. "Explaining Change in Foreign Policy: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan." PhD dissertation Columbia U. 1993. 320 pp. DAI 1994 54(12): 4582-A. DA9412814 Fulltext: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  • Mendelson, Sarah E. "Internal Battles and External Wars: Politics, Learning, and the Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan." World Politics 1993 45(3): 327-360. stresses the role of ideas about both the foreign and the domestic scene, as well as the role of a network of specialists that helped put these ideas on the national agenda; in Jstor
  • Overby. Paul. Holy Blood: An Inside View of the Afghan War (1993) emphasizes resistance to modernization. online edition
  • Rogers, Tom. The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan: Analysis and Chronology (1992) online edition
  • Rubin, Barnett R. Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse n the International System (2nd ed. 2002) excerpt and text search
  • Saikal, A., and W. Miley, eds. The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan. (1989).
  • Sarin, Oleg, and Lev Dvoretsky. The Afghan Syndrome: The Soviet Union's Vietnam. (1993). 240 pp.
  • Speakman, Jay R. "A Continuity of Discord: Responses of the Western Allies to the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan." PhD dissertation Columbia U. 1994. 1067 pp. DAI 1995 56(1): 349-A. DA9516189 Fulltext: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  • Wolf, Matt W. "Stumbling Towards War: the Soviet Decision to Invade Afghanistan." Past Imperfect 2006 12. Issn: 1192-1315 online edition

Primary Sources

  • Gates, Robert M. From the Shadows (1996), explains the CIA role
  • Heinämaa, Anna; Leppänen, Maija; and Yurchenko, Yuri, eds. The Soldiers' Story: Soviet Veterans Remember the Afghan War. (1994) 128 pp.
  • Jalali, Ali Ahmad, and Lester W. Grau, eds. The Other Side of the Mountain: Mujahideen Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War (1996), Mujahideen perspective
  • Ostermann, Christian Friedrich, ed. "Gorbachev and Afghanistan." Cold War International History Project Bulletin 2003-2004 (14-15): 139-192. Issn: 1071-9652 " online edition
  • Russian General Staff. The Soviet-Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost (2002), edited by Lester W. Grau, and Michail A. Gress; perspective of Soviet high command excerpt and text search* Westad, Odd Arne, ed. "Concering the Situation in 'A': New Russian Evidence on the Soviet Intervention in Afghanistan," CWIHP Bulletin (Winter 1996/97) issue 8-9, pp128–33, with documents on pp 133–184 online edition


  1. Christian Ostermann, “CWIHP Conference Report: New Evidence on the 1979-1989 War in Afghanistan. “ (May 20, 2002) online
  2. A. Z. Hilali, "The Soviet Penetration into Afghanistan and the Marxist Coup." Journal of Slavic Military Studies 2005 18(4): 673-716. Issn: 1351-8046
  3. After the intervention the UN General Assembly voted by 104 to 18 with 18 abstentions to "strongly deplore" the "recent armed intervention" and called for the "total withdrawal of foreign troops" from the country.
  4. David N. Gibbs, "Reassessing Soviet Motives for Invading Afghanistan: a Declassified History." Critical Asian Studies 2006 38(2): 239-263.
  5. David N. Gibbs, "Reassessing Soviet Motives for Invading Afghanistan: a Declassified History." Critical Asian Studies 2006 38(2): 239-263.
  6. Hafizullah Emadi, "Exporting Iran's Revolution: the Radicalization of the Shiite Movement in Afghanistan." Middle Eastern Studies 1995 31(1): 1-12. Issn: 0026-3206
  7. Odd Arne Westad, "Concerning the Situation in 'A': New Russian Evidence on the Soviet Intervention in Afghanistan," CWIHP Bulletin (Winter 1996/97) issue 8-9, pp128-33, with documents on pp 133-184 online edition
  8. Leo J. Daugherty, III, "The Bear and the Scimitar: Soviet Central Asians and the War in Afghanistan 1979-1989." Journal of Slavic Military Studies 1995 8(1): 73-96. Issn: 1351-8046
  9. A good military history of the Soviet effort is Anthony H. Cordesman and Abraham R. Wagner, The Lessons of Modern War. Volume: 3 (1990)
  10. Lester W. Grau and William A. Jorgensen, "Beaten by the Bugs: the Soviet-Afghan War Experience." Military Review 1997 77(6): 30-37. Issn: 0026-4148 Fulltext: Ebsco
  11. "CPSU CC Politburo Transcript, 13 Nov 1986" in CWIHP Bulletin 8-9, p. 180
  12. A. Z. Hilali, "Afghanistan: the Decline of Soviet Military Strategy and Political Status." Journal of Slavic Military Studies 1999 12(1): 94-123. Issn: 1351-8046
  13. Rafael Reuveny and Aseem Prakash, "The Afghanistan War and the Breakdown of the Soviet Union." Review of International Studies 1999 25(4): 693-708. Issn: 0260-2105 Fulltext: Cambridge UP
  14. Did the U.S. "Create" Osama bin Laden?. US Department of State (14 January 2005). Retrieved on 2007-01-09.
  15. See Jason Burke, Al-Qaeda (Penguin, 2003), p59; Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden (Penguin, 2004), p87; Peter Bergen, The Osama bin Laden I Know (Free Press, 2006), pp60-1; Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Mitrokhin Archive II: The KGB and the World (Penguin, 2006), p579n48.
  16. US State Department, "Did the U.S. 'Create' Osama bin Laden? Allegations that the U.S. provided funding for bin Laden proved inaccurate," (2005) online notes the US did not recruit any Arabs like Osama bin Laden.