In 1979 the Soviets intervened in a bloody civil war then rending Afghanistan—that was their first mistake.
By April 1982 the Soviet Union had been fighting in Afghanistan for more than two years, and it was proving impossible to win, by any significant meaning of the word, the war against the mujahedeen who controlled much of the country outside the cities. Soviet units occupied towns and sometimes villages, but control in the most rural areas only lasted during the day. The night belonged to the mujahedeen. And one night that April, Ahmad Shah Massoud, perhaps the most brilliant of the numerous mujahedeen commanders, struck the massive, heavily defended Bagram Airfield complex north of Kabul with mortars and rocket fire, aided by saboteurs from within the supposedly pro-Soviet Afghan army. The mujahedeen destroyed planes and helicopters, damaged barracks and a hospital, and killed or wounded dozens of Soviet soldiers. The message was clear: You aren’t safe anywhere.
The Russians struck back in May, seeking to clear out Massoud’s stronghold in the Panjshir Valley, softening it up with bombing raids that lasted a week, then bringing in 12,000 troops—some by air, some by road—through the narrow pass that led into it. Massoud let in the vanguard and then dynamited the sides of the pass, setting off an avalanche that blocked the southern entrance and trapped the advance troops. He set up ambushes for other units moving into the valley. A second Soviet column advanced from the north, protected by helicopter gunships. But the mujahedeen were firing down from the mountains, and the gunships failed to dislodge them. For two weeks the Soviets managed to keep control of the valley floor, but fighting was constant and they knew they could not stay. When they withdrew they left behind dozens of ruined personnel carriers and flattened Afghan villages, taking with them the corpses of several hundred Soviet soldiers. War is generally about winning and occupying territory. The Soviets were learning the basic lesson of Afghanistan: You might win territory, but you can’t keep it.
Conquerors have been learning that lesson about Afghanistan for centuries. The British conquered it in 1839, but lost an entire army in 1842 when, frustrated by their failure to pacify the countryside, they left their stronghold in Kabul and headed out to Jalalabad through the Khord-Kabul gorge, another narrow pass. They left with 4,500 troops and 12,000 civilian followers. One badly wounded British officer and a few Indian soldiers survived an ambush that ran the length of the seven-mile gorge. All the rest were killed or taken prisoner.
Afghanistan is a literal and figurative minefield, an extremely difficult place for invaders to find safe ground. The literal minefields survive from the Soviet intervention, and they still kill people. The figurative minefield is the Afghan people themselves, with their age-old hatred of intruders and their fierce independence. Nearly 80 percent of the population is rural; 70 percent is illiterate. All are armed, but except for those weapons, the country is technologically backward.
One of the poorest nations in the world, Afghanistan is traditionally conservative and deeply religious. The people belong to families, clans and tribes, in descending order, and only nominally to Afghanistan the country. A national consciousness scarcely exists. The Pashtun comprise 40 percent of the country’s population, with Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and a few additional minor tribes making up the balance. Disputes among tribes, clans and families are settled violently—blood feuds are common, even within families. Warlords abound. Even among the mujahedeen, who fought the Russians, feuding, quarrels over strategy, struggles for power and actual fighting were not uncommon. Civil war is a way of life for Afghans.
In short, Afghanistan is relatively easy to conquer but impossible to subdue. Invaders will always face pockets of resistance, and the rebels will own the high ground, which is most of the country. In the end the Afghans will harass, ambush and raid interlopers to death.
It was civil war in Afghanistan that prompted the 1979 Soviet intervention—a more accurate word than “invasion.” The Soviets did not want Afghan territory. Like the Americans in Vietnam, they were not looking to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely, only to stabilize the nation and bring the countryside, which was in revolt, under control.
The Soviets and Afghans were in fact old friends. In 1921 the Afghans were among the first to sign a treaty of friendship with Russia’s new rulers, followed by a nonaggression pact in 1926. The pact was followed in turn by financial aid, a telegraph line to Kabul, an air route and, tellingly, an earlier, unsuccessful intervention in 1929.
The Russians’ aim then was to restore their own Afghan favorite, Amanullah Khan, to his throne after one of Afghanistan’s frequent coups. “Between 1842 and 1995,” notes Sir Rodric Braithwaite, a onetime British ambassador to the Soviet Union and an expert on Afghanistan, “seven of them [Afghan rulers] fell victim at an accelerating pace to family feud, palace coup, mob violence or outside intervention. Between 1878 and 2001 four more were forced into exile.” Despite their failure in 1929, the Russians managed to restore their influence in the country. By the early 1970s a small communist party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, was active in the country’s politics. When another coup occurred in 1973, the PDPA was one of its supporters, along with some communist military officers. The PDPA was itself, to be sure, riven with factions, its members constantly plotting against each other.
Following the 1973 coup the new ruler, Mohammed Daud Khan, did everything he could to consolidate his control of the government. He abolished the monarchy, rewrote the constitution—thereby transforming Afghanistan into a one-party state where power rested almost entirely in his hands—spied on his enemies, murdered them when necessary and began to play the two great powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, against each other. The Americans hoped for military bases close to the underbelly of the Soviet Union, while the Soviets wanted to keep Afghanistan out of the Western sphere of influence. But no more than that: The Soviet Union was not angling to turn Afghanistan into another member of the USSR. It wanted to protect its border, nothing more.
It was only a matter of time before Daud became the next victim of the country’s violent politics. In April 1978 the coup came from the PDPA. Daud knew something was brewing and tried to round up the likely leaders, but one of them, Hafizullah Amin, set the operation in motion before he was put under house arrest. Military units committed to the PDPA attacked the presidential palace and, in the ensuing firefight, killed Daud and most of his family members. To the surprise of the Soviet Union, the Afghan communists now had the government in their own hands.
The Soviets’ first mistake was to think that the PDPA’s takeover actually meant something, that it could bring reform and modernize Afghanistan. The PDPA tried to do so in traditional Afghan fashion—violently. Its reform program focused on literacy, equality for women and the end of age-old relationships in the countryside that put landowners, mullahs and elders at the top and peasants at the bottom. The PDPA’s leaders naively expected the mosques to empty as their reforms took hold.
The “reform” program displayed an extraordinary ignorance of the Afghan people and the strength of the nation’s traditional society. To make matters worse, the PDPA’s leaders remained divided among themselves, and it was not long before they were conspiring against each other. Meanwhile, in the countryside, revolts against the program began almost at once. That’s when the torture and executions began, too. Former opponents, former government ministers, Islamists, a whole clan in opposition—all were eliminated. Land reform was a big element in the PDPA program; to accomplish it, the regime simply took land from landlords and distributed it to the peasants. If the landlords objected, they were killed.
Since none of this fared well among Afghans no matter what their tribal loyalties, the revolts continued, and the government progressively lost control of the countryside. Army troops began deserting to the rebels in significant numbers. Afghan leaders started asking for help from the Soviet Union, not only in the form of weapons but also of troops. Amin, meanwhile, was grabbing more power within the government, taking on more and more offices, trying to ease out the actual president, Nur Muhammad Taraki.
Soviet leaders, who had both military advisors and KGB agents throughout Afghanistan, watched all this with growing alarm. Those in the Kremlin hierarchy were well aware Afghanistan presented an entirely different kind of problem than Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. Afghanistan did not fit the Marxist pattern—it had no industry, so there was no proletariat for which to fight. They also recognized the ferocity of the Afghan people and their religious fervor as formidable opponents. Indeed, the great Soviet expert on Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Andrei Snesarev, had warned in 1921 that because of the country’s topography and the nature of its people, an invading force would find it impossible to control.
Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and the other old men at the top of the Soviet Union knew they could not take Afghanistan and modernize it by force overnight, and they had no wish to send troops into its maze of mountains. Intervention would trigger opposition, demonstrations within the USSR and global condemnation. The Soviets repeatedly urged the Afghan leaders to stop their infighting, stop brutalizing the country and stop trying to erase the traditional culture and turn Afghanistan into their idea of a communist paradise.
On Oct. 8, 1979, having already grabbed most of the government’s power for himself, Amin had Taraki killed. Three men came for the president in his ornate palace, bound him and smothered him with a cushion. Taraki had been the Soviets’ man in Afghanistan, the leader Moscow trusted the most, and his murder only made a bad situation worse. One historian estimates that in the year and a half between the coup in April 1978 and Taraki’s murder, 27,000 people were killed in Kabul’s Pul-e-Charkhi prison alone. Other estimates put the killings nationwide at 50,000 or more. Hafizullah Amin kept a portrait of Joseph Stalin on his desk, and in response to Soviet criticism of his brutality he would remark, “Comrade Stalin showed us how to build socialism in a backward country.”
The Soviets decided to intervene in December 1979, but only with great reluctance and after much debate. In truth the Soviets had little choice. Afghanistan was not just an ally; it was a neighbor. It had a communist regime—which now controlled only 20 percent of the country—and Russians and Afghans had a long history of cooperation. The decision made, the Soviets’ first act would be to eliminate Hafizullah Amin, whose ambition and viciousness seemed to have no limits.
Amin met his fate in the bar of the Tajbeg Palace just outside Kabul on the night of December 27 when a Soviet special forces unit stormed the building even as Soviet troops poured into the country. That night Moscow installed PDPA exile Babrak Karmal as Afghanistan’s new president. He immediately instituted a purge of Amin’s people, and the population was generally grateful: Amin, slaughterer of Afghans on a grand scale, was gone. To gauge the mood of the country, Soviet Embassy personnel spread out in Kabul and canvassed their Afghan acquaintances. The response, according to Braithwaite, went something like this: “We are glad to see you. But you will be very well advised to leave again as soon as you can.”
Sound advice, but the Soviets ignored it. Braithwaite writes that a month after the Soviets moved in, the British Foreign Office gave a Soviet deputy foreign minister a historical account of the British experience in Afghanistan. The apparatchik responded, “This time it will be different.”
He was wrong.
The Soviets tried to institute the same kinds of reform in Afghanistan that Taraki and Amin had tried to institute. Moscow wanted stability, a Western style of law and order rather than blood feuds, which included the redistribution of agricultural land, education for women as well as men and universal literacy. The Soviets also wanted to train the Afghan army—and then get out, fast.
But Afghanistan is not a Western country, and the Afghan army is not a Western-style army. Its soldiers’ loyalties lie above all with their families, clans, tribes and religion. They switched sides often as individuals, sometimes as whole units, when circumstances called for it, then switched back again. They were then—as they are today—quite capable of killing the foreign advisers with whom they worked so closely. The presence of mujahedeen saboteurs in the army, who helped in the April 1982 attack on Bagram air base, was nothing unusual.
This was guerrilla warfare of the most basic and brutal type. The enemy was elusive; during the decade-long conflict the Soviets launched repeated operations in the Panjshir Valley to punish Ahmad Shah Massoud and his mujahedeen. As in Vietnam, frustration among the invaders built until it exploded. If Soviet forces were passing through a village and just one shot rang out, they would level it. Not a tactic likely to win hearts and minds.
It also proved hard to fight a war that did not lend itself to a narrative framework. The actions were all small, all more or less alike, and all indecisive. No Soviet soldier was able to say, “We have taken that valley—now we’ll take the next, then the next, and the war will soon be over.”
The Afghan fighters were vicious. They might fight with AK-47s or rocket launchers, but they beheaded Soviet prisoners with swords—after torturing them. They sold the officers—not all, to be sure—often to human rights groups in Europe. Braithwaite notes that one mujahedeen leader “made a practice of half-skinning Russian prisoners after a successful ambush and leaving them alive, surrounded by booby traps, to catch the Soviet rescue teams.” Soviet soldiers responded in kind by killing women, children, the old and feeble—all were seen as enemies. And all Afghans, except the hapless leaders in Kabul, wanted the Soviets gone.
The Afghans had yet another advantage; they were acclimated to the altitude, and they knew the mountains as well as they knew their children’s faces. Soviet commanders didn’t even try to chase enemy units in the mountains. The Soviet strategy was to hold the cities and towns and keep the roads open. But at night the roads belonged to the mujahedeen. The Soviets controlled the skies, but the mujahedeen had weapons that could bring down helicopters, and they downed a great many of them, especially after the United States began to supply the mujahedeen with shoulder-launched, heat-seeking Stinger missiles.
But American involvement was only one of many factors in the ultimate Soviet defeat. Another was the enormous human cost the war tallied. The official count of Soviet dead was less than 15,000; veterans insist it was more like 75,000. On the Afghan side nobody knows, but estimates run to at least 1 million soldiers and civilians. Then there were the refugees: Out of a population of some 15 million, 5 million left the country, mostly for Pakistan and Iran, during the war. The displacement of one-third of the country’s population had a major impact internationally. The Soviet people never supported the war, and they became increasingly loud in their protests. Their leaders did not want to go into Afghanistan, but once there they felt no choice except to stay. As the old leaders died out and new ones emerged, however, the reasons for staying seemed less and less compelling.
Meanwhile, the fighting raged on. Heroes emerged from time to time on both sides. Ahmad Shah Massoud became a favorite of the Americans. The Soviets made heroes of the 39 men of 9th Company of the 345th Independent Guards Airborne Regiment, most of them young recruits, who defended a hill against an estimated 200–400 mujahedeen for a full day and a night, losing six dead and 28 wounded. Two of the dead were named Heroes of the Soviet Union, a recognition equivalent to the U.S. Medal of Honor.
But the Soviet war in Afghanistan was not heroic; it was senseless, as the country simply could not be stabilized. General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev announced his intention to pull Soviet forces from Afghanistan as early as 1985, but leaving wasn’t easy. Gorbachev had to neutralize Kremlin hawks; he had to negotiate an agreement with the mujahedeen that would let the Russians leave with their honor intact; and he had to install a new government in Kabul—out went Karmal, in went Mohammad Najibullah, who had turned Afghanistan’s KGB into a more efficient unit of the government. And a bridge had to be built, literally, over the river separating Afghanistan from Soviet Uzbekistan in the north, so the soldiers could ride out in dignity, which they finally did in February 1989.
What did the Soviet war in Afghanistan ultimately accompaflish? To put it bluntly, nothing. The civil war in which they had intervened continued after they left. The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union ended the financial aid Moscow had been sending to Najibullah. Without aid his government collapsed as well, and in 1992 the mujahedeen took Kabul. Najibullah retreated to the United Nations headquarters in the city, where he lived until 1996, when the Taliban took over Kabul. They took him from the U.N. compound, castrated him and dragged him to death through the streets behind a truck before hanging his body from a streetlight. Most Americans know what happened next: Taliban rule, a safe haven for al-Qaida and the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001.
Then came the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan.
A frequent contributor to Military History and other national publications, Anthony Brandt is the author of The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage (2010). For further reading he recommends Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979–89, by Rodric Braithwaite, and The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan, by Gregory Feifer.