History has singled out certain countries as natural poison to any power with the hubris to invade them. Even if successfully overrun, such regions prove impossible to control, ultimately wearing down each invader until it throws up its hands and leaves. The United States was neither the first nor the last to learn that about Vietnam, much as the Soviet Union was neither the first nor the last to learn that about Afghanistan.

In the wake of a bloodless 1973 coup ousting Afghan King Mohammed Zahir Shah, President Mohammed Daoud Khan established a socialist-leaning republic. His tenure lasted until 1978, when a faction of the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) overthrew Daoud—executing him and his family for good measure—and installed Nur Muhammad Taraki as president. In October 1979 Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin, a rival within the PDPA, overthrew and killed Taraki. That Christmas Eve the Soviets moved to “restore stability” with an invasion that quickly secured Kabul, killed Amin and installed the more pliable Barbrak Karmal as head of state. The Soviets’ tactical triumph turned into a strategic fiasco, as they spent the next decade battling Afghan mujahedeen. Faced with continuing instability, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev withdrew the last troops in February 1989. But the damage was done, as the Afghan debacle helped prompt the collapse of the Soviet Union itself.


  • Supporters of the Afghan communist regime celebrate the first anniversary of the 1978 coup that installed Nur Muhammad Taraki, who was himself overthrown in 1979. (AFP, Getty Images)
  • Mikhail Gorbachev (Ullstein Bild (Getty))
  • Afghan women hurry past Soviet BTR-80 armored personnel carriers stopped on a road near Jalalabad. (Sputnik, Alamy)
  • In 1986 the United States began providing mujahedeen with FIM-92 Stinger surface-to-air missiles, which initially took a heavy toll on Soviet helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. (Robert Nickelsberg, Getty)
  • Victorious mujahedeen stand atop a Soviet T-55 tank they knocked out while attacking a government post in Kandahar. (Afghan Media Resource Center)
  • Mujahedeen leader Sayyid Ahmed Gailani clambers up to inspect a downed Soviet Mi-24 helicopter. (Afghan Media Resource Center)
  • Soviet troops withdraw in 1989, marking an ignominious end to a misbegotten military adventure. (AFP, Getty)
  • Afghan government troops pose aboard a Scud-B missile launcher provided by the Soviets before their withdrawal. (Sputnik, Alamy Stock Photo)