The US is ending its 13-year-old combat operation in Afghanistan later this month. But thirty-five years ago today, key players within the Soviet Union decided to commit the empire to military involvement in the country, a disastrously botched intervention that would pave the way for the Union’s fall.
On December 10, 1979, Soviet Defence Minister Dmitry Ustinov “gave an oral order to the General Staff to start preparations for deployment of one division of paratroopers and of five divisions of military-transport aviation,” according to George Washington University’s National Security Archive, which published a series of Soviet documents related to the invasion in 2001. Ustinov also decided “to step up the readiness of two motorised rifle divisions in the Turkestan Military District, and to increase the staff of a pontoon regiment to full staff without setting it any concrete tasks.”
The official authorization to invade Afghanistan — the go-ahead for the inevitably doomed Soviet effort to prop the country’s communist government — came two days later. The invasion began in the last week of 1979.
The Beginning Of A Quagmire
Moscow’s motives for opening what would become a failed and nearly decade-long campaign are best understood in the larger context of the late Cold War.
The invasion was the Soviets’ heavy-handed response to a domestic uprising that threatened to overthrow the country’s young communist regime. The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (or PDPA) had only muscled its way into power in April 1978 after a brief coup.
Moreover, the Soviets feared that Afghanistan, even in its higher echelons, was beginning to tilt away from Soviet influence in favour of a rapprochement with the United States, as the National Security Archive documents show.
Afghan Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin, who deposed the country’s president in a putsch that September, “held a series of confidential meetings with the American charge d’affaires in Kabul,” according to a cable written by top Soviet figures.
In a letter to Communist Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev — whose doctrine staked out the Soviet prerogative for military intervention to preserve neighbouring communist regimes — his eventual successor Yuri Andropov wrote that “after the coup and the murder of [president Nur Muhammad] Taraki in September of this year, the situation in Afghanistan began to undertake an undesirable turn for us.”
“All of us agree,” one official said in a conversation with party heavyweights like Yuri Andropov and Mikhail Gorbachev, “we must not surrender Afghanistan.”
Military involvement wasn’t always on the table. The Soviet Union started by sending shipments of wheat, bread, and of course weapons to Afghanistan’s fragile communist regime throughout the year, in addition to the gas it sold to the country.
What worried the Soviet Union about the country — in addition to its potentially growing western sympathies — was the unrest in Herat earlier that year. In March 1979, a popular uprising alongside mutineering Afghan soldiers led to the execution of Soviet military advisers.
Even then, Afghanistan’s communist rulers appealed for a Soviet intervention. Moscow offered assurances. Speaking with Afghan president Nur Muhammad Taraki just after the uprising, a Soviet official advised a more open form of government to strengthen the communist state’s legitimacy.
“We think it important that within your country you should work to widen the social support of your regime, draw people over to your side, insure that nothing will alienate the people from the government,” one cable stated.
The USSR also seemed aware of its own lack of information about the facts on the ground in Afghanistan. “The relationship between the supporters of the government and the insurgents is still very unclear,” one cable reads, labelling as “insurgent” any Afghan citizen who resisted the government.
Elsewhere Moscow shows a concern for sending weapons only “if we are convinced they will not fall into the hands of the insurgents.”
When the Soviet invasion did come, it was a move made by a small coterie of officials. Defence Minister Dmitriy Ustinov had to steamroll past the objections of his chief of general staff, who called the decision to send between 75 and 80 thousand troops “reckless.”
At a broader meeting, the chief warned that Afghans had “never tolerated foreigners on their soil.”
A Soviet Strategic Disaster
Perhaps the most stunning revelation in the National Security Archive documents is how quickly the Soviet command realised that the conflict — which killed thousands of Soviet soldiers and more than a million Afghans while contributing to both the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Al Qaeda — was a dead end.
“The realisation that there could be no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan came to the Soviet military leadership very early on,” the National Security Archive writes in its introduction to the material.
The issue of troop withdrawal and the search for a political solution was discussed as early as 1980. But no real steps in that direction were taken, and the Soviets continued to fight in Afghanistan “without a clearly defined objective.”
Soviet troops wallowed in the Afghan quagmire for just over nine years; the cables even show Soviet decision-makers comparing the campaign to that of the US in Vietnam. The observation was made on both sides of the Iron Curtain: Even before the invasion, a US defence official wondered aloud whether it was worth “sucking the Soviets into a Vietnamese quagmire.” Despite the existence of such a damning case study, Afghanistan became one of the last places where the Cold War went hot.
One US concern was that Afghanistan might serve as first grounds for the Soviet Union’s growing regional ambitions. In his memoirs, then National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote that the USSR was “transforming that neutral buffer [Afghanistan] into an offensive wedge, bringing the Russians so much closer to their historic target of the Indian Ocean.”
From there, the reasoning went, it might challenge the US’s own strategic tilt toward the Gulf. The US had sent American warships to the Persian Gulf in the fall of 1979, and the Iranian hostage crisis, which would remain in the forefront of American public discourse until its resolution in 1981, had begun just weeks before the Soviet invasion.
The US took advantage of the conflict to drain its great rival of military resources and money, a campaign that got the Hollywood treatment in 2007’s Charlie Wilson’s War.
One CIA estimate was that the expense of $US200 million by 1983 had bled the Soviet Union of a much greater sum: $US12 billion. Thirty-five years ago, one of the last empires of the 20th century set itself on the path to ruin.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.