Soviets in Afghanistan

soviets in afghanistan

Mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is a small landlocked country in central Asia, wedged between Russia in the north, Iran to the west and Pakistan in the south. Remote and possessing a mountainous terrain and harsh climate, Afghanistan has been viewed in the West as both a mysterious place and a politically unstable location. But as a crossroads nation between east and west, Afghanistan has always had been of strategic importance. For most of the Cold War, Afghanistan was ruled by Mohammed Zahir, an educated and somewhat enlightened shah (king) who made sincere attempts to modernise his country. By the mid-1960s, Afghanistan seemed to have most of the trappings of a modern democratic state: free elections, a representative parliament and reforms improving the rights of women. Zahir and his government refused to align with either the US or USSR, though both Washington and Moscow courted him by funding roads and other infrastructure projects.

soviets in afghanistan

Mohammed Daoud Khan, overthrown in a 1978 coup

In 1973, while Mohammed Zahir was abroad having surgery, he was deposed by a bloodless coup led by Mohammed Daoud Khan, his cousin and the prime minister. Daoud immediately abolished the monarchy and assumed the presidency of the newly-formed republic. He summoned a loya jirga (‘grand council of tribes’) to approve a new constitution, which transformed Afghanistan into a one-party state. Daoud sought to undermine communist opposition to his government by reducing Afghanistan’s reliance on the USSR. Instead, he sought to forge ties with oil-rich Muslim nations like Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Fearful that Daoud would eventually align with the West, Soviet agents and local communists began to plot his downfall. In 1978 Daoud was removed in a coup – the so-called Saur Revolution – organised by Afghanistan’s Communist People’s Democratic Party (PDPA) and conducted by sympathetic army officers. The PDPA proclaimed victory on April 28th by announcing that Daoud had “resigned due to poor health” (which was partly true: he had been shot).

The Soviets invade

“Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, particularly since World War II, had been clearly designed to bring Afghanistan under Soviet hegemony. The USSR had used several methods interactively. Prior to World War II the focus was on purely diplomatic initiatives and economic aid, but after the war the Soviets expanded their approach to include military assistance and political manipulation. By 1978 these methods had succeeded: the USSR was Afghanistan’s biggest trade partner and source of economic aid, it had modernised Afghanistan’s armed forces, and with its support Afghanistan’s nascent communist party was running the country. But one of the bloodiest and most destructive wars in Afghanistan’s history was yet to come.”
Larry P. Goodson, historian
soviets in afghanistan

Soviet tanks roll south into Afghanistan during the 1979 invasion

By 1979, the instability in Afghanistan had increased markedly and the government was on the brink of collapse. Confronted with anarchy and imminent revolution, the communist regime in Kabul made frequent pleas to Moscow, requesting military intervention. In December 1979 the Kremlin acted, sending more than 100,000 Red Army troops into Afghanistan to prop up the government. This move was portrayed internationally as an aggressive, imperialist Soviet action; in reality it was approved by the dominant faction in the Afghanistan government. The United Nations moved to condemn the Soviet action, while 34 Muslim nations issued a communique calling for all Soviet troops to be withdrawn unconditionally. A protest movement formed to push for a boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. US president Jimmy Carter warned US athletes would not attend the Moscow games if Soviet troops did not withdraw from Afghanistan by February 20th 1980. Carter’s ultimatum was ignored and 65 nations – including the US, Japan, Israel and Canada – did not attend the Moscow Olympics.

In private, however, policy planners in the US were delighted with the events in Afghanistan. Not only did the Soviet intervention provide propaganda opportunities, but the Soviets were confronted with what one American politician called “their own Vietnam”. Washington sought to make the Soviet task more difficult by destabilising the communist regime and arming and training its enemies. Working mostly through Pakistan, US operatives began providing military equipment and funds to local Muslim fundamentalists, collectively known as the mujahideen (‘freedom fighters’). CIA agents worked underground in Afghanistan training the mujahideen and recruiting new members; as much as $US20 billion was smuggled into the country for this purpose. Many who benefited from this American assistance later joined the Taliban, an Islamic group that seized control of Afghanistan in 1996. Another beneficiary of American aid during the Soviet occupation was a young Saudi-born volunteer named Osama bin Laden. American assistance increased under the presidency of Ronald Reagan; the US government set aside more than $US600 million a year to arm, train and support the Afghan resistance.

Russia’s own ‘Vietnam’

soviets in afghanistan

Representatives of the mujahideen meet with US president Ronald Reagan at the White House

Meanwhile, the Soviet Red Army was finding the occupation and stabilisation of Afghanistan a difficult task. Soviet forces controlled many of Afghanistan’s cities, main roads and infrastructure locations by early 1980. But more than four-fifths of the country remained under the control of local tribes and Islamic groups. The Soviets launched a series of offensives to capture Afghan-controlled provinces, but were frustrated by local resistance. The mujahideen employed sabotage, terrorism and guerrilla tactics against both the Soviets and forces loyal to the civilian government. Electricity in the cities was regularly knocked out by attacks on power stations; government buildings were routinely bombed; while politicians and public servants were assassinated. Mujahideen attacks on the powerful Soviet military were much less frequent, although small patrols and individual soldiers were often ambushed and murdered.

The Soviet-Afghan war continued until the mid-1980s, when Moscow decided to gradually withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. Local forces were built up and the Soviet presence was phased out; there was little fighting and only a couple of offensive campaigns after 1987. Almost 15,000 Soviet soldiers and personnel died during the USSR’s eight-year occupation of Afghanistan; in contrast, more than a half-million mujahideen and one million Afghani civilians were killed. There was enormous damage to the nation’s cities, infrastructure, farmland and livestock, in what had been one of the world’s poorest countries even before 1979.

soviets in afghanistan

Osama bin Laden, using US supplied equipment during his service with the Afghan mujahideen

While the Soviet withdrawal represented a Cold War victory for the United States, there would be long term ramifications for the US. Without the backing of Soviet troops, the Afghanistan government collapsed, and the nation disintegrated into years of civil war. In 1996 a group of fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, the Taliban (or “students”), captured control of the capital city, Kabul. For the next five years the Taliban ruled Afghanistan with religious zeal and remorselessness, banning television and radio, outlawing Western dress and imposing Sharia law and brutal punishments. The worst victims of Taliban rule were Afghanistan’s women, who were banned from employment, education, even from leaving their homes without a male chaperone. The Taliban also gave safe harbour to a small group of Islamic terrorists calling themselves Al-Qaeda, or “the base”. It was in their Afghanistan training camps that members of Al-Qaeda plotted the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks that murdered more than 3,000 people in the US.



1. Afghanistan, a landlocked nation in Asia, was until 1973 a relatively democratic and progressive state.
2. Two coups in the 1970s saw the rise of a communist government, led by the PDPA and backed by the USSR.
3. Anti-communist insurgency quickly increased and in late 1979 Soviet troops invaded, at the request of the PDPA.
4. The insurgents, called mujahideen, were local tribesmen backed and supplied by the US, mostly through the CIA.
5. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan lasted almost a decade and was very costly, with almost 15,000 Russians dying there. The Soviet withdrawal of the late 1980s led to the rise of Islamic fundamentalists called the Taliban.