Afghanistan War (1978-92)

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For more information, see: Afghanistan.
See also: Afghanistan War (2001-2021)
See also: Afghanistan Civil War (1989-1992)

The 1978-92 Afghanistan War included both a war of independence for Afghanistan that matched the Soviet Union and its Afghan allies against a coalition of anti-Communist groups called the mujahideen, who pulled out in 1989, and another for control following the defeat of the Soviet clients.

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.[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'etat 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 toppled 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. In the opinion of some Soviet leader, 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 explosion came in early 1979 in the Western Afghan city of Herat. There was a demonstration against government excesses, troops opened fire, and demonstrators stormed the communist governor's palace and began hunting down Soviet advisers. Local military units, including some under Ismail Khan — then a young captain, later an important mujahideen leader and governor of the province — opened their armouries and armed the demonstrators.

Soviet decisionmaking

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 detente 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 had been 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 in September 1979 was murdered and replaced by his deputy Hafizullah Amin (1929-79) of the Khalq faction. 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, whose efforts to assassinate Amin had failed, and from the Red Army, which perhaps was worried about the danger of a mutiny on the part of its many Muslim soldiers.

Soviet invasion

Soviet combat troops entered in 1979.[5] 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 the Vietnam War had been for the US.[6]

World reaction

As soon as the Soviets invaded in December 1979, Carter, disgusted at the collapse of detente 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.

Current analysis suggests 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.[7] 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.

Afghan Arabs

Non-Afghan volunteers for the mujahideen, especially from Saudi Arabia, became generically known as "Afghan Arabs". Various organizations, including Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan, the Services Office, facilitated their movement into the theater of operations. It was U.S. policy, under Operation CYCLONE, to encourage their involvement, and the al-Khifa center in the United States was one source of them.

Foreign involvement and aid to the mujahideen

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 and his Afghan Interim Government that ruled 1992-96.[8]

According to Cyrus Vance's close aide Marshall Shulman "the U.S. State Department worked hard to dissuade the Soviets from invading."[9] Following the Soviet invasion, the United States supported diplomatic efforts to achieve a Soviet withdrawal. In addition, generous U.S. contributions to the refugee program in Pakistan played a major part in efforts to assist Afghan refugees. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, known for his hardline policies on the Soviet Union, initiated in 1979 a campaign supporting mujahideen in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which was run by Pakistani security services with financial support from the Central Intelligence Agency and Britain's MI6.[10] No Americans trained or had direct contact with the mujahideen.[11] The skittish CIA had fewer than 10 operatives in the region.[12]

The United States, the United Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia became major financial contributors, the United States donating "$600 million in aid per year, with a matching amount coming from the Persian Gulf states."[13]

The Chinese People's Liberation Army trained and supported the Afghan mujahideen during the war. Their training camps were moved from Pakistan into China itself. Anti-aircraft missiles, rocket launchers and machine guns, valued at hundreds of millions, were given to the mujahideen by the Chinese. Chinese military advisors and army troops were present with the Mujahideen during training.[14]

The early foundations of al-Qaeda were allegedly built in part on relationships and weaponry that came from the billions of dollars in U.S. support for the Afghan mujahideen during the war to expel Soviet forces from that country.[15] 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."[16]

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-Services 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.[17]

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.[18]

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 was 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.[19]


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."[20]

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, and 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 Mohammed Najibullah, the head of the 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.[21]


  1. 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
  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. Christian Ostermann, “CWIHP Conference Report: New Evidence on the 1979-1989 War in Afghanistan. “ (May 20 20020 online
  6. 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
  7. David N. Gibbs, "Reassessing Soviet Motives for Invading Afghanistan: a Declassified History." Critical Asian Studies 2006 38(2): 239-263.
  8. 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
  9. Alterman, Eric (October 25, 2001). 'Blowback,' the Prequel. The Nation. Retrieved on December 30, 2010.
  10. Interview with Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski-(13/6/97).
  11. Bergen, Peter. Holy War, Inc. New York: Free Press, 2001. Pg.66
  12. The New Republic, "TRB FROM WASHINGTON, Back to Front" by Peter Beinart, October 8, 2001.
  13. Kepel, Gilles (2002). Jihad. Cambridge: Belknap. ISBN 0-674-01090-6. 
  14. S. Frederick Starriditor=S. Frederick Starr (2004). [/books?id=GXj4a3gss8wC&pg=PA158#v=onepage&q&f=false Xinjiang: China's Muslim Borderland], illustrated. M.E. Sharpe. ISBN 0765613182. Retrieved on May 22 2012. 
  15. William D. Hartung (October 27, 2006). We Arm The World. Retrieved on 2008-11-21.
  16. 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.
  17. 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
  18. A good military history of the Soviet effort is Anthony H. Cordesman and Abraham R. Wagner, The Lessons of Modern War. Volume: 3 (1990)
  19. 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
  20. "CPSU CC Politburo Transcript, 13 Nov 1986" in CWIHP Bulletin 8-9, p. 180
  21. 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