Why did the Soviet Union invade Afghanistan?

Soviet-Afghan War

Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan: History, Causes & Major Effects. Image: Soviet paratroopers aboard a BMD-1 in Kabul

In late December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan under the pretext of supporting the Friendship Treaty of 1978. Events following the invasion set the stage for a savagely violent Afghan Civil War that further tore the country apart.

Below, World History Edu explores the events that led to the invasion as well as the major effects of the armed conflict:

Reason for the Invasion

The primary reason for the invasion dates back to the overthrow of Afghanistan’s King Zahir Shah in 1973. Daoud Khan, who had masterminded the coup, assumed office as the first president of Afghanistan.

The Khan administration was marked by a series of socio-economic reforms and instances of severe punishment to those who opposed his government. This led to an enduring period of antagonism with the left-wing politicians and some members of the Islamic communities.

Fruition of the animosity was the deposition and subsequent execution of Khan in 1978. The communist’s People’s Democratic Republic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), with the support of the Soviet Union, replaced Khan by appointing Hafizullah Amin as prime minister.

Amin’s administration proved to be even more repressive than the previous. The traditional Islamic communities who were used to their sense of independence were unhappy and infuriated by Amin’s strong grip on power.

Similarly, the Soviets had come to raise serious concerns about Amin’s government, finding the Afghan leader unhelpful and detrimental to their interests. They feared they would attract the rage of rival Islamic groups. Soon enough, an infuriated group of jihadists, known as the Mujahidin (Mujahideen), declared a holy war against Amin and his government.

24 December 1979 – the Soviet Union invades

Soviet-Afghan War

Soviet forces during the Soviet-Afghan War

The Soviets acted fast. Towards midnight on December 24, 1979, they airlifted a several thousands of their elite forces into major Afghan cities and highways. Within days, the commando unit of the KGB had taken over the military, assumed control over the capital Kabul, and deployed a special unit against the Tajberg Palace. Amin was assassinated in what was called Operation Storm-333. Babrak Karmal, a pro-Moscow Afghan politician, was installed as president.

Cause of the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989)

The Soviet-Afghan War ensues

First of all, it must be noted that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was the precursor to the Afghan Civil War (1989-1992). The Mujahideen, in their quest to end the occupation and influence of the Soviet troops and the installed puppet regime in Kabul, waged a guerilla warfare to take back Afghanistan.

At the beginning of the 1980, resistance groups that had emerged from various parts of the country in the during the Daoud and Amin regimes came together to achieve a common goal: To establish an Afghan Mujahideen that would get rid of non-Muslims that at the levers of power as well as the Soviet invaders.

Cause of the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989)

In 1986, the United States government ramped up its support, military and economic, to these Afghan. The US and its allies armed the rebel groups with a variety of weapons, including a missile launcher and anti-aircraft weapons which enabled the Mujahideen forces to tremendously reduce the Soviet’s advantage in the sky. Those anti-aircraft missiles brought down many Soviet planes. At this point, the Mujahideen began to gain the upper hand in many parts of the country.

Soviet-Afghan War

For long periods during the war, the Soviet forces used their airpower to keep the Mujahideen at bay.

Following the loss of thousands of Soviet troops and innumerable resources, the Afghan government proposed an end to the one-party government and was open to free and fair elections from that period.

April 1988 witnessed the meeting of the Soviet Union, the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan at the United Nations (UN) in Geneva, Switzerland to sign the Geneva Accords.

In February 1988, the Soviet Union withdrew its last troops from Afghanistan, bringing an end to 9 years of war and occupation.

In April 1888, elections were organized and a coalition government was established. Mohammed Najibulla was named the President of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.

A column of Soviet BTR armored personnel carriers during their withdrawal from Afghanistan

Effects of the Invasion & the subsequent Afghan Civil War

Effects of the Soviet-Afghan War

The Soviet-Afghan War left untold destruction in Afghanistan, including the loss of several thousands of lives

The Soviet-Afghan War, which took place from 1979 to 1989, had untold negative effects on both Afghanistan and the wider region. It is important to note that these effects are interconnected and complex, and their long-term consequences continue to shape Afghanistan and the broader region to this day.

Here are some of the major effects of the war:

Hundreds of thousands of Casualties

In the aftermath of the war, it was discovered that there were over a quarter of a million soldiers recorded casualties, including about 15,000 Soviet troops.

Many innocent civilian lives were lost as a result of group conflicts and many others were left physically disabled. It’s estimated that the armed conflict between 5-8% of Afghanistan’s pre-war population of 13.6 million people. Thousands of prisoners and civilians were executed for tribal or religious reasons.

The war had a devastating impact on the civilian population of Afghanistan. The conflict resulted in a significant loss of life, estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands, and caused widespread displacement. Many Afghans fled their homes and sought refuge in neighboring countries, leading to a protracted humanitarian crisis. Image: A member of the International Committee of the Red Cross helping a wounded Afghan child walk (1986)

The Emergence of the Taliban

The instability and chaos that characterized the aftermath of the war ushered in the Mohammed Omar-led Taliban organization. This period saw the enactment of Shari’a law. Most women were prohibited from working and girl-child education was as good as outlawed.

The Taliban assumed control of more than 80% of the country. Though they had assured the despairing Afghan populace of maximum protection, they instead introduced a number of repressive and extremist policies that had heightened poverty levels and increased the abuse of human rights.

The Taliban continued with the ethnic and religious persecution and executions. Many civilians fled to Iran, Pakistan and surrounding countries for safety. The political unrest that started in the 1970s drove Afghanistan to regular periods of conflicts and disorderliness that continued on for several years.

Increased Turmoil & High Refugee Rate

In spite of Taliban activities, the people hoped to pick up the pieces and attempt to rebuild their lives. However, things took a turn for the worse because of increased brutality and the destruction of more lives and property in ensuing years. Those dire times witnessed numerous instances of rape of women and abuse of children. There were also many cases of torture and detention. Over 260,000 people were rendered homeless and almost 3,000,000 became refugees, seeking safety in Iran and Pakistan.

Psychological Stress

The Afghan population went through excruciating violations of their human rights, killings, kidnapping, sexual assault and many other heinous crimes. All these terrorist activities led to a considerable rise in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other psychological disorders among the population. According to the International Psychosocial Organisation, 70% of the population sorely needed psychological support.

The US-led coalition against the Taliban

A US-led alliance of international forces declared war on the Taliban in October 2001. This was because the Taliban had failed to comply with the demands of the US special forces to give up the leaders of Al-Qaeda after perpetrating violence against American citizens in the September 11 Attack.

Consequently, the US started a series of military missions in Afghanistan mainly aimed at removing Afghanistan as a hiding place for international terrorists.  By this period, news of the Taliban extensive abuse of human rights and torture had spread all over the world, making them enemies both near and far.

The Fall of the Taliban in 2004

During the US-led military action, the Northern Alliance, an anti-communist movement that comprised Islamic states and Islamic political parties, rose against the Taliban and engaged them in a series of ground combat. Sensing defeat, a large number of the Taliban fighters escaped to Pakistan while others hid among the civilian population. The Taliban was eventually driven from power. Many people from the Northern Alliance formed part of the new Afghanistan government of 2004.

Questions and Answers about the Soviet-Afghan War

Soviet-Afghan War

Painting of the first Stinger Missile kill in 1986

Did you know: At its peak, the Soviet-Afghan War saw more than 110,000 Soviet troops wage a brutal war against the Afghan Mujahideen? Below are some of the frequently asked questions about the war:

What reason did the Soviet Union cite for invading Afghanistan in 1979?

The Soviet Union invaded the landlocked Asian country under the pretext of safeguarding the Soviet-Afghan Friendship Treaty of 1978 (officially – the 1978 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good Neighborliness). The Soviet Union wanted to ‘liberate’ the country from the rule of Hafizullah Amin.

Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan

Reasons why the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979

How was the invasion done?

On December 24, 1979, the Soviet military commanders ordered a massive airlift of military personnel into Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. It was estimated that 280 transport aircraft were deployed that day. Nearly 30,000 Soviet soldiers were deployed, and in just a few days, Kabul fell into the hands of Soviet commanders. From there, Soviet troops turned their attention to Tajberg Palace, where they met a brief resistance from Afghan forces loyal to Amin.

In the weeks that followed, more Soviet ground forces would make their way into Afghanistan from the north.

Soviet-Afghan War

Soviet tanks used during the invasion of Afghanistan

When did Babrak Karmal return to Afghanistan?

About three days into the invasion and with Amin removed from power, Babrak Karmal, the exiled leader of the pro-Soviet People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, returned to Afghanistan. Karmal was then installed as the head of government.

What was the level of resistance put up by the mujahideen?

The Soviet forces had complete control of Kabul, however, when they tried venturing into other parts of the country, they were met with very stiff resistance from the mujahidin. Seeing themselves as the defenders of Afghanistan, these fighters decried the fact that a non-Muslim nation like the Soviets was running a puppet regime in Afghanistan, a Muslim country.

The mujahidin fighters avoided an open battle; instead, they deployed a guerrilla style of resistance. After wreaking havoc on Soviet forces that operated in the countryside, they would quickly dash into the mountains.

If they were lucky, the mujahidin were able to lay their hands on weapons that Soviet troops left behind after being startled by the guerrilla attack. It is a known fact the Afghan fighters received a lot of military aid from the United States and its allies both in the region and beyond. For example, the mujahidin received weapons from the likes of Iran, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iraq, Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait.

US support of the Afghan mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan War

U.S. President Reagan meeting with Afghan mujahideen at the White House

What was the defining moment of the war?

In total, the Soviet-Afghan War raged for about nine years. The defining moment for the Afghan resistance fighters came when they started receiving anti-aircraft missiles from the United States and its partners in the region. Those weapons proved to be huge as the mujahidin were able to bring down quite a number of Soviet aircrafts and helicopters.

Why did the Soviets pull out of Afghanistan?

Towards the dying stages of the Soviet-Afghan War, public opinion of the war shifted drastically because the war had put a huge strain on the coffers of the Soviet Union. Militarily and politically, the Soviets were also fast losing resources to maintain their grip on Afghanistan. Therefore, in 1987, new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made the decision to pull out Soviet troops from Afghanistan. The withdrawal of Soviet troops began in 1988, and by mid-February 1989, all Soviet troops had left Afghanistan.

Soviet Union forces withdrew from Afghanistan in February 1989

How did the Soviet-Afghan War affect the Soviet Union?

Historians have noted that the Soviet-Afghan War hastened the demise of the Soviet Union in so many ways. The nine-year war was a fiasco considering how everything crumbled for the puppet regime (the PDPA government) in Kabul in a very short time. In short, the Soviet Union could not achieve any significant change in Afghanistan. This was because the Soviet Union could not maintain any sort of tangible support, politically, militarily or economically, to the PDPA government. The Soviets themselves were in political and economic turmoil at the time – a turmoil that resulted in its collapse in 1991.

What were some of the major long-term impacts of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan?

The puppet regime installed by the Soviets in Kabul effectively collapsed in 1992 after it was overran by the mujahidin. With the country deeply destabilized as a result of the war, a civil war ensued, which in turn made Afghanistan a haven for quite a number of terrorist organizations. One of such organizations would emerge under the leadership of Osama bin Laden and carry out many heinous bombings in Afghanistan and beyond.

How many Soviet troops died during the invasion?

It’s been estimated that over 15,000 Soviet soldiers lost their lives during the Soviet-Afghan War.

What were some of the long-term consequences of the war in Afghanistan and the region?

Soviet-Afghan War

The war plunged Afghanistan into a protracted civil war and paving the way for the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s. Image: Mujahideen with two captured artillery field guns from the Soviets in Jaji, 1984

There is no doubt that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan caused the entire region to become unstable for many years. The conflict exacerbated existing tensions and rivalries between regional powers, including Iran and Pakistan. It also facilitated the rise of militant groups and the proliferation of weapons, contributing to ongoing conflicts and instability in Afghanistan and neighboring countries.

Above all, the war had a profound impact on Afghan society. The prolonged conflict disrupted social structures, caused significant loss of life, and created a generation of Afghan refugees. The war also resulted in the destruction of infrastructure, including schools, community centers and hospitals, and led to a decline in education and healthcare services. Development wise, the armed conflict took the Asian nation several decades back.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan caused a severe humanitarian crisis in the landlocked country. It is estimated that millions of Afghans were displaced internally, while several millions sought refuge in neighboring countries, primarily Pakistan and Iran. The conflict resulted in extensive casualties, including thousands of civilian deaths and widespread destruction of infrastructure.

One cannot talk about the rise of the Mujahideen when the Soviet-Afghan War is brought up. The war saw the emergence of various Afghan resistance groups collectively known as the Mujahideen. They received significant support from the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, among other countries, who saw the war as an opportunity to counter Soviet influence. The Mujahideen fought very hard against the Soviet-backed Afghan government in Kabul, using guerrilla tactics and receiving training and weapons from their foreign backers.

Afghan Mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan War

Mujahideen in Kunar, Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan War

There is no two ways that the Soviet-Afghan War can be seen as a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The U.S. saw an opportunity to weaken its Cold War rival by supporting the Mujahideen, while the Soviets aimed to prop up their communist ally in Afghanistan. The conflict became part of a broader geopolitical struggle between the two superpowers.

As clear as day, the Soviet-Afghan War quickened the fall of the Soviet Union. Beyond the financial strain, the war had several other damaging effects on the Soviet Union, which at the time was on its last leg. The protracted conflict, coupled with economic strain, political discontent, and a rising tide of nationalism in various Soviet republics, contributed to the decline of the Soviet Union. The Soviet military’s inability to decisively defeat the Mujahideen undermined the credibility of the Soviet government and its military apparatus.

The Soviet-Afghan War played a crucial role in shaping the global jihadist movement. During the conflict, foreign fighters, including radical Islamists, flocked to Afghanistan to join the Mujahideen. Some of these fighters, like Osama bin Laden, went on to form Al-Qaeda, which would become a prominent international terrorist organization responsible for various bombings and attacks, including the September 11 attacks in 2001.

Following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, Afghanistan plunged into a devastating civil war among various Mujahideen factions vying for power. The power vacuum created by the absence of a strong central government allowed warlords to seize control over different regions, leading to further instability and violence for many, many years.

Out of the economic and political chaos created by both the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Afghan Civil War, the Taliban emerged as a formidable force in the 1990s. They capitalized on the war-weary population’s desire for stability and implemented a strict interpretation of Islamic law in areas under their control, which included the suppression of women’s rights and beheadings. Basically, the Taliban eventually took over most of Afghanistan, establishing an oppressive regime.

Demonstrations against the Soviet-Afghan War

A demonstration against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in The Hague, Netherlands, 1985

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