The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a fateful turn of history, occurred thirty years ago, on Dec. 27, 1979. It would be almost ten years before the army extricated itself, on Feb. 15, 1989. The pervasive view is that the decade-long war contributed greatly to the collapse of the Soviet Union, though other theories in Russia are gaining in popularity. One critical question remains: Why did Soviet leadership choose to invade Afghanistan in the first place?
On Dec. 27, Russia’s veterans will mark the 30th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. On that day in 1979, KGB and military intelligence spetsnaz (special forces), assaulted and secured all the key government buildings in Kabul, killed Hafizullah Amin, the second President of Afghanistan, and installed the KGB-approved Babrak Karmal in his place.
That day is often regarded as the fatal point, when the countdown began for the fate of the Soviet Union. (It was almost a decade later, twenty years ago on Feb. 15, that the Soviet forces pulled out of Afghanistan.)
It is commonly believed that the armed invasion of Afghanistan, followed by a decade of fierce fighting between the “limited contingent” (as the Soviet forces were dubbed by the Communist press) and the mujaheddin, dealt a crushing blow both to the reputation and the economy of the Soviet Union, driving the existing cracks deeper into the system before the U.S.S.R. collapsed together with the Communist regime.
An unbiased analysis, however, requires consideration of another point of view, particularly in the context of continued coalition efforts to curb the Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. A growing number of Russians subscribe to the view that the Soviet military presence beyond the Pyanj and Amu Darya in the 1980s checked the spread of religious extremism and prevented this large region from slipping into unrestrained anarchy. The Taliban of today in fact has its roots in the radical mujaheddin movement, which fought the Red Army in the 1980s.
Whatever is closer to the truth, the obscure history of the Soviet-Afghan conflict still holds unresolved questions. One of the most intriguing mysteries concerns the motivations behind the Soviet government’s decision to launch the invasion.
Each invasion, clearly, brings a new misery to the Afghan people that also seems beyond resolution.
Historians still do not understand why the Kremlin bosses, who had unanimously objected to an open intervention against a neighboring state in the summer of 1979, suddenly changed their minds several months later. After I had spent many years trying to find the answer by scrutinizing hundreds of documents and interviewing people who were directly or indirectly involved in those events 30 years ago, I came to a conclusion. The fateful decision, which was documented in a secret handwritten resolution of the Politburo on Dec. 12, 1979, was compelled by a combination of circumstances.
The aging Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, was deeply disturbed by the murder of the 66-year-old Nur Muhammad Taraki, President of Afghanistan, who was killed at the order of Hafizullah Amin. Given that the Afghan government was overthrown just months after Brezhnev welcomed the Afghan President in Moscow and promised his support and protection, the General Secretary took the murder as a personal affront and an open challenge that begged for a response.
Marshal Dmitriy Ustinov, the Soviet Defense Minister, was sincerely concerned by a U.S. announcement that same autumn that the United States would station medium range missiles in Europe that would be aimed at the East.
Losing political influence in Afghanistan meant, from Ustinov’s perspective, that such missiles would inevitably appear close to the Soviet southern border, vastly shifting the existing balance of power. Admittedly, the defense minister was also eager to combat-test the enormous Soviet arsenals built during the arms race.
Yuriy Andropov, head of the KGB, was affected by the heavily biased intelligence coming from his agents in Kabul indicating that the Afghan armed forces were unable to cope with the threat of Islamic extremism. By that time, the mujaheddin had attacked government forces from multiple locations, and Amin as well as Taraki before him implored the Kremlin to provide full-scale military support lest Kabul be taken over by fanatics.
They argued that Islamic guerrillas would not stop and continue to expand their corrupting influence northward to the Muslim republics of the Soviet Union.
Finally, the Soviet decision-makers associated with the Afghan invasion had a common phobia as the Cold War reached its peak and both blocs were consumed by mutual fears. Who would finally outplay the other? Whose nerves would prove to be stronger? Ultimately, Moscow faltered under the pressure and was lured into a trap with no exit.
Curiously, the Soviet leadership was fundamentally misled by their previous experience of suppressing Eastern Europe: Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, where opposition was quickly and almost bloodlessly removed by several large tank units. But Afghanistan proved to be far beyond any comparisons with Europe.
By Feb. 1989, Kabul was flooded with journalists from around the world. The only decent hotel in the Afghan capital was overflowing with reporters from top television channels, news agencies, newspapers and weekly journals. The last units of the Soviet contingent had just left Afghanistan and my colleagues believed that nothing could stop the mujaheddin from picking the desired fruit. All they had to do was to reach out and take it. The media was looking forward to wiring sensational reports back to their headquarters.
To be fair, similar logic prevailed among many senior Soviet officials, including those in the Defense and Foreign Ministries and the intelligence service.
Several transport aircraft were on standby to take off from Moscow and Tashkent in Uzbekistan, and evacuate the Soviet citizens still remaining in Afghanistan. Most people were sure that once the Soviet troops withdrew, Najibullah’s regime would hold out for two or three weeks at most.
All the main figures of that epic drama are long gone. And those who had to fight and sort out the mess for 10 years — soldiers, officers and generals, meet twice a year, on Feb. 15 and Dec. 27, to remember their fallen comrades in arms and past battles.
They are not ashamed of taking part in the war, which is receding quickly from modern sight, and they come to these traditional gatherings wearing their decorations and awards, happy and excited.
They did their duty protecting the interests of their homeland. For some years, they have been inviting war veterans from the United States and other Western countries to join them. I think it is a good idea. Language barriers disappear as they communicate in the common language of the soldier and veteran.From 1981-1992, Vladimir Snegirev worked in Afghanistan as a correspondent for several leading Soviet newspapers. He has written a number of books and film scripts, and is now working on an extensive study of the role of special forces in Afghanistan.
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