The Soviet Politburo’s decision to take over the mountainous country of Afghanistan in December 1979 and save its nascent Communist revolution marked one of the turning tides of the Cold War. Nearly Ten years later, the U.S.S.R. was forced to leave in disgrace, abandoning its original goals and leaving behind a fragmented and ruined country that would continue to be embroiled in civil wars and foreign invasions for decades to come.
Most accounts of the Soviet-Afghan conflict begin in the late-1970s, but we must go back well over two decades earlier to properly understand the roots of Communism in Afghanistan. Despite being one of the most conservative Muslim societies in the world, it was endowed with a progressive leadership determined to establish cooperative economic and social relations with the outside world. As Dr. Robert F. Baumann explains in his 1993 work, the Kingdom maintained relations with both the United States and the Soviet Union as a part of the Non-Aligned Movement, but its military academy was especially dominated by cadets trained in the Soviet Union, many of whom became staunch Stalinists. These same individuals formed a number of militant organisations that collectively overthrew the five-years old Republic of Afghanistan by force in April 1978. However, popular resistance and infighting among Communist groups became so rampant that the Soviet Union, under its interventionist Brezhnev Doctrine, decided to launch an invasion under the codename ‘Operation Storm-333’ in late-December 1979.
The American Intervention
The Soviet intervention turned out to be an unexpected disaster. Unlike German Democratic Republic (1953), Hungary (1956), and Czechoslovakia (1968), the determined resistance of opposition Mujahideen fighters turned the supposed six-month sweeping operation in the Southwest Asian country into a decade-long Soviet-Afghan War. Even before the Soviet Union openly invaded the country, the United States had begun its own covert operation via the CIA to provide armament and equipment to various Mujahideen groups, by far the largest of its kind in the 1980s and costing an estimated 2-3 billion dollars in total. Largely thanks to this foreign aid, the Soviet leadership was incapable of ensuring the creation of a stable socialist regime in the nation, despite deploying hundreds of thousands of troops along with a large number of local associates for close to a decade. In April 1988, a bilateral agreement signed at Geneva called for the withdrawal of all Soviet military presence from the country, a process that was completed by February next year.
The Soviet Armed Forces were woefully unprepared for the terrain and tactics of the Afghan theatre, and experts have long suspected this military failure to be a leading cause for the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan. Not only did the Soviet Union lack any comparable experience in counterinsurgency operations elsewhere, the fact that upwards of 70% of its soldiers comprised of conscripts who only served on the frontline for a maximum of 90 days meant that it could not learn to cope effectively with the new situation either. Unfortunately, a lack of transparency means a complete study of the subject has yet to be made, and whatever accounts exist are mostly anecdotal.
The Vietnam of U.S.S.R.
Overall, the picture that emerges of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan is eerily similar to that of the United States in Vietnam and Afghanistan. The only notable difference is that of scale. Although the economic and human costs of the War in Vietnam were much higher, the political consequences of the failure in Afghanistan proved much more disastrous to the U.S.S.R. As a military state, the withdrawal severely undermined confidence in the Soviet state at home. It is no coincidence that the entire Union collapsed barely two years later. But the real cost was borne by the Afghan people, who continue to be in a state of conflict to this day.