Website written and assembled by Shou Zhang and Mike Jacobs, December, 2001
In 1979, the USSR took control of the Afghan capital, Kabul, and tried through the following decade to gain control over the whole country and its people. The invasion was a failure, costing thousands of lives and having serious consequences still felt today.
To better understand the reason for the Soviet invasion and failure, first one must understand the geography and culture in Afghanistan. The land is mountainous and arid. Jagged, impassable ranges divide the country and make travel difficult. Due to these physical divisions, the people are extremely provincial, with more loyalty to their specific clan or ethnic group than to a government or a country. The people are Muslims, and extremely religious and conservative. The majority ethnic group is the Pashtun, but there are over ten minority groups.
Starting in the 1950s, the USSR began giving aid to Afghanistan. The Soviets built roads, irrigation and even some oil pipelines. In the 1970s, a Communist party overthrew the monarchy and tried to institute social reforms. The rural populations saw land distribution and women's rights as alien to their traditional Islamic culture, a culture in which polygamy, covering of women, and blood for blood practices are accepted. The Communist governments in Kabul in the 1970s lacked the popular support of the rural population.
The Soviets sent troops into Afghanistan in 1979 for a number of reasons. First, they wished to expand their influence in Asia. They also wanted to preserve the Communist government that had been established in the 1970s, and was collapsing because of its lack of support other than in the military. Third, the Soviets wanted to protect their interests in Afghanistan from Iran and western nations.
The Soviets brought in over one hundred thousand soldiers, secured Kabul quickly and installed Babrak Karmal as their puppet leader. However, they were met with fierce resistance when they ventured out of their strongholds into the countryside. Resistance fighters, called mujahidin, saw the Christian or atheist Soviets controlling Afghanistan as a defilement of Islam as well as of their traditional culture. Proclaiming a "jihad"(holy war), they gained the support of the Islamic world. The US gave them weapons and money. The mujahidin employed guerrilla tactics against the Soviets. They would attack or raid quickly, then disappear into the mountains, causing great destruction without pitched battles. The fighters used whatever weapons they could take from the Soviets or were given by the US. Decentralized and scattered around Afghanistan, the mujahidin were like a poisonous snake without a head that could be cut off. There was no one strong central stronghold from which resistance operated.
Short-Term Effects / World Response
Afghan refugee's eyes represent the anguish brought upon her by the Soviet Invasion (Denker, 1985)
The Soviet invasion had a devastating effect on the Afghan people. Because the rural population fed and housed the mujahidin, the Soviets tried to eliminate or remove civilian populations from the countryside where resistance was based. Soviet bombing destroyed entire villages, crops and irrigation, leaving millions of people dead, homeless or starving. Land mines maimed unsuspecting Afghans, especially children who mistook them to be toys. Refugee camps around Peshawar, Pakistan sprang up and quickly became overcrowded, unsanitary and insufficiently supplied. In addition, many internal refugees fled from their region.
The Soviet invasion in Afghanistan elicited a strong reaction from all over the world. The United States condemned the occupation immediately. We sent hundreds of millions of dollars worth of guns and food to Afghanistan to aid the mujahidin and the refugees. The United Nations voted to condemn the action, and repeatedly exhorted the USSR to pull out. From throughout the Arab world, people gave money and aided the mujahidin. One of these benefactors of the war was Osama bin Laden. Although the primary reason for the Soviet withdrawal was their military failure, diplomatic pressure from around the world may have hastened it.
Soviet Withdrawal / Reprecussions
In 1989, Soviet forces pulled out of Afghanistan. Fifteen thousand Soviet soldiers and countless Afghans had been killed in the decade-long war. Billions of dollars had been spent each year to support troops in Afghanistan. Unable to defeat the mujahidin and pressed by world opinion to leave Afghanistan, Soviet leader Gorbachev decided that the USSR had to get out. In part, the tide of the war had been turned by the introduction of US-made shoulder-launched antiaircraft missiles in 1987. With these missiles, the mujahidin shot down Soviet planes and helicopters every day, increasing the monetary and human cost of the war, and making Soviet strike tactics ineffective. Demoralized and with no victory in sight, the USSR's forces left Afghanistan.
The war had far-reaching effects on Afghanistan, the Soviets, and the US. Several million Afghans had either fled to neighboring Pakistan for refuge or had become internal refugees. In addition, millions more had died from starvation or from the Soviet bombings and raids. Among the survivors were a generation that had known only war, hatred, and fear. Homes, animals, and precious irrigation systems were destroyed, leaving the country barren and in ruin. Also, thousands of miniature land mines dropped by the Soviet planes continued to pose a hazard to the Afghan people long after the war with the USSR ended.
The USSR was also affected greatly by its failure. It lost fifteen thousand troops, but the true damage done was in the degradation of its image, and the billions of dollars it spent during the war. This fall from invincibility and vast expendature of money to finance the invasion in part caused the USSR to fall apart in the early 1990s.
One long-term effect of the Soviet invasion and pull-out was the establishment of a weak state full of religious hatred and hatred of richer nations: a breeding ground for terrorism. Though supplying the Afghan resistance with American guns and anti-aircraft missiles seemed like a good idea for the US in the 1980s, and was the reason for the Soviets defeat, now as the US invades, they are met with their own guns. The significance of the sophisticated guns has yet to be determined. In light of the US involvement today in Afghanistan after the September 11th terrorist attacks, it is especially important to understand the history of the Soviet's involvement there so we can avoid making the same mistakes.
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--- "Only Soviet Troops Said to Guard Kabul." The New York Times. 30 Dec. 1979: p 10.
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National Geographic. June1985: 772-797.
Debra Denker and photographer Steve McCurry journey into Afghanistan and view in person the Soviet occupation there. They write about the real-life situations, poverty-stricken conditions and encounter Afghans who fight and those who flee into exile. This inclusive article offers photographs of Afghans living through the war, introduces the history of Afghanistan and also includes commentary on the Soviet occupation and the Afghan response, along with detailed maps.
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A national radio address by Reagan in 1985 to better inform the nation of the situation in Afghanistan, and to denounce Soviet occupation, showing the U.S. point of view in Afghanistan at the time.
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