Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan 40 years ago today, on 25 December 1979. Two days later, on 27 December, they toppled and killed Amin’s Khalqi’s government which had called for the troops and had assumed they had come for their rescue. The resulting occupation that would last for more than ten years became the last direct Soviet involvement in a ‘hot’ war in the global Cold War of that era. What was meant to be a relatively short and limited regime change operation, ended up changing history. It became part of a larger configuration of events that led to the downfall of the Soviet Union and its dominance in Eastern Europe and what, at the time, was described as the ‘end of history’: the end of the Cold War and the final triumph of liberal democracy (an illusion that has become obsolete). In Afghanistan, armed conflict did not end with the Soviet withdrawal, making Afghans the main victims of this war. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig reminds us of the unfolding events and the history they were part of.
In an improvised intervention during a cabinet meeting in January of this year, US president Donald Trump gave us his version of the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. During what CNN described as a “freewheeling” speech, he said:
Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia [again] because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan. … The reason Russia was in, in Afghanistan, was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there. The problem is, it was a tough fight. And literally they went bankrupt.
Although after 40 years, people not directly involved in the events can probably be forgiven for not remembering all the details, it is useful to revisit the actual decisions that led to the intervention, as well as the wider context which made this a crucial period in world history. Our current era has been strongly shaped by what happened in that crucial year.
Coups, assassinations, invasion
The prelude to the Soviet intervention started on 27 April 1978, when a group of left-wing military officers toppled and murdered Afghan President Muhammad Daud, and most of his family, in a coup d’état. The government they put in power was dominated by the until then clandestine, pro-Soviet People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA).
Announcement of the PDPA takeover in April 1978. Source: Kabul New Times.
Five years earlier, Daud, himself a member of the royal family, had overthrown a monarchy that had existed since 1747. Some of the officers who later killed him in 1978 had supported him then.
The PDPA’s policies – from land reform to enforced co-education – was met with resistance among the population. The resistance was spontaneous at first, but soon grew and became better organised and led by mujahedin organisations that operated from Pakistan and Iran with support of their regimes. Aleksandr Lyakhovskiy, a former high-ranking Soviet officer, who helped prepare the operation that unseated Amin, quoted a Soviet intelligence estimate in a paper for the Wilson Center in 2007 as saying that by the autumn of 1979 there were 40,000 mujahedin operating “against government troops in 12 of the 27 provinces of the country” and that the Afghan army, “weakened by repression, turned out to be incapable of crushing the antigovernment [sic] movement.”
The PDPA leader, Nur Muhammad Tarakai, a teacher from Ghazni province, as chairman of the Revolutionary Council and now the head of state, reacted violently and had tens of thousands of opponents – real or imagined – who were put into prison or who ‘disappeared’ (AAN background here). He, and later Amin, repeatedly asked the Soviet leadership under Leonid Breshnev for direct military support. Moscow rejected all these requests.
At the same time, from the beginning there were major internal power struggles in the faction-ridden PDPA. One of its deputies, Babrak Karmal, a former member of parliament, was exiled in a mountain resort in what was then Czechoslovakia, after having been accused of preparing another coup. (In November 2019, Frud Bezhan published a fascinating story about this episode on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Gandhara blog (more photos here).
In September 1979, Tarakai’s self-styled ‘pupil’ and remaining deputy, Hafizullah Amin, also a teacher, from Paghman near Kabul, ordered the murder of his ‘ustad’ and took power.
The killing of Tarakai shocked the Soviet leadership and, by late 1979, they had grown even more suspicious of Amin as documents published in January 2019 showed. He had not kept them abreast of his peace overtures to mujahedin leaders, particularly his co-tribal Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (a Kharoti Pashtun like himself), Hekmatyar’s backer Pakistan and even the US embassy in Kabul. (US documents that were declassified in January 2019 also confirmed the meetings with Amin – for the US and Soviet documents see here). Amin opponents also turned Soviet attention to earlier inner-PDPA allegations that Amin had had contacts with the CIA while studying in the US (which had prevented him from becoming part of the party leadership in the 1960s).
Moscow feared Amin could bring about “a change in the political line of Afghanistan in a direction which is pleasing to Washington,” as contemporary Soviet documents published in October 2019 put it. There had been precedents of leaders switching over to the West in the global Cold War earlier in the 1970s, including President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt and Muhammad Siad Barre of Somalia.
The situation for the new regime, in the meantime, had worsened. By late 1979, according to Lyakhovskiy, the rebels had managed to “launch combat operations in 16 of the (then) 27 provinces. They controlled Laghman, Kunar, Paktia, and Paktika completely” – except for the provincial centres.
According to Lyakhovskiy (p8), by late November 1979, the Soviet leadership had already decided to remove Amin from power by force. However, the removal was initially not meant to happen by means of a full-scale military intervention.
On 4 December, a high-ranking KGB officer was sent to Kabul “to prepare the operation … to remove Amin from power.” Two days later, the Soviet Politbureau decided to back the operation by sending “a detachment to Afghanistan of about 500 men [from the army’s intelligence] in uniforms which would not reveal an affiliation with the Soviet armed forces.” Officially, this was framed as a response to Amin’s request for a battalion to defend his residence and the Bagram air base. This so-called “Muslim battalion” was “dressed in Afghan uniforms.” Among these soldiers was a 22-man “special purpose detachment” from the Soviet intelligence service, the KGB. They were “housed in three villas in Kabul rented by the Soviet Embassy,” according to Lyakhovskiy.
On 7 December, Babrak Karmal and another PDPA leadership member, Anahita Ratebzad, Karmal’s mistress, were flown clandestinely into Bagram base on board of a civilian Tu-134 aircraft belonging to Moscow’s intelligence chief Yuri Andropov (the Soviets had earlier brought both of them from Czechoslovakia to the USSR). In Bagram they were put under the protection of KGB paratroopers. According to Lyakhovskiy, another group of dissident PDPA leaders – Nur Ahmad Nur, Muhammad Aslam Watanjar (who had participated in Daud’s 1973 coup), Sayed Muhammad Gulabzoy and Asadullah Sarwari,. who had stayed in Bulgaria – were brought to Bagram separately.
Soon, Lyakhovskiy wrote, the Soviet leadership “was leaning more and more to the opinion that without Soviet troops it would be difficult to create the conditions for removing Amin.” On 8 December, two options were worked out by the so-called “small Politbureau” in party leader Leonid Brezhnev’s private office: “remove Amin from power using the KGB’s capabilities and transfer power to Karmal; if this didn’t work, then send a certain number of troops to the DRA [Democratic Republic of Afghanistan] for these purposes.” Defence minister Dmitri Ustinov was ordered to put 75-80,000 Soviet troops on standby for “temporary” deployment in Afghanistan. Apart from Brezhnev, only four other persons participated in the meeting: intelligence chief Andropov, defence minister Dmitri Ustinov, foreign minister Andrey Gromyko and chief ideologue Mikhail Suslov. (1)
On 12 December, the “Politbureau of the Central Committee of the Communist party of the Soviet Union” – as this body was officially called in full (2) – signed a hand-written “Politbureau decision no P 176/125” titled “Concerning the situation in ‘A’” (see below). According to Lyakhovskiy, “[t]he record was signed by all CC CPSU Politburo members present at the meeting.” (Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin was absent.) Later, in his description of events, he puts “present” in quotation marks and adds that only the inner circle had signed the document, actually no Politbureau meeting had even taken place and all other members were ‘asked’ to sign post factum.
The short two-paragraph document is generally considered the (only available) document of the decision to invade Afghanistan. (3) However, it is framed in extremely general terms. It abbreviates using only Afghanistan’s first letter and refers only to “ideas and measures” (most likely the ones discussed on 8 December), the implementation of which it ‘approved.’ Lyakhovskiy wrote that the fact that it was handwritten and signed by Brezhnev and he had not even involved a scribe, in order to keep it top secret, proves the extraordinary significance of the document.
Here the Wilson Centers transcription of the document:
Chaired by Cde. [comrade] L. I. Brezhnev
Present: Suslov M. A., Grishin V. V., Kirilenko A. P., Pel’she A. Ya., Ustinov D. F., Chernenko K. U., Andropov Yu. V., Gromyko A. A., Tikhonov N. A., Ponomarev B. N.
CC CPSU Decree No 176/125 of 12 December concerning the situation in “A”
- Approve the ideas and measures set forth by Andropov Yu. V., Ustinov D.F., and Gromyko A. A. Authorize them to introduce amendments of non-essential nature in the course of the execution of these measures.
Questions requiring the decision of the CC should be expeditiously submitted to the Politburo. The implementation of all these measures is to be entrusted to Cdes. Andropov Yu. V., Ustinov D. F., and Gromyko A. A.
- Charge Cdes. Andropov Yu. V., Ustinov D. F., and Gromyko A. A. to keep the CC Politburo informed on the status of the execution of the outlined measures.
No 997 (1 page)
Facsimile of the 1979 Soviet Politbureau decision about “A”. Source: The Wilson Center (screenshot).
However, Lyakhovskiy also argued that this decision might not have been meant to be a final one about a full-scale military invasion. He wrote:
… anyone who is remotely familiar with the process of preparing documents and their evaluation at CC CPSU Politburo meetings knows that there should also be a note with the suggestions of Andropov, Ustinov, and Gromyko. In fact, such a note does not exist. (…) On the basis of these facts and the development of the situation in Afghanistan I will take a risk and offer another version: at this meeting the Politburo discussed questions (…) regarding the conduct of the operation to remove Amin using forces already in Afghanistan. If the operation had been conducted successfully it would not have been necessary to introduce Soviet troops into the DRA.
Indeed, further attempts were made to get rid of Amin without a larger military operation. Between 14 and 16 December, Soviet snipers tried to shoot him on his way to or from the Arg, but unsuccessfully so. (They did not come into a position to shoot as Amin’s convoy was too well protected, according to Lyachovskiy.) Another attempt on his life, with poisoned Pepsi Cola, also failed. After these failures, Karmal and the other PDPA leaders were brought back temporarily to safety in Tashkent (now in independent Uzbekistan).
Amin had apparently still not noticed that something was wrong and was still asking for Soviet military forces. Lyakhovskiy quotes Soviet documents according to which Amin told the KGB representative in Kabul in meetings on 12 and 17 December 1979, “what boiled down to the following”:
– the present Afghan leadership will greet the presence of the Soviet Armed Forces at a number of strategically important points in the northern regions of the DRA…
Amin said that the forms and methods of extending military aid should be determined by the Soviet side;
– the USSR can have military garrisons wherever they want;
– the USSR can take under guard all facilities where there is Soviet-Afghan collaboration;
– the Soviet troops could take DRA lines of communications under guard.
On the day of the second meeting, 17 December, orders were given for the raid on Amin’s palace. On 19 December 1979, he relocated his residence from the Arg in central Kabul to Taj Bek palace “at the urging of his Soviet advisers,” according to late Afghan historian Hassan Kakar (Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion and the Afghan Response, 1979-1982, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1995, pp21-2). Kakar wrote:
The new palace had originally been the seat of the reformist King Amanullah (1919-29). Before Amin became the head of state, the Khalqi government had spent more than one billion afghanis (approximately $20 million) to repair the palace and make it a suitable seat for his predecessor, Nur Mohammad Taraki. President Amin moved into it at the urging of his Soviet advisers. (…) But Tapa-e-Tajbeg, situated on a mound two miles south of the city, could easily be attacked should the Soviet Union decide to do so.
Tarakai-Brezhnev meeting in Moscow in summer 1979. Photo: author’s archive.
Kakar wrote further that Amin “wanted to be away from the old palace, which reminded him of the many bloody events that had taken place there.” It had been the place where Tarakai tried to get rid of him (and perhaps kill him) in September, and where he had Tarakai murdered in the following month.
About the following events, Lyakhovskiy wrote:
On 22 and 23 December Ambassador Tabeyev informed Amin that his request for Soviet troops to be sent to Afghanistan had been granted in full in Moscow. They were ready to begin deployment on 25 December. Amin expressed gratitude to the Soviet leadership and gave instructions to the DRA Armed Forces General Staff to give assistance to the deploying troops.
When thousands of airborne Soviet soldiers landed in Kabul and Bagram and started crossing the land border in the north at 3pm Moscow time on 25 December, (4) moving toward Herat and Shindand airbase in western Afghanistan and to Kunduz, Pul-e Khumri and the Salang Pass in the northeast, Amin still assumed they had come to help him. Two days later, at a reception on 25 December 1979, he told those present, according to Lyakhovskiy:
Soviet divisions are already on their way here. Paratroopers are landing in Kabul. Everything is going beautifully. I am in constant touch by telephone with Cde [comrade] Gromyko and we are discussing together how to best formulate the information to the world about the extension of Soviet military aid.
In the late afternoon of the same day, a last attempt to poison Amin failed. Soviet doctors who were present – but had not been informed of the coup plan – kept Amin alive. Then, Soviet Special Forces stormed his residence in Kabul’s Taj Beg palace and shot him dead. (5) Karmal was flown in yet again from the Soviet Union and was installed as the new leader.
Front page of government-owned Kabul New Times, announcing the ouster of Hafizullah Amin, the takeover of Babrak Karmal – but not the Soviet invasion.
It still remains an open question who made the final decision to enter and act with such a large force. It seems clear, however, also from Lyakhovskiy’s account, that the Soviet leadership was thinking not only about the mujahedin threat to the government, but also that it expected – and experienced – stiff resistance from the Afghan armed forces. The Khalqis – the PDPA faction Amin had belonged to – still had the majority in the army and police officer corps (despite earlier purges, which had also turned some of the faction’s members, such as Watanjar, Gulabzoy and Sarwari, against him). It was only to be expected that they would vehemently oppose the takeover by Karmal’s rival Parcham faction. This is confirmed by Artemy Kalinovsky, another leading writer on the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, who wrote (p51):
The months following the invasion were key in turning the intervention into a decade-long war. Following the use of a limited contingent of Soviet troops to put down an Afghan army mutiny at the beginning of January , Soviet forces were drawn into skirmishes with increasing frequency.
The international situation had influenced the decision-making. Lyakhovskiy wrote that Andropov and Ustinov told Brezhnev in early December that “a Western-oriented Afghanistan could become a base for short-range nuclear missiles targeted at the USSR.” According to Kalinovsky (p50), it was this that had finally convinced the hesitant Breshnev. Remarkably, the Politbureau decision “Concerning the situation in ‘A’” was taken on the same day that the NATO Council in Brussels approved the deployment of new US medium-range cruise missiles and Pershing-2 missiles in Western Europe.
The Soviet military intervention, initially planned to be a limited regime change operation, turned into a large-scale invasion that lasted ten years. By spring 1980, there were 81,000 Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan. In 1986 this number had grown to 120,000 and, finally, there were around 100,000 troops before withdrawals started in mid-1988, according to Rodric Braithwaite in his 2011 book, Afganzy (pp122, 283).
After the troops’ negotiated departure in February 1989, continued military and financial support – first Soviet and then briefly Russian when the Soviet Union disintegrated – kept the Afghan regime alive for another three years. When Russian President Boris Yeltsin deemed the engagement to have become too costly and stopped it in early 1992, the Afghan regime crumbled. One of the PDPA factions handed power to the mujahedin, who moved into Kabul without encountering any resistance on 28 April 1992. Unfortunately, this was not the end of the war – but the rest is better known history.
Trump’s assertion that the Soviet Union “went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan” – a view held by many Afghans too – is only part of the truth. (6) In his 2019 book Zeitenwende 1979: Als die Welt von heute begann (Turning of Times 1979: When the world of today began, Munich 2019 – not available yet in English) German historian Frank Bösch argues that it was a series of international events in 1979, including the events in Afghanistan that, ultimately, undermined the Soviet Union and the Soviet-led ‘Eastern Bloc’, led to the rise of political Islam, with violent, terrorist jihadism at its fringes, and established a new, multipolar world.
The year 1979 had started with the Islamic revolution in Iran. The new regime, under Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeini, followed a doctrine that included ‘export of the revolution’ through support to likeminded groups in the region. (The Soviets initially expected the new, strongly anti-US regime would be an ally.) Later that year, Saddam Hussain took power in Iraq and soon led his country into war with Iran. On 20 November 1979, the first day of the Islamic 15th century, a group of armed millennial Islamists led by Juhaiman al-Otaibi stormed and occupied the Grand Mosque of Mecca. The group called itself al-Ikhwan (The Brothers), as a reference to an uprising against the Saudi dynasty in the 1920s. They proclaimed a Mahdi, declared the end of the world and the victory of ‘true Islam’ over jahiliyya (ignorance), which, in their eyes, included the Western-allied Saudi regime. After a siege of two weeks, the group was brutally defeated with the help of French Special Forces advisers. Otaibi and 67 others were publicly executed. According an authoritative book on the events – The Siege of Mecca by former Afghanistan correspondent of the Wall Street Journal Yaroslav Trofimov (London 2007) – the brutal repression alienated many Muslims from the Saudi regime, among them Osama ben Laden. Some of them would find a common cause and an arena for their fight in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan.
Outside the region, Pope John Paul II’s visit to his homeland Poland in June 1979 boosted the country’s anti-communist opposition led by the independent Solidarność trade union, as well as opposition groups elsewhere in Eastern Europe. In mid-1979, the start of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership in the United Kingdom started a conservative wave in the west (in the US, Ronald Reagan would follow soon). On 12 December 1979, the NATO responded to the deployment of Soviet nuclear middle-range missiles in eastern Central Europe with the above mentioned, so-called Double-Track Decision (deployment of nuclear missiles and bomber airplanes able to carry nuclear weapons in western Central Europe). This brought Europe – and the world – to the brink of nuclear war.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, just two weeks after the NATO decision, ended the East-West détente, which witnessed a period of almost a decade during which East-West relations had become less confrontational due to disarmament measures. Thus, direct Soviet military involvement in Afghanistan, in the midst of global tensions, internationalised an internal political conflict which, so far, had been mainly over the question of whether to modernise (or not), at which pace and in which form.
Over time, the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan became stronger and received support from the West, most Islamic countries and China. However, it was Pakistan’s Islamist military dictatorship under Zia-ul-Haq that made sure that non-Islamist groups were excluded from this support. As a result, what started as a largely national resistance movement, over time morphed into a resistance dominated by ‘Jihadi’ armed groups.
In 1979, the Soviet leadership – like everybody else – was still unable to read the signs of the time. Boosted by the establishment of new socialist regimes in Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia and South Yemen during the 1970s, and by the victory of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in 1979, they were buoyed by dreams of a constantly expanding “socialist world system,” spanning from Moscow to Maputo, and Havana to Hanoi. This ‘historic optimism’ may well have contributed to Moscow’s hubris to decide to invade Afghanistan.
Ten years later, the financial burden of the new arms race had brought the Soviet Union into economic crisis. New Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachov decided to cut costs, first in Eastern Europe (mainly by curbing the subsidised oil and gas and other mineral resources) and then, increasingly, in Afghanistan – until Yeltsin decided to completely cut Afghanistan off.
Historian Bösch wrote:
The run of history is often moulded by coincidence, but mostly by long-term changes which appear compacted at certain points of time and take on rapid speed.
In the year of 1979 rapid changes culminated in many spheres and regions. In this sense, one can talk about a ‘1979 turn of the times’ in which our present world began to emerge.
That is definitely the case for Afghanistan, as a single country, too. The Soviet war in Afghanistan would only be the first stage of a now 40-year long armed conflict, with changing and shifting participants and alliances, and severe consequences, above all for Afghans.
According to a 2005 report of The Afghanistan Justice Project,
…. [t]he Soviet occupation brought about a shift in tactics in the war. Soviet forces assassinated Amin, and installed Babrak Karmal, from the rival Parcham wing of the party in his place. Aware of the need to build support for the party, the Soviets ended the mass slaughter of intellectuals, religious leaders and others and instead adopted more systematic means of intelligence gathering and more selective targets of repression. The secret police, the Khidamati Ittila’at-i Dawlati (State Information Services), or KhAD, (…) engaged in widespread summary executions, detentions and torture of suspected mujahidin (resistance) supporters. In the countryside, the bombing became routine and indiscriminate. [It] devastated the countryside, killed tens of thousands and drove five million Afghans into exile.
Casualty figures of the Soviet phase of the war alone are estimated to have been between 800,000 and two million dead (7) and three million wounded (the latter mainly civilians); 6.4 million (one third of the pre-war population) turned into refugees, the largest refugee population in the world for many years, up to and until the Syrian war that started in 2015; two million internally displaced. Then there are the consequences from mass traumatisation to the devastated economy and destruction of the social fabric. (8) In 1989, the Afghan economist Ghanie Ghaussy calculated that Afghanistan’s direct material and potential Grand National Product losses and the damages to the capital stocks and infrastructure from the Soviet war could be estimated at approximately 13 billion US dollars. Agricultural and industrial output declined to 40 to 60 per cent of the production level of the pre-invasion period.
The impact on individual lives has been staggering and is sometimes subsumed by the suffering that followed in the next phases of the war. In memory of this chapter in Afghan history, we will reflect on what it has meant to ordinary Afghan lives and how they remember these event in a companion dispatch that will be published in the next few days.
Edited by Martine van Bijlert
(1) Kalinovsky, another leading writer on the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan speaks of a “troika” only – Andropov, Gromyko, and Ustinov (see here (p49).
(2) A full list of Politbureau members during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan is in this 2005 report (pp 33-4) of The Afghanistan Justice Project.
(3) According to the author’s knowledge, this document was published for the first time (in original, from a Soviet archive, and in a German translation) in Switzerland in: Bucherer-Dietschi, Paul, Albert Alexander Stahel and Jürg Stüssi-Lauterburg (eds), Strategischer Überfall – das Beispiel Afghanistan. Quellenband – Teil II, Stiftung Bibliotheca Afghanica, Liestal 1993, pp 680-1.
(4) Rodric Braithwaite, Afganzy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, London 2011, p 86.
(5) BBC Radio has two gripping eye-witness accounts, one told by Najiba Kasraee, a later BBC journalist, then a child that had been in Taj Bek palace during Amin’s 27 December reception and the subsequent Soviet commando raid, and one by one of the Soviet paratroopers who was involved in the raid (listen here and here).
(6) Trump also thought that “The reason Russia was in, in Afghanistan, was because terrorists were going into Russia.” Although there were no terrorists in Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded, there were incursions from Afghanistan into the Soviet Union afterwards. Brigadier Mohammad Yousaf, head of the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service’s Afghan Bureau, responsible for directing financial and military assistance to the Afghan mujahedin from 1983 to 1987, related in his 1992 book The Bear Trap: Afghanistan’s Untold Story (together with Mark Adkin) how he organised, with CIA support, mujahedin cross-border operations inside the USSR, including rocket attacks, mine laying and ambushes around Soviet military installations near the Afghan border.
(7) The most realistic figure might be “nearly one million” (see Barnett Rubin, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan, Yale 1995, p 1).
(8) Sources: Goodson, Larry P. Afghanistan’s Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics, and the Rise of the Taliban, University of Washington Press, 2001, p. 5; Wickramasekara, P., Sehgal, J., Mehran, F., Noroozi, L., Eisazadeh, Afghan Households in Iran: Profile and Impact, UNHCR-ILO Cooperation, 2006; A. Hilali, US–Pakistan Relationship: Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. Burlington, 2005, p. 198. According to Gorbachov-time Soviet sources, the country’s armed forces lost 15,051 dead (Braithwaite, Afganzy, p 329) and 54,000 wounded.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020