Soviet war in Afghanistan

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The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and sparked a ten-year conflict lasting until 1989. Learn more about the background of the conflict, the belligerents, the military strategy, and the overall results in this lesson.

Soviet Fear

The Soviet war in Afghanistan, lasting from 1979 to 1989, was an attempt by the Soviet Union to strengthen its control within Soviet Central Asia, which was comprised of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Contrary to what many, including the United States, viewed as an aggressive maneuver by the Soviets to gain strategic territory, the real motive for war was based on fear.

In the 1970s, the Muslim population, which was once the minority within Soviet Central Asia, had grown tremendously. With the growth of the Muslim population came the development of a nationalist ideology - one that did not include communism. Concerned that its satellite republics in Central Asia would be jeopardized by internal revolution, the Soviet Union decided to send a message to the nationalist movement that had developed in Afghanistan. The Soviet expectation was that a decisive victory in Afghanistan would not only crush the Muslim independence movement, but it would strengthen the Soviet Union's grip on Central Asia.

Prelude to War

The road toward war began in 1973 when Mohammed Daoud, once a prime minister of Afghanistan, overthrew King Zahir, the leader of Afghanistan. When Daoud captured power in Afghanistan, he was tasked with healing the divisions within the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (the PDPA) - a political structure that supported communism. Prior to his ascent, the PDPA split into the Parchamists, led by Babrak Karmal, which remained loyal to Daoud, and the Khalqis, which was a radical group led by Noor Taraki.

Realizing that the split placed Afghanistan in danger of civil war, Daoud attempted to move away from communism and welcome Western relations. This decision resulted in Daoud being executed during a coup led by the Khalqis in 1978. Noor Taraki assumed power in Afghanistan and entered into a pact with Babrak Karmal to realign the PDPA. The two factions then launched a national campaign in an attempt to transition Afghanistan's rural Muslim population into supporters of communism. Needless to say, this was unacceptable to the Muslim population because communism was seen as an atheist ideology.

By mid-1979, Muslim insurgents, known as the mujahedin fighters, armed themselves and began moving toward important cities in Afghanistan, such as the capital city Kabul. Alarmed, the Soviet Union deployed several divisions to the border of Afghanistan, but held off an invasion in the hope that Taraki could quell the insurgency. Much to the chagrin of the Soviet Union, internal politics had hamstrung the anti-insurgency effort.

Karmal had been removed from his position within the Taraki regime, and replaced by Hafizullah Amin. Interestingly, while Karmal threatened a coup following his removal, it was Amin who executed Taraki and took control of Afghanistan in October 1979. At this point, the internal strife had allowed the mujahedin fighters to gain greater control of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union was forced to react.

The Soviet Invasion

On December 24, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The Soviets quickly executed Amin and placed Karmal in power. Throughout the first few months of 1980, the Soviet forces primarily established defensive perimeters around strategic cities. Beginning in the spring of 1980, the Soviet Union adopted the military strategy of search-and-destroy, which was occupying the key cities while sending divisions of troops into the countryside to target and eliminate the mujahedin fighters. The Soviets launched several offensives over the course of five years, but the most important was the Panjshir Valley Offensive, which was comprised of nine tactical strikes.

Unfortunately for the Soviet Union, the mujahedin fighters had adopted the military tactic of guerrilla warfare (they had also received material support from nations such as the United States). They fought irregularly; hit-and-run tactics received priority because the mujahedin knew it could not fight a conventional war against the powerful Soviet military. Ultimately, the plan was successful. By 1985, the Soviet Union had 100,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan, yet it had achieved only a stalemate. Mujahedin fighters continued guerrilla operations, even engaging in sabotage operations to stymie the Soviet war machine.

By the end of 1985, the Soviet Union reassessed its commitment to war. The failure to contain the mujahedin and the election of Mikhail Gorbachev served as the two catalysts for the beginning of the Soviet withdrawal effort. In 1987, the Soviet Union officially began slowly removing troops and material from Afghanistan. Soviet forces continued to fight during the withdrawal period, but on a severely limited basis.

From 1988 to 1989, the Soviet Union expedited the withdrawal pace as it could not afford to continue losing life and resources for a hopeless cause. The final Soviet troops left Afghanistan on February 15, 1989. The war between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan was officially over. Over 14,000 Soviets were killed; approximately 80,000 to 90,000 mujahedin fighters perished.

History is about making connections, and the failed Soviet war in Afghanistan mirrored the failed efforts of the United States in Vietnam. The Soviet Union failed to learn from the struggles of the United States in battling a nationalist movement. Just like the North Vietnamese, the mujahedin waged a guerrilla war. They restricted launching major offensives and they used their resources wisely. Similar to the United States, the Soviet Union use of military power and quickness combined with a strategy of search-and-destroy did not yield the expected results. Instead, the Soviet Union was bogged down in a quagmire just a few short years after the United States lost a similar war in Vietnam.

Lesson Summary

The Soviet Union went to war in Afghanistan in 1979 over fear that the growing Muslim population in Soviet Central Asia threatened the Soviet control. The war lasted ten years, and the Soviet Union received a devastating defeat. Prior to the Soviet invasion, there were several leadership changes within Afghanistan. Each leader attempted to influence the rural Muslim population to support communism. Refusing to adopt the communist ideology, the Muslim population, supported by mujahedin fighters, began a nationalist uprising against the Afghanistan government. Simultaneously, the government was crumbling due to a series of coups.

By December 1979, the Soviet Union intervened in order to quell the nationalist movement. Over the course of ten years, the Soviet Union attempted to fight a conventional war against an enemy that utilized guerrilla war tactics. By 1987, the Soviet Union realized it could not sustain the continued war, nor could it defeat the mujahedin. In 1988, the Soviet Union officially withdrew the first wave of troops. On February 15, 1989, the final Soviet troop departed from Afghanistan. The war was officially over.

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