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Soviet–Afghan War
Part of the Cold War and the continuous Afghanistan conflict
Mortar attack on Shigal Tarna garrison, Kunar Province, 87.jpg
Mujahideen fighters in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan in 1987
DateDecember 24, 1979 – February 15, 1989
(9 years, 1 month, 3 weeks and 1 day)

Soviet failure to quell the Afghan mujahideen insurgency


Soviet Union Soviet Union
Afghanistan Democratic Republic of Afghanistan

Sunni Mujahideen:

Shia Mujahedeen:

Small Maoist groups:

Commanders and leaders
Soviet Union Leonid Brezhnev
Soviet Union Yuri Andropov
Soviet Union Konstantin Chernenko
Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev
Soviet Union Dmitriy Ustinov
Soviet Union Sergei Sokolov
Soviet Union Dmitriy Yazov
Soviet Union Valentin Varennikov
Soviet Union Igor Rodionov
Soviet Union Boris Gromov
Afghanistan Babrak Karmal
Afghanistan Mohammad Najibullah
Afghanistan Abdul Rashid Dostum
Afghanistan Abdul Qadir Dagarwal
Afghanistan Shahnawaz Tanai
Afghanistan Mohammed Rafie
Afghanistan Aslam Vatanzhar

Burhanuddin Rabbani
Ahmad Shah Massoud
Naqib Alikozai
Ismail Khan
Abdul Haq
Abdullah Azzam
Ismail Khan
Fazal Haq Mujahid
Abdullah Azzam
Wa'el Hamza Julaidan
Osama bin Laden
Ayman al-Zawahiri
Mulavi Younas Khalis
Abdul Haq
Haji Abdul Qadeer
Jalaluddin Haqqani
Nek Muhammad
Mohammed Omar
Abdul Rasul Sayyaf
Mohammad Nabi
Sibghatullah Mojadeddi
Ahmed Gailani
Abdul Rahim Wardak

Muhammad Asif Muhsini
Abdul Ali Mazari
Assef Kandahari
Sayeed Ali Begeshti
Mosbah Sade

Mulavi Dawood (AMFFF)

Soviet Forces:

Afghan Forces:


Casualties and losses

Soviet Forces:

14,453 killed (total)

  • 9,500 killed in combat[41]
  • 4,000 died from wounds[41]
  • 1,000 died from disease and accidents[41]

53,753 wounded[41]

265 missing[42]

451 aircraft (including 333 helicopters)
147 tanks
1,314 IFV/APCs
433 artillery guns and mortars
11,369 cargo and fuel tanker trucks

Afghan Forces:

18,000 killed[43]

Mujahideen: At least 90,000 casualties, including 57,000 killed[44][45]

Pakistan: 300+ killed
1 F-16 fighter jet shot down[46]


2 AH-1J helis shot down
unknown killed[47]

Civilians (Afghan):

850,000–1,500,000 killed[48][49] 5 million refugees outside of Afghanistan
2 million internally displaced persons
Around 3 million Afghans wounded (mostly civilians)[50] Civilians (Soviet):

Around 100 dead

The Soviet–Afghan War lasted over nine years from December 1979 to February 1989. Part of the Cold War, it was fought between Soviet-led Afghan forces against multi-national insurgent groups called the Mujahideen, mostly composed of two alliances – the Peshawar Seven and the Tehran Eight. The Peshawar Seven insurgents received military training in neighboring Pakistan and China,[51] as well as weapons and billions of dollars from the United States, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and other countries.[13][14][18][51][52] The Shia groups of the Tehran Eight alliance received support from the Islamic Republic of Iran. Early in the rule of the PDPA government, the Maoist Afghanistan Liberation Organization also played a significant role in opposition, but its major force was defeated by late 1979, prior to the Soviet intervention. The decade-long war resulted in the death of 850,000–1.5 million civilians[48][49] as well as causing millions of Afghans to flee the country, mostly to Pakistan and Iran.

In June 1975, militants from the Jamiat Islami party attempted to overthrow the government. In 1978, the Taraki government initiated a series of reforms, including a radical modernization of the traditional Islamic civil society.[53] Between April 1978 and the Soviet Intervention of December 1979, thousands of prisoners, perhaps as many as 27,000, were executed. Large parts of the country went into open rebellion. The Afghan government, having secured a treaty in December 1978 that allowed them to call on Soviet forces, repeatedly requested the introduction of troops in Afghanistan in the first half of 1979. They requested Soviet troops to provide security and to assist in the fight against the mujahideen rebels. Foreign ministers from 34 Islamic nations adopted a resolution which condemned the Soviet intervention and demanded "the immediate, urgent and unconditional withdrawal of Soviet troops" from the Muslim nation of Afghanistan.[54] The UN General Assembly passed a resolution protesting the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan by a vote of 104–18.[55]

The initial Soviet deployment of the 40th Army in Afghanistan began on December 24, 1979, under Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.[56] The first phase began with the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and their first battles with various opposition groups.[54] The war developed into a new pattern: the Soviets occupied the cities and main axis of communication, while the mujahideen, (which the Soviet Army soldiers called 'Dushman,' meaning 'enemy')[57] divided into small groups, waged a guerrilla war. Almost 80 percent of the country escaped government control.[58] In 1985, the size of the LCOSF (Limited Contingent of Soviet Forces) was increased to 108,800 and fighting increased throughout the country, making 1985 the bloodiest year of the war. In the mid-1980s, the Afghan resistance movement, assisted by the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Egypt,[15] the People's Republic of China and others, contributed to Moscow's high military costs and strained international relations. Contingents of so-called Afghan Arabs, foreign fighters who wished to wage jihad against the atheist communists, were also present. Notable among them was a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden, whose Arab group eventually evolved into al-Qaeda.[59][60][61]

By mid 1987 the Soviet Union announced it would start withdrawing its forces. The arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev on the scene in 1985 and his 'new thinking' on foreign and domestic policy was probably the most important factor in the Soviets' decision to leave. The final troop withdrawal started on May 15, 1988, and ended on February 15, 1989. Due to the interminable nature of the war, the conflict in Afghanistan has sometimes been referred to as the "Soviet Union's Vietnam War" or the "Bear Trap" by the Western media.[62][63][64]




In 1885, Russian forces seized the disputed oasis at Panjdeh south of the Oxus River from Afghan forces, which became known as the Panjdeh Incident. The border was agreed by the joint Anglo-Russian Afghan Boundary Commission of 1885–87. The Russian interest in the region continued on through the Soviet era, with billions in economic and military aid sent to Afghanistan between 1955 and 1978.[65]

In 1947, Prime Minister of Afghanistan, Mohammed Daoud Khan, had rejected the Durrand Line, which was accepted as international border by successive Afghan governments for over a half a century.[66] The British Raj also came to an end and the British Crown colony of India was partitioned into the new nations of India and Pakistan, the latter which inherited the Durrand Line as its frontier with Afghanistan. Daoud Khan's irredentist foreign policy to reunite the Pashtun homeland caused much tension with Pakistan, a nation that allied itself with the United States. Daoud Khan's policy was fueled by his desire to unite his divided country. Daoud Khan started emulating policies of Emir Abdur Rahman Khan and for that he needed a popular cause (a Pashtun homeland) to unite the Afghan people divided along the tribal lines and a modern, well equipped Afghan army which would be used to surpass anyone who would oppose the Afghan government.[67] Daoud Khan's policy to annex Pashtun areas of Pakistan had also angered Non-Pashtun population of Afghanistan.[68] Similarly, Pashtun population in Pakistan were also not interested in having their areas being annexed by Afghanistan.[69] In 1951, the United States's State Department urged Afghanistan to drop its claim against Pakistan and accept the Durrand Line.[70]

In 1954, the United States began selling arms to Pakistan while refusing an Afghan request to buy arms out of the fear that the Afghans would use any weapons they had purchased against America's ally Pakistan.[70] As a consequence, Afghanistan, though officially neutral in the Cold War, drew closer to India and the Soviet Union, which unlike the United States, was willing to sell Afghanistan weapons.[70] In 1962, China defeated India in a border war, and as a result, China formed an alliance with Pakistan against their common enemy, India. The Sino-Pakistani alliance pushed Afghanistan even closer to India and the Soviet Union.

After the Saur Revolution in 1978, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was formed on April 27, 1978. The government was one with a pro-poor, pro-farmer socialist agenda. It had close relations with the Soviet Union. On December 5, 1978, a treaty of friendship was signed between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan.[71]

In February 1979, the United States Ambassador to Afghanistan, Adolph Dubs, was kidnapped by Setami Milli militants and was later killed during an assault carried out by the Afghan police, assisted by Soviet advisers. Dubs' death led to a major deterioration in Afghanistan–United States relations.[72]

In Southwestern Asia, drastic changes were taking place concurrent with the upheavals in Afghanistan. In February 1979, the Iranian Revolution ousted the American-backed Shah from Iran, losing the United States as one of its most powerful allies.[73] The United States then deployed twenty ships in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea including two aircraft carriers, and there were constant threats of war between the U.S. and Iran.[74] March 1979 marked the signing of the U.S.-backed peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. The Soviet leadership saw the agreement as giving a major advantage to the United States. A Soviet newspaper stated that Egypt and Israel were now "gendarmes of the Pentagon". The Soviets viewed the treaty not only as a peace agreement between their erstwhile allies in Egypt and the US-supported Israelis but also as a military pact.[75] In addition, the US sold more than 5,000 missiles to Saudi Arabia. Also, the Soviet Union's previously strong relations with Iraq had recently soured. In June 1978, Iraq began entering into friendlier relations with the Western world and buying French and Italian-made weapons, though the vast majority still came from the Soviet Union, its Warsaw Pact allies, and China.

Saur Revolution

King Mohammed Zahir Shah ascended to the throne and reigned from 1933 to 1973. Zahir's cousin, Mohammad Daoud Khan, served as Prime Minister from 1954 to 1963. The Marxist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA)'s strength grew considerably in these years. In 1967, the PDPA split into two rival factions, the Khalq (Masses) faction headed by Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin and the Parcham (Flag) faction led by Babrak Karmal.[76] The leaders of the Khalq faction tended to be Pashtuns from a poorer background while the leaders of the Parcham faction were usually Farsi-speakers from the Tajik and Hazara ethnic groups who came from well-off backgrounds.[77] Symbolic of the different backgrounds of the two factions were the fact that Taraki's father was a poor Pashtun herdsman while Karmal's father was a Tajik general in the Royal Afghan Army.[77] More importantly, the radical Khalq faction believed in rapidly transforming Afghanistan by violence if necessary from a feudal nation into a Communist nation while the moderate Parcham faction favored a more gradualist and gentler approach, arguing that Afghanistan was simply not ready for Communism and would not be for some time.[78] The Parcham faction favored building up the PDPA as a mass party in support of the Daoud Khan government while the Khalq faction were organized in the Leninist style as a small, tightly organized elite group, allowing the latter to enjoy ascendancy over the former.[79]

Former Prime Minister Daoud seized power in a military coup on July 17, 1973 after allegations of corruption and poor economic conditions against the king's government. Daoud put an end to the monarchy, and his time in power was marked by unpopularity as the abolition of the monarchy was not widely approved of in a conservative society. Daoud Khan billed himself as a reformer, but few of his reforms were ever implemented and his rule grew more repressive as the 1970s went on.[80] In 1975, both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia began to support Islamic fundamentalist groups committed to overthrowing the Daoud Khan regime and establishing an Islamist theocracy in its place.[81]

Intense opposition from factions of the PDPA was sparked by the repression imposed on them by Daoud's regime and the death of a leading PDPA member, Mir Akbar Khyber.[82] The mysterious circumstances of Khyber's death sparked massive anti-Daoud demonstrations in Kabul, which resulted in the arrest of several prominent PDPA leaders.[83]

On April 27, 1978, the Afghan army, which had been sympathetic to the PDPA cause, overthrew and executed Daoud along with members of his family.[84] The Finnish scholar Raimo Väyrynen wrote about the so-called "Saur Revolution": "There is a multitude of speculations on the real nature of this coup. The reality appears to be that it was inspired first of all by domestic economic and political concerns and that the Soviet Union did not play any role in the Saur Revolution".[81] Nur Muhammad Taraki, General Secretary of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, became Chairman of the Revolutionary Council and Chairman of the Council of Ministers, of the newly established Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.

Factions inside the PDPA

After the revolution, Taraki assumed the leadership, Prime Ministership and General Secretaryship of the PDPA. The government was divided along factional lines, with General Secretary Taraki and Deputy Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin of the Khalq faction pitted against Parcham leaders such as Babrak Karmal and Mohammad Najibullah.

Through the new regime promptly allied itself to the Soviet Union, many Soviet diplomats believed that the Khalqi plans to transform Afghanistan would provoke a rebellion in a deeply conservative and Muslim nation.[77] Immediately after coming to power, the Khalqis began to persecute the Parchamis, not the least because the Soviet Union favored the Parchami faction whose "go slow" plans were felt to be better suited for Afghanistan, thereby leading the Khaqis to eliminate their rivals so the Soviets would have no other choice but to back them.[85] Within the PDPA, conflicts resulted in exiles, purges and executions of Parcham members.[86] The PDPA executed between 10,000 and 27,000 people, mostly at Pul-e-Charkhi prison prior to the Soviet intervention.[87][88][89]

During its first 18 months of rule, the PDPA applied a Soviet-style program of modernizing reforms, many of which were viewed by conservatives as opposing Islam.[90] Decrees setting forth changes in marriage customs and land reform were not received well by a population deeply immersed in tradition and Islam, particularly by the powerful landowners who were harmed economically by the abolition of usury (although usury is prohibited in Islam) and the cancellation of farmers' debts. The new government also enhanced women's rights, sought a rapid eradication of illiteracy and promoted Afghanistan's ethnic minorities, although these programs appear to have had an effect only in the urban areas.[91] By mid-1978, a rebellion started, with rebels attacking the local military garrison in the Nuristan region of eastern Afghanistan and soon civil war spread throughout the country. In September 1979, Deputy Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin seized power, arresting and killing General Secretary Taraki. Over two months of instability overwhelmed Amin's regime as he moved against his opponents in the PDPA and the growing rebellion.

Soviet–Afghan relations

Afghanistan Scout Association in 1950s

The Soviet Union (USSR) had been a major power broker and influential mentor in Afghan politics. Its involvement ranging from civil-military infrastructure to Afghan society.[92] Since 1947, Afghanistan had been under the influence of the Soviet government and received large amounts of aid, economic assistance, military equipment training and military hardware from the Soviet Union. Economic assistance and aid had been provided to Afghanistan as early as 1919, shortly after the Russian Revolution and when the regime was facing the Russian Civil War. Provisions were given in the form of small arms, ammunition, a few aircraft, and (according to debated Soviet sources) a million gold rubles to support the resistance during the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919. In 1942, the USSR again moved to strengthen the Afghan Armed Forces by providing small arms and aircraft, and establishing training centers in Tashkent (Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic). Soviet-Afghan military cooperation began on a regular basis in 1956, and further agreements were made in the 1970s, which saw the USSR send advisers and specialists. The Soviets also had interests in the energy resources of Afghanistan, including exploring oil and natural gas from the 1950s and 1960s.[93] The USSR began to import Afghan gas from 1968 onward.[94]

In 1978, after witnessing India's nuclear test, Smiling Buddha, President Daud Khan initiated a military buildup to counter Pakistan's armed forces and Iranian military influence in Afghan politics. A final pre-war treaty, signed in December 1978, allowed the PDPA to call upon the Soviet Union for military support.[95]

We believe it would be a fatal mistake to commit ground troops. [...] If our troops went in, the situation in your country would not improve. On the contrary, it would get worse. Our troops would have to struggle not only with an external aggressor, but with a significant part of your own people. And the people would never forgive such things.
– Alexei Kosygin, the Chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers, in response to Taraki's request for Soviet presence in Afghanistan[96]

Following the Herat uprising, General Secretary Taraki contacted Alexei Kosygin, chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers, and asked for "practical and technical assistance with men and armament". Kosygin was unfavorable to the proposal on the basis of the negative political repercussions such an action would have for his country, and he rejected all further attempts by Taraki to solicit Soviet military aid in Afghanistan.[97] Following Kosygin's rejection, Taraki requested aid from Leonid Brezhnev, the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and Soviet head of state, who warned Taraki that full Soviet intervention "would only play into the hands of our enemies – both yours and ours". Brezhnev also advised Taraki to ease up on the drastic social reforms and to seek broader support for his regime.[98]

In 1979, Taraki attended a conference of the Non-Aligned Movement in Havana, Cuba. On his way back, he stopped in Moscow on March 20 and met with Brezhnev, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and other Soviet officials. It was rumoured that Karmal was present at the meeting in an attempt to reconcile Taraki's Khalq faction and the Parcham against Amin and his followers. At the meeting, Taraki was successful in negotiating some Soviet support, including the redeployment of two Soviet armed divisions at the Soviet-Afghan border, the sending of 500 military and civilian advisers and specialists and the immediate delivery of Soviet armed equipment sold at 25 percent below the original price; however, the Soviets were not pleased about the developments in Afghanistan and Brezhnev impressed upon Taraki the need for party unity. Despite reaching this agreement with Taraki, the Soviets continued to be reluctant to intervene further in Afghanistan and repeatedly refused Soviet military intervention within Afghan borders during Taraki's rule as well as later during Amin's short rule.[99]

Initiation of the insurgency

Soviet infantry at the time of deployment

Afghanistan, under the regime of Mohammed Daoud Khan, had hostile relations with both Pakistan and Iran.[67][100] Like all previous Afghan rulers since 1901, Daoud Khan also wanted to emulate Emir Abdur Rahman Khan and unite his divided country. To do that, he needed a popular cause to unite the Afghan people divided along the tribal lines (Pashtunistan policy) and a modern, well equipped Afghan army which would be used to surpass anyone who would oppose the Afghan government. His Pashtunistan policy was to annex Pashtun areas of Pakistan, and he used this policy for his own benefit.[67] Daoud Khan's Pashtunistan policy had angered both Pakistan and Non-Pashtun population of Afghanistan.[68] In 1960 and 1961, Afghan army, on the orders of Daoud Khan, made two unsuccessful incursions into Pakistan's Bajaur District. In both the attempts, Afghan army was routed after suffering heavy casualties.[101] In response, Pakistan closed its consulate in Afghanistan and blocked all trade routes running through the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. This damaged Afghanistan's economy and Daoud's regime was pushed towards closer alliance with Soviet Union for trade. However, these stopgap measures were not enough to compensate the loss suffered by Afghanistan's economy because of border closure. As a result of continued resentment against Daoud's autocratic rule, close ties with the Soviet union and economic downturn, Daoud Khan was forced to resign. Following his resignation, crisis between Pakistan and Afghanistan was resolved and Pakistan re-opened the trade routes.[101] After the removal of Daoud Khan, King Zahir Shah took control of Afghanistan and he started creating a balance in Afghanistan's relation with west and Soviet Union,[101] which angered the Soviet Union.[69] Zahir Shah also ended all anti-Pakistani propaganda and improved his country's relation with Pakistan. In 1973, Daoud Khan supported by Soviet-trained Afghan army officers seized power from his cousin, King Zahir Shah, in a bloodless coup. Soviet Union welcomed the coup as they were unhappy with Zahir's liberal regime and friendly ties with the United States. Following Daoud's return to power, Daoud revived his Pashtunistan policy and for the first time started proxy war against Pakistan[102] by supporting anti-Pakistani groups and providing them with arms, training and sanctuaries.[69] Daoud Khan also provided key government positions to Parcham faction of PDPA, which was led by Babrak Karmal. During the coup against Zahir Shah, Parcham had supported Daoud Khan.[101]

Soviet Union also supported Daoud Khan militancy against Pakistan.[69] Soviets wanted to weaken Pakistan which was an ally of United States and China. However, it did not openly try to create problems for Pakistan as that would damage the Soviet Union relations with other Islamic countries. Hence, it relied on Daoud Khan to weaken Pakistan. Similarly, Soviet Union also wanted to weaken Iran, which was another major U.S. ally, but without hurting its relations with Islamic countries. Soviet Union also believed that the hostile behaviour of Afghanistan against Pakistan and Iran could alienate Afghanistan from the west and Afghanistan would be forced to into a closer relationship with Soviet Union.[103] The pro-Soviet Afghans also supported Daoud Khan hostility towards Pakistan, as they believed that a conflict with Pakistan would promote Afghanistan to seek aid from Soviet Union. As a result, the pro-Soviet Afghans would be able to establish their influence over Afghanistan.[104]

Aid to insurgents

In response to Afghanistan's proxy war, Pakistan started supporting Afghans who were critical of Daoud Khan's policies. Pakistan's Prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto authorized a covert operation under MI's Major-General Naseerullah Babar.[105] In 1974, Bhutto authorized another secret operation in Kabul where the ISI and the AI extradited Burhanuddin Rabbani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ahmad Shah Massoud to Peshawar, amid fear that Rabbani, Hekmatyar and Massoud might be assassinated by Daoud.[105] According to Baber, Bhutto's operation was an excellent idea and it had hard-hitting impact on Daoud and his government which forced Daoud to increase his desire to make peace with Bhutto.[105]

The first ever Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) operation in Afghanistan took place in 1975. Before 1975, ISI did not conduct any operation in Afghanistan and it was in retaliation to Daoud Khan's proxy war against Pakistan.[106] In June 1975, militants from the Jamiat-e Islami party, led by Ahmad Shah Massoud, attempted to overthrow the government. They started their rebellion in the Panjshir valley (a part of the greater Parwan province), in the present day Panjshir province, some 100 kilometers north of Kabul, and in a number of other provinces of the country. However, government forces easily defeated the insurgency and a sizable portion of the insurgents sought refuge in Pakistan where they enjoyed the support of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's government, which had been alarmed by Daoud's revival of the Pashtunistan issue.[104][107]

The 1975 rebellion though unsuccessful, had shaken Daoud Khan to the core and made him realize that a friendly Pakistan was in his best interest.[104][106] Pakistani Pashtuns were also not interested in having their areas being annexed by Afghanistan. As a result, Daoud started improving his country's relations with Pakistan and made two state visit to Pakistan in 1976 and 1978. During his 1978 visit to Pakistan, Daoud Khan agreed to stop supporting anti-Pakistan militants and to expel any remaining militant in Afghanistan. In 1975, Daoud Khan, established his own party named National Revolutionary Party of Afghanistan and outlawed all other parties like Parcham and Khalq. He then started removing members of the Parcham party from the government positions, including the ones who had supported his coup, and started replacing them with familiar faces from Kabul's traditional government elites. Daoud also started lowering his dependence on Soviet Union. As a consequence of Daoud's actions, Afghanistan's relations with Soviet Union deteriorated.[69] Following the death of one of the leaders of Parcham faction, Mir Akbar Khyber, Saur Revolution took place and Daoud Khan was removed from power by Afghan armed forces and killed.[68][101] Daoud Khan was replaced by Nur Muhammad Taraki.

Soviet forces after capturing some Mujahideen

Soviet soldiers conducting training

In 1978, the Taraki government initiated a series of reforms, including a radical modernization of the traditional Islamic civil and especially marriage law, aimed at "uprooting feudalism" in Afghan society.[53][page needed] The government brooked no opposition to the reforms[86] and responded with violence to unrest. Between April 1978 and the Soviet Intervention of December 1979, thousands of prisoners, perhaps as many as 27,000, were executed at the notorious[89] Pul-e-Charkhi prison, including many village mullahs and headmen.[108] Other members of the traditional elite, the religious establishment and intelligentsia fled the country.[108]

Large parts of the country went into open rebellion. The Parcham Government claimed that 11,000 were executed during the Amin/Taraki period in response to the revolts.[109] The revolt began in October among the Nuristani tribes of the Kunar Valley in the northeastern part of the country near the border with Pakistan, and rapidly spread among the other ethnic groups. By the spring of 1979, 24 of the 28 provinces had suffered outbreaks of violence.[110][111] The rebellion began to take hold in the cities: in March 1979 in Herat, rebels led by Ismail Khan revolted. Between 3,000 and 5,000 people were killed and wounded during the Herat revolt. Some 100 Soviet citizens and their families were killed.[112][113]

Pakistan–U.S. relations

In the mid-1970s, Pakistani intelligence officials began privately lobbying the U.S. and its allies to send materiel assistance to the Islamist insurgents. Pakistani President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq's ties with the U.S. had been strained during Jimmy Carter's presidency due to Pakistan's nuclear program and the execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in April 1979, but Carter told National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance as early as January 1979 that it was vital to "repair our relationships with Pakistan" in light of the unrest in Iran.[114] According to former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) official Robert Gates, "the Carter administration turned to CIA ... to counter Soviet and Cuban aggression in the Third World, particularly beginning in mid-1979."

In March 1979, "CIA sent several covert action options relating to Afghanistan to the SCC [Special Coordination Committee]" of the United States National Security Council. At a March 30 meeting, U.S. Department of Defense representative Walter B. Slocombe "asked if there was value in keeping the Afghan insurgency going, 'sucking the Soviets into a Vietnamese quagmire?'"[115] When asked to clarify this remark, Slocombe explained: "Well, the whole idea was that if the Soviets decided to strike at this tar baby [Afghanistan] we had every interest in making sure that they got stuck."[116] Yet an April 5 memo from National Intelligence Officer Arnold Horelick warned: "Covert action would raise the costs to the Soviets and inflame Moslem opinion against them in many countries. The risk was that a substantial U.S. covert aid program could raise the stakes and induce the Soviets to intervene more directly and vigorously than otherwise intended."[115]

In May 1979, U.S. officials secretly began meeting with rebel leaders through Pakistani government contacts.[117] After additional meetings Carter signed a "presidential 'finding'" that "authorized the CIA to spend just over $500,000" on "non-lethal" aid to the mujahideen, which "seemed at the time a small beginning."[114][115][118]

Soviet operations 1979–1985


The headquarters of the Soviet 40th Army in Kabul, 1987. Before the Soviet intervention, the building was Tajbeg Palace, where Hafizullah Amin was killed.

The Amin government, having secured a treaty in December 1978 that allowed them to call on Soviet forces, repeatedly requested the introduction of troops in Afghanistan in the spring and summer of 1979. They requested Soviet troops to provide security and to assist in the fight against the mujaheddin rebels. After the killing of Soviet technicians in Herat by rioting mobs, the Soviet government sold several Mi-24 helicopters to the Afghan military, and increased the number of military advisers in the country to 3,000.[119] On April 14, 1979, the Afghan government requested that the USSR send 15 to 20 helicopters with their crews to Afghanistan, and on June 16, the Soviet government responded and sent a detachment of tanks, BMPs, and crews to guard the government in Kabul and to secure the Bagram and Shindand airfields. In response to this request, an airborne battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel A. Lomakin, arrived at the Bagram Air Base on July 7. They arrived without their combat gear, disguised as technical specialists. They were the personal bodyguards for General Secretary Taraki. The paratroopers were directly subordinate to the senior Soviet military advisor and did not interfere in Afghan politics. Several leading politicians at the time such as Alexei Kosygin and Andrei Gromyko were against intervention.

After a month, the Afghan requests were no longer for individual crews and subunits, but for regiments and larger units. In July, the Afghan government requested that two motorized rifle divisions be sent to Afghanistan. The following day, they requested an airborne division in addition to the earlier requests. They repeated these requests and variants to these requests over the following months right up to December 1979. However, the Soviet government was in no hurry to grant them.

We should tell Taraki and Amin to change their tactics. They still continue to execute those people who disagree with them. They are killing nearly all of the Parcham leaders, not only the highest rank, but of the middle rank, too.
– Kosygin speaking at a Politburo session.[120]

Based on information from the KGB, Soviet leaders felt that Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin's actions had destabilized the situation in Afghanistan. Following his initial coup against and killing of Taraki, the KGB station in Kabul warned Moscow that Amin's leadership would lead to "harsh repressions, and as a result, the activation and consolidation of the opposition."[121]

The Soviets established a special commission on Afghanistan, comprising KGB chairman Yuri Andropov, Boris Ponomarev from the Central Committee and Dmitriy Ustinov, the Minister of Defence. In late April 1978, the committee reported that Amin was purging his opponents, including Soviet loyalists, that his loyalty to Moscow was in question and that he was seeking diplomatic links with Pakistan and possibly the People's Republic of China (which at the time had poor relations with the Soviet Union). Of specific concern were Amin's secret meetings with the U.S. chargé d'affaires, J. Bruce Amstutz, which, while never amounting to any agreement between Amin and the United States, sowed suspicion in the Kremlin.[122]

Soviet ground forces in action while conducting an offensive operation against the Islamist resistance, the Mujahideen.

Information obtained by the KGB from its agents in Kabul provided the last arguments to eliminate Amin. Supposedly, two of Amin's guards killed the former General Secretary Nur Muhammad Taraki with a pillow, and Amin, himself, was suspected to be a CIA agent. The latter, however, is still disputed with Amin repeatedly demonstrating friendliness toward the various delegates of the Soviet Union who would arrive in Afghanistan. Soviet General Vasily Zaplatin, a political advisor of Premier Brezhnev at the time, claimed that four of General Secretary Taraki's ministers were responsible for the destabilization. However, Zaplatin failed to emphasize this in discussions and was not heard.[123]

During meetings between General Secretary Taraki and Soviet leaders in March 1979, the Soviets promised political support and to send military equipment and technical specialists, but upon repeated requests by Taraki for direct Soviet intervention, the leadership adamantly opposed him; reasons included that they would be met with "bitter resentment" from the Afghan people, that intervening in another country's civil war would hand a propaganda victory to their opponents, and Afghanistan's overall inconsequential weight in international affairs, in essence realizing they had little to gain by taking over a country with a poor economy, unstable government, and population hostile to outsiders. However, as the situation continued to deteriorate from May–December 1979, Moscow changed its mind on dispatching Soviet troops. The reasons for this complete turnabout are not entirely clear, and several speculative arguments include: the grave internal situation and inability for the Afghan government; the effects of the Iranian Revolution that brought an Islamic theocracy into power, leading to fears that religious fanaticism would spread through Afghanistan and into Soviet Muslim Central Asian republics; Taraki's murder and replacement by Amin, who the Soviets feared could become aligned with the Americans and provide them with a new strategic position after the loss of Iran; and the deteriorating ties with the United States after NATO's two-track missile deployment decision and the failure of Congress to ratify the SALT II treaty, creating the impression that détente was "already effectively dead."[124] The British journalist Patrick Brogan wrote in 1989: "The simplest explanation is probably the best. They got sucked into Afghanistan much as the United States got sucked into Vietnam, without clearly thinking through the consequences, and wildly underestimating the hostility they would arouse".[125] By the fall of 1979, the Amin regime was collapsing with morale in the Afghan Army having fallen to rock-bottom levels while the mujahideen ("Those engaged in jihad") had taken control of much of the countryside.[126] The general consensus amongst Afghan experts at the time was that it was not a question of if mujahideen would take Kabul, but only when the mujahideen would take Kabul.[126]

In Moscow, Leonid Brezhnev was indecisive and waffled as he usually did when faced with a difficult decision.[127] The three decision-makers in Moscow who pressed the hardest for an invasion in the fall of 1979 were the troika consisting of Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko; the Chairman of KGB, Yuri Andropov and the Defense Minister Marshal Dmitry Ustinov.[127] The principle reasons for the invasion was the belief in Moscow that Amin was a leader both incompetent and fanatical who had lost control of the situation together with the belief that it was the United States via Pakistan who was sponsoring the Islamist insurgency in Afghanistan.[127] Androprov, Gromyko and Ustinov all argued that if a radical Islamist regime came to power in Kabul, it would attempt to sponsor radical Islam in Soviet Central Asia, thereby requiring a preemptive strike.[127] What was envisioned in the fall of 1979 was a short intervention under which Moscow would replace radical Khalqi Communist Amin with the moderate Parchami Communist Babrak Karmal to stabilize the situation.[127] The concerns raised by the Chief of the Red Army General Staff, Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov who warned about the possibility of a protracted guerrilla war were dismissed by the troika who insisted that any occupation of Afghanistan would be short and relatively painless.[127] Most notably, through the diplomats of the Narkomindel at the Embassy in Kabul and the KGB officers stationed in Afghanistan were well informed about the developments in that nation, but such information rarely filtered through to the decision-makers who viewed Afghanistan more in the context of the Cold War rather than understanding Afghanistan as a subject in its own right.[128] The viewpoint that it was the United States that was fomenting the Islamic insurgency in Afghanistan with the aim of destabilizing Soviet Central Asia tended to downplay the effects of an unpopular Communist government pursuing policies that the majority of Afghans violently disliked as a generator of the insurgency and strengthened those who argued some sort of Soviet response was required to what seen as an outrageous American provocation.[128] It was assumed in Moscow that because Pakistan (an ally of both the United States and China) was supporting the mujahideen that therefore it was ultimately the United States and China who were behind the rebellion in Afghanistan.

Soviet intervention and coup

The Soviet intervention

On October 31, 1979, Soviet informants under orders from the inner circle of advisors under Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev relayed information to the Afghan Armed Forces for them to undergo maintenance cycles for their tanks and other crucial equipment. Meanwhile, telecommunications links to areas outside of Kabul were severed, isolating the capital. With a deteriorating security situation, large numbers of Soviet Airborne Forces joined stationed ground troops and began to land in Kabul on December 25. Simultaneously, Amin moved the offices of the General Secretary to the Tajbeg Palace, believing this location to be more secure from possible threats. According to Colonel General Tukharinov and Merimsky, Amin was fully informed of the military movements, having requested Soviet military assistance to northern Afghanistan on December 17.[129][130] His brother and General Dmitry Chiangov met with the commander of the 40th Army before Soviet troops entered the country, to work out initial routes and locations for Soviet troops.[129]

Soviet paratroopers aboard a BMD-1 in Kabul

On December 27, 1979, 700 Soviet troops dressed in Afghan uniforms, including KGB and GRU special forces officers from the Alpha Group and Zenith Group, occupied major governmental, military and media buildings in Kabul, including their primary target, the Tajbeg Palace. The operation began at 19:00, when the KGB-led Soviet Zenith Group destroyed Kabul's communications hub, paralyzing Afghan military command. At 19:15, the assault on Tajbeg Palace began; as planned, General Secretary Hafizullah Amin was killed. Simultaneously, other objectives were occupied (e.g., the Ministry of Interior at 19:15). The operation was fully complete by the morning of December 28, 1979.

The Soviet military command at Termez, Uzbek SSR, announced on Radio Kabul that Afghanistan had been liberated from Amin's rule. According to the Soviet Politburo, they were complying with the 1978 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good Neighborliness, and Amin had been "executed by a tribunal for his crimes" by the Afghan Revolutionary Central Committee. That committee then elected as head of government former Deputy Prime Minister Babrak Karmal, who had been demoted to the relatively insignificant post of ambassador to Czechoslovakia following the Khalq takeover, and announced that it had requested Soviet military assistance.[131]

Soviet ground forces, under the command of Marshal Sergei Sokolov, entered Afghanistan from the north on December 27. In the morning, the 103rd Guards 'Vitebsk' Airborne Division landed at the airport at Bagram and the deployment of Soviet troops in Afghanistan was underway. The force that entered Afghanistan, in addition to the 103rd Guards Airborne Division, was under command of the 40th Army and consisted of the 108th and 5th Guards Motor Rifle Divisions, the 860th Separate Motor Rifle Regiment, the 56th Separate Airborne Assault Brigade, and the 36th Mixed Air Corps. Later on the 201st and 68th Motor Rifle Divisions also entered the country, along with other smaller units.[132] In all, the initial Soviet force was around 1,800 tanks, 80,000 soldiers and 2,000 AFVs. In the second week alone, Soviet aircraft had made a total of 4,000 flights into Kabul.[133] With the arrival of the two later divisions, the total Soviet force rose to over 100,000 personnel.

International positions on Soviet intervention

40th Army headquarters, Tajbeg Palace, 1986

Foreign ministers from 34 Islamic nations adopted a resolution which condemned the Soviet intervention and demanded "the immediate, urgent and unconditional withdrawal of Soviet troops" from the Muslim nation of Afghanistan.[54] The UN General Assembly passed a resolution protesting the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan by a vote of 104–18.[55] According to political scientist Gilles Kepel, the Soviet intervention or "invasion" was "viewed with horror" in the West, considered to be a "fresh twist" on the geo-political "Great Game" of the 19th Century in which Britain feared that Russia sought access to the Indian Ocean and posed "a threat to Western security", explicitly violating "the world balance of power agreed upon at Yalta" in 1945.[134]

Weapons supplies were made available through numerous countries. The United States purchased all of Israel's captured Soviet weapons clandestinely, and then funnelled the weapons to the Mujahideen, while Egypt upgraded its army's weapons and sent the older weapons to the militants. Turkey sold their World War II stockpiles to the warlords, and the British and Swiss provided Blowpipe missiles and Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns respectively, after they were found to be poor models for their own forces.[52] China provided the most relevant weapons, likely due to their own experience with guerrilla warfare, and kept meticulous record of all the shipments.[52]

December 1979 – February 1980: Occupation

The first phase of the war began with the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and first battles with various opposition groups.[54] Soviet troops entered Afghanistan along two ground routes and one air corridor, quickly taking control of the major urban centers, military bases and strategic installations. However, the presence of Soviet troops did not have the desired effect of pacifying the country. On the contrary, it exacerbated nationalistic sentiment, causing the rebellion to spread further.[135] Babrak Karmal, Afghanistan's new leadership, charged the Soviets with causing an increase in the unrest, and demanded that the 40th Army step in and quell the rebellion, as his own army had proved untrustworthy.[136] Thus, Soviet troops found themselves drawn into fighting against urban uprisings, tribal armies (called lashkar), and sometimes against mutinying Afghan Army units. These forces mostly fought in the open, and Soviet airpower and artillery made short work of them.[137]

March 1980 – April 1985: Soviet offensives

A mujahideen fighter in Kunar uses a communications receiver.

The war now developed into a new pattern: the Soviets occupied the cities and main axis of communication, while the mujahideen, which the Soviet Army soldiers called 'Dushman,' meaning 'enemy',[57] divided into small groups and waged a guerrilla war. Almost 80 percent of the country was outside government control.[58] Soviet troops were deployed in strategic areas in the northeast, especially along the road from Termez to Kabul. In the west, a strong Soviet presence was maintained to counter Iranian influence. Incidentally, special Soviet units would have[Clarification needed]

also performed secret attacks on Iranian territory to destroy suspected mujahideen bases, and their helicopters then got engaged in shootings with Iranian jets.[138] Conversely, some regions such as Nuristan, in the northeast, and Hazarajat, in the central mountains of Afghanistan, were virtually untouched by the fighting, and lived in almost complete independence.

Periodically the Soviet Army undertook multi-divisional offensives into mujahideen-controlled areas. Between 1980 and 1985, nine offensives were launched into the strategically important Panjshir Valley, but government control of the area did not improve.[139] Heavy fighting also occurred in the provinces neighbouring Pakistan, where cities and government outposts were constantly under siege by the mujahideen. Massive Soviet operations would regularly break these sieges, but the mujahideen would return as soon as the Soviets left.[62] In the west and south, fighting was more sporadic, except in the cities of Herat and Kandahar, which were always partly controlled by the resistance.[140]

Mujahideen with two captured artillery field guns in Jaji, 1984

The Soviets did not initially foresee taking on such an active role in fighting the rebels and attempted to play down their role there as giving light assistance to the Afghan army. However, the arrival of the Soviets had the opposite effect as it incensed instead of pacified the people, causing the mujahideen to gain in strength and numbers.[141] Originally the Soviets thought that their forces would strengthen the backbone of the Afghan army and provide assistance by securing major cities, lines of communication and transportation.[142] The Afghan army forces had a high desertion rate and were loath to fight, especially since the Soviet forces pushed them into infantry roles while they manned the armored vehicles and artillery. The main reason that the Afghan soldiers were so ineffective, though, was their lack of morale, as many of them were not truly loyal to the communist government but simply collecting a paycheck.

Once it became apparent that the Soviets would have to get their hands dirty, they followed three main strategies aimed at quelling the uprising.[143] Intimidation was the first strategy, in which the Soviets would use airborne attacks and armored ground attacks to destroy villages, livestock and crops in trouble areas. The Soviets would bomb villages that were near sites of guerrilla attacks on Soviet convoys or known to support resistance groups. Local peoples were forced to either flee their homes or die as daily Soviet attacks made it impossible to live in these areas. By forcing the people of Afghanistan to flee their homes, the Soviets hoped to deprive the guerrillas of resources and safe havens. The second strategy consisted of subversion, which entailed sending spies to join resistance groups and report information as well as bribing local tribes or guerrilla leaders into ceasing operations. Finally, the Soviets used military forays into contested territories in an effort to root out the guerrillas and limit their options. Classic search and destroy operations were implemented using Mil Mi-24 helicopter gunships that would provide cover for ground forces in armored vehicles. Once the villages were occupied by Soviet forces, inhabitants who remained were frequently interrogated and tortured for information or killed.[144]

An Afghan village left in ruins after being destroyed by Soviet forces

To complement their brute force approach to weeding out the insurgency, the Soviets used KHAD (Afghan secret police) to gather intelligence, infiltrate the mujahideen, spread false information, bribe tribal militias into fighting and organize a government militia. While it is impossible to know exactly how successful the KHAD was in infiltrating mujahideen groups, it is thought that they succeeded in penetrating a good many resistance groups based in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.[145] KHAD is thought to have had particular success in igniting internal rivalries and political divisions amongst the resistance groups, rendering some of them completely useless because of infighting.[146] The KHAD had some success in securing tribal loyalties but many of these relationships were fickle and temporary. Often KHAD secured neutrality agreements rather than committed political alignment.[147] The Sarandoy, a KHAD controlled government militia, had mixed success in the war. Large salaries and proper weapons attracted a good number of recruits to the cause, even if they were not necessarily "pro-communist". The problem was that many of the recruits they attracted were in fact mujahideen who would join up to procure arms, ammunition and money while also gathering information about forthcoming military operations.[146]

In 1985, the size of the LCOSF (Limited Contingent of Soviet Forces) was increased to 108,800 and fighting increased throughout the country, making 1985 the bloodiest year of the war. However, despite suffering heavily, the mujahideen were able to remain in the field, mostly because they received thousands of new volunteers daily, and continued resisting the Soviets.

Mujahedin raid inside Soviet Union

In an effort to foment unrest and rebellion by the Islamic populations of the Soviet Union, starting in late 1984 Director of CIA William Casey encouraged Mujahedin militants to mount violent sabotage raids inside the Soviet Union, according Robert Gates, Casey's executive assistant and Mohammed Yousef, the Pakistani ISI brigadier general who was the chief for Afghan operations. The rebels began cross-border raids into the Soviet Union in Spring 1985.[148]

1980s: Insurrection

A Soviet Spetsnaz (special operations) group prepares for a mission in Afghanistan, 1988

In the mid-1980s, the Afghan resistance movement, assisted by the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Egypt,[15] the People's Republic of China and others, contributed to Moscow's high military costs and strained international relations. The U.S. viewed the conflict in Afghanistan as an integral Cold War struggle, and the CIA provided assistance to anti-Soviet forces through the Pakistani intelligence services, in a program called Operation Cyclone.[149]

Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province became a base for the Afghan resistance fighters and the Deobandi ulama of that province played a significant role in the Afghan 'jihad', with Madrasa Haqqaniyya becoming a prominent organisational and networking base for the anti-Soviet Afghan fighters.[150] As well as money, Muslim countries provided thousands of volunteer fighters known as "Afghan Arabs", who wished to wage jihad against the atheist communists. Notable among them was a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden, whose Arab group eventually evolved into al-Qaeda.[59][60][61] Despite their numbers,[151][152][153][154] the contribution has been called a "curious sideshow to the real fighting,"[155] with only an estimated 2000 of them fighting "at any one time", compared with about a 250,000 Afghan fighters and 125,000 Soviet troops.[156] Their efforts were also sometimes counterproductive as in the March 1989 battle for Jalalabad. Instead of being the beginning of the collapse of the Afghan Communist government forces after their abandonment by the Soviets, the Afghan communists rallied to break the siege of Jalalabad and to win the first major government victory in years, provoked by the sight of a truck filled with dismembered bodies of Communists chopped to pieces after surrendering by radical non-Afghan salafists eager to show the enemy the fate awaiting the infidels.[157] "This success reversed the government's demoralization from the withdrawal of Soviet forces, renewed its determination to fight on, and allowed it to survive three more years." [158]

Maoist guerilla groups were also active, to a lesser extend compared to the religious mujahideen. Perhaps the most notable of these groups was the Liberation Organization of the People of Afghanistan (SAMA), which launched skilled guerilla attacks and controlled some territory north of Kabul in the early years of the war. The Maoist resistance eventually lost its pace and was severely weakened following the deaths of leaders Faiz Ahmad and Mulavi Dawood in 1986, both committed by the Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin mujahideen faction.[citation needed]

The areas where the different mujahideen forces operated in 1985

In the course of the guerrilla war, leadership came to be distinctively associated with the title of "commander". It applied to independent leaders, eschewing identification with elaborate military bureaucracy associated with such ranks as general. As the war produced leaders of reputation, "commander" was conferred on leaders of fighting units of all sizes, signifying pride in independence, self-sufficiency, and distinct ties to local communities. The title epitomized Afghan pride in their struggle against a powerful foe. Segmentation of power and religious leadership were the two values evoked by nomenclature generated in the war. Neither had been favored in the ideology of the former Afghan state.

Afghanistan's resistance movement was born in chaos, spread and triumphed chaotically, and did not find a way to govern differently. Virtually all of its war was waged locally by regional warlords. As warfare became more sophisticated, outside support and regional coordination grew. Even so, the basic units of mujahideen organization and action continued to reflect the highly segmented nature of Afghan society.[159]

Olivier Roy estimates that after four years of war, there were at least 4,000 bases from which mujahideen units operated. Most of these were affiliated with the seven expatriate parties headquartered in Pakistan, which served as sources of supply and varying degrees of supervision. Significant commanders typically led 300 or more men, controlled several bases and dominated a district or a sub-division of a province. Hierarchies of organization above the bases were attempted. Their operations varied greatly in scope, the most ambitious being achieved by Ahmad Shah Massoud of the Panjshir valley north of Kabul. He led at least 10,000 trained troopers at the end of the Soviet war and had expanded his political control of Tajik-dominated areas to Afghanistan's northeastern provinces under the Supervisory Council of the North.[159]

Three mujahideen in Asmar, 1985

Roy also describes regional, ethnic and sectarian variations in mujahideen organization. In the Pashtun areas of the east, south and southwest, tribal structure, with its many rival sub-divisions, provided the basis for military organization and leadership. Mobilization could be readily linked to traditional fighting allegiances of the tribal lashkar (fighting force). In favorable circumstances such formations could quickly reach more than 10,000, as happened when large Soviet assaults were launched in the eastern provinces, or when the mujahideen besieged towns, such as Khost in Paktia province in July 1983.[160] But in campaigns of the latter type the traditional explosions of manpower—customarily common immediately after the completion of harvest—proved obsolete when confronted by well dug-in defenders with modern weapons. Lashkar durability was notoriously short; few sieges succeeded.[159]

Mujahideen mobilization in non-Pashtun regions faced very different obstacles. Prior to the intervention, few non-Pashtuns possessed firearms. Early in the war they were most readily available from army troops or gendarmerie who defected or were ambushed. The international arms market and foreign military support tended to reach the minority areas last. In the northern regions, little military tradition had survived upon which to build an armed resistance. Mobilization mostly came from political leadership closely tied to Islam. Roy contrasts the social leadership of religious figures in the Persian- and Turkic-speaking regions of Afghanistan with that of the Pashtuns. Lacking a strong political representation in a state dominated by Pashtuns, minority communities commonly looked to pious learned or charismatically revered pirs (saints) for leadership. Extensive Sufi and maraboutic networks were spread through the minority communities, readily available as foundations for leadership, organization, communication and indoctrination. These networks also provided for political mobilization, which led to some of the most effective of the resistance operations during the war.[159]

The mujahideen favoured sabotage operations. The more common types of sabotage included damaging power lines, knocking out pipelines and radio stations, blowing up government office buildings, air terminals, hotels, cinemas, and so on. In the border region with Pakistan, the mujahideen would often launch 800 rockets per day. Between April 1985 and January 1987, they carried out over 23,500 shelling attacks on government targets. The mujahideen surveyed firing positions that they normally located near villages within the range of Soviet artillery posts, putting the villagers in danger of death from Soviet retaliation. The mujahideen used land mines heavily. Often, they would enlist the services of the local inhabitants, even children.

Mujahideen praying in Shultan Valley, 1987

They concentrated on both civilian and military targets, knocking out bridges, closing major roads, attacking convoys, disrupting the electric power system and industrial production, and attacking police stations and Soviet military installations and air bases. They assassinated government officials and PDPA members, and laid siege to small rural outposts. In March 1982, a bomb exploded at the Ministry of Education, damaging several buildings. In the same month, a widespread power failure darkened Kabul when a pylon on the transmission line from the Naghlu power station was blown up. In June 1982 a column of about 1,000 young communist party members sent out to work in the Panjshir valley were ambushed within 30 km of Kabul, with heavy loss of life. On September 4, 1985, insurgents shot down a domestic Bakhtar Airlines plane as it took off from Kandahar airport, killing all 52 people aboard.

Mujahideen groups used for assassination had three to five men in each. After they received their mission to kill certain government officials, they busied themselves with studying his pattern of life and its details and then selecting the method of fulfilling their established mission. They practiced shooting at automobiles, shooting out of automobiles, laying mines in government accommodation or houses, using poison, and rigging explosive charges in transport.

In May 1985, the seven principal rebel organizations formed the Seven Party Mujahideen Alliance to coordinate their military operations against the Soviet army. Late in 1985, the groups were active in and around Kabul, unleashing rocket attacks and conducting operations against the communist government.

Media reaction

Those hopelessly brave warriors I walked with, and their families, who suffered so much for faith and freedom and who are still not free, they were truly the people of God. – Journalist Rob Schultheis, 1992[161][162]

International journalistic perception of the war varied. Major American television journalists were sympathetic to the mujahideen. Most visible was CBS news correspondent Dan Rather, who in 1982 accused the Soviets of "genocide", comparing them to Hitler.[163] Rather was embedded with the mujahideen for a 60 Minutes report.[164] In 1987, CBS produced a full documentary special on the war.[165] A retrospective commentary for Niemen Reports criticized mainstream television for biased presentation of a "Ramboesque struggle of holy warriors against the evil empire." [166]

Reader's Digest took a highly positive view of the mujahideen, a reversal of their usual view of Islamic fighters. The publication praised their martyrdom and their role in entrapping the Soviets in a Vietnam War-style disaster.[167]

At least some, such as leftist journalist Alexander Cockburn, were unsympathetic, criticizing Afghanistan as "an unspeakable country filled with unspeakable people, sheepshaggers and smugglers, who have furnished in their leisure hours some of the worst arts and crafts ever to penetrate the occidental world. I yield to none in my sympathy to those prostrate beneath the Russian jackboot, but if ever a country deserved rape it's Afghanistan."[168] Robert D. Kaplan on the other hand, thought any perception of mujahideen as "barbaric" was unfair: "Documented accounts of mujahidin savagery were relatively rare and involved enemy troops only. Their cruelty toward civilians was unheard of during the war, while Soviet cruelty toward civilians was common."[169] Lack of interest in the mujahideen cause, Kaplan believed, was not the lack of intrinsic interest to be found in a war between a small, poor country and a superpower were a million civilians were killed, but the result of the great difficulty and unprofitability of media coverage. Kaplan note that "none of the American TV networks had a bureau for a war",[170] and television cameramen venturing to follow the mujahideen "trekked for weeks on little food, only to return ill and half starved".[171] In October 1984 the Soviet ambassador to Pakistan, Vitaly Smirnov, told Agence France Presse "that journalists traveling with the mujahidin 'will be killed. And our units in Afghanistan will help the Afghan forces to do it.'"[170] Unlike Vietnam and Lebanon, Afghanistan had "absolutely no clash between the strange and the familiar", no "rock-video quality" of "zonked-out GIs in headbands" or "rifle-wielding Shiite terrorists wearing Michael Jackson T-shirts" that provided interesting "visual materials" for newscasts.[172]

Soviet exit and change of Afghan leadership, 1985-1989

Foreign diplomatic efforts

As early as 1983, Pakistan's Foreign ministry began working with the Soviet Union to provide them an exit from the Afghanistan, initiatives led by Foreign Minister Yaqub Ali Khan and Khurshid Kasuri. Despite an active support for insurgent groups, Pakistanis remained sympathetic to the challenges faced by the Soviets in restoring the peace, eventually exploring the idea towards the possibility of setting-up the interim system of government under former monarch Zahir Shah but this was not authorized by President Zia-ul-Haq due to his stance on issue of Durand line.:247–248[173] In 1984–85, Foreign Minister Yaqub Ali Khan paid state visits to China, Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, France, United States and the United Kingdom in order to develop a framework. On July 20, 1987, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the country was announced. The withdrawal of Soviet forces was planned out by Lt. Gen. Boris Gromov, who, at the time, was the commander of the 40th Army.[citation needed]

April 1985 – January 1987: Exit strategy

Awards ceremony for the 9th Company

Soviet soldier in Afghanistan, 1988

The first step of the Soviet Union's exit strategy was to transfer the burden of fighting the mujahideen to the Afghan armed forces, with the aim of preparing them to operate without Soviet help. During this phase, the Soviet contingent was restricted to supporting the DRA forces by providing artillery, air support and technical assistance, though some large-scale operations were still carried out by Soviet troops.

Under Soviet guidance, the DRA armed forces were built up to an official strength of 302,000 in 1986. To minimize the risk of a coup d'état, they were divided into different branches, each modeled on its Soviet counterpart. The ministry of defence forces numbered 132,000, the ministry of interior 70,000 and the ministry of state security (KHAD) 80,000. However, these were theoretical figures: in reality each service was plagued with desertions, the army alone suffering 32,000 per year.

The decision to engage primarily Afghan forces was taken by the Soviets, but was resented by the PDPA, who viewed the departure of their protectors without enthusiasm. In May 1987 a DRA force attacked well-entrenched mujahideen positions in the Arghandab District, but the mujahideen held their ground, and the attackers suffered heavy casualties.[174] In the spring of 1986, an offensive into Paktia Province briefly occupied the mujahideen base at Zhawar only at the cost of heavy losses.[175] Meanwhile, the mujahideen benefited from expanded foreign military support from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other Muslim nations. The US tended to favor the Afghan resistance forces led by Ahmed Shah Massoud, and US support for Massoud's forces increased considerably during the Reagan administration in what US military and intelligence forces called "Operation Cyclone". Primary advocates for supporting Massoud included two Heritage Foundation foreign policy analysts, Michael Johns and James A. Phillips, both of whom championed Massoud as the Afghan resistance leader most worthy of US support under the Reagan Doctrine.[176][177][178]

May 1986 – 1988: Najibullah and his reforms

The government of President Karmal, a puppet regime, was largely ineffective. It was weakened by divisions within the PDPA and the Parcham faction, and the regime's efforts to expand its base of support proved futile. Moscow came to regard Karmal as a failure and blamed him for the problems. Years later, when Karmal's inability to consolidate his government had become obvious, Mikhail Gorbachev, then General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, said, "The main reason that there has been no national consolidation so far is that Comrade Karmal is hoping to continue sitting in Kabul with our help."[citation needed] Karmal's consoliation plan only involved those who hadn't raised arms against the regime, and even demanded Soviet troops to seal the border with Pakistan before any negotiations with Mujahideen. The Soviet Union decided to dispose of Karmal from the leadership of Afghanistan.[179]

A column of Soviet BTR armored personnel carriers departing from Afghanistan.

In May 1986, Mohammed Najibullah, former chief of the Afghan secret police (KHAD), was elected General Secretary and later as President of the Revolutionary Council. The relatively young new leader was little known of by the Afghan population at the time, but he made swift reforms to change the country's situation and win support as devised by experts of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. An eloquent speaker in both the Pashto and Dari languages, Najibullah engaged with elders and presented both himself and the state as Islamic, sometimes backing speeches with excerpts from the Qur'an. A number of prisoners were released, while the night curfew in Kabul in place since 1980 was lifted. He also moved against pro-Karmal Parchamites, who were expelled from the Revolutionary Council and the Politburo.[179]

President Najibullah launched the "National Reconciliation" program at the start of 1987, the goal of which was to unite the nation and end the war that had been raging for seven years. He expressed willingness to negotiate with the Mujahideen resistance, allow parties other than the PDPA to be active, and indicated exiled King Zahir Shah could be part of the process. A six-month ceasefire also launched in December 1986. His administration was also more open to foreign visitors outside the Soviet bloc.[179] In November 1987, Najibullah convened a loya jirga selected by the authorities which successfully passed a new constitution for Afghanistan, creating a presidential system with an elective bicameral parliament. The constitution declared “the sacred religion of Islam” the official religion, guaranteed the democratic rights of the individual, made it legal to form “political parties”, and promoted equality between the various tribes and nationalities.[179] Despite high expectations, the new policy only had limited impact in regaining support from the population and the resistance, partly because of high distrust of the PDPA and KHAD as well as Najibullah's loyalty to Moscow.[179]

As part of the new structure, national parliamentary elections were held in 1988 to elect members of the new National Assembly, the first such elections in Afghanistan in 19 years.

Negotiations for a coalition

Ex-king Zahir Shah remained a popular figure to most Afghans. Diego Cordovez of the UN also recognized the king as a potential key to a political settlement to the war after the Soviet troops would leave. Polls in 1987 also showed that he was a favored figure to lead a potential coalition between the DRA regime and Mujahideen factions, as well as an opposition to the unpopular but powerful guerilla leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was strongly against the King's return. Pakistan however was against this and refused to grant the ex-king a visa for potential negotiations with Mujahideen. Pakistan's President Zia ul-Haq and his supporters in the military were determined to put a conservative Islamic ally in power in Kabul.[180]

April 1988: The Geneva Accords

Following lengthy negotiations, the Geneva Accords was signed in 1988 between Afghanistan and Pakistan.[181] Supported by the Soviet Union and the United States respectively, the two Asian countries agreed to refrain from any form of interference in each other's territory and give Afghan refugees in Pakistan to voluntarily return. The two superpowers agreed to halt their interference in Afghanistan, which included a Soviet withdrawal.[180]

The United Nations set up a special Mission to oversee the process. In this way, President Najibullah had stabilized his political position enough to begin matching Moscow's moves toward withdrawal. Among other things the Geneva Accords identified the US and Soviet non-intervention in the internal affairs of Pakistan and Afghanistan and a timetable for full Soviet withdrawal. The agreement on withdrawal held, and on February 15, 1989, the last Soviet troops departed on schedule from Afghanistan.[citation needed]

January 1987 – February 1989: Withdrawal

Soviet T-62M main battle tank withdraws from Afghanistan

The promotion of Mikhail Gorbachev to General Secretary in 1985 and his 'new thinking' on foreign and domestic policy was likely an important factor in the Soviets' decision to withdraw. Gorbachev had been attempting to remove the Soviet Union from the economic stagnation that had set in under the leadership of Brezhnev, and to reform the Soviet Union's economy and image with the Glasnost and Perestroika policies. Gorbachev had also been attempting to ease cold war tensions by signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the U.S. in 1987 and withdrawing the troops from Afghanistan, whose presence had garnered so much international condemnation. Gorbachev regarded confrontation with China and resulting military build ups on that border as one of Brezhnev's biggest mistakes.[citation needed] Beijing had stipulated that a normalization of relations would have to wait until Moscow withdrew its army from Afghanistan (among other things), and in 1989 the first Sino-Soviet summit in 30 years took place. [182] At the same time, Gorbachev pressured his Cuban allies in Angola to scale down activities and withdraw even though Soviet allies were faring somewhat better there.[183] The Soviets also pulled many of their troops out of Mongolia in 1987, where they were also having a far easier time than in Afghanistan, and restrained the Vietnamese invasion of Kampuchea to the point of an all out withdrawal in 1988. [184] This massive withdrawal of Soviet forces from such highly contested areas shows that the Soviet government's decision to leave Afghanistan was based upon a general change in Soviet foreign policy – from one of confrontation to avoidance of conflict wherever possible.

In the last phase, Soviet troops prepared and executed their withdrawal from Afghanistan, whilst limiting the launching of offensive operations by those who hadn't withdrawn yet.

By mid-1987 the Soviet Union announced that it would start withdrawing its forces. Sibghatullah Mojaddedi was selected as the head of the Interim Islamic State of Afghanistan, in an attempt to reassert its legitimacy against the Moscow-sponsored Kabul regime. Mojaddedi, as head of the Interim Afghan Government, met with then Vice President of the United States George H. W. Bush, achieving a critical diplomatic victory for the Afghan resistance. Defeat of the Kabul government was their solution for peace. This confidence, sharpened by their distrust of the United Nations, virtually guaranteed their refusal to accept a political compromise.

In September 1988, Soviet MiG-23 fighters shot down two Iranian AH-1J Cobra, which had intruded in Afghan airspace.[185]

Operation Magistral was one of the final offensive operations undertaken by the Soviets, a successful sweep operation that cleared the road between Gardez and Khost. This operation did not have any lasting effect on the outcome of the conflict nor the soiled political and military status of the Soviets in the eyes of the West, but was a symbolic gesture that marked the end of their widely condemned presence in the country with a victory.[186]

The first half of the Soviet contingent was withdrawn from May 15 to August 16, 1988, and the second from November 15 to February 15, 1989. In order to ensure a safe passage the Soviets had negotiated ceasefires with local mujahideen commanders, so the withdrawal was generally executed peacefully,[187] except for the operation "Typhoon".

CGen of 40th Army, Boris Gromov, announcing the withdrawal of Soviet contingent forces.

General Yazov, the Defense Minister of Soviet Union, ordered the 40th Army to violate the agreement with Ahmed Shah Masood, who commanded a large force in the Panjshir Valley, and attack his relaxed and exposed forces. The Soviet attack was initiated to protect Najibullah, who did not have a cease fire in effect with Masood, and who rightly feared an offensive by Masood's forces after the Soviet withdrawal.[188] General Gromov, the 40th Army Commander, objected to the operation, but reluctantly obeyed the order. "Typhoon" began on January 23 and continued for three days. To minimize their own losses the Soviets abstained from close-range fight, instead they used long-range artillery, surface-to-surface and air-to-surface missiles. Numerous civilian casualties were reported. Masood had not threatened the withdrawal to this point, and did not attack Soviet forces after they breached the agreement.[188] Overall, the Soviet attack represented a defeat for Masood's forces, who lost 600 fighters killed and wounded.[188]

After the withdrawal of the Soviets the DRA forces were left fighting alone and had to abandon some provincial capitals, and it was widely believed that they would not be able to resist the mujahideen for long. However, in the spring of 1989 DRA forces inflicted a sharp defeat on the mujahideen at Jalalabad. The United States, having achieved its goal of forcing the Soviet Union's withdrawal from Afghanistan, gradually disengaged itself from the country.[179]

Causes of withdrawal

Some of the causes of the Soviet Union's withdrawal from Afghanistan leading to the Afghanistan regime's eventual defeat include[189]

  • The Soviet Army of 1980 was trained and equipped for large scale, conventional warfare in Central Europe against a similar opponent, i.e. it used armored and motor-rifle formations. This was notably ineffective against small scale guerrilla groups using hit-and-run tactics in the rough terrain of Afghanistan. The large Red Army formations weren't mobile enough to engage small groups of Muj fighters that easily merged back into the terrain.[189] The set strategy also meant that troops were discouraged from "tactical initiative", essential in counter insurgency, because it "tended to upset operational timing".[190]
  • The Soviets used large-scale offensives against Mujahideen strongholds, such as in the Panjshir Valley, which temporarily clearing those sectors and killed many civilians in addition to enemy combatants. The biggest shortcoming here was the fact that once the Soviets did engage the enemy in force, they failed to hold the ground by withdrawing once their operation was completed. The killing of civilians further alienated the population from the Soviets, with bad long-term effects.[189]
  • The Soviets didn't have enough men to fight a counter-insurgency war (COIN),[190] and their troops were not motivated. The peak number of Soviet troops during the war was 115,000. The bulk of these troops were conscripts, which led to poor combat performance in their Motor-Rifle Formations. However, the Soviets did have their elite infantry units, such as the famed Spetsnaz, the VDV, and their recon infantry. The problem with their elite units was not combat effectiveness, but that there were not enough of them and that they were employed incorrectly.[189]
  • Intelligence gathering, essential for successful COIN, was inadequate. The Soviets over-relied on less-than-accurate aerial recon and radio intercepts rather than their recon infantry and special forces. Although their special forces and recon infantry units performed very well in combat against the Mujahideen, they would have better served in intelligence gathering.[189]
  • The concept of a "war of national liberation" against a Soviet-sponsored "revolutionary" regime was so alien to the Soviet dogma, the leadership could not "come to grips" with it. This led to, among other things, a suppression by the Soviet media for several years of the truth how bad the war was going, which caused a backlash when it was unable to hide it further.[190]

War crimes

Human Rights Watch concluded that the Soviet Red Army and its communist-allied Afghan Army perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan, intentionally targeting civilians and civilian areas for attack, killing and torturing prisoners.[191] Several historians and scholars went even a step further and have stated that the Afghans were victims of genocide by the Soviet Union, including American professor Samuel Totten,[192] Australian professor Paul R. Bartrop,[192] scholars from Yale Law School such as W. Michael Reisman and Charles Norchi,[193] writer and human rights advocate Rosanne Klass,[194] as well as scholar Mohammed Kakar.[195]


The army of the Soviet Union killed large numbers of Afghans to suppress their resistance. In one notable incident the Soviet Army committed mass killing of civilians in the summer of 1980.[195] To separate the mujahideen from the local populations and eliminate their support, the Soviet army killed, drove off civilians and used scorched earth tactics to prevent their return. They used booby traps, mines, and chemical substances throughout the country.[195] The Soviet army indiscriminately killed combatants and non-combatants to ensure submission by the local populations.[195] The provinces of Nangarhar, Ghazni, Laghman, Kunar, Zabul, Kandahar, Badakhshan, Logar, Paktia and Paktika witnessed extensive depopulation programmes by the Soviet forces.[193]


The Soviet forces abducted Afghan women in helicopters while flying in the country in search of mujahideen. In November 1980 a number of such incidents had taken place in various parts of the country, including Laghman and Kama. Soviet soldiers as well as KhAD agents kidnapped young women from the city of Kabul and the areas of Darul Aman and Khair Khana, near the Soviet garrisons, to rape them.[196] Women who were taken and raped by Soviet soldiers were considered 'dishonoured' by their families if they returned home.[197] Deserters from the Soviet Army in 1984 also reported the atrocities by Soviet troops on Afghan women and children, including rape.[198]

Wanton destruction

An Afghan village left in ruins after being destroyed by Soviet forces

Irrigation systems, crucial to agriculture in Afghanistan's arid climate, were destroyed by aerial bombing and strafing by Soviet or government forces. In the worst year of the war, 1985, well over half of all the farmers who remained in Afghanistan had their fields bombed, and over one quarter had their irrigation systems destroyed and their livestock shot by Soviet or government troops, according to a survey conducted by Swedish relief experts.[199] Everything was the target in the country, from cities, villages, up to schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, factories and orchards. Soviet tactics included targeting areas which showed support for the Mujahideen, and forcing the populace to flee the rural territories the communists were unable to control. Half of Afghanistan's 24,000 villages were destroyed by the end of the war.[200]

Use of chemical weapons

There have also been numerous reports of chemical weapons being used by Soviet forces in Afghanistan, often indiscriminately against civilians.[144][201][202] A declassified CIA report from 1982 states that between 1979 and 1982 there were 43 separate chemical weapons attacks which caused more than 3000 deaths.[203] By early 1980, attacks with chemical weapons were reported in "all areas with concentrated resistance activity".[203]


Amnesty International concluded that the communist-controlled Afghan government used widespread torture against inmates (officials, teachers, businessmen and students suspected of having ties to the rebels) in interrogation centers in Kabul, run by the KHAD, who were beaten, subjected to electric shocks, burned with cigarettes and that some of their hair was pulled out. Some died from these harsh conditions. Women of the prisoners were forced to watch or were locked up in the cells with the corpses. The Soviets were accused of supervising these tortures.[204][205]


The Soviet soldiers were looting from the dead in Afghanistan, including stealing money, jewelry and clothes.[206] During the Red Army withdrawal in February 1989, 30 to 40 military trucks crammed with Afghan historical treasures crossed into the Soviet Union, under orders from General Boris Gromov. He cut an antique Tekke carpet stolen from Darul Aman Palace into several pieces, and gave it to his acquaintances.[207]

Foreign involvement


The Afghan mujahideen were backed primarily by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Kingdom making it a Cold War proxy war. Out of the countries that supported the Mujahideen, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia offered the greatest financial support.[13][14][16][18][208][209] However, private donors and religious charities throughout the Muslim world—particularly in the Persian Gulf—raised considerably more funds for the Afghan rebels than any foreign government; Jason Burke recounts that "as little as 25 per cent of the money for the Afghan jihad was actually supplied directly by states."[210] Saudi Arabia was heavily involved in the war effort and matched the United States' contributions dollar-for-dollar in public funds. Saudi Arabia also gathered an enormous amount of money for the Afghan mujahideen in private donations that amounted to about $20 million per month at their peak.[211]

Other countries that supported the mujaheddin were Egypt and China. Iran on the other hand only supported the Shia Mujaheddin namely the Persian speaking Shiite Hazaras in a limited way. One of these groups was the Tehran Eight a political union of Afghan Shi'a.[212] They were supplied predominately by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps but Iran's support for the Hazaras nevertheless frustrated efforts for a united mujahedeen front.[213]


A German database showing the channelling of the money and weapons, provided by ISI officer Mohammad Yousaf in his book: Afghanistan – The Bear Trap: The Defeat of a Superpower

Shortly after the intervention, Pakistan's military ruler General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq called for a meeting of senior military members and technocrats of his military government.[214] At this meeting, General Zia-ul-Haq asked the Chief of Army Staff General Khalid Mahmud Arif and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Muhammad Shariff to lead a specialized civil-military team to formulate a geo-strategy to counter the Soviet aggression.[214] At this meeting, the Director-General of the ISI at that time, Lieutenant-General Akhtar Abdur Rahman advocated for an idea of covert operation in Afghanistan by arming the Islamic extremist.[214] As for Pakistan, the Soviet war with Islamist mujahideen was viewed as retaliation for the Soviet Union's long unconditional support of regional rival, India, notably during the 1965 and the 1971 wars, which led to the loss of Pakistani territory to the new state of Bangladesh.[214]

After the Soviet deployment, Pakistan's military ruler General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq started accepting financial aid from the Western powers to aid the mujahideen.[215] In 1981, following the election of US President Ronald Reagan, aid for the mujahideen through Zia's Pakistan significantly increased, mostly due to the efforts of Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson and CIA officer Gust Avrakotos.[216][217]

The Pakistan Navy were involved in the covert war coordinating foreign weapons being funnelled into Afghanistan. Some of the navy's high-ranking admirals were responsible for storing those weapons in their depots.

ISI allocated the highest percentage of covert aid to warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar leader of the Hezb-e-Islami faction. This was based on his record as an effective anti-Soviet military commander in Afghanistan.[218] The other reason was that Hekmatyar and his men had "almost no grassroots support and no military base inside Afghanistan", and thus more "dependent on Zia-ul-Haq's protection and financial largesse" than other mujahideen factions. In retaliation for Pakistan's assistance to the insurgents, the KHAD Afghan security service, under leader Mohammad Najibullah, carried out (according to the Mitrokhin Archives and other sources) a large number of operations against Pakistan. In 1987, 127 incidents resulted in 234 deaths in Pakistan. In April 1988, an ammunition depot outside the Pakistani capital of Islamabad was blown up killing 100 and injuring more than 1000 people. The KHAD and KGB were suspected in the perpetration of these acts.[219] Soviet fighters and Democratic Republic of Afghanistan Air Force bombers occasionally bombed Pakistani villages along the Pakistani-Afghan border. The target of Soviet and Afghan fighters and bombers were Afghan refugees camps on Pakistan side of the border.[220] These attacks are known to have caused at least 300 civilian deaths and extensive damage. Sometimes they got involved in shootings with the Pakistani jets defending the airspace.[221]

Many secular Pakistanis outside of the government were worried about fundamentalists guerillas in Afghanistan, such as Hekmatyar, receiving such a high amount of aid, would lead to bolster conservative Islamic forces in Pakistan and its military.[222] Pakistan took in millions of Afghan refugees (mostly Pashtun) fleeing the Soviet occupation. Although the refugees were controlled within Pakistan's largest province, Balochistan under then-martial law ruler General Rahimuddin Khan, the influx of so many refugees – believed to be the largest refugee population in the world [223]– spread into several other regions.

All of this had a heavy impact on Pakistan and its effects continue to this day. Pakistan, through its support for the mujahideen, played a significant role in the eventual withdrawal of Soviet military personnel from Afghanistan.

United States

In the mid-1970s, Pakistani intelligence officials began privately lobbying the U.S. and its allies to send material assistance to the Islamist insurgents. Pakistani President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq's ties with the U.S. had been strained during Jimmy Carter's presidency due to Pakistan's nuclear program. Carter told National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance as early as January 1979 that it was vital to "repair our relationships with Pakistan" in light of the unrest in Iran.[114]

U.S. President Reagan meeting with Afghan mujahideen at the White House, to highlight Soviet atrocities in Afghanistan

Carter insisted that what he termed "Soviet aggression" could not be viewed as an isolated event of limited geographical importance but had to be contested as a potential threat to US influence in the Persian Gulf region. The US was also worried about the USSR gaining access to the Indian Ocean by coming to an arrangement with Pakistan. The Soviet air base outside of Kandahar was only thirty minutes flying time by strike aircraft or naval bomber to the Persian Gulf. It "became the heart of the southernmost concentration of Soviet soldier" in the 300-year history of Russian expansion in central Asia.[224]

Brzezinski, known for his hardline policies on the Soviet Union, became convinced by mid-1979 that the Soviets were going to invade Afghanistan regardless of U.S. policy due to the Carter administration's failure to respond aggressively to Soviet activity in Africa. Despite the risk of unintended consequences, support for the mujahideen could be an effective way to prevent Soviet aggression beyond Afghanistan (particularly in Brzezinski's native Poland).[116] Carter signed a "presidential 'finding'" that "authorized the CIA to spend just over $500,000" on "non-lethal" aid to the mujahideen, which "seemed at the time a small beginning."[114][115][225] Pakistan's Pakistani security services (ISI) was used as an intermediary for most of these activities to disguise the sources of support for the resistance in a program called Operation Cyclone.[13]

The Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Stansfield Turner and the CIA's Directorate of Operations (DO) contemplated "several enhancement options"—up to and including the direct provision of arms from the U.S. to the mujahideen through the ISI—as early as late August 1979 despite the claim of "non-lethal" assistance.[226] The first shipment of U.S. weapons intended for the mujahideen reached Pakistan on January 10, 1980.[227][228][229]

Charlie Wilson (D-TX), 2nd from the left, dressing in Afghan clothing (armed with AKS-74U) with the local Afghan mujahideen.

Democratic congressman Charlie Wilson became obsessed with the Afghan cause, in 1982 he visited the Pakistani leadership, and was taken to a major Pakistan-based Afghan refugee camp to see first hand the conditions and the Soviet atrocities. After his visit he was able to leverage his position on the House Committee on Appropriations to encourage other Democratic congressmen to vote for CIA Afghan war money.[230] Wilson teamed with CIA manager Gust Avrakotos and formed a team of a few dozen insiders who greatly enhanced support for the Mujahideen. With Ronald Reagan as president he then greatly expanded the program as part of the Reagan Doctrine of aiding anti-Soviet resistance movements abroad. To execute this policy, Reagan deployed CIA Special Activities Division paramilitary officers to equip the Mujihadeen forces against the Soviet Army. Avrakotos hired Michael G. Vickers, the CIA's regional head who had a close relationship with Wilson and became a key architect of the strategy. The program funding was increased yearly due to lobbying by prominent U.S. politicians and government officials, such as Wilson, Gordon Humphrey, Fred Ikle, and William Casey. Under the Reagan administration, U.S. support for the Afghan mujahideen evolved into a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy, called the Reagan Doctrine, in which the U.S. provided military and other support to anti-communist resistance movements in Afghanistan, Angola, and Nicaragua. [231]

The CIA gave the majority of their weapons and finances to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami who also received the lion's share of aid from the Saudis. There was recurrent contact between the CIA and Afghan commanders, especially by agent Howard Hart,[232] and Director of Central Intelligence William Casey personally visited training camps on several occasions.[233][234] There was also direct Pentagon and State Department involvement[235][236] which led to several major mujahideen being welcomed to the White House for a conference in October 1985. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar declined the opportunity to meet with Ronald Reagan, but Yunus Khalis and Abdul Haq were hosted by the president.[237][238] CIA agents are also known to have given direct cash payments to Jalaluddin Haqqani.[239]

The arms included FIM-43 Redeye and 9K32 Strela-2 shoulder-fired, antiaircraft weapons that they initially used against Soviet helicopters. Michael Pillsbury, a Pentagon official, and Vincent Cannistraro pushed the CIA to supply the Stinger missile to the rebels. [231] This was first supplied in 1986; Wilson's good contact with Zia was instrumental in the final go-ahead for the Stinger introduction. The first Hind helicopter was brought down later that year. The CIA eventually supplied nearly 500 Stingers (some sources claim 1,500–2,000) to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan,[240] and 250 launchers.[241] The impact of the Stinger on the outcome of the war is contested, nevertheless some saw it more of a "force multiplier" and a morale booster.[242]

Overall financially the U.S. offered two packages of economic assistance and military sales to support Pakistan's role in the war against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan. By the wars end more than $20 billion in U.S. funds were funnelled through Pakistan.[243] to train and equip the Afghan mujahideen militants. Controversially $600 million went to Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami party which had the dubious distinction of never winning a significant battle during the war. They also killed significant numbers of mujahideen from other parties, and eventually took a virulently anti-Western line.[244] Cyclone nevertheless was one of the CIA's longest and most expensive covert operations.[245] The full significance of the U.S. sending aid to the mujahideen prior to the intervention is debated among scholars. Some assert that it directly, and even deliberately, provoked the Soviets to send in troops.[246][247][248][249][250] According to Steve Coll's dissenting analysis, however: "Contemporary memos—particularly those written in the first days after the Soviet invasion—make clear that while Brzezinski was determined to confront the Soviets in Afghanistan through covert action, he was also very worried the Soviets would prevail. ... Given this evidence and the enormous political and security costs that the invasion imposed on the Carter administration, any claim that Brzezinski lured the Soviets into Afghanistan warrants deep skepticism."[251][252]

As a consequence the US launched attempted to buy back the Stinger missiles, with a $55 million program launched in 1990 to buy back around 300 missiles (US$183,300 each).[253]

United Kingdom

Throughout the war Britain played a significant role in support of the US and acted in concert with the U.S. government. While the US provided far more in financial and material terms to the Afghan resistance, the UK played more of a direct combat role - in particular the Special Air Service—supporting resistance groups in practical manners.[254] This turned out to be Whitehall's most extensive covert operation since the Second World War.[255]

An Afghan mujahid carries a Lee–Enfield No. 4 in August 1985

Unlike the U.S., British aid to the Afghan resistance began before the Soviet invasion was actually launched, working with chosen Afghani forces during the Afghan government's close ties to the Soviet Union in the late seventies. Within three weeks of the invasion this was stepped up - cabinet secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong sent a note to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Secretary of State Peter Carrington and "C", the head of MI6 arguing the case for military aid to "encourage and support resistance". Support was approved by the British government who then authorised MI6 to conduct operations in the first year of the Soviet occupation, coordinated by MI6 officers in Islamabad in liaison with the CIA and the ISI.

Thatcher visited Pakistan in October 1981 and met President Zia-ul-Haq, toured the refugee camps close to the Afghan border and then gave a speech telling the people that the hearts of the free world were with them and promised aid. The Kremlin responded to the whole incident by blasting Thatcher's "provocation aimed at stirring up anti-Soviet hysteria." Five years later two prominent Mujaheddin, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Abdul Haq met Thatcher in Downing Street.[256]

MI6 helped the CIA by activating long-established British networks of contacts in Pakistan.[257] MI6 supported one of the hardline Islamic groups commanded by Ahmad Shah Massoud a young commander in the Panjshir Valley. Despite the CIA's doubts on Massoud he nevertheless became a key MI6 ally and would become an effective fighter. They sent an annual mission of two of their officers as well as military instructors to Massoud and his fighters. They stayed for three weeks or more in the mountains moving supplies to Massoud under the noses of the Pakistanis who insisted on maintaining control. The team's most important contribution was help with organisation and communication via radio equipment. The Cheltenham-based GCHQ intercepted and translated Soviet battle plan communications which was then relayed to the Afghan resistance.[258] MI6 also helped to retrieve crashed Soviet helicopters from Afghanistan - parts of which were carried on mules.[259]

In the Spring of 1986, Whitehall sent weapons clandestinely to some units of the Mujaheddin, and made sure their origins were open to speculation.[260] The most notable of these was the Blowpipe missile launchers. These had proved a failure in the Falklands War and had been mothballed by the British army, but were available on the international arms market. Around fifty Launchers and 300 Missiles were delivered[261] and the system nevertheless proved ineffective; thirteen missiles were fired for no hits and it was eventually supplanted by the US Stinger missile.[262] The mujaheddin were also sent hundreds of thousands of old British army small arms, mostly Lee Enfield rifles, some of which were purchased from old Indian Army stocks.[263] They also included limpet mines which proved the most successful, destroying Soviet barges on their side of the Amu River.[264]

In 1983 the Special Air Service were sent in to Pakistan and worked alongside their SSG, whose commandos guided guerrilla operations in Afghanistan in the hope officers could impart their learned expertise directly to the Afghans. Britain also directly trained Afghan forces, much of which was contracted out to private security firms, a policy cleared by the British Government. The main company was Keenie Meenie Services (KMS Ltd) lead by former SAS officers.[265] In 1985 they helped train Afghans in sabotage, reconnaissance, attack planning, arson, how to use explosive devices and heavy artillery such as mortars. One of these men was a key trainer, a former senior officer in the royal Afghan army, Brigadier General Rahmatullah Safi - he trained as many as 8,000 men. As well as sending Afghan commando units to secret British bases in Oman to train; KMS even sent them to Britain. Disguised as tourists selected junior commanders in the mujaheddin were trained in three week cycles in Scotland, northern and Southern England on SAS training grounds.[258][264]

The UK 's role in the conflict entailed direct military involvement not only in Afghanistan, but the Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union.[265] MI6 organised and executed "scores" of psyop attacks in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, on Soviet troop supplies which flowed from these areas. These were the first direct Western attacks on the Soviet Union since the 1950s. MI6 also funded the spread of radical and anti-Soviet Islamic literature in the Soviet republics.[258]


During the Sino-Soviet split, strained relations between China and the USSR resulted in bloody border clashes and mutual backing for the opponent's enemies. China and Afghanistan had neutral relations with each other during the King's rule. When the pro-Soviet Afghan Communists seized power in Afghanistan in 1978, relations between China and the Afghan communists quickly turned hostile. The Afghan pro-Soviet communists supported China's then-enemy Vietnam and blamed China for supporting Afghan anti-communist militants. China responded to the Soviet war in Afghanistan by supporting the mujahideen and ramping up their military presence near Afghanistan in Xinjiang. China acquired military equipment from America to defend itself from Soviet attack.[266] At the same time relations with the United States had cooled considerably that by 1980 Washington had begun to supply China with a variety of weapons. They even reached an agreement of two joint tracking and listening stations in Xinjiang.[267]

Before the Soviet intervention, Pakistan's Zia ul-Haq ordered that no Chinese made weapons should be given to the Afghan guerillas who are being supplied by Pakistan.[268]

The Chinese People's Liberation Army provided training, arms organisation and financial support. Anti-aircraft missiles, rocket launchers and machine guns, valued at hundreds of millions, were given to the mujahideen by the Chinese. Throughout the war Chinese military advisers and army troops trained upwards of several thousand Mujahidin inside Xinjiang and along the Pakistani border.[267]


Prior to the Soviet Union's move on Afghanistan the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet's allies, were not consulted. Eastern European troops did not take part in the invasion or occupation of Afghanistan. In the end the Soviets would have nothing more than limited political support from the Warsaw Pact countries.[269] Romania went further and broke with its Warsaw Pact allies and abstained when the UN General Assembly voted on a resolution calling for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Soviet troops. The only other communist country, North Korea, also refused to endorse the invasion partly because China was supporting the Mujaheddin, so they had to create a fine political balance between them and the Soviets.[270] The only allies of the Soviet Union to give support to the intervention were Angola, East Germany, Vietnam and India.[271]


India, a close ally of the Soviet Union, endorsed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan[271] and by the end of the hostilities, offered to provide humanitarian assistance to the Afghan government.[272][273][verification needed] India didn't condemn the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan as India was excessively dependent on the Soviet Union for its military and security,[274] and it has been said that "the failure of the Indian government to publicly condemn the invasion, its support of the Soviet puppet regime of Kabul, and its hostile vision of the resistance have created major stumbling blocks in Afghan-Indian relations."[275] India also opposed an UN resolution condemning the intervention.[276]


A demonstration against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, in The Hague, Netherlands, 1985

Soviet personnel strengths and casualties

Soviet soldiers return from Afghanistan, October 1986

Spetsnaz troops interrogate a captured mujahideen with an RPG, rounds and AK47 in the background, 1986

Between December 25, 1979, and February 15, 1989, a total of 620,000[citation needed] soldiers served with the forces in Afghanistan (though there were only 80,000–104,000 serving at one time): 525,000 in the Army, 90,000 with border troops and other KGB sub-units, 5,000 in independent formations of MVD Internal Troops, and police forces. A further 21,000 personnel were with the Soviet troop contingent over the same period doing various white collar and blue collar jobs.

The total irrecoverable personnel losses of the Soviet Armed Forces, frontier, and internal security troops came to 14,453. Soviet Army formations, units, and HQ elements lost 13,833, KGB sub-units lost 572, MVD formations lost 28, and other ministries and departments lost 20 men. During this period 312 servicemen were missing in action or taken prisoner; 119 were later freed, of whom 97 returned to the USSR and 22 went to other countries.

Of the troops deployed, 53,753 were wounded, injured, or sustained concussion and 415,932 fell sick. A high proportion of casualties were those who fell ill. This was because of local climatic and sanitary conditions, which were such that acute infections spread rapidly among the troops. There were 115,308 cases of infectious hepatitis, 31,080 of typhoid fever, and 140,665 of other diseases. Of the 11,654 who were discharged from the army after being wounded, maimed, or contracting serious diseases, 10,751 men, were left disabled.[277]

Material losses were as follows:[41]

In early 1987 a CIA report estimated that, from 1979 to 1986, the Soviet military spent 18 billion rubles on the war in Afghanistan (not counting other costs incurred to the Soviet state such as economic and military aid to the DRA). The CIA noted that this was the equivalent of US$50 billion[278] ($115 billion in 2019 USD).[279] The report credited the relatively low cost to the small size of the Soviet deployment and the fact that the supply lines to Afghanistan were very short (in some cases, easier and cheaper than internal USSR lines). Military aid to the DRA's armed forces totaled 9.124 billion rubles from 1980 to 1989 (peaking at 3.972 billion rubles in 1989).[280] Financial and economic aid were also significant; by 1990, 75% of the Afghan state's income came from Soviet aid.[281]

Casualties and destruction in Afghanistan

A member of the International Committee of the Red Cross helping a wounded Afghan child walk in 1986

Civilian death and destruction from the war was considerable. Estimates of Afghan civilian deaths vary from 562,000[282] to 2,000,000.[194][283] By one estimate, at least 800,000 Afghans were killed during the Soviet occupation.[284] 5 million Afghans fled to Pakistan and Iran, 1/3 of the prewar population of the country, and another 2 million were displaced within the country. In the 1980s, half of all refugees in the world were Afghan.[199] In his report, Felix Ermacora, the UN Special Rapporteur to Afghanistan, enumerated 32,755 killed civilians, 1,834 houses and 74 villages destroyed, and 3,308 animals killed in the first nine months of 1985.[285]

R. J. Rummel, an analyst of political killings, estimated that Soviet forces were responsible for 250,000 democidal killings during the war and that the government of Afghanistan was responsible for 178,000 democidal killings. He also assumed that overall a million people died during the war.[286] There were also a number of reports of large scale executions of hundreds of civilians by Soviet and DRA soldiers.[287][288][289] Noor Ahmed Khalidi calculated that 876,825 Afghans were killed up until 1987.[48] Historian John W. Dower somewhat agrees with this estimate, citing 850,000 civilian fatalities, while the military fatalities "certainly totaled over 100,000".[290] Marek Sliwinski estimated the number of war deaths to be much higher, at a median of 1.25 million, or 9% of the entire pre-war Afghan population.[49] Scholars John Braithwaite and Ali Wardak accept this in their estimate of 1.2 million dead Afghans.[291] However, Siddieq Noorzoy presents an even higher figure of 1.71 million deaths during the Soviet-Afghan war.[292][293] Overall, between 6.5%–11.5% of Afghanistan's population is estimated to have perished in the war.[294] Anti-government forces were also responsible for some casualties. Rocket attacks on Kabul's residential areas caused more than 4,000 civilian deaths in 1987 according to the UN's Ermacora.[295]

Along with fatalities were 1.2 million Afghans disabled (mujahideen, government soldiers and noncombatants) and 3 million maimed or wounded (primarily noncombatants).[296]

A PFM-1 mine, often mistaken for a toy by children. The mine's shape was dictated by aerodynamics.[297]

The population of Afghanistan's second largest city, Kandahar, was reduced from 200,000 before the war to no more than 25,000 inhabitants, following a months-long campaign of carpet bombing and bulldozing by the Soviets and Afghan communist soldiers in 1987.[298] Land mines had killed 25,000 Afghans during the war and another 10–15 million land mines, most planted by Soviet and government forces, were left scattered throughout the countryside.[299] The International Committee of the Red Cross estimated in 1994 that it would take 4,300 years to remove all the Soviet land mines in Afghanistan.[300]

A great deal of damage was done to the civilian children population by land mines.[301] A 2005 report estimated 3–4% of the Afghan population were disabled due to Soviet and government land mines. In the city of Quetta, a survey of refugee women and children taken shortly after the Soviet withdrawal found child mortality at 31%, and over 80% of the children refugees to be unregistered. Of children who survived, 67% were severely malnourished, with malnutrition increasing with age.[302]

Critics of Soviet and Afghan government forces describe their effect on Afghan culture as working in three stages: first, the center of customary Afghan culture, Islam, was pushed aside; second, Soviet patterns of life, especially amongst the young, were imported; third, shared Afghan cultural characteristics were destroyed by the emphasis on so-called nationalities, with the outcome that the country was split into different ethnic groups, with no language, religion, or culture in common.[303]

The Geneva Accords of 1988, which ultimately led to the withdrawal of the Soviet forces in early 1989, left the Afghan government in ruins. The accords had failed to address adequately the issue of the post-occupation period and the future governance of Afghanistan. The assumption among most Western diplomats was that the Soviet-backed government in Kabul would soon collapse; however, this was not to happen for another three years. During this time the Interim Islamic Government of Afghanistan (IIGA) was established in exile. The exclusion of key groups such as refugees and Shias, combined with major disagreements between the different mujahideen factions, meant that the IIGA never succeeded in acting as a functional government.[304]

Before the war, Afghanistan was already one of the world's poorest nations. The prolonged conflict left Afghanistan ranked 170 out of 174 in the UNDP's Human Development Index, making Afghanistan one of the least developed countries in the world.[305]

Afghan guerrillas that were chosen to receive medical treatment in the United States, Norton Air Force Base, California, 1986

Once the Soviets withdrew, US interest in Afghanistan slowly decreased over the following four years, much of it administered through the DoD Office of Humanitarian Assistance, under the then Director of HA, George M. Dykes III. With the first years of the Clinton Administration in Washington, DC, all aid ceased. The US decided not to help with reconstruction of the country, instead handing the interests of the country over to US allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Pakistan quickly took advantage of this opportunity and forged relations with warlords and later the Taliban, to secure trade interests and routes. The ten years following the war saw much ecological and agrarian destruction—from wiping out the country's trees through logging practices, which has destroyed all but 2% of forest cover country-wide, to substantial uprooting of wild pistachio trees for the exportation of their roots for therapeutic uses, to opium agriculture.[306]

Captain Tarlan Eyvazov, a soldier in the Soviet forces during the war, stated that the Afghan children's future is destined for war. Eyvazov said, "Children born in Afghanistan at the start of the war... have been brought up in war conditions, this is their way of life." Eyvazov's theory was later strengthened when the Taliban movement developed and formed from orphans or refugee children who were forced by the Soviets to flee their homes and relocate their lives in Pakistan. The swift rise to power, from the young Taliban in 1996, was the result of the disorder and civil war that had warlords running wild because of the complete breakdown of law and order in Afghanistan after the departure of the Soviets.[307][308]

The CIA World Fact Book reported that as of 2004, Afghanistan still owed $8 billion in bilateral debt, mostly to Russia,[309] however, in 2007 Russia agreed to cancel most of the debt.[310]


5.5 million Afghans were made refugees by the war—a full one third of the country's pre-war population—fleeing the country to Pakistan or Iran.[199]

A total of 3.3 million Afghan refugees were housed in Pakistan by 1988, some of whom continue to live in the country up until today. Of this total, about 100,000 were based in the city of Peshawar, while more than 2 million were located in other parts of the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (then known as the North-West Frontier Province).[311][312] At the same time, close to two million Afghans were living in Iran. Over the years Pakistan and Iran have imposed tighter controls on refugees which have resulted in numerous returnees.[313][314] In 2012 Pakistan banned extensions of visas to foreigners.[312][315] Afghan refugees have also settled in India and became Indian citizens over time.[316][317][318] Some also made their way into North America, the European Union, Australia, and other parts of the world.[319] The photo of Sharbat Gula placed on National Geographic cover in 1985 became a symbol both of the 1980s Afghan conflict and of the refugee situation.

Effect on Afghan society

The legacy of the war introduced a culture of guns, drugs and terrorism in Afghanistan. The traditional power structure was also changed in favor of the powerful Mujahideen militias.[179]

“In present-day Afghanistan the groups of clergy, community elders, intelligentsia, and the military cannot be seen.”[179]

The war also altered the ethnicalbalance of power in the country. While Pashtuns were historically politically dominant since the modern foundation of the Durrani Empire in 1847, many of the well-organized pro-Mujahideen or pro-government groups consisted of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. With Pashtuns increasingly politically fragmented, their influence on the state was challenged.[320]


Weakening of the Soviet Union

According to scholars Rafael Reuveny and Aseem Prakash, the war contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union by undermining the image of the Red Army as invincible, undermining Soviet legitimacy, and by creating new forms of political participation.[citation needed]

The war created a cleavage between the party and the military in the Soviet Union, where the efficacy of using the Soviet military to maintain the USSR's overseas interests was now put in doubt. In the non-Russian republics, those interested in independence were emboldened by the army's defeat. In Russia the war created a cleavage between the party and the military, changing the perceptions of leaders about the ability to put down anti-Soviet resistance militarily (as it had in Czechoslovakia in 1968, Hungary in 1956, and East Germany in 1953). As the war was viewed as "a Soviet war fought by non Soviets against Afghans", outside of the Soviet Union it undermined the legitimacy of the Soviet Union as a trans-national political union. The war created new forms of political participation, in the form of new civil organizations of war veterans (Afghansti), which weakened the political hegemony of the communist party. It also started the transformation of the press and media, which continued under glasnost.[321]

Civil war

Two Soviet T-55 tanks left by the Soviet army during their withdrawal lie rusting in a field near Bagram Airfield, in 2002

The war did not end with the withdrawal of the Soviet Army. The Soviet Union left Afghanistan deep in winter, with intimations of panic among Kabul officials. The Afghan mujahideen were poised to attack provincial towns and cities and eventually Kabul, if necessary. General Secretary Mohammed Najibullah's government, though failing to win popular support, territory, or international recognition, was able to remain in power until 1992. Ironically, until demoralized by the defections of its senior officers, the Afghan Army had achieved a level of performance it had never reached under direct Soviet tutelage. Kabul had achieved a stalemate that exposed the mujahideen's weaknesses, political and military. But for nearly three years, while Najibullah's government successfully defended itself against mujahideen attacks, factions within the government had also developed connections with its opponents.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989 proposed a peace plan in cooperation with leader of Afghanistan, Mohammad Najibullah, for the joint cutoff of Soviet and American aid to the government and guerillas respectively, to result in a ceasefire and peace negotiations.[322] Najibullah sought American cooperation in achieving a political solution.[323] However the newly elected administration of George H. W. Bush rejected the plan, expecting to win the war through battle. Almost immediately after the Soviet withdrawal the mujahideen attacked the eastern city of Jalalabad in a plan instigated by Hamid Gul of Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI).[324] Both the Americans and Pakistanis expected for Jalalabad to rapidly fall to the guerillas and lead to a final victorious attack in Kabul.[322][325] The Afghan Army proved their capability without Soviet troops as they managed to restrain the mujahideen attack, resulting in a major defeat for the mujahideen.[324]

The victory at Jalalabad gave Najibullah's government confidence that it start a political solution, specifically one involving former communists and moderates from the opposition.[323] Along with the Afghan and Soviet governments, China also publicly said that it supports the creation "broad-based" government, and Iran also supporting a negotiated peaceful solution - both China and Iran being guerilla-backing countries. The United States and Pakistan though remained committed to a military solution. In addition, the Afghan government could claim that Jalalabad's bombardment, in which thousands of civilians lost their lives and much of the city damaged, was masterminded by the United States and Pakistan, using American weaponry.[322]

In December 1990, the United States and the Soviet Union came close to an agreement to end arms supplies to the sides in the civil war, but a date could not be agreed.[326] In two years after the Soviet withdrawal, the guerillas only gained one provincial capital, Tarinkot, and its surrender was arranged by local tribal leaders.[327] However, in March 1991,[328] the guerillas managed to win over a city for the first time: Khost, which was nicknamed "Little Russia" due to the city's high support of local communist officials.[329] However the guerillas were unable to fully defeat the Afghan Army as expected by the United States and Pakistan, and neither could the Najibullah government win on the battlefield.[330] This situation ended following the 1991 August Coup in the Soviet Union[330] - according to Russian publicist Andrey Karaulov, the main trigger for Najibullah losing power was Russia's refusal to sell oil products to Afghanistan in 1992 for political reasons (the new Boris Yeltsin government did not want to support the former communists), which effectively triggered an embargo.[citation needed] The defection of General Abdul Rashid Dostam and his Uzbek militia, in March 1992, further undermined Najibullah's control of the state.[citation needed] In April, Najibullah and his communist government fell to the mujahideen, who replaced Najibullah with a new governing council for the country.

Civil war continued when the former mujahideen guerillas, which were never under a united command during the period from 1979 to 1992, failed to create a functioning unity government in 1992. The civil war continued and about 400,000 Afghan civilians had lost their lives in the 1990s, eventually leading to Taliban rule.[331]

Grain production declined an average of 3.5% per year between 1978 and 1990 due to sustained fighting, instability in rural areas, prolonged drought, and deteriorated infrastructure.[332] Soviet efforts to disrupt production in rebel-dominated areas also contributed to this decline. During the withdrawal of Soviet troops, Afghanistan's natural gas fields were capped to prevent sabotage.[citation needed] Restoration of gas production has been hampered by internal strife and the disruption of traditional trading relationships following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Extremism and international terrorism

The Soviet strategy of "rubblization" returned the country to the Dark Ages, paving the way for a radicalization of the survivors (many of whom joined the now infamous Taliban movement) that would be realized in the decade after the Soviet departure in 1988.
Samuel Totten & Paul Bartrop[333]

Following the Soviet withdrawal, some of the foreign volunteers (including Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda)[334] and young Afghan refugees, went on to continue violent jihad in Afghanistan, Pakistan and abroad. Some of the thousands of Afghan Arabs who left Afghanistan went on to become "capable leaders, religious ideologues and military commanders," who played "vital roles" as insurgents or terrorists in places such as Algeria, Egypt, Bosnia and Chechnya.[335] Tens of thousands of Afghan refugee children in Pakistan were educated in madrassas "in a spirit of conservatism and religious rigor", and went on to fill the ranks and leadership of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Sipah-e-Sahaba in Pakistan. [336] The groups embodied new varieties of Political Islam – "Salafi jihadism" among the foreign volunteers,[334] and a "hybrid" Deobandi jihadism among the madrassa-educated.[336]

Afghanistan's General Secretary Najibullah, before his ouster by the mujahideen in 1992, told a visiting US academic that "Afghanistan in extremist hands would be a center of instability." It has been claimed that the chaos may have been avoided if the Bush administration was willing to support the Najibullah and Soviet proposals of a coalition government with the guerillas, instead of a total military solution. Najibullah also told the International Herald Tribune that "if fundamentalism comes to Afghanistan, war will continue for many years. Afghanistan will be turned into a center of terrorism."[323]

U.S. troops in 2011 conveying the Salang Pass during the War in Afghanistan, the route used by Soviet forces during the invasion 32 years prior

As many as 35,000 non-Afghan Muslim fighters went to Afghanistan between 1982 and 1992.[153] Thousands more came and did not fight but attended schools with "former and future fighters".[153] These "Afghan-Arabs" had a marginal impact on the jihad against the Soviets, but a much greater effect after the Soviets left and in other countries. (After the Soviets left, training continued and "tens of thousands" from "some 40 nations" came to prepare for armed insurrections "to bring the struggle back home".[337] )

The man instrumental not only in generating international support but also in inspiring these volunteers to travel to Afghanistan for the jihad was a Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood cleric, Abdullah Azzam. Touring the Muslim world and the United States, he inspired young Muslims with stories of miraculous deeds, such as mujahideen who defeated vast columns of Soviet troops virtually single-handedly, angels riding into battle on horseback, and falling bombs intercepted by birds.[338]

When back in the volunteer camps and training centers that he helped set up around Peshawar, Pakistan, Azzam exercised a "strong influence." [339] He preached the importance of jihad: "those who believe that Islam can flourish [and] be victorious without Jihad, fighting, and blood are deluded and have no understanding of the nature of this religion";[340] of not compromising: "Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences and no dialogues";[341] and that Afghanistan was only the beginning: jihad would "remain an individual obligation" for Muslims until all other formerly-Muslim lands—"Palestine, Bukhara, Lebanon, Chad, Eritrea, Somalia, the Philippines, Burma, South Yemen, Tashkent, Andalusia"—were reconquered. [342]

The volunteers also influenced each other. Many "unexpected" religious-political ideas resulted from the "cross-pollination" during the "great gathering" of Islamists from dozens of countries in the camps and training centers. [334] One in particular was a "variant of Islamist ideology based on armed struggle and extreme religious vigour", known as Salafi jihadism. [343]

When the Soviet Union fell shortly after their withdrawal from Afghanistan, the volunteers were "exultant",[344] believing that—in the words of Osama bin Laden—the credit for "the dissolution of the Soviet Union ... goes to God and the mujahideen in Afghanistan ... the US had no mentionable role,"[345] (Soviet economic troubles and United States aid to mujahideen notwithstanding). They eagerly sought to duplicate their jihad in other countries. [344]

Three such countries were Bosnia, Algeria and Egypt. In Bosnia the Salafi jihadist Afghan Arabs fought against Bosnian Serb and Croat militias but failed to establish a Salafi state. In Algeria and Egypt thousand of volunteers returned and fought but were even less successful.[346][347] In Algeria Salafi jihadist helped lead and fight for the GIA, deliberately killing thousands of civilians.[348] In Egypt the Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya killed more than a thousand people between 1990 and 1997 but also failed to overthrow the government.[348][349]

Spread of extremism in Pakistan

Among the approximately three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, thousands of children were educated in madrasa boarding schools financed by aid from the US and Gulf monarchies. Since that aid was distributed according to the conservative Islamist ideological criteria of Pakistan's President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and Saudi Arabia (and ignoring native Afghan traditions), the schools were part of networks of the favored Hizb-e-Islami party and the Pakistan Deobandi. [336][350] (Iran provided similar help to Shia Islamist groups and punishments to moderate Shia nationalist Afghans.[351])

Cut off from families and local traditions, the madrassa students were "educated to put Deobandi doctrines into action through obedience to the fatwas produced in the madrasses in a spirit of conservatism and religious rigor." As the Afghan students came of age, they formed "the mainstay" of the Taliban in Afghanistan and of the anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba Sunni terror group in Pakistan. But unlike the traditionally non-violent Deobandi, this "hybrid movement" embraced the violence of jihad, and unlike the Islamists of Hizb-e-Islami they were uninterested in "islamizing modernity" of western knowledge or in western knowledge at all. [352] The culture of religious purification, absolute obedience to leaders, and disinterest in anything else, is thought to explain the willingness of Hizb-e-Islami-trained soldiers to bombard Kabul with artillery and kill thousands of civilians, reassured by their commander that the civilians they killed would "be rewarded" in heaven if they were "good Muslims".[353] From 2008 to 2014 "thousands of Shia" have been killed by Sunni extremists according to Human Rights Watch.[354]

"Blowback" of the U.S.

Blowback, or unintended consequences of funding the mujahideen, was said to have come to the United States in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the September 11 attacks.[348] In the 1993 bombing, all of the participants in the bombing "either had served in Afghanistan or were linked to a Brooklyn-based fund-raising organ for the Afghan jihad" that was later "revealed to be al-Qaeda's de facto U.S. headquarters".[348] Principals in the 2001 attack—Osama Bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed[355] – had both fought in Afghanistan, and bin Laden was a lieutenant of Abdullah Azzam. His group al-Qaeda, returned to Afghanistan to take refuge with the Taliban after being expelled from Sudan.[348] Before the 9/11 attack, al-Qaeda had bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, and nearly sank the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000.[348] However, no direct U.S. aid to bin Laden or any of his affiliates has ever been established.[356]

Media and popular culture

Within Afghanistan, war rugs were a popular form of carpet designs woven by victims of the war.

Perception in Afghanistan

Afghans commemorating Mujahideen Victory Day in Kabul (2007)

The war has left a controversial legacy for Afghan people.[357] The Mujahideen Victory Day is an annual holiday in Afghanistan on April 28, however it is a controversial event to Afghans. On one hand Afghans honor the fighters and sacrifice made by the mujahideen to defeat a major power. Others view the victory as a prelude to the brutal 1990s civil war that divided the country politically and ethnically.[358]

Many Afghans see their victory in the war as a source of pride.[359] Atta Muhammad Nur, a former commander of the mujahideen, says that the war was a victory for Afghans but also the former Soviet bloc for bringing "freedom" to nations oppressed by Moscow. However other Afghans hold the view that subsequent infighting and the rise of the Taliban undermined the victory in the war.[360]

Role of the United States

Pro-mujahideen Afghans had seen the United States as the main power to help their cause in the Soviet–Afghan War. However, after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, a growing number of Afghans started blaming the United States for miseries. This was cited as a result of continued American arming and funding of rebels against the pro-Soviet administration in Kabul. Throughout 1989 and 1990, many rebel rocket attacks were fired, nowhere near military targets, that killed dozens of Afghan civilians.[361] Many Afghans also reportedly felt that the U.S. caused the rise of the Taliban following billions of dollars in funding for the rebels while leaving the country to Pakistan's hands after 1992. One Afghan ex-prisoner who was affiliated with the U.S. Embassy in Kabul told the Chicago Tribune in 2001:

Afghan people have good memories of the Americans. During the Russian invasion everybody knows that America helped us to get the Russians out. But when Russia collapsed, they had no more interest and they left us alone[362]

Perception in the former Soviet Union

20th Anniversary of Withdrawal of Soviet Military Forces from Afghanistan, stamp of Belarus, 2009

A meeting of Russian war veterans from Afghanistan, 1990

The war left a long legacy in the former Soviet Union and following its collapse. Along with losses, it brought physical disabilities and widespread drug addiction throughout the USSR.[363]

The remembrance of Soviet soldiers killed in Afghanistan and elsewhere internationally are commemorated annually on February 15 in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Veterans of the war are often referred to as афганцы (Afgantsy) in Russian.[364]

Russian Federation

Commemorating the intervention of December 25, 1979, in December 2009, veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan were honoured by the Duma or Parliament of the Russian Federation. On December 25, the lower house of the parliament defended the Soviet war in Afghanistan on the 30th anniversary of its start, and praised the veterans of the conflict. Differing assessments of the war "mustn't erode the Russian people's respect for the soldiers who honestly fulfilled their duty in implementing tasks to combat international terrorism and religious extremists".[365]

Duma member Semyon Bagdasarov (Just Russia) advocated that Russia had to reject Western calls for stronger assistance to the US-led ISAF-coalition in Afghanistan and also had to establish contacts with the "anti-Western forces"; the Taliban, in case they regain power.[366][367]

In November 2018, Russian lawmakers from United Russia and Communist parties jointly approved a draft resolution seeking to justify the Soviet–Afghan War as well as declare null and void the 1989 resolution passed by the Congress of People's Deputies of the Soviet Union which condemned the intervention. Communist lawmaker Nikolay Kharitonov hailed the decision as a victory for "historical truth".[368]


Memorial to soldiers located in Kolomyia, Ukraine

About 25 percent of Soviet servicemen in Afghanistan were Ukrainian, numbering 160,000 of which more than 3,000 died and dozens more went missing.[369]


The war affected many families in post-Soviet Uzbekistan who had lost children. Some 64,500 young men from the Uzbek SSR were drafted in the war. At least 1,522 were killed and more than 2,500 left disabled.[370] The former Uzbekistani president Islam Karimov described the Afghan war as a "major mistake" of the Soviet Union.[371]


The Soviet–Afghan War has caused grief in the memories of Belarusians, but apparently remains a topic rarely discussed in public. It remains the last war the nation took part in. 28,832 Belarusian natives were involved in the campaign and 732 died. Most casualties were under 20 years old.[363]

The Soviet invasion is considered by many Belarusians as a shameful act, and some veterans have refused to accept medals. Many veterans have had cold relations with the Belarusian regime of Alexander Lukashenko, accusing the government of depriving them of benefits. One Afghanistan veteran, Mikalaj Autukhovich, has been deemed a political prisoner by the present regime of Belarus.[363]


Around 12,500 residents of the Moldovan SSR served during the war. Of those, 301 Moldovans died in the war.[372] The Union of Veterans of the War in Afghanistan of the Republic of Moldova is a veteran's group based in Moldova that advocates for the well-being of veterans.[373] On May 15, 2000, after the Government's initiative to abolish benefits for veterans of the war in Afghanistan, sympathizers went to Great National Assembly Square. In 2001, the Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova, which came to power, radically changed the position of all veterans in the country.[374] February 15 is celebrated as the Day of Commemoration of those killed in the War in Afghanistan.[375] The main ceremony is held at the memorial "Sons of the Motherland - Eternal Memory".

See also



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    The Afghans are among the latest victims of genocide by a superpower. Large numbers of Afghans were killed to suppress resistance to the army of the Soviet Union, which wished to vindicate its client regime and realize its goal in Afghanistan.

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    While military operations in the country were going on, women were abducted. While flying in the country in search of mujahideen, helicopters would land in fields where women were spotted. While Afghan women do mainly domestic chores, they also work in fields assisting their husbands or performing tasks by themselves. The women were now exposed to the Soviets, who kidnapped them with helicopters. By November 1980 a number of such incidents had taken place in various parts of the country, including Laghman and Kama. In the city of Kabul, too, the Soviets kidnapped women, taking them away in tanks and other vehicles, especially after dark. Such incidents happened mainly in the areas of Darul Aman and Khair Khana, near the Soviet garrisons. At times such acts were committed even during the day. KhAD agents also did the same. Small groups of them would pick up young women in the streets, apparently to question them but in reality to satisfy their lust: in the name of security, they had the power to commit excesses.

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