Cold War episode 21 – Soldiers of God 1975-1988 – Afghanistan is a war that costs the lives of almost 15,000 Soviet conscripts and an estimated one million Afghans. The turbulent conflict in Afghanistan that unfolded during the closing decades of the 20th century can be characterized as a tragic, costly war of significant global consequence. This fierce clash resulted in the untimely demise of nearly 15,000 Soviet conscripts, while the Afghan populace suffered even more heavily with an estimated one million lives extinguished. This theatre of war became an unlikely meeting ground for an unusual alliance, as the United States funneled a staggering amount of resources, amounting to billions of dollars, to arm Islamic fundamentalists—forces generally regarded as unconventional allies.
Echoes of previous conflicts were felt as this grueling confrontation bore a striking resemblance to the Vietnam War, relentlessly extracting a severe toll on Soviet forces. These adverse circumstances strained the Soviet Union, quickening the inevitable dissolution of the Cold War, a monumental global shift that held repercussions for every corner of the world.
The sparks that ignited this war trace back to the rise of Nur Mohammad Taraki, who ascended to power within the tumultuous political landscape of Afghanistan. Embracing Marxist-Leninist principles, Taraki ambitiously sought to modernize Afghanistan, an initiative that incited discord among the nation’s more traditional power structures. A rebellion began brewing, the likes of which had the potential to destabilize the entire nation.
Cold War episode 21 – Soldiers of God 1975-1988
Initially, the Soviet Union held reservations about militarily intervening in the rapidly deteriorating situation. This stance was soon to change in the wake of violent political upheaval, which saw Taraki brutally replaced by Hafizullah Amin. Perceived as a dangerously destabilizing figure, Amin’s ascension caused a shift in the Soviet stance.
In response, the Soviet Union undertook the daunting task of invading Afghanistan, plunging into a situation for which they were woefully unprepared. They found themselves confronted by a formidable army of mujahideen insurgents, a force bolstered in secret by the United States, who saw the unfolding conflict as an invaluable opportunity to debilitate the Soviet Union.
In order to navigate the rugged, inhospitable terrain of Afghanistan, the Soviets deployed helicopters—an effective strategy, until it was disrupted by the introduction of Stinger missiles. The harrowing course of the conflict was marred by numerous atrocities committed by both Soviet forces and mujahideen troops, tainting the landscape of the nation with the scars of war.
The eventual withdrawal of Soviet forces occurred under the stipulations of the Geneva Accords, marking the end of this chapter of the conflict. However, peace remained elusive for the war-torn nation. In the wake of the Soviet departure, rival mujahideen factions turned on each other, perpetuating the cycle of violence. A wide array of perspectives on this complex and tragic chapter of history is available, including insights from figures such as Caspar Weinberger, Artyom Borovik, and Zbigniew Brzezinski.
The Soviet–Afghan War: A Brief Overview
The Soviet–Afghan War was a long and bloody conflict that lasted from 1978 to 1992. It involved the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, and the resistance of various Afghan guerrilla groups, collectively known as the mujahideen. The war had far-reaching consequences for Afghanistan, the region, and the world.
The Origins of the War
The war began with a coup d’état in April 1978, when a group of communist officers overthrew the government of President Mohammad Daud Khan, who had himself seized power from his cousin, King Zahir Shah, in 1973. The new regime, led by Nur Mohammad Taraki and supported by the Soviet Union, embarked on a radical program of social and land reforms that alienated many segments of the conservative and religious Afghan society. The regime also faced opposition from former allies, such as Hafizullah Amin, who ousted and killed Taraki in September 1979.
The situation deteriorated rapidly as armed rebellions erupted across the country, especially in the rural areas where the majority of Afghans lived. The rebels, who were mostly Sunni Muslims of various ethnicities and political orientations, fought under the banner of Islam and sought to overthrow the communist government and expel the Soviet influence. They received financial and military assistance from several countries, notably Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United States, China, and Iran.
In December 1979, the Soviet Union intervened militarily to prop up the faltering regime of Amin, who was assassinated by Soviet special forces and replaced by Babrak Karmal, a leader of the Parcham faction of the ruling People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). The Soviets deployed about 115,000 troops at their peak and established bases and airfields throughout Afghanistan. They also provided weapons, training, and advisers to the Afghan army and security forces.
The Course of the War
The Soviet intervention sparked a fierce resistance from the mujahideen, who waged a guerrilla war against the invaders and their local allies. The mujahideen used hit-and-run tactics, ambushes, raids, sabotage, and mines to inflict heavy casualties on the Soviet forces and disrupt their supply lines. They also attacked government officials, infrastructure, and civilians who were seen as collaborators or sympathizers of the regime. The mujahideen operated from bases in Pakistan and Iran, where they also received training and sanctuary.
The war became a stalemate as neither side could achieve a decisive victory. The Soviets failed to pacify the country or defeat the mujahideen despite their superior firepower and technology. The mujahideen failed to capture any major city or overthrow the regime despite their popular support and foreign aid. The war took a heavy toll on both sides and on the Afghan population, who suffered from widespread death, displacement, destruction, famine, disease, and human rights violations.
The war also had regional and global implications as it became a proxy battleground for the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. It also contributed to the rise of Islamic extremism and terrorism as some of the mujahideen factions adopted radical ideologies and formed alliances with groups such as al-Qaeda. It also destabilized neighboring countries such as Pakistan and Iran, which faced refugee influxes, sectarian violence, drug trafficking, and border disputes.
The war ended with the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in February 1989, following an agreement signed in Geneva in 1988 between Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Soviet Union, and the United States. The agreement called for an end to foreign interference in Afghanistan’s affairs, a cessation of hostilities between the Afghan parties, and a voluntary return of refugees. However, it did not address the political future of Afghanistan or the role of the mujahideen.
The withdrawal of Soviet troops left a power vacuum in Afghanistan that was filled by a civil war among various mujahideen factions. The PDPA regime survived until 1992 when it collapsed after its leader Najibullah was ousted by a coalition of mujahideen groups led by Ahmad Shah Massoud. However, this coalition soon broke down into infighting over control of Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan. The civil war continued until 1996 when a new force emerged: the Taliban.