Foreign Policy Essay
The Soviet Experience in Afghanistan: Getting History Right
Editor’s Note: President Trump's justification of his foreign policy often draws on bizarre theories and bad history. One of the worst recent instances was his claim that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan because of terrorism. This is wrong, but it raises the question of why Moscow did invade. Seth Jones of CSIS dissects Trump's claim and, drawing on Soviet archives, lays out the rationale behind Moscow's decisions.
In discussing the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan at a cabinet meeting on January 2, 2019, President Donald Trump drew a parallel between the U.S. war in Afghanistan and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. “The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia,” he said. “They were right to be there.” President Trump went on to say that the war in Afghanistan helped trigger the collapse of the Soviet Union. “The problem is it was a tough fight,” he said. “And literally, they went bankrupt. They went into being called Russia again, as opposed to the Soviet Union.” The public outcry was immediate and animated. In an editorial titled “Trump’s Cracked Afghan History,” the Wall Street Journal responded caustically: “Right to be there? We cannot recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American President … The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a defining event in the Cold War, making clear to all serious people the reality of the communist Kremlin’s threat.”
What are we to make of this debate? Why did the Soviets invade Afghanistan? Soviet archives and other evidence indicate that the Soviet leaders were primarily motivated not by terrorism, but by balance-of-power politics, particularly concerns about growing U.S. influence in Afghanistan. In addition, the Soviets withdrew military forces primarily for domestic political reasons, not because they were bankrupt. Nor did the Soviet Union collapse because of the war in Afghanistan. When history helps guide policy, it is important to get the history right.
To understand Soviet concerns about Afghanistan, it is helpful to go back to 1973, six years before the Soviet invasion. On July 16, 1973, Muhammad Daoud Khan overthrew King Zahir Shah, who had ruled the country since 1933, in a coup d’état. Moscow, which had been providing military aid to Afghanistan since at least 1955, grew increasingly alarmed about instability in Afghanistan. In April 1978, Daoud was assassinated during a coup led by Nur Mohammad Taraki, further increasing Soviet fears about their southern flank.
The next year, it was Washington’s turn to become alarmed after its ambassador to Afghanistan, Adolf Dubs, was kidnapped by armed extremists posing as police. When Afghan security forces attempted to rescue him, Dubs was shot and killed. President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, blamed the incident on “either Soviet ineptitude or collusion.”
Afghanistan headed toward the abyss. Demonstrations erupted in cities like Herat, and, as one top-secret Soviet assessment concluded, key parts of the Afghan Army “essentially collapsed.” In June 1979, there was yet another coup, as Taraki was replaced by Hafizullah Amin. This was the last straw for Moscow. As the Soviet archives indicate, Moscow’s leaders believed that Amin was growing too close to Washington. A top-secret report to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev warned: “It is known, in particular, that representatives of the USA, on the basis of their contacts with the Afghans, are coming to a conclusion about the possibility of a change in the political line of Afghanistan in a direction which is pleasing to Washington.” The KGB came to similar conclusions and assessed that Amin would likely turn to Washington for aid.
On December 8, 1979, Brezhnev hosted a meeting with several trusted Politburo members, including ideologist Mikhail Suslov, KGB head Yuri Andropov, Defense Minister Dmitriy Ustinov, and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. Andropov and Ustinov argued that Washington was trying to expand its influence in Afghanistan. The group tentatively agreed to direct the KGB to remove Amin and replace him with the Babrak Karmal. They also deliberated about sending Soviet troops to Afghanistan. On December 12, Brezhnev, Suslov, Andropov, Ustinov, and Gromyko met again. The group assessed that the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan threatened the security of the Soviet Union’s southern borders, which the United States and other countries could take advantage of by aiding the Afghan regime. In addition, Afghanistan could become a future U.S. forward operating base situated in the Soviet Union’s “soft underbelly” in Central Asia.
On Christmas Eve 1979, elite Soviet forces began flying into Kabul airport and the military airbase at Bagram. The 357th and 66th Motorized Rifle Divisions of the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan from Turkmenistan and began advancing south along the main highway. The 360th and 201st Motorized Rifle Divisions crossed the Amu Darya River from Uzbekistan.
The Soviet invasion created an immediate global uproar. In response, over five dozen countries—including the United States—boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics, which were held in Moscow. The Soviet invasion increased already-high tensions between Washington and Moscow.
Terrorism had nothing to do with all this. While Soviet leaders were concerned about “religious fanatics” that were involved in Afghan protests, the Soviets were overwhelmingly worried about U.S. power and influence. To argue that the Soviets were “right to be there,” as President Trump remarked, is either to misunderstand Cold War history or, even worse, to legitimize Brezhnev’s cold-blooded, anti-U.S. strategic rationale for invading Afghanistan.
In response to the Soviet invasion, the United States conducted one of its most successful covert action programs during the Cold War. U.S. aid to the Afghan mujahideen began at a relatively low level under Carter, but then increased as the prospect of a Soviet defeat appeared more likely. The CIA provided about $60 million per year to the Afghan mujahideen between 1981 and 1983, which was matched by assistance from the Saudi government. Beginning in 1985, the United States increased its support to the Afghans to $250 million per year, thanks to U.S. Congressman Charlie Wilson, CIA Director William Casey, and growing support from within the United States. This shift culminated in National Security Directive 166, which was signed by President Ronald Reagan and set a clear U.S. objective in Afghanistan: push the Soviets out. The CIA provided cash, weapons, technical advice on weapons and explosives, intelligence, and technology like wireless interception equipment.
By the mid-1980s, Soviet leaders had enough. The historical evidence shows that Moscow’s decision to withdraw its forces came over half a decade before the collapse of the Soviet Union and centered on domestic concerns. While early Soviet assessments of the war in Afghanistan were hopeful, they eventually turned gloomy. At a Politburo meeting on October 17, 1985, Gorbachev read letters from Soviet citizens expressing growing dissatisfaction with the war in Afghanistan—including “mothers’ grief over the dead and the crippled” and “heart-wrenching descriptions of funerals.” For Gorbachev, the Soviet withdrawal was primarily about domestic politics. The downsides—including in blood—were too high and now outweighed any geostrategic benefits. Over the course of the war, nearly 15,000 Soviet soldiers were killed and another 35,000 wounded.
On April 14, 1988, the Soviets signed the Geneva Accords, which were designed to “promote good-neighborliness and co-operation as well as to strengthen international peace and security in the region.” As part of the accords, the Soviets promised to withdraw their forces from Afghanistan. On February 15, 1989, the last Red Army units crossed the Termez Bridge into the Soviet Union, ending what Gorbachev had referred to as a “bleeding wound.”
Almost two years later, in December 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and the hammer and sickle flag was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin. The Soviet Union crumbled because of a complex set of reasons that included: political and ideological factors, including years of relentless suppression of political opposition followed by Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring); economic challenges from a state-run economy; military factors, including the country’s exorbitant defense spending; and social factors like endemic corruption and the desire of ethnic communities in Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Western republics, and the Baltics to become independent. The war in Afghanistan was not a primary cause of the Soviet collapse, though it was an example of Moscow’s military overreach. Nor will the United States suffer a similar fate today because of its involvement in Afghanistan. It is foolish to compare the two countries on this basis.
As the United States weighs the costs and benefits of withdrawing from Afghanistan, it is important to examine the Soviet experience—including the many differences. The United States went into Afghanistan in 2001 following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. At the time, al-Qaeda was headquartered in Afghanistan with the aid of the Taliban. There was substantial global support for the U.S. campaign, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization invoked Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. Today, terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State operate in Afghanistan, making a complete U.S. withdrawal risky without a viable political settlement or further weakening of terrorist and insurgent groups.
The Soviet Union, on the other hand, invaded Afghanistan because of inflated concerns about U.S. meddling. As Graham Fuller, the CIA’s chief of station in the late 1970s, told me, “I would have been thrilled to have those kinds of contacts with Amin, but they didn’t exist.” The Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion was roundly condemned by world leaders. Instead of countering U.S. influence in the region, the Soviet invasion had the opposite effect: It led to an increase in U.S. involvement. As Soviet leaders realized by the mid-1980s, a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan would likely trigger a U.S. withdrawal from the region—which it did.
In addition, the war in Afghanistan did not cause the collapse of the Soviet Union. Instead, Moscow’s ideology and system failed. As President Reagan predicted nearly a decade before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, democracy would “leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history.” It did. If President Trump was attempting to draw parallels between the Soviets going “bankrupt” because of Afghanistan and the U.S. experience today, it is a misplaced analogy. The Soviets did not go bankrupt because of Afghanistan. Nor will the United States today.
As the recent firestorm following President Trump’s remarks should remind us, getting history right is imperative. But getting history wrong is dangerous and ultimately counterproductive if the United States wants to make informed policy decisions.