Why Did the Soviet Union Enter Afghanistan in 1979?
It is very common among Western historians that the former USSR invaded Afghanistan in its long-term strategy to reach the warm-water ports of Iran and Pakistan. It is all crap; the real question to ask is why did the Soviet Union take so long to enter Afghanistan, which historically had been recognised as an outer security parameter of the Soviet Union.
This essay tries to dispel this myth and explain the reasons for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, i.e., the complex nature of decision-making in the Politburo- the highest policy/ decision-making body of the USSR at that time.
On December 25, 1979, the 40th Army of the Soviet Union entered her neighbouring country, Afghanistan, to prop up the government of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). PDPA, a steadfast ally of the Soviet Union, was facing an existential threat from a bloody insurgency, apparently home-grown but covertly sponsored by the arch-rival of the USSR, namely the USA in the heydays of the Cold War. Over the next decade, the Soviet Union poured in billions of dollars and more than 115,000 Soviet soldiers in this quagmire.
However, after losing more than 15,000 of her soldiers, the Soviet Army was forced to withdraw from Afghanistan in February 1989 because of her deteriorating domestic economic situation and political compulsions in the face of tough resistance by the foreign-trained and funded Mujahedeen. It was the Soviet Union’s final foreign military intervention before her eventual dissolution in 1991, which ended the Cold War raging between two ideological blocks since the Bolshevik Revolution. For Francis Fukuyama and his fans, it was the End of History while for Huntingdon and others, this cataclysmic event was the harbinger of a bigger clash at a higher level of civilisations.
Why did the Soviet Union enter Afghanistan?
It is very common among Western historians that the Soviet Union was just implementing the 15th-century deathbed wishes of Peter the Great to go for warm waters, meaning thereby extending the frontiers of the Russian Empire to the coast of the Arabian Sea. This was the meat of the so-called ‘Great Game’ waged in the novels by the English writers and the memos of the British Indian officers.
Yes, the Russian Empire had been extending its boundaries since its founding in the 14th century; however, Afghanistan was an off-limit to the Soviet Union as it was considered to be a buffer zone for successive Russian rulers. Yes, they had their security reservations, but never an intention to absorb it as one of their republics. It was poor, underdeveloped, and Muslim, a drain on their economy, difficult to govern, and a potential source of creating trouble for their already restive and burgeoning Muslim population. For ascertaining the real reasons, the casus belli, of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, we will have to start a bit earlier.
After realising that defeat was imminent in Vietnam, Americans started hatching plans to take revenge on the Soviet Union for this humiliation soon after the 1975 fiasco. For this purpose, they decided to lure the USSR into its soft belly, namely Afghanistan, and make it the killing field for the Soviet forces.
They were lucky.
In 1973, Sardar Daood came into power in Afghanistan after removing King Zahir Shah, blaming him, among others, for being soft on Pakistan. He, therefore, escalated the efforts to destabilise Pakistan which had just suffered its bifurcation. ZA Bhutto decided to pay him in the same coin and started arming, financing, and training Afghan dissidents under the command of Gulbadin Hikmat Yar and Rasool Siaf. They carried out an extremely successful campaign, forcing Sardar Dawood to come to terms with Bhutto. He visited Pakistan and reconciled with Bhutto who in turn visited Kabul.
CIA which was tasked to destabilise Afghanistan to such an extent that the USSR could be forced to intervene to save its soft belly requested Bhutto to use these Mujahedeen for this purpose. However, realising the destabilising impact of such an adventure in the region, Z A Bhutto refused to cooperate. Henry Kissinger specially came to Pakistan to convince him, but Bhutto’s refusal to go along with the American scheme cost him his life later on. After installing General Zia, a thorough-bred Quisling, in Pakistan, the CIA redoubled its efforts to destabilise the Afghan government under the operation codenamed Cyclone.
Although Operation Cyclone of CIA to topple the Soviet Union-backed Afghan government was launched after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, efforts to destabilise the Soviet-backed Afghan government started long before. In his autobiography (From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War) Robert Gates states that the CIA had got involved in Afghanistan to cause a Russian invasion, “sucking the Soviets into a Vietnamese quagmire”.
During a 1998 interview National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski said “We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.” and:
“What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”
Afghanistan was already in turmoil for quite some time for one reason or another. The global economic recession caused by two successive oil price hikes in the 1970s had been biting the common man, who was frustrated with the economic and political management of the country. The scale and speed of modernisation were hitting the traditional elite of Afghanistan, who were inciting the public in the name of Islam.
With each passing day, the situation in Afghanistan started getting out of hand. In February 1979, Afghan President Hafiz asked for Russian help to quell the insurgency. Although the Soviet Union did not want to see a fundamentalist state emerge in Afghanistan and should have sent in its forces immediately, it took nearly 10 months to accede to this request of the Afghan government.
Thus, the real question to ask is not why the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The real question is why the Soviet Union took so long to enter Afghanistan, which historically had been recognised as the outer security parameter of the Soviet Union. The reason for this reluctance on the part of the Soviet Union to intervene aggressively lies in the complex nature of decision-making in the Politburo, the highest policy/ decision-making body of the USSR at that time.
Soviet Politburo was divided into two groups. One group led by Cherenkov and his other hawkish colleagues was in favour of immediate intervention in Afghanistan. They were genuinely concerned about the rising militancy among the sizeable Muslim population living within the borders of the Soviet Union. There were many reasons for this socioeconomic alienation of Soviet Muslims ranging from their inherent tendency to resist absorption in a society dominated by non-Muslims to historical legacies of deprivation reinforced by the inequitable public policy choices of the ruling elites. Whatever the reason, Cherenkov, and his colleagues feared that if Afghanistan went for an Islamic government, it would have serious repercussions for the security of the Soviet Union in the long run.
On the other hand, the opposing group led by Gromyko was aware of the American schemes and did not want USSR to undertake an adventure that, besides being a very costly affair in terms of financial and human costs, would have no end. They were willing to increase the number of advisors and the scale of military assistance but were reluctant to commit boots on grounds of obvious geopolitical implications and wanted the Afghan government to control the situation domestically.
The Soviet Union might have entered Afghanistan or at least waited a few more years, but three geopolitical developments of the 1970s were instrumental in their decision to enter Afghanistan.
- During the 1970s, the Soviet Union had lost a lot of its friends in the Middle East as its arch-rival United States had been successfully courting several countries strategically important to USSR. While Israel and Saudi Arabia were traditional American allies, the loss of Egypt was a great loss for the Soviet Union.
- Coming into the power of Western-leaning devout Muslim General Zia in Pakistan with American blessing was a worrisome development for USSR as all her efforts to woo this strategically significant country were wasted.
- In these circumstances, the Iranian Revolution in February 1979 changed the complexion; the Soviet Union genuinely feared that Afghanistan would be the next domino to fall, and with it the PDPA, her communist proxy in neighbouring Afghanistan.
No superpower can afford to be poked at her soft belly whether it is Tibet or Sri Lanka, Latin America or Yemen. Every country has its version of the Monroe Doctrine! The die had been cast; the Soviet Union fell for the trap meticulously prepared by the CIA and entered the killing fields of Afghanistan on Christmas day of 1979- a desperate attempt by a superpower of the time to secure her soft belly which was under threat from another superpower.
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From the e-book “International Relations; Basic Concepts & Global Issues- A Handbook”, published by Amazon and available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08QZSRWT1