The Soviet War in Afghanistan, 1979 - 1989

Nearly twenty-five years ago, the Soviet Union pulled its last troops out of Afghanistan, ending more than nine years of direct involvement and occupation. The USSR entered neighboring Afghanistan in 1979, attempting to shore up the newly-established pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. In short order, nearly 100,000 Soviet soldiers took control of major cities and highways.

The rebellion was swift and broad, and the Soviets dealt harshly with the Mujahideen rebels and those who supported them, leveling entire villages to deny safe havens to their enemy. Foreign support propped up the diverse group of rebels, pouring in from Iran, Pakistan, China, and the United States. In the brutal nine-year conflict, an estimated one million civilians were killed, as well as 90,000 Mujahideen fighters, 18,000 Afghan troops, and 14,500 Soviet soldiers.

Civil war raged after the withdrawal, setting the stage for the Taliban's takeover of the country in 1996. As NATO troops move toward their final withdrawal this year, Afghans worry about what will come next, and Russian involvement in neighboring Ukraine's rebellion has the world's attention, it is worth looking back at the Soviet-Afghan conflict that ended a quarter-century ago. Today's entry is part of the ongoing series here on Afghanistan.

On December 27th, 1979, Amin was shot by the Russians and he was replaced by Babrak Kamal. His position as head of the Afghan government depended entirely on the fact that he needed Russian military support to keep him in power. Many Afghan soldiers had deserted to the Mujahideen and the Kamal government needed 85,000 Russian soldiers to keep him in power.

The Mujahideen proved to be a formidable opponent. They were equipped with old rifles but had a knowledge of the mountains around Kabal and the weather conditions that would be encountered there. The Russians resorted to using napalm, poison gas and helicopter gunships against the Mujahideen – but they experienced exactly the same military scenario the Americans had done in Vietnam.

By 1982, the Mujahideen controlled 75% of Afghanistan despite fighting the might of the world’s second most powerful military power. Young conscript Russian soldiers were no match for men fuelled by their religious belief. Though the Russian army had a reputation, the war in Afghanistan showed the world just how poor it was outside of military displays.

Army boots lasted no more than 10 days before falling to bits in the harsh environment of the Afghanistan mountains. Many Russian soldiers deserted to the Mujahideen. Russian tanks were of little use in the mountain passes

The United Nations had condemned the invasion as early as January 1980 but a Security Council motion calling for the withdrawal of Russian forces had been vetoed……by Russia.

America put a ban on the export of grain to Russia, ended the SALT talks taking place then and boycotted the Olympic Games due to be held in Moscow in 1980. Other than that, America did nothing. Why? They knew that Russia had got itself into their own Vietnam and it also provided American Intelligence with an opportunity to acquire any new Russian military hardware that could be used in Afghanistan. Mujahideen fighters were given access to American surface-to-air missiles – though not through direct sales by America.

Mikhail Gorbachev took Russia out of the Afghanistan fiasco when he realized what many Russian leaders had been too scared to admit in public – that Russia could not win the war and the cost of maintaining such a vast force in Afghanistan was crippling Russia’s already weak economy.

By the end of the 1980’s, the Mujahideen was at war with itself in Afghanistan with hard-line Taliban fighters taking a stronger grip over the whole nation and imposing very strict Muslim law on the Afghanistan population.


Afghanistan is overwhelmingly Muslim (99 percent), and Islam is the second largest religion in Russia, with around fifteen to twenty million adherents in the country, or ten to fifteen percent of the population. But these demographic details have a minimum bearing on the relations between the two countries. Most Russian Muslims live in the North Caucasus and Middle Volga Regions. Russia and Afghanistan also share sizeable Turkic ethnic minorities, such as the Uzbeks and Turkmen


In December 1979, in the midst of the Cold War, the Soviet 40th Army invaded Afghanistan in order to prop up the communist government of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) against a growing insurgency. At the time, the United States had been making headway in the Middle East at Moscow’s expense, successfully courting Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and others. The Soviet Union feared the loss of its communist proxy in Afghanistan.

Thus, over the course of the 1980's, the Soviet Union poured in billions of dollars (US) into the war in Afghanistan, and at its peak, more than 100,000 Soviet soldiers were fighting in the country. However, the Afghan resistance (the mujahideen) was heavily supported by a wide variety of international actors, including the US, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, and Egypt.

In the end, the mujahideen prevailed and the Soviet Army was forced to withdraw from Afghanistan in February 1989, having lost tens of thousands killed and wounded. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow continued to supply and arm the communist regime of Dr. Najibullah, but this was not enough, and Kabul fell to the mujahideen in 1992.

The different mujahideen factions could not agree on how to share power, and the country quickly descended into a bloody civil war. In 1994, a movement of Pashtun fundamentalist students most of whom were trained in madrasas (religious schools) in the refugee camps in Pakistan seized Kandahar and started a campaign to wrest the country from the hands of the warlords.

Known as the Taliban, this force marched into Kabul in 1996 and took control of most of the rest of the country by 1998. Many mujahideen warlords were forced to flee to the north, where they joined the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan or Northern Alliance, led by Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Massoud.

Even though Rabbani and Massoud’s Jamiat-e Islami was one of the main mujahideen factions responsible for the defeat of the Soviet Army during the 1980s, Moscow decided to lend its support to the Northern Alliance, as did Iran, India, and others. Russia did not want to see a fundamentalist state emerge in Afghanistan. More importantly, the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies were providing training and sanctuary to Chechen rebels, Central Asian militants, and others whom Moscow deemed as a threat.

Russia did not take part in the U.S.-led invasion to overthrow the Taliban in 2001, but Moscow shared intelligence with Washington during the invasion. Russia has also allowed the U.S.-led coalition to send logistical and military supplies through Russian territory, and Moscow has been a major arms supplier to the Afghan

Moscow fears the rise of Islamic extremism among Russia’s substantial Muslim population, in addition to separatist movements among certain ethnic groups, particularly the Chechens. The Kremlin views these forces as a severe threat to the state, and thus it willingly supported the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban—a movement which had provided aid to these groups.

Moscow has also used its participation in America’s “War on Terror” as an excuse for heavy-handedness in its crackdown on Islamist and separatist movements in Chechnya and elsewhere.

Outside its borders, Russia is concerned about the growth of Islamism and terrorism in its traditional sphere of influence or “near abroad”—the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Many militants from these areas have significant ties to the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or other groups in Afghanistan, and therefore Russia does not want to see a Taliban comeback in Kabul or a failed state emerge in Afghanistan.

While the Kremlin may disapprove of NATO’s presence along its southern frontier, it does not want to see Afghanistan become a safe haven for a separatist, terrorist, or Islamist forces.



Russia has always been suspicious of the former anti-Soviet alliance, especially as many of its former satellite states in Eastern Europe and the Balkans accede to the North Atlantic Treaty. Unsurprisingly, Moscow is wary of the presence of so many NATO and US troops along its southern frontier. Russia supported the overthrow of the Taliban and wanted to see a stable government emerge in Kabul.

It allowed the US and its partners to set up bases in its “near abroad” in Central Asia—Uzbekistan and later Kyrgyzstan—and allowed for the transport of supplies through Russian territory


However, in recent years, Russia has shifted its policy towards its “near abroad,” seeking a more assertive role in the former Soviet territories, including the Central Asian states, Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic states. In February 2009, the Kyrgyz government announced that it would close the US airbase at Manas, a decision largely seen as a quid pro quo for the multi-billion dollar Russian aid package previously promised to Kyrgyzstan. It comes at a critical time for the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan, as growing unrest in Pakistan has put the eastern supply route—through which 75 percent of coalition supplies travel—in jeopardy.

The coalition has therefore begun looking into alternate supply routes in Central Asia: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. (Iran refused to allow NATO supplies to be transported through its territory.) Moscow has seized the opportunity and has volunteered to transport more coalition supplies through Russia.

This increased dependence on Russia would give Moscow more power in its dealings with NATO and greater leverage on issues such as the US’s proposed missile defense shield, the Iranian nuclear program, and the Kremlin’s increasingly aggressive moves in its “near abroad”—Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.

Economic Interests

Economic Aid, Trade, and Investment

Moscow has not contributed much monetarily to Afghanistan’s reconstruction. However, Russia has delivered both military and humanitarian aid, and the Kremlin did decide to cancel 90 percent of Afghanistan’s debt (worth US$ ten billion), most of which consisted of military sales to the PDPA regime during the 1970's and 1980's. Russia continues to be a major arms supplier to Kabul,

Although most of the weapons and equipment is being purchased with U.S. money. Russian companies, including state-owned enterprises, have invested in Afghanistan, often winning lucrative contracts.

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