What the Soviets learned in Afghanistan about assumptions
As the US escalates a new war in Afghanistan, it should consider how easy it is to mistake desperation for aggression.
Thirty years ago today, on Dec. 24, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The United States saw the invasion as unmistakable evidence that the Soviets were committed to aggression in the Middle East and the Third World. It was “the greatest threat to peace since the Second World War,” President Jimmy Carter announced.Skip to next paragraph
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But archival documents released since the cold war’s end show that the Soviet’s actions were defensive, not offensive. The Soviets had sincere, albeit highly exaggerated, concerns about US involvement in Afghanistan.
Far from intending to use Afghanistan as a trampoline from which to jump to conquer nearby countries, the Soviets were reluctant to invade the economically backward, illiterate Islamic nation. But the US misinterpreted the Soviet invasion, and as a result overinflated its dangers and overreacted to its occurrence. A dangerous new phase in the cold war began – one that didn’t end until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. The Soviets didn’t withdraw until 1989, after 10 years of war had claimed the lives of some 1 million Afghans and 13,000 Soviet soldiers.
None of this is to say the invasion was justified or benign – it wasn’t. But as the US escalates a new war in Afghanistan, it should ponder how easy it is to mistake desperation for aggression, and the costs of a prolonged war in a foreign land. The Soviets learned the hard way in Afghanistan.
As a country bordering the Soviet Union, Afghanistan was a natural security concern for the Soviets. For decades it had been a solid ally, but the 1978 communist coup in Afghanistan was being jeopardized by an Islamist insurgency, supported by the United States. Even more dangerous for the Soviets, after Moscow kept its distance from the coup leaders, the Afghan leaders began making overtures to the US. “[I]f we lose Afghanistan now and it turns against the Soviet Union, this will result in a sharp setback to our foreign policy,” Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko argued.
Transcripts of conversations at the time between Soviet officials show that there was no discussion of strategic advantages to be accrued from the invasion, no mention of access to warm-water ports or to Persian Gulf energy, as American officials assumed. “You were thinking that we were going to seize the Middle East oil fields; we were thinking that you wanted to press us military – to force us into a new arms race, and to press us from a position of strength,” Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin said at a 1995 conference on the invasion.