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.

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.

Indeed, the Soviets had denied the coup leaders’ requests for combat assistance for several years (beginning prior to the coup) KGB Chief Yuri Andropov, in March 1979, told Politburo (the Communist political party executive committee) members that sending troops to Afghanistan would be fruitless because the country was illiterate and backward. “In such a situation, tanks and armored cars cannot save anything,” he said. The Soviets worried about the effects of an invasion on their international image, and on their prospects for good relations with the US, which they feared and relied upon for trade.

But the leaders in the Kremlin grossly overestimated the extent of US involvement in Afghanistan. They saw Afghanistan through the lens of the US-Soviet relationship: President Carter’s increasingly tough talk, the rise of the belligerent neoconservatives and presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, and new NATO missiles being introduced in Europe. The Soviets feared the US would establish bases or missiles in Afghanistan, surrounding the Soviet Union with weaponry.

Members of the Obama administration know well why the Soviets had reason to be paranoid. In his 1996 autobiography, “From the Shadows,” current Defense Secretary Robert Gates revealed that Carter authorized the CIA to begin covertly aiding the Islamist guerrillas several months before the Soviet invasion. National Security Adviser – and one time Obama adviser – Zbigniew Brzezinski, . has since said he hoped to draw the Soviets into Afghanistan, where they would face their own Vietnam War. The amount of US aid before the invasion was small – only several thousand dollars – but it was noticed by Soviet officials and criticized in the Soviet press. They fed into Soviet fears about US domination, and the suspicious Soviet minds took care of the rest.

Americans reacted to the invasion with fury. The US ambassador to Moscow was recalled, the 1980 Olympics in Moscow were boycotted by the US and other countries, bilateral contacts were reduced, and trade was shut down. The US funding to the Islamists in Afghanistan eventually became arguably the biggest covert operation in history, attracting jihadists from around the Middle East. US-Soviet relations deteriorated to their worst point since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

As Washington begins to deploy the 30,000 addition US troops to Afghanistan, Obama must consider Soviet mistakes: Attempting to conquer Afghanistan is folly.

Jordan Michael Smith is a writer based in Washington.


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