Invasion of Afghanistan

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

On December 25, 1979, Soviet troops entered the territory of the socialist republic of Afghanistan at the invitation of the present government. Its leader, Hafizullah Amin, who had taken power by executing his predecessor, Nur Mohammad Taraki, was now himself executed by Babrak Karmal, a new Soviet-installed leader flown in directly from the Soviet Union. In retrospect, it was not a wise decision. Taraki had taken power in April 1978, when army officers had ousted an non-aligned government that had itself ousted the monarchy in 1975. Headed by Taraki, this regime was friendly to the Soviet Union, and pursued secularist reforms similar to those once implemented in Soviet Central Asia, including secular education, equal rights for women, land reforms, and other administrative reforms. Internal frictions led to Taraki’s ouster soon after he had won the support of Leonid Brezhnev, leaving the Soviet leader feeling betrayed. The invasion, or “exertion of fraternal aid” in classic Soviet parlance, was a chance to square accounts. Though justified by the terms of the 1978 Treaty of Friendship between the two countries, and undertaken “in defense of the gains of the revolution,” the invasion did not account for underlying causes.

Characteristic of foreign policy decisions in the late Brezhnev-era were the small circle of advisors consulted, the overly personal approach taken by Brezhnev and his closest associates, and the reliance on raw power over nuanced understanding. Though firmly in power by dint of armed superiority and Soviet support, the Afghan Communist Party was riddled with factions and had little support from the population. Islamic resistance first aroused by the Taraki reforms was organized and capable of small-scale armed resistance by the time of the invasion. Although unable to engage Soviet troops in open battle, resistance fighters who called themselves mujahideen used the mountainous terrain to their advantage in guerrilla warfare. Soon they united inside Afghanistan and across the Pakistani border in Peshawar to resist the invaders and the Soviet-backed Afghan Army. The “temporary” conflict would continue for ten years, ending in Soviet withdrawal.

The war, fueled by and fueler of Cold War anxieties, operated on the law of unintended consequences. Plans for a minor palace coup did not consider the possibility of a long-term war between peoples. The Soviet government was forced to increase the size of its armed forces and to draft more young man into the line of fire. Tens of thousands of them returned home in body bags or disfigured by modern weaponry. The war provided a divisive issue right when the dissident movement was at its peak, and diverted funding from the stagnant civilian economy as it ground to a halt. It destroyed the already ailing relationship with the western nations, and undermined Soviet relations with the Third World. Following the bizarre logic of the Cold War, in which the enemy of my enemy is my friend, it caused the United States, recently rocked by the Islamic revolution in Iran, to become an ardent supporter and arms supplying to the Islamic revolt in Afghanistan.

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