I was pretty excited to see the Soviet–Afghan War in the event timeline for this week. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has always interested me and this made the perfect excuse to do some more research about it. What I found especially interesting was the similarities that this war had with the Vietnam war. I want to draw some comparisons between the two and then end with the effect that the Soviet-Afghan War had on the fall of the Soviet Union.
Afghanistan shared its southern border with multiple republics of the Soviet Union including Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and what is modern day Tajikistan. This being said, the Soviet Union thought it would be easy to support another communist government in Afghanistan due to its location. At the same time, the U.S. was gaining the support and creating allies with Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and other countries in the surrounding region. The Soviet Union was under massive pressure to not only preserve but also expand their influence in the Middle East and Southern Asia (Russia). I find this to be the first similarity between the Vietnam War and the Soviet-Afghan War. The U.S. was trying to stop the spread of communism and promote western democracy in Vietnam while the Soviet Union was trying to promote the spread of communism and stop the spread of western influence. Both were two major powers trying to promote their ideals in a smaller country and its surrounding region. I see this as the two sides to the same coin.
Nur Mohammad Taraki is a key player in the attempt to put Afghanistan under Soviet control. Taraki was a Afghani politician who helped create the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). This party had ties to Marxism and was heavily supported by the Soviet Union. Taraki gained the full support of the PDPA after a short division involving a coup by Mohammad Daud Khan, who gained the position of President in 1973. In 1977, Taraki used his growing support in the PDPA and help from soviet-trained army units to overthrow Khan and claim the titles of both President and Prime minister. However, Taraki quickly fell victim to civil unrest due to his extreme Marxist views concerning social reforms. An up and coming deputy prime minister, Hafizullah Amin, was also gaining back support in the PDPA. Taraki was stiff armed into naming Amin the Prime minister while he kept the position of President (Editors, July).
In 1979, it is rumored that Taraki was advised by Leonid I. Brezhnev to kill Amin because Amin was causing further civil unrest. Taraki’s assassination attempt failed and in turn, Amin had Taraki killed. At this point, the Afghan people had lost all faith and support for the PDPA, and civil unrest was at an all time high. Afghan rebels against the communist party formed what was called the Mujaheddin and declared jihad or “holy war” on Amin and any supporters of the communist party. The Soviet Union, seeing that it was quickly losing its grip on Afghanistan, launched a full scale military assault on the capital of Afghanistan to support the communist party (The Soviet).
The initial invasion, which took place on December 24th, 1979, saw immediate success in gaining control of the capital city, Kabul. The Soviet Army launched an attack on the Tajberg Palace where they met resistance from a fraction of the Afghan army that still supported Amin. The resistance was short lived and Amin and his supporters were overthrown. Amin was killed and Babrak Karmal, a supporter of the Soviet Union took his place (The Soviet). I find this to be another similarity between the Vietnam War and the Soviet-Afghan War. The Soviets put a man with their backing into power just as the U.S. supported Ngo Dinh Diem to be the leader of Southern Vietnam. Both wars involved the major players placing a pawn into political power to support their agenda whether it be positive or negative. Karmal was not able to gain the support of the Afghan people, and more and more Afghans decided to join the Mujaheddin which at this point was an ever growing army of freedom fighters. The Soviet Union’s original plan was to support the Afghan army in gaining control over and regaining peace in Afghanistan. However, many soldiers from the Afghan army also joined the Mujaheddin. This required the Soviet Union to send more troops to Afghanistan to support the communist party (Editors, December).
The original invasion consisted of about 30,000 Soviet Union soldiers. They were prepared with tanks, jets, and helicopters. What the Soviet Union was not prepared for, was their first real experience with guerrilla warfare. The Mujaheddin knew that they could not compete with the Soviet army in a tank on tank style level, nor did they have the means to do so. Therefore, the Mujaheddin forces resorted to small, quick attacks on unsuspecting Soviet forces. The Mujaheddin attacks were swift and deadly, and the freedom fighters would disappear just as fast as they appeared. They set up camps in small villages and in mountains where the Soviet forces could not chase them. These unconventional tactics proved to be detrimental to the Soviet armies (The Soviet). The Soviet Union experienced the same issues the U.S. soldiers did in Vietnam. Neither army was prepared to fight such an unconventional force.
The Soviet Union ended up sending more than 100,000 troops to Afghanistan to combat the Mujaheddin and try to stabilize the country. However, all this did was hurt the Soviet Union’s reputation. The world looked at the Soviet Union as a bully, and the Mujaheddin started to gain support from all over the world. People from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, Egypt and other countries either joined the Mujaheddin in the fight or financially supported it. Afghanistan gained the sympathy of the entire Muslim nation, and the war gained a huge following on a global scale (Russia). This reminds me of Landry Henderson’s post last week titled “State of Play: Soviet Olympic Dominance.” This was a great read and I suggest if you haven’t read it that you do so (I will put the link to his blog post below). In his blog, Landry talks about how politics seeped into the Olympics and how the Lake Placid games were much more than just sports. It made me think of the scene from the movie “Miracle” about the U.S. defeating the Russian hockey team at Lake Placid. During the game, the camera pans towards the crowd and some U.S. fans drop a banner that says “get the puck out of Afghanistan.” This is a funny and helpful example of the sympathy that Afghanistan was gaining all over the world.
Just as the U.S. started to lose support for the Vietnam War, the Soviet Union did as well. Both invasions were met with stiff resistance both physically and politically. The American citizens practically turned against their own soldiers and treated them poorly after returning from war. The Soviet Union was experiencing the same reaction within its own borders.
Still licking its wounds from Vietnam, the U.S. refrained from putting “boots on the ground” in Afghanistan and instead supported the Mujaheddin with money and weapons. A huge turning point in the war was the Mujaheddin acquiring “stingers” from the U.S. military. These anti-aircraft rocket launchers gave the Mujaheddin the opportunity to counter low-flying Russian aircraft including bombers, MIG-17’s and support helicopters. Reports say that the Mujaheddin downed one Russian aircraft a day during the conflict (The Soviet).
The End of the Conflict
The conflict came to a standstill in the mid to late 80’s. The Soviet Union had control of most major cities and highways while the Mujaheddin ruled the rural areas and mountains. The Russians threw everything they had at the resistance fighters including napalm and they even randomly bombed villages to try to draw the Mujaheddin out of hiding. All this did however was waste more money and continue to worsen relationships between the Soviet Union and its surrounding countries. The U.S. withdrew their ambassador from Russia, cut trade ties, created sanctions on Russian products, and strengthened its alliances in the Middle East and Asia. The Soviet Union was losing the support of its allies (The Soviet). The war ended up being something that the Soviet Union would never recover from. Billions of dollars were spent during the war and the Soviet Union had nothing to show from it (History). Ties between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were never truly mended, and the Soviet Union started to fall apart. The Soviet-Afghan War turned into the same type of war as the Vietnam War. Two large countries both entering smaller countries to either promote or destroy communism. Both sending more troops that originally planned. Both spending more money than planned. Both losing the support of their own nation during the war, and both ended up being routed by a much smaller guerrilla force.
I know I come off as someone that did not support the Vietnam War but I actually do. That, however, is a conversation for another day.
History. (2009, November 24). Soviet Union Invades Afghanistan. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/soviet-tanks-roll-into-afghanistan
Russia and Afghanistan. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.understandingwar.org/russia-and-afghanistan
Taylor, A. (2014, August 4). The Soviet War in Afghanistan, 1979 – 1989. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2014/08/the-soviet-war-in-afghanistan-1979-1989/100786/
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2019, December 4). Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/Soviet-invasion-of-Afghanistan
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2019, July 11). Nur Mohammad Taraki. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Nur-Mohammad-Taraki
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/ztb8y4j/revision/6