Afghanistan, the Vietnam of the Soviet Union

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.

https://cdn.theatlantic.com/thumbor/44Z8o7c1A3zhnuqbrgTwGmMaNtk=/900×653/media/img/photo/2014/08/the-soviet-war-in-afghanistan-1979-1989/a07_02280140/original.jpg

History

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 War

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).

https://cdn.theatlantic.com/thumbor/oM3gTtNc9jVSqcVgKng6myBwHHM=/900×646/media/img/photo/2014/08/the-soviet-war-in-afghanistan-1979-1989/a10_51959415/original.jpg

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.

https://cdn.theatlantic.com/thumbor/Abp4Idf9vwdeh3pXMX3f_1p-lh0=/900×597/media/img/photo/2014/08/the-soviet-war-in-afghanistan-1979-1989/a09_00215095/original.jpg

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.

Caught this while watching Miracle... Its funny how things change ...

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).

https://cdn.theatlantic.com/thumbor/oGOkP6EhMS2BCufDsE2FYRDt1Qk=/900×604/media/img/photo/2014/08/the-soviet-war-in-afghanistan-1979-1989/a20_01010276/original.jpg

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.

Citations

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

12 thoughts on “Afghanistan, the Vietnam of the Soviet Union

  1. Hi Jake! I did not have a lot of knowledge on the Soviet-Afghan War before reading this post, so it was really interesting to me to learn about! I liked that you broke your blog up into sub-sections, and I appreciate that you gave the context of events that occurred prior as well as the war and the aftermath. I also thought that it was clever to use the Vietnam War as a point of comparison, and I can see the points you made. Nice job!

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  2. This is a really interesting topic as I did not know much from the Soviet perspective during the war. It is interesting how the other side starting to gain support and the Soviet Union portrayed itself as a “Bully”. A really interesting read that highlights a less talked about part of history.

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    1. Hey Paul, thanks for your input. I think there is always going to be “bullying” characteristic when such a large power attacks a smaller country. We saw it with Afghanistan, Vietnam, and again the Afghanistan and Iraq more recently. The world seems to side with the little guy a lot.

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  3. Hey Jake, I found your post to be very interesting to read. I did not know much about the Soviet invasion and the events to take place after. The way you wrote it in a categorical style made the context of the topic intriguing. The similarities between this and the Vietnam war are astounding and displays a type of Vietnam part 2. Since this is a topic that is not generally discussed in a lot of overall history classes, do you think it is not mentioned as much due to further spread of communism, as it is part of our history in the conflicts of the Korean and Vietnam war?

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    1. Thanks for your comment! I am not sure why there is not more talk about it in history classes. I would say that it has a very large indirect effect on the Cold War and therefore is very important in U.S. history. Also, I would say the the U.S. handled the Soviet-Afghan War by not engaging directly and this proved to be effective. The U.S. aided in stopping the spread of communism. However, Afghans do blame the U.S. for leaving Afghanistan in chaos with no clear government after the war. This allowed the vacuum that created the Taliban and eventually led to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000’s.

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  4. You set the comparison with Vietnam up so nicely and the images from the Atlantic are wonderful. The comparison invites us to think about how foreign intervention works for the Soviet Union and the US, and moves us past a kind of reflexive denunciation of the Soviet invasion. Also, I think it’s fine to acknowledge that the Vietnam war was a preventable tragedy for which the US bears a lot of responsibility. We can do that and still support the troops who served. Thank you for writing about this (you have lots of company this week, as you may have noticed!). And the nod to Landry’s post is excellent — love the screenshot from Miracle.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comments! I do think that it might have made a lot of Americans looks back and say “oh wait, we just did this in Vietnam.” I do think the circumstances were a little different but not in the sense of a larger power wanting to gain influence in a smaller country. Also yes I did notice I have some company. It seems to be that whenever I start writing, there are no other blogs on the topic and by the time that I submit the blog there are multiple.

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  5. Great post! I find it interesting that the other Muslim nations had sympathy for Afghanistan considering how things are going now. Also the fact that Americans had signs like that is a bit ironic considering our own war with Vietnam and well Afghanistan. (granted that would be much later in time)

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    1. Thanks for your comment! You do have to remember that the Taliban and terrorist groups only arose in Afghanistan after the Soviet-Afghan War. The war actually created the vacuum that allowed the Taliban to gain power and influence. The Muslims before and during the war had not yet had their reputation tainted by extremist terrorist groups.

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  6. I liked reading about this post. The first time I heard about Russia’s involvement with Afghanistan was when my dad showed me Rambo 3 when I was a little kid. I remember when Colonel Trautman told the Soviet general “we already had our Vietnam! Now you’re gonna have yours”. Being six at the time, I did not understand what he meant by our Vietnam but later on I understood the reference. It is crazy to think that a better equipped army was defeated by technologically inferior freedom fighters. I guess heart and soul do matter in a war.

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    1. Hey Matt, thanks for your comment. That is so funny that you bring up that quote from Rambo because I had totally forgot about that and love those movies. It is true though, the U.S. did not want a repeat of Vietnam and therefore their engagement in Afghanistan looked much different.

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