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We're Not the Soviets in Afghanistan

And 2009 isn't 1979.

2:58 PM, Aug 21, 2009 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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Comparisons between our current efforts in Afghanistan and the Soviet intervention that led to the collapse of the USSR are natural and can be helpful, but only with great care. Below are a number of key points to keep in mind when thinking about the Soviet operations, especially when considering the size of the U.S. or international military footprint.

War did not begin in 1979 when the Soviets invaded. It started in 1978 following the Saur Revolution in which Nur M. Taraki seized power from Mohammad Daoud. Taraki declared the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and set about bringing real socialism to the country.

Soviet advisors recommended that Taraki proceed slowly with social and economic reforms. They recognized that the socialist party (People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan or PDPA) had the support of a tiny minority. They feared that Taraki's plans for aggressive "modernization" would generate an awful backlash. They were right.

The PDPA instituted a number of critical reforms after its seizure of power, including eliminating the "brideprice" that a bride's family received from the groom's family and redistributing land on a large scale. These reforms struck at the heart of Afghan society by destroying key pillars in the social structure. Land redistribution upended rural tribal relations, and the elimination of "brideprice" payments destroyed an important traditional method for bonding families following a marriage. It also struck at the role of women in Afghan society, a broader theme the PDPA pushed that alienated wide sections of a very conservative country. In general, there is no faster way to antagonize a population than by attacking property rights and the status of women. Taraki did both.

By early 1979, the Afghan countryside was in revolt against the PDPA. Forces that would become the mujahideen were already mobilizing across the country to fight against the Taraki government even before the Soviets became involved. Afghan army units in Herat mutinied in March 1979, briefly seizing the city on behalf of Ismail Khan.

Factionalism within the PDPA weakened the government, leading in September 1979 to the assassination of Taraki and his replacement by the brutal and incompetent Hafizullah Amin. The insurgency continued to grow. Insurgents attacked government and military convoys on the roads, and interdicted movement from Kabul to the north along the Salang road. In October, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul cabled: "When government troops and their armor do occasionally venture forth out of their defensive positions to show the flag, the rebels repossess the real estate after they have passed, like the waters of the Red Sea closing in behind Moses and his followers."

By December 1979 the Soviets had reluctantly decided that the PDPA government would either fall or throw in its lot with the United States if they did not intervene decisively. Their intervention took the form of a brilliantly-executed regime take-down at the end of the year during which they killed Amin and installed Babrak Karmal as his successor. They intended to stay briefly and then hand responsibility to Karmal and the Afghan military.

But Karmal did not have the loyalty even of the socialist PDPA party. He had led a minority faction within that party that both Taraki and Amin had ruthlessly purged. His accession to power in the midst of a massive insurgency had no tinge of legitimacy in the eyes of the people as a whole and even in the eyes of many of Afghanistan's socialists. And he was clearly installed on the bayonets of the Soviet Union.

Resistance to the Soviet troops as occupiers thus overlaid a pre-existing civil conflict that centered on rejection of the social project launched by Taraki. If Soviet troops had not intervened, there is every reason to think that this civil war would have continued and expanded on its own, since its causes and critical drivers were internal to the country. The Soviet invasion helped to unify opponents of the regime (to some extent), but most importantly it brought massive foreign assistance to an insurgency that would otherwise have received relatively little attention.