What were the main reasons behind the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan?

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,288
Dispargum
#2
There had been a series of Communist-leaning governments in Afghanistan since the early 1970s. In the middle and late 1970s there had been a series of revolutions and coups between different Communist factions. The most recent government, which had siezed power in September 1979, implemented a series of radical reforms including women's rights, changing the flag from Islamic green to something nearly mimicking the flag of the USSR, and outlawing usury which destroyed the agricultural economy. These reforms offended most Afghans who were conservative Muslims. There was also widespread political repression. A revolution broke out led by the Mujahidin. This revolution was on the brink of success when the Soviets invaded to prop up the Communist government. The Soviets eventually installed Babrak Karmal as the head of the Afghan government. I'm sure the Soviets expected to leave in short order. Like so many wars, it did not go according to plan.
 

Jake10

Ad Honoris
Oct 2010
11,960
Canada
#3
There had been a series of Communist-leaning governments in Afghanistan since the early 1970s. In the middle and late 1970s there had been a series of revolutions and coups between different Communist factions. The most recent government, which had siezed power in September 1979, implemented a series of radical reforms including women's rights, changing the flag from Islamic green to something nearly mimicking the flag of the USSR, and outlawing usury which destroyed the agricultural economy. These reforms offended most Afghans who were conservative Muslims. There was also widespread political repression. A revolution broke out led by the Mujahidin. This revolution was on the brink of success when the Soviets invaded to prop up the Communist government. The Soviets eventually installed Babrak Karmal as the head of the Afghan government. I'm sure the Soviets expected to leave in short order. Like so many wars, it did not go according to plan.
Yes, but why was Afghanistan such a valuable asset? I'm especially curious about the military advantage of holding the country. The Soviets were willing to risk Soviet troops and they were willing to lose support from various other parts of the world in order to have Afghanistan. Why go so far for a country that was so backward?
 

Willempie

Ad Honorem
Jul 2015
5,305
Netherlands
#4
Yes, but why was Afghanistan such a valuable asset? I'm especially curious about the military advantage of holding the country. The Soviets were willing to risk Soviet troops and they were willing to lose support from various other parts of the world in order to have Afghanistan. Why go so far for a country that was so backward?
I guess it is the same as with Vietnam and a lot of English colonial wars: Not wanting to lose face or at least avoid a humiliating defeat.
 
Jun 2017
116
Skandinavia
#5
…they were willing to lose support from various other parts of the world in order to have Afghanistan. Why go so far for a country that was so backward?

They likely didn't plan for it to become a failure. A quick and effective intervention securing a friendly regime always looks good on record, as a show of strength and demonstration of power. Of course it doesn't always go as well as planned. I guess a comparison is the US intervention in Vietnam, which put the US in a bad light for similar reasons.
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,288
Dispargum
#6
It would have been embarrassing for a Communist government to fall so close to the Soviet border.

They may not have anticipated any backlash at the time they invaded. Who cares if the Soviets invade Afghanistan or not? Most Americans at the time probably couldn't find Afghanistan on a map (and geographic literacy may have been higher back then) and I suspect most other countries felt the same way, or so the Soviets assumed.

Geographically, Afghanistan had no strategic value. It's value was all in the potential impact on Soviet prestige. Don't believe the amateur strategists at the time who claimed the Soviets were moving through Afghanistan on their way to the Strait of Hormuz. That was nonsense.

The Soviets may have seen the Mujahidin as an extension of the Islamic Revolution that had recently toppled the Shah of Iran. The Soviets didn't like Islamic fundamentalism anymore than we do.
 
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Dec 2008
764
Vancouver-by-the-Sea
#7
Yes, but why was Afghanistan such a valuable asset? . Why go so far for a country that was so backward?
Afghanistan was and of course remains a treasure house of mineral wealth-back in the 1960's the USA spent what was then a fortune surveying certain sites that proved to be rich beyond imagining.

But only a huge investment in infrastructure could bring any of this wealth to market-today a few small mines remain under the control of local warlords who have to be placated or eliminated- easier said than done.

This isn't the only reason the Russian became involved but you can bet they knew all about it.
 

AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
26,838
Italy, Lago Maggiore
#8
Like in Europe ...

When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan they had a quite urgent reason to do it: the President of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan [Hafizullah Amin] was running real purges in which [according to Soviet sources] more than 500 members of the Communist party died.

And he took the power after violence in the Capital, he used the Guard to make Taraki prisoner [Taraki was President, Amin Prime Minister, after the coup] after that he had visited Breznev [who decided to remove Amin from the office, btw]. Taraki died because of a illness while he was prisoner ... at least this is what Amin government declared.

The country was on the border of a civil war. Amin executed about 18,000, saying that Taraki was guilty [he was simply eliminating Taraki's network of power and administration].

In other words, USSR was dealing with a rebel ally [well "ally", in the Soviet system allies were "satellite countries"] and Moscow reacted like it reacted when this happened in some European countries.
 

GogLais

Ad Honorem
Sep 2013
5,448
Wirral
#9
Can't remember where I read recently but I saw a suggestion that it was in the early 80s and the USSR didn't want the US getting into Afghanistan and basing cruise missiles there. Sounds crazy to me but I'll throw it in.
 

Corvidius

Ad Honorem
Jul 2017
2,985
Crows nest
#10
The reasons for the intervention seem complicated, but are really quite straight forward. Firstly, there was no desire to get involved at all. On March 19th 1979, Brezhnev said this at a Politburo meeting about the growing internal conflict in Afghanistan.

The question is raised about the direct participation of our troops in the conflict in Afghanistan. I think that at this time we ought not to get involved in this war. You need to explain to our Afghan comrades that while we can help them with all that is needed, the participation of our troops in Afghanistan could harm not only us, but first and foremost, the Afghans themselves.
So it can be seen that in March 1979 while there was the will to give the requested aid to the sovereign Afghan state, there was no desire to intervene with troops. But what then changed between March and December when the intervention actually happened?

What happened was the then secret signing by President Carter on July 3rd 1979 of a directive to secretly aid the opponents of the Kabul government. This in order to improve relations with Pakistan. So before the Soviet intervention, the CIA, via Pakistan, were already aiding the Afghan opposition, and this was not MRE. Zbigniew Brzezinski and Robert Gates later admitted to this in 1998. So later in the year when the situation had gone out of control, the Soviet Union had no choice but to intervene. Brzezinski also admitted that on the day Carter signed the aid directive, he, Brzezinski, sent a memo to Carter explaining that this would lead to Soviet military intervention.

The Soviet Union could not let a failed state appear on the border. No "Great game" no dominoes, just security at the base level, and there was also a desire not to let an Afghan state emerge that could turn into an American base. And while of course there was the September coup and the emergence of Amin, at face value a Soviet ally, he caused a lot of alarm in Moscow when it became known that he had secret contacts with the CIA and American officials after the murder of Taraki. Some details we may never know, but the route from the July 3rd document to Amin gaining power is not unimportant, and while the contacts he had with America after the coup are known, what contacts he may have had before that remain unknown, but commonsense tells us probably did occur.

Things turned out oddly, didn't they....
 
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