Blood spilt and machines destroyed are not the measure of this war. This is our Jihad, we are the mujaheddin and thusly we are invincible, for God is Great!
The beginning of the Soviet War in Afghanistan is shrouded in paradoxes. The invasion supposedly began on Christmas Day 1979, with the arrival of KGB and Spetsnaz operatives in Kabul to overthrow the government of Afghan leader Hafizullah Amin. In two days, they would duly carry out their mission and were joined by a large force of Soviet conventional troops that crossed the border into Afghanistan. Yet, small numbers of Soviet troops had already been present in the country for half a year already, to support the Amin government in its fight against the growing insurgency waged by traditionalist rural populations that had been ongoing on some form for years. These troops, moreover, had been deployed at the express request of Amin himself, who considered himself until his last days to be a close ally of the Soviet Union. Even without Amin, the insurgency would continue to escalate, with the Soviets shouldering the main burden of fighting. Eventually, Soviet forces would leave a decade later, having wasted a great deal of treasure and blood and having been grossly humiliated, with the Soviet Union itself falling apart shortly thereafter. On the whole, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan was a complicated affair that was difficult to define clearly and left a great deal of mess that remains unresolved today.
The history of Soviet intervention has its roots in a series of political upheavals in 1970s Afghanistan that supplanted the old monarchy that enjoyed only loose allegiance of various tribespeople in the rural periphery and, eventually, by the end of the decade, left a band of communist revolutionaries in nominal charge of the country, with little effective control beyond a handful of cities. The Afghan communist leaders, who had only taken power through a coup in 1978, were fanatical ideologues whose attempts at modernization (such as forcing girls to attend schools!) were making the bad situation even more complicated by further offending the religious and the tribal populations of the country (not always the same: not all religious were tribal and not all tribal were religious, although many were both), among whom there was already an ongoing, endemic insurgency against the central government(s) in Kabul even before the coup. The insurgency reached a peak with the Herat Uprising in March, 1979, in which thousands of government officials, school teachers, non-religious in general, as well as several Soviet advisers to the Afghan government (and, possibly, their families) were massacred by Islamist rebels (which included a substantial number of mutinying government troops led by Ismail Khan, who would become a leading mujaheddin commander later. To confuse the matters further, these rebels were mostly aligned with Iran and were largely of ethnic Khazar, not Pashtuns with connections with Pakistan who would later make up much of mujeheddin, and later, Taliban forces.)
Shocked by the magnitude of the incident and the fact that thousands of its troops defected to the rebels, the Afghan government requested presence of Soviet troops in April, 1979 (because Afghan troops could no longer be relied upon to support the government, in light of the mass defection at Herat), and after declining initially, the Kremlin deployed small contingents which were in place by June. However, KGB determined that not only was the Afghan government making the situation worse through their ideological extremism that alienated the mostly traditionally minded population of Afghanistan, there was a serious danger that they might turn to other countries (China, Pakistan, or even the West) if they did not get the kind of aid they were demanding from the Soviets (such switches in alliances had already taken place by 1970s with a number of former Soviet client regimes, including Egypt, Albania, Somalia, etc.). In attempt to stabilize the situation, Soviets decided to decapitate the regime by assassinating Hafizullah Amin, the Afghan leader, and install a more pliable regime in its place. Soviet special force operatives and KGB agents arrived in Kabul on Christmas Day. They assaulted the presidential palace two days later and killed Amin, although with much difficulty because of the large number of bodyguards who protected him. At the same time, a large reinforcement of Soviet conventional forces entered Afghanistan from the north and Babrak Kamal was installed in Kabul as the new leader while the Soviets proclaimed the "liberation" of the country from the misrule of the Amin regime. From this point on, the Soviets became the main participant in the conflict in Afghanistan, as the unrest became even more intense and some Afghan army units openly mutinied against what they saw as a heavy-handed act of foreign aggression. The forcible removal of Amin, rather than calming the situation down, actually grossly exacerbated the crisis and trapped the Russians in a long term large scale intervention that they hadn't planned for.
The net result of this invasion was to kill the already seriously wounded détente and start what became known as the "Second Cold War
". A large scale boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics followed, as well as an embargo on U.S. grain sales to the USSR.
The United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and several other countries, provided arms and money to the rebels, known as the mujaheddin, inadvertently creating Al-Qaeda in the process
. The Soviets ended up in a Vietnam War
By mid-1980s, Soviets recognized that Afghanistan became a heavy drain on their resources without any obvious end in sight. They became resentful of Kamal, the leader that they themselves installed, as he did not appear to be making significant attempt to develop an "independent" support base for the regime other than reliance on continued Soviet presence. Eventually, in 1985, Kamal was deposed in favor of Mohammed Najibullah by the Soviets as the preliminary step towards reducing their presence in Afghanistan. Finally, the Soviets pulled out in 1989 and, much like the United States in South Vietnam, left behind a government which sustained itself for only a few years before collapsing in 1992. Unlike Vietnam however, the Soviet-backed government in Kabul fought to a successful stalemate until the funding dried up during the Yeltsin presidency. Afghanistan's civil war continues to this day, as part of The War on Terror
This became a rather popular setting for Western media in the 1980s, as for many the proof that the Soviet Union was an Evil Empire was an orphaned girl in a Pakistani refugee camp
. This usually led to portrayals of any mujaheddin as noble, heroic underdogs
versus said Evil Empire
, which can be a bit jarring in light of current events
Following the collapse of the USSR, Russian media took a look at one of its darkest hours. There are also plenty of Afghan works set here.
Tropes Associated with this conflict
- Asshole Victim: Neither the Soviet Red Army, nor the Afghan Mujahideen, were particularly nice people. Although regrettably the war produced many non-asshole victims as well.
- Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Soviets began large scale intervention by killing Amin, who was actually their strongest ally in Afghanistan who asked for Soviet troops in the first place. They forced out Babrak Kamal in 1985, after having installed him in power only five years ago because they thought "Comrade Kamal is hoping to continue staying in Kabul with our help," i.e. he was too dependent on Soviet help. Russians, then, hung out Kamal's successor, Mohammed Najibullah, out to dry because they didn't want to spend money propping him up.
- Colonel Badass: Colonel Muhammad Yousaf, the Pakistani ISI officer in charge of training the Mujahiadeen and overseeing special forces operations in Afghanistan. To note, he was not trained as a spy or an SF operator.
- Crowning Moment of Awesome: For the Pakistan Air Force. It engaged the Soviet aviators on many occasions and won pretty much all encounters.
- Four-Star Badass: Many. The Commander of the ISI, General Akhtar Abdul Rehman. Oversaw a plan which caused the defeat of a superpower. Ahmad Shah Masood. Even Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of leading government generals who became a semi-independent warlord in the north of the country after Soviets pulled out.
- From Bad to Worse: The Soviet Union collapsed two years after withdrawing. Afghanistan got the 1990s Civil War, Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the 2001 U.S. invasion which has actually killed more people than this war, and is still going on in 2014.
- General Failure: Pretty much all of the commanders on the Soviet and Afghan government side.
- Indians with Iglas: Indians were rather heavily involved behind the scenes in Afghanistan, both during the Soviet phase of the war and thereafter, in attempt to counter Pakistani influence in the country. In addition to the diplomacy and espionage, it is known that Indian pilots and special forces discreetly operated alongside the Soviets during the war in small numbers.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Soviets intervened because the Afghan communists were antagonizing and radicalizing the population through bungled and heavy-handed "reforms." Killing the radical leaders and directly taking over the country made the problem even worse.
- Pyrrhic Victory: For the Afghans. Yes they had held on to their independence. But, well just see current day headlines to see what was the price. Pakistan had orchestrated the defeat of a superpower, but, at the costs of having millions of refugees coming into the country, heavy radicalization in parts of society, economic slowdown which was not reversed until...2000, just before the sequel.
- Pakistanis with Panters: Pakistani Special Forces trained most of the rebels and fought in many battles. In the early years any successes the Mujahideen had were usually when there was a large cadre of Pakistani "advisers" with them. The Soviet attacks inside Pakistan led to the Pakistan Air Force being used to defend its airspace and for the most part the Soviets were roughly treated.
- Rock Beats Laser: Uneducated Afghans in sandals and pajamas, armed with Kalashnikovs, RPGs, and a few missiles have no chance of defeating the conquerors of the Wehrhmacht, right?
- Shocking Defeat Legacy: Afghanistan still is at war and has seen its society destroyed and two generations and counting have suffered the privations of war. The Soviet Union's collapse was precipitated by this war, it emptied the already bare treasury, the citizens of the non-Russian Republics had disproportionate casualties and that caused resentment note which contributed to secessionist tendencies. Finally the failure of the Red Army to pacify Afghanistan eroded the longstanding fear of it which had kept the other Republics in line.
- Theme Park Version: The War, its factions, the political, social, economic and cultural issues that led to it, the motivations of all participants are so complex that almost all representations of it even in serious works and media have to be this.
- We Are Struggling Together: The Red Army and the Kabul government didn't really trust each other too much.
- Young Future Famous People: Many, both in real life and in pretty much every major media depiction of it. Most especially Osama Bin Laden (future villain), and Ahmad Shah Massoud (future hero).
- Most of the Taliban Leaders like Mullah Umer earned their spurs here.
- Several Russians who rose to prominence in the 1990s and 2000s fought in the war.
- Pervez Musharraf, future Pakistani President, was a commando at the time.
Examples in media:
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Anime and Manga
- Balalaika from Black Lagoon served in Afghanistan as an officer with the VDV. Many of her subordinates served in the war either with the VDVs or with the Army Spetsnaz.
- There technically weren't (and still aren't) Army Spetsnaz in Soviet Army in the sense of the U.S. Army Rangers or Green Berets. All Army Special Forces (except VDV's, which are separate service, despite traditionally grouped up with the Army) are subject to GRUnote control, and GRU Spetsnaz traditionally masquerades as VDV Recon units.
- Sōsuke from Full Metal Panic! was a rebel child soldier in Afghanistan, despite being ethnically Japanese (It Makes Sense in Context). Also in the back-story of the Full Metal Panic! original novels, the existence of Arm Slaves allows the Soviet Union's support of the pro-communist government to succeed.
- Charlie Wilson's War, based on a book.
- Rambo III. These days it's pretty ironic to see one of the iconic movie series that support a Type 1 Eagle Land include a dedication to those brave Afghan rebels (it was slightly altered post 9/11).
- The comedy Spies Like Us.
- The Living Daylights is not quite as horribly dated as it seems at first glance. The Mujahiadeen leader Bond hooks up with turns out to be a westernized Oxford alum, and thus very unlikely to be a future supporter of the Taliban.
- Afganskiy Izlom ("Афганский излом", in English "Afghan Breakdown"), the first Soviet movie made about the war in 1991.
- The Beast Of War, a powerful dramatic account of the last hours of a Soviet tank crew.
- The Kite Runner
- The 9th Company, a very successful Russian movie about the Battle for Hill 3234.
- Red Dawn (1984) had one of the main characters (the Russian) get into a discussion with another Russian character about Afghanistan, even saying that he was always on the side of the Afghans in that war. The story as a whole was inspired by the invasion, asking the viewers "What if it happened here?"
- Zinky Boys is a series of interviews with Soviet veterans of the Afghan war. The title comes from the sealed zinc coffins casualties were sent home in, to hide the fact that the Soviet "advisors" were actually fighting the war, not just providing training and logistical support as the central government claimed. Well, until the storming of Amin palace in Kabul on December 27, 1979. After that the full-scale deployment began, which was impossible to conceal.
- The Tom Clancy novel The Cardinal of the Kremlin is partly set in Afghanistan. The mujaheddin are mostly portrayed as righteous but naive, while the CIA officer in charge of aiding them frequently notes that they're being used (in internal monologue). The Russians, on the other hand, are portrayed sympathetically as well.
- Soviet veterans of this war figure in Red Storm Rising, generally portrayed as knowing a thing or two about hard fighting. One KGB soldier, when asked why he and his squad mates killed an old farming couple and raped their daughter, simply replied "Afghanistan".
- Many of the characters in Red Army served in Afghanistan.
- Feast of Bones is a novel entirely from the Soviet perspective, specifically a VDV reconnaissance company. The main cast are both competent and sympathetic characters, which is all the more surprising considering it was written during the Cold War by a U.S. military man.
- In the 1990s Colonel Lester Grau of the U.S. Army wrote two tactical-level studies on Afghanistan, The Bear Went Over the Mountain and The Other Side of the Mountain. The first examines and analyses Soviet tactics in Afghanistan; the second one does a Perspective Flip and studies Mujahideen tactics. Both are required reading for U.S. infantry officers, and both examine why the war turned out the way it did from the ground up.
Live Action TV
- The MacGyver episode "To Be a Man" has Mac parachute into the country to destroy a crashed spy satellite. Kirk's Rock makes a prominent appearance.
- The Pet Shop Boys cover of Sterling Void's "It's Alright" adds lyrics addressing this. The song was released as a single in 1989 but the album version came out the previous year.
- Revolver Ocelot served in Afghanistan. And with a nice chunk of Metal Gear Solid V The Phantom Pain looking to take place in 1984 Afghanistan, right in the thick of the invasion, we may get some more details on that service.
- The Truth About 9th Company.
- Syphon Filter 3 has a few missions set during the invasion, where both Gabe and Lian are carrying out covert operations against the Soviets for the U.S. and Chinese governments, respectively.
- World in Conflict: Colonel Orlovsky previously served in Afghanistan.
- Graviteam Tactics: Shield of the Prophet inverts the war by having Iran invade western Afghanistan to assist in the 1979 Herat uprising; Soviet forces intervene to fight the Iranians at the request of the Afghan government.
- Call of Duty: Black Ops 2: One of the missions take place during the invasion.