Useful Notes / Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan

Blood spilt and machines destroyed are not the measure of this war. This is our Jihad, we are the mujahideen 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 in 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.

Soviet intervention was preceded by 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 mujahideen commander later. To confuse the matters further, these rebels were mostly aligned with Iran and were largely ethnic Hazara who were Shi'ites, not Sunni Pashtuns with connections with Pakistan who would later make up much of mujahideen, 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 the 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, mostly special forces and air force, which were in place by June. However, the 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 an attempt to stabilize the situation, the Soviets decided to decapitate the regime by assassinating Hafizullah Amin and install a more pliable regime in its place. Soviet special forces operatives and KGB agents arrived in Kabul on Christmas Day, under the cover that they were simply reinforcing the troops already in the country. After a failed assassination attempt via poisoning, 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 Soviets 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 mujahideen, inadvertently creating Al-Qaeda in the process. The Soviets ended up in a Vietnam War-style quagmire, not helped at all by brutal tactics that may or may not have involved the use of lethal chemical weapons (the US made frequent claims on the matter, but never quite managed to prove it).

By the mid-1980s, Soviets recognized that Afghanistan had become 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. The Soviet-backed government in Kabul fought to a successful stalemate until the funding dried up during the Yeltsin presidency (much like the government of South Vietnam, which was able to blunt North Vietnamese offensive with continued military aid and air support from United States until the Case-Church Amendment of June 1973 cut off further US support). 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 mujahideen 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, media took a look at one of its darkest hours. There are also plenty of Afghan works set here.

Tropes Associated with this conflict

  • Batman Gambit: According to some initially vague statements made by former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski that he later expounded upon, which are also supported by other sources, the United States anticipated the likelihood of a Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan before it occurred and, in Brzezinski's words, "knowingly increased the probability that [the Soviets] would [intervene]" by covertly aiding mujahideen groups six months in advance of the invasion proper.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: The Soviets began large-scale intervention by killing Amin, who was actually their strongest ally in Afghanistan and had 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. The Soviets then hung out Kamal's successor, Mohammed Najibullah, 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 mujahideen and overseeing special forces operations in Afghanistan. Of 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.
  • Depopulation Bomb: Before the war, Afghanistan had a population of 13.2 million. Over the course of the war, 1.3 million civilians were killed and another 5-6 million were driven out of the country and turned into refugees in Iran and Pakistan-nearly half the pre-war population. Hundreds of thousands more Afghans died of disease and starvation as refugees, and a couple million more were internally displaced. It got so bad that, by the end of the war, Afghanistan's population was only 11.2 million-which may not sound like that big of a drop, but remember that 50% of these 11.2 million were 13 years old or younger. This only improved after the NATO alliance occupied the country in 2001, which was followed by the return of about 5 million refugees.
  • Didn't Think This Through: America's arming of the conservative Afghani tribes (who already held Islamic views similar to the later Talban) would later come back to haunt them years later and drag them into a similar war the Soviets went through as well as help lead to the circumstances that created the factions that launched the war on the terror... Even more jarring is how Americans overlooked relatively pro-American and moderate Afghani tribes and factions in the war, even ignoring their pleas for aid in the years following the war as internal strife put the country in further ruins.
  • Evil Former Friend: The American's worst enemy at the time were the Soviets, so they aided various mujahideen factions and conservative Afghani tribes to help overthrow the Communist regime. One horrible terrorist attack later by the same militants they helped create (or at least their more radical, fundamentalist descendants) and the most common perception of America's worst enemy are now Islamic terrorists.
  • Four-Star Badass: Many from all participants in the war. For starters he 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. The Soviets generals in this war were often veterans of relatively obscure bushfire wars during the Cold War period and many often went through the hellish Spetsnaz training. The Americans sent their own share of special forces leaders who trained a rag tag tribal army into a badass group of commandos within weeks.
  • 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 still going on in 2014.
  • General Failure: Subverted. The popular perception of the Soviet and Afghani government forces plays the trope straight with movies in the 80s and Western news reel footage from the war portraying Soviet generals as stubborn and incompetent, even being outright sadistic to the point of actually torturing Afghani leaders and American spies and commandos themselves. However from a Clausewitzan point of view, the Soviet generals were quite skilled, winning battle after battle. The Soviet army never faced a single defeat throughout the entire war and even the Afghani government forces lasted far longer than any other factions (including the Soviets and to their irritation, the Mujahideen factions) expected with Afghani government troops still able to win victories in pitch battles on their own without Soviet intervention during the hopeless last days of the war. Basically the Soviets were not so much a case of General Failure and more of a case of being restricted by politics in the Soviet government in its handling of the war.
  • History Repeats: Twice. First is that the Soviets could not take on the rag tag Mujahadeen like how the Americans couldn't on the Viet Cong, and the Americans would later find themselves in Afghanistan in a similar situation to the Soviets.
  • Mildly Military: The Soviets are often portrayed as this in mass media and popular history. While they certainly had their share of problems such as difficulty with logistics, rising desertion rates, in reality the Soviets also acted as a genuinely professional military force often winning major battles against great odds. Contraire to news images, Soviets were not always the superior one in technological and military edge but often faced scenarios that would put any army to hell such as low ammo supplies, etc but still manage to win against such difficult, if sometimes impossible odds. Special mention goes to the various Spetsnaz units (in particular the paratroopers) who often went far into enemy territory alone with nightmarish logistics against a foes who often numbered 3 times or more yet still succeeded in their missions.
    • The Afghani government soldiers gets stereotyped as this time much like the ARVN in Vietnam. It was said that every year, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan lost 15,000 troops. 5,000 to battle (killed, wounded, captured), and 10,000 to desertion. It should be noted however that after the Soviets left, the puppet government left actually lasted far longer than anyone else in the world expected and so long as the Soviets continued giving military supplies, the Afghani government could (and often did) win battles against the Mujahideen. In fact prior to Sivet intervention, they were holding guerrilla jihadists on their own and it was mainly when the Afghanis began to become more unified and fight through conventional warfare that the Afghani government realized they lacked the necessary infrastructure to fight such a war and hence called the Soviets.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: Soviets intervened because while the Puppet Afghani government had good intents, their attempts at reform and modernizing the countries were executed rather poorly and although they could handle guerrillas, their lack of proper national development meant they were in a clusterfuck of a situation when the Afghanis finally decided to set aside traditional feuds and unite against the Puppet government. It doesn't help that although their assassinations of radical Afghani imam and religious leaders was actually the correct step to take, the Afghani government failed to find an balance between modernizing and keeping traditions that the Afghani majority would accept.
  • 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: Zigzagged. Afghans in sandals and pajamas, armed with Kalashnikovs, RPGs, a few advanced missiles from elsewhere, and various small arms dating back to World War 1, managed to kill 15,000 Soviet soldiers and blow up 400 Soviet aircraft, plus 147 tanks, 1,300 infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers, and 430 artillery pieces. The Afghans and their foreign allies in turn lost about 60,000 men in fights with the Soviets (plus another 20,000 men vs the Afghan Communists, compared to 18,000 dead Afghan Communist troops), but still. A 4:1 death-kill ratio is quite impressive when your enemy's functional firepower and training advantage is that huge. That's much better than the far superior (in terms of equipment, training, and numbers) Viet Cong inflicted on the Americans. Dushman never won a single battle, and not even being given a few lasers themselves did much to help. For the record, the lasers didn't succeed half the time, not that it mattered too much, because they found it was more effective to sell said lasers in exchange for heaping lumps of cash, use that cash to buy lots of Simple, yet Awesome rocks, and then tell their laser dealers all about the huge successes they were having with the lasers. Indeed, the terrorists managed to rig a nice little racket for themselves like this. This is why westerners are overwhelmingly of the opinion that the Stinger somehow managed to unilaterally win Afghanistan thanks to shooting down thousands of Soviet aircraft, whereas everybody else, going off of actual military records instead of unsubstantiated reports, think the Stingers were only really good for propaganda.
  • 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 actually not precipitated by this war; Gorbachev deciding to try to sober up the USSR did by cutting the government revenues drastically. The citizens of the non-Russian Republics had disproportionate casualties and that caused resentment note  which contributed to secessionist tendencies. In particular, many Soviet Muslims, who provided disproportionate number of troops who served in Afghanistan (in the hope of offending Afghans less) were themselves radicalized and became involved in unrest within Russia itself. For example, many Chechen rebels, including their first leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, were veterans of the Afghan War.
  • 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.
    • Dzhokhar Dudayev, the future Chechen rebel leader, served as a Soviet Air Force pilot in Afghanistan.

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 Spetsnaz.
  • 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.

    Comic Book 
  • The Punisher MAX villain General Nikolai Zakharov served in the war alongside his Black Sea Marines (another officer states that if he'd been in charge, they'd have conquered Afghanistan... it's just that there wouldn't be much left worth taking over). What's more, later on we learn exactly how they fought. Hint: It involves genocide and infanticide.

  • Charlie Wilson's War, based on a book. It looks at the efforts of Congressman Charlie Wilson to get the American Government to increase support for the mujahideen during this conflict.
  • 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). There was even a bumper sticker showing bin Laden saying "Rambo and I support the resistance".
  • 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, based on a book. They feature a family from Kabul who make an escape to Pakistan during the start of the Soviet invasion.
  • 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 Soviets, 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.
  • The Police's song "Bombs Away" is about this. The invasion happened while its parent album Zenyattà Mondatta was being recorded.
  • Many Soviet soldiers wrote and sang songs about their experiences during the war. Igor' Morozov's ''Batal'onnaya Razvedka'', Yuri Kirsanov's ''Kukushka'', and Yuri Slatov's ''Ordena ne Prodayutsya'' are some of the more well-known ones. The Soviet publishing house Melodiya published a collected record album in 1988 named Vremya Viybralo Nas containing many of these soldier-bard songs.

    Video Games 
  • Revolver Ocelot from Metal Gear served in Afghanistan.
    • A large chunk of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain takes place in 1984 Afghanistan, right in the thick of the invasion. Since Diamond Dogs is an army without a nation, they don't try to take sides during the conflict. However, while both the Soviets and the Islamic Unity of Afghanistan Mujahideen get Obligatory War Crime Scenes as part of the game's central theme, Venom Snake finds himself fighting the Soviet Guards Airborne Regiment and rescuing Mujahideen most of the time anyway.
  • 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.
    • It is also mentioned in the first mission intro of the Soviet campaign that some of the Soviets that had never experienced actual combat were joking that they would crush the NATO forces with ease. But the veterans of the Afghan War were not laughing at these jokes because "they knew war".
  • 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 II: One of the missions take place during the invasion.