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Useful Notes / Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan

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First Sting, oil on canvas painting representing the "first Stinger Missile kill" by the Mujahideen in 1986.

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, also known as the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and the Soviet–Afghan War, 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 school!) and authoritarian rule (while Afghanistan had never been democratic, the communists employed state oppression on a much grander scale than any previous government) 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. At the same time, the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and several other countries provided arms and money to the rebels, known as the mujahideen. 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. In retrospect, historians widely consider the Soviet–Afghan War a major contributor to the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, draining the country's economy over the course of the '80s and dealing a huge blow to the public's morale when the Red Army finally withdrew. To this day, it remains a sharp point of contention in the former Soviet states.

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. (Check out a 1993 profile, titled "Anti-Soviet Warrior Puts His Army on the Road to Peace", about... Osama bin Laden.)

Ah yes, bin Laden. The ugly elephant in the room. Yes, Osama bin Laden was indeed part of the mujahideen who the US financed to combat the Soviet invasion. While it was never confirmed that bin Laden was directly trained and funded by the CIA, he did receive indirect American support through Pakistani intelligence and military. Bin Laden's experience and financial support from the war allowed him to form the terrorist group al Qaeda, setting the stage for the The War on Terror and all the controversy and chaos that brought about. Consequently, modern views of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan tend to focus far more on the US's severely misplaced loyalties during that conflict and how badly it came to bite the country decades later. Many mujahideen soldiers also became members of the Taliban, who took advantage of the damage and power vacuum left behind after the Soviets' withdrawal to institute a theocratic government condemned the world over for severe human rights abuses. Not helping is how western narratives of the conflict still, to this day, tend to gloss over the large period of upheaval in Afghanistan that preceded the invasion, frequently depicting the Soviets as recklessly invading a country that was doing perfectly fine before the Reds came along, when in reality it was just one extension of a larger domestic conflict that only gained international attention because the Soviets got involved.

Given how hugely the war backfired on both the United States and the Soviet Union, it's highly likely that while the power vacuum that encouraged the rise of the Taliban would've still happened regardless of whether or not the two superpowers got involved, the fact that it turned into a theater for the Cold War meant that the final result was far more disastrous for the pair than if they'd just stayed out altogether.

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.

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.

    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 praising those "brave Afghan rebels".
  • The comedy Spies Like Us.
  • The Living Daylights is not quite as horribly dated as it would seem at first glance. The Mujahideen 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?"
  • Leaving Afghanistan is a more recent Russian movie about the war, partly based on the memoir of KGB (later FSB) officer Nikolai Kovalyov and focusing on the deals made between the warring sides in the lead-up to the Soviet withdrawal.

  • 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.
  • Though barely mentioned in the The Kite Runner, the war played a significant role in the lives of the main cast. Amir, the main character, and Baba, his father an influential and respected businessman in early 1970s' Kabul live a comfortable life as part of the ruling class. However, soon after the war starts, Amir, Baba, and Rami Khan, a close friend of Baba, escape by way of Pakistan. Rami Khan stays in Pakistan, while Amir and Baba make their way to San Francisco as War Refugees, and where Baba works as a mere gas station attendant.
  • 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 novels, the existence of Arm Slaves allows the Soviet Union's support of the pro-communist government to succeed.

    Live Action TV 
  • In HBO's Chernobyl, episode four has Bacho, one of the liquidators assigned to "animal control," the killing of pets and livestock so they won't spread radiation outside the containment zone, reassigned to the Chernobyl exclusion zone after his tour of duty in Afghanistan ended.
  • The MacGyver (1985) 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.
  • Sabaton's song "Hill 3234" describes the 1988 battle for the eponymous hill in Paktia Province between 39 Soviet VDV paratroopers and several hundred mujaheddin and Pakistani mercenaries commanded by Jalaluddin Haqqani.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Twilight Struggle represents the Invasion with the US card "Bear Trap" (whose picture depicts Mujahadeen fighters), which can potentially paralyze the Soviet player for several turns. The parallels to Vietnam are also shown by the Soviet card "Quagmire" (which shows a Vietnam era American chopper), which does the exact same thing to the US.

    Video Games 
  • Revolver Ocelot from Metal Gear Solid served in Afghanistan, and mentions that the mujahideen had nicknamed him "Shalashaska".
    • 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 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. Alternatively, he can abduct Soviet soldiers and turn them towards his cause, making them and the rescued Mujahideen work together.
  • 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:
    • Call of Duty: Black Ops II: One of the missions take place during the invasion, where both America (through the CIA Player Character) and China (through an allied NPC) supply weapons to the mujahideen. The depiction is heavily colored by the knowledge of what the mujahideen would turn into, as they betray you, declaring you "our true enemy", almost the instant the mission's fighting is over.
    • Nikolai from the Modern Warfare series served in Afghanistan with the Soviets, and mentions this during the "The Enemy of my Enemy" mission in [[Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
  • Tachanka from Rainbow Six Siege is one of the oldest operators in the game, and is thus the only Spetsnaz operator to have served in the Soviet army while it was in Afghanistan.