Afghanistan: What could possibly go wrong?

Soviet Troops

The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan was one of those moments in history that we can look back at and wonder why they did it and even now it seems foolish. The Soviets entered the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan on Christmas Day 1979 to ‘liberate the people’ and restore the peace. However, the Soviets were conducting a power play that would tear the country apart. It was thought of as a quick fix to a political situation, but it would rapidly turn into a quagmire that would contribute to the fall of the USSR itself.

In 1978, their was a coup that overthrew the Republic of Afghanistan and replaced its non-aligned President with the Communist Party of Afghanistan. The new government was very progressive and promoted the equality of women in Afghan society and conducted massive land reforms. This centralized top-down approach to ruling led to the initiation of an insurgency against the central Communist government. Also the head of the DRA, Nur Muhammad Taraki created a cult of personality around himself that lead to the Alienation of many ethnic groups within the government. This tension within the government would lead to his overthrow by Hafizullah Amin in late 1979. This led to worsening relations between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union as Amin failed to maintain the wreck of the Afghan army and handle the growing revolt in the country. Their was also growing concerns of Chinese, Pakistani and Western interference in the country to try to overthrow the government and the Soviets were more than willing to go all the way to protect their interests in Afghanistan. When Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan, they immediately killed Amin and claimed they had been invited by the people of Afghanistan and installed Babrak Karmal as the leader of Afghanistan. This virtually caused detente to go up in flames practically overnight and tensions between the Soviets and the rest of the world deteriorated. The Soviet intervention also caused the insurgency in the country to grow, requiring even more Soviet resources and troops.

Communist Propaganda

For the next few years the economy of Afghanistan began to weaken and decline along with the Soviet economy. Ultimately, that is the greatest effect of the Afghan conflict, the economic decline of the Soviet Union. A war in Afghanistan is always expensive, just ask the US government, but in the planned economy of the Soviet Union, military resources going to a back water like Afghanistan meant that resources were going away from the already stagnant economy. The Soviets thought that their massive amounts of brute force could solve a political problem, but underestimated the fractured Afghan society and lack of unifying features. The Soviet Invasion would also have broader Geo-political consequences as it motivated the US to support Charlie Wilson’s war and support Islamic fundamentalist groups in the region against the Soviets who wouldn’t just go away after the war. The war may not have been a sudden strike to the Soviet system, but it was persistent and costly and that over time would contribute to the growing dissident movement in the USSR that would lead to its collapse. The Soviets got involved because of a perceived American interference in the country. Now that may have been true to some extent, but the American involvement would only balloon once the Soviets crossed the border and would lead to a souring between the two superpowers and come to help define the last decade of the Cold War.


Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

The Current Digest of the Russian Press.

Invasion of Afghanistan

13 Replies to “Afghanistan: What could possibly go wrong?”

  1. I wrote on a similar topic this week, and we even both used the same image at the beginning of our posts. I am always interested to read about U.S. involvement in Afghanistan during the 1980s because we were essentially assisting the very groups that we would later go to war against, often with them using supplies that we had provided twenty years before. Afghanistan was critical in the downfall of the USSR so I am glad you chose to write on this topic.

  2. This war definitely did not turn out as the Soviets expected. It was honestly pretty similar to our experience in Vietnam in the 60s/70s. Did you find anything about the widespread drug use among Soviet soldiers? That’s always fascinated me when reading about this war. Great post!

  3. I think the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is an important aspect of the Cold War. It was one of the major factors contributing to the downfall of the USSR. Also, I, too, thought of the U.S.’s experience in the Vietnam War while reading this post!

  4. Interesting in both the Soviet and US led interventions in Afghanistan is both held similar features in political methods. Both attempted to install a central government that would have the power and the ability to rule the rugged and remote terrain of Afghanistan. It seems that the Soviets made the mistake that the US has had trouble correcting in the region, namely the disjointed, tribalism of the various ethnic groups in Afghanistan. The Communists were unable to bring to bear all the groups in the country, and these attempts only led to a greater distrust of any central government. The Soviet intervention continued despite ongoing setbacks largely in an attempt to save face and prevent foreign influence. This was an excellent post, great work.

  5. I agree a lot with Kevin Herrity’s comment. In the Soviet’s attempt to spread power, they got involved with a country that had very different values, that led to problems in the decades following due to their scramble to fix their society. Like you said, force was not the solution to the problems in Afghanistan. You’ve probably seen more about how other countries reacted to this, like the US boycotting the Moscow Olympics a few months later. Good post.

  6. Lots of good analysis here — just need to go back and find the stable URL’s for the Current Digest articles you are using. (so the hyperlinks will work properly and we can see your sources)

  7. I think understanding this post is imperative to understanding our involvement as well as current events in the region. I like how you talked about the trouble in trying to enforce new ideas on people without taking their cultural tendencies into perspective. I also liked how you included the effect of foreign affairs on the dissident movement. Great post!

  8. I am always interested by Afghanistan since it has been a political battleground for decades. We still face ramifications from the Cold War logic of supporting our enemy’s enemy. The Invasion of Afghanistan important not only for it spoiling detente, but for the political and social damages the Soviet Union faced. Great post!

  9. This was an interesting post. You did a good job summarizing the event, why Russia entered and how it effected them in the short and long term. It seemed like Russia really over extended themselves when they would have benefited more from not invading. I wonder how different things would be if they hadn’t gone in and their economy hadn’t declined like it did.

  10. I find the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan so very interesting. I firmly agree with your statement that the “The war may not have been a sudden strike to the Soviet system, but it was persistent and costly and that over time would contribute to the growing dissident movement in the USSR that would lead to its collapse.” I also can not help but immediately think of the later effects the US backing some Afghan groups with weapons and how they would end up being used against the US in later deployments of US troops in Afghanistan. Great post!

  11. great post on an interesting topic. What was the Soviet motivation in that country, and did they do more harm than good in terms of bolstering the rise of militant groups.

  12. The invasion of Afghanistan is an event that is truly underrated. The instability caused by the Soviets had an impact that is still seen today. Soviet involvement led the US to give weapons and training to the mujahideen to fight off the foreigners. Those weapons were late used against the US when it invaded Afghanistan in order to fight the Taliban. A lot of people overlook that.

  13. Very interesting and informative post! It is important to understand this situation so that we are able to draw parallels with that of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. It also seems to be a reoccurring theme for the soviets to overestimate their military might eventually costing them a fortune in the long run, a.k.a. Japan. Love your title by the way.

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