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The Soviet Invasion - 1979-1989

In 1979. against a background of slowing economic growth and military spending, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to support a ?edgling Marxist government threatened by civil war and imminent collapse. Moscow‘s basic goal was to ensure the continuation of a pro-Soviet Communist regime that could rule the country on its own without a large Soviet military presence. At the time, the Soviets referred to the invasion as “limited” and “temporary” hoping that a more moderate regime in Kabul under Babrak Karmal, coupled with the Soviet military presence, would intimidate the insurgents, bolster the Afghan army, and enable most of the Soviet troops to withdraw within a couple of years.

On April 27, 1978, the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which had close ideological ties to the Soviet Union initiated a bloody coup. In December 1978, Moscow signed a new bilateral treaty of friendship and cooperation with Afghanistan, and the Soviet military assistance program increased significantly. The regime's survival increasingly was dependent upon Soviet assistance as the insurgency spread and the Afghan army began to collapse. In September 1979, Hafizullah Amin, who had earlier been Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, seized power. By October 1979, however, relations between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union were tense as Hafizullah Amin refused to take Soviet advice on how to stabilize and consolidate his government. Over the next 2 months, instability plagued Amin's regime as he moved against perceived enemies in the PDPA. By December, party morale was crumbling, and the insurgency was growing.

On December 12, 1979, the General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee Leonid Brezhnev and a special commission of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the CPSU decided to introduce Soviet troops in Afghanistan "in order to provide international assistance to the friendly Afghan people, as well as to create favorable conditions for the prohibition of anti-Afghan actions by neighboring countries." The rationale for the decision was Article 4 of the Soviet-Afghan Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighborhood and Cooperation of December 5, 1978, Article 51 of the UN Charter (on the right of states to self-defense against external aggression) and requests from the leadership of Afghanistan for military assistance. According to the directive of the Minister of Defense of the USSR Dmitry Ustinov of December 24, 1979, Soviet troops were to be stationed in the DRA by garrisons and take important objects under guard.

Faced with a deteriorating security situation, on the night of December 24-25, 1979, large numbers of Soviet airborne forces began to land in Kabul. They killed Hafizullah Amin and installed Babrak Karmal, exiled leader of the Parcham faction, as Prime Minister. Within two days, they had secured Kabul, deploying a special Soviet assault unit against Darulaman Palace, where elements of the Afghan army loyal to Amin put up a fierce, but brief resistance. With Amin's death at the palace, Babrak Karmal, exiled leader of the Parcham faction of the PDPA was installed by the Soviets as Afghanistan's new head of government.

A number of theories have been advanced for the Soviet action. These interpretations of Soviet motives do not always agree--what is known for certain is that the decision was influenced by many factors--that in Brezhnev's words the decision to invade Afghanistan was truly "was no simple decision." Two factors were certain to have figured heavily in Soviet calculations. The Soviet Union, always interested in establishing a cordon sanitaire of subservient or neutral states on its frontiers, was increasingly alarmed at the unstable, unpredictable situation on its southern border. Perhaps as important, the Brezhnev doctrine declared that the Soviet Union had a "right" to come to the assistance of an endangered fellow socialist country. Presumably Afghanistan was a friendly regime that could not survive against growing pressure from the resistance without direct assistance from the Soviet Union.

The Soviet armed forces that invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 consisted of about 40,000 officers and men and their equipment. The fierce resistance by Afghan guerrilla forces mujahidiin, literally meaning warriors engaged in a holy war. forced the Soviets to increase the size and sophistication of their military units, and in late 1985 a United States government official estimated that Soviet units in Afghanistan comprised about 118,000 men, of which about 10,000 were reported to be in the Soviet secret police and other special units.

One reason for the Soviet buildup was the ineffectiveness of Afghan military and paramilitary units. When the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) seized power in a coup d'état in April 1978, the army consisted of about 80,000 officers and men and the air force of about 10,000. Both services were almost completely. dependent on the Soviet Union for equipment and spare parts. A very large number of commissioned and noncommissioned officers had been trained in the Soviet Union, and Soviet military advisers were posted throughout the services. Nevertheless, by the time of the Soviet invasion the services had been seriously weakened by widespread desertions and by infighting among adherents of the two major factions of the PDPA Parcham and Khalq. Although data on the armed forces were necessarily incomplete and speculative, informed observers in late 1985 estimated the strength of the army at no more than 40,000. Most army personnel were conscripts, and many of them had been forced into service by roving press gangs. The air force reportedly had about 7,000 men in uniform, who were watched over by an estimated 5,000 Cuban and Czechoslovak advisers. Soviet military officers were responsible for important and routine military decisions, not only in the Ministry of National Defense but also in all units and detachments.

The toll in casualties, economic resources, and loss of support at home increasingly felt in the Soviet Union was causing criticism of the occupation policy. Brezhnev died in 1982, and after two short-lived successors, Mikhail Gorbachev assumed leadership in March 1985. As Gorbachev opened up the country's system, it became more clear that the Soviet Union wished to find a face-saving way to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Soviet miscalculation of what was required to crush Afghan resistance aggravated the government's situation. The Afghan army was expected to carry the burden of suppressing opposition, which was to be done quickly with Soviet support. As the war of pacification dragged on for years, the Babrak Karmal government was further weakened by the poor performance of its army.

CIA estimated that from their initial invasion in December 1979 through 1986 the Soviets had spent about 18 billion rubles on the conduct of the war. Of this total. about 3 billion rubles would have been spent over the seven-year period even if the USSR had not occupied Afghanistan. Measured in dollars — what it would have cost the United States to procure, operate, and maintain the same force in Afghanistan — CIA estimated that the total cost through the seven years of the war was about $50 billion. This is only 75 percent of what the war in Vietnam cost the United States in the peak year of 1968.

By the beginning of 1987, the controlling fact in the Afghan war was the Soviet Union's determination to withdraw. It would not renege on its commitment to the Kabul government's survival--Gorbachev's options were restricted by Soviet military insistence that Kabul not be abandoned. Nevertheless, the Soviet leadership was convinced that resolution of cold war issues with the West and internal reform were far more urgent than the fate of the Kabul government. An agreement was reached in May 1988 that authorized the withdrawal of "foreign troops" according to a timetable that would remove all Soviet forces by February 15, 1989.

The Soviets left Afghanistan deep in winter with intimations of panic among Kabul officials. Hard experience had convinced Soviet officials that the government was too faction riven to survive. Pakistani and American officials expected a quick mujahidin victory. Within three months, these expectations were dashed.

Immediately after the Soviet departure, Najibullah pulled down the façade of shared government. He declared an emergency, removed Sharq and the other non-party ministers from the cabinet. The Soviet Union responded with a flood of military and economic supplies. Sufficient food and fuel were made available for the next two difficult winters. Much of the military equipment belonging to Soviet units evacuating Eastern Europe was shipped to Afghanistan. Assured adequate supplies, Kabul's air force, which had developed tactics minimizing the threat from Stinger missiles, now deterred mass attacks against the cities.

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Page last modified: 15-02-2019 12:29:22 ZULU