Soviet failure in Afghanistan

Unexpectedly, around Christmas 1979, the USSR intervened in Afghanistan, a nearby state where its influence had not ceased to grow during the 1970s. Moscow wanted to save a “Marxist-Leninist” regime at the end of its rope. The USSR had to prevent the collapse of a Communist regime, which would set an unfortunate precedent.

A year earlier, in 1978, a coup had brought to power the most radical faction of the Communist Party, Khalq, one of the goals of which was to modernize the Afghan populations. Implemented with typical Stalinist rigidity, reforms aimed at customs and traditions were all the more badly experienced that the party leadership was seen, rightly so, as hostile to Islam. In early 1979, the United States was already secretly helping the Afghan resistance.

By that fall, it had become obvious that the sitting regime would collapse. Discussions were held at the Soviet Central Committee, which after much hesitation and against the general staff’s advice, decided not to leave the Communist regime to its fall. At the end of December 1979, Soviet troops invaded Kabul, got rid of the Khalq leader, and replaced him with Babrak Karmal, a moderate from the other Afghan Communist Party current, the Parcham.

The Soviet mistake of intervening in Afghanistan to save the Khalq Communist regime in power since 1978 would make it possible for Saudi Arabia to retake the initiative. The CIA, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan agreed to support the Afghan insurrection as of 1980, and to facilitate, thereafter, the arrival and incorporation of jihadists come to support the Afghan resistance against the “infidels.” Saudi Arabia, assisted by the Gulf Emirates, was the state that provided the greatest financial contribution, while Pakistan supplied logistics and a sanctuary for the jihadists… This Jihad, it would be noted much later, was Sunni.

Ten years later, in February 1989, after a political defeat, the Soviet troops withdrew in good order. Apart from its special forces (Spetsnaz), the Soviet army was not in the least adapted to this type of war. The major part of operations had been carried out by paratrooper units and special forces, especially since 1983, often successfully.

What explains the Soviet defeat? Compared to the Vietnamese, the organizational capacities of the Afghan resistance, divided into more than a half-dozen movements, were of confounding mediocrity. The Afghan forces, whose propaganda machine had been provided by the United States and its allies, were largely overestimated. Were they not claiming to have defeated the Soviet enemy, and even caused the fall of the Soviet regime, when it had taken them three years to overthrow Mohammad Najibullah’s regime, which had all the country’s cities under its control? The Mujahideen’s operational weakness was blatant.

Throughout the entire war, the number of Soviet troops remained lower than one hundred twenty thousand, that is, two times lower than the US forces thereafter, with just as little success.

The Soviets and their Afghan auxiliaries emptied the countryside of almost one-third of its population (fifteen million) and tripled that of the capital (from seven hundred thousand to nearly two million).

From beginning to end, the Pakistani sanctuary was vital. The logistics from this country, like the combatants, were not at any time seriously jeopardized. The Afghan resistants’ tenacious pugnacity was rewarded and, starting in 1986, fearsome anti-aircraft weapons (Stinger) made the intervention of Soviet helicopters problematic. In terms of guerrilla warfare, Afghanistan did not bring any innovations. The change was occurring in Moscow, with Mikhail Gorbachev in power, rather than on the ground.

The Soviets made the same mistake as the United States had done in Vietnam. This type of colonial war should never be waged by a conscription-based army. This was a mistake the British had never made. The Soviets were paradoxically the victims of democracy, because the war was not popular, neither among the Russians nor among the non-Russians.
The Afghans were able to hold their ground thanks to the segmentation of their society (first ethnic, then religious and ideological), which allowed the guerrilla not to be dismantled since it had neither a leader nor an underground political infrastructure. With no central leadership, but equipped with an unconquered symbol in the person of Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, the “Lion of Panjshir,” the resistance was very difficult to take down. The Afghans’ disadvantage in terms of revolutionary warfare turned out to be an advantage. The Pashtuns had basically waged regular war instead of using modern and structured guerrilla warfare. Massoud was the first—and his example was scarcely followed—to impose the idea of a full-time irregular combatant.

Added to the traditional warlike qualities of the Afghans—who had an ideal ground for guerrilla warfare—Afghan underdevelopment was a major advantage in a population accustomed to a very frugal existence, and the impact of the war had relatively limited material effects.1 Massoud was practicing a “diversion of Leninism.”2

No more than the United States did at the beginning of the Vietnam War, did the Soviets have troops that were adapted to the type of irregular warfare they were running up against. Under Brejnev, it was hard to imagine the Soviets withdrawing from Afghanistan.

Dictatorships do not withdraw unless they collapse. To their credit, the Soviets contributed to strengthening the Afghan intelligence services, the Khad, and applied an ethnic-based strategy in the colonial tradition. Even though there was a high rate of desertion from the Afghan army, a solid core remained operational to the end (1992).

As previously mentioned, the turning point of the war did not happen at the military level, but at the political level, in 1985, with the rise to power of Mikhail Gorbatchev, who with Glasnost (democratization) and Perestroika (economic restructuring) started a new policy that he was ultimately not able to control. As support for the combatants was growing, Gorbatchev announced the imminent withdrawal of the Soviet troops, which was to be in 1988. There were anti-war demonstrations before that, particularly in Transcaucasia.

In 1987, the former head of the Afghan intelligence agency, Mohammad Najibullah, was appointed head of the Afghan state and launched, in vain, a reconciliation process with no reference to Marxism. Starting in 1986, the Soviet forces virtually ceased their offensive operations. From then on, the main burden of the counterinsurgency was in the hands of the Afghan army. Volunteers for the Jihad were organized by a Palestinian from Jordan, Abdullah Azzam, with assistance from the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). To the end, the United States and their Middle Eastern allies supported the most Islamist of the Afghan movements, which were divided between more or less extreme Islamists and traditionalists attached to the royalty. Hezb-e-Islami and its leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, were the main beneficiaries of this foreign assistance. Among the foreign jihadists was Osama bin Laden, who would come to public attention after Abdullah Azzam was killed in a car explosion at the end of the war.

The Mujahideen made no headway between 1989 and 1992, while in these three years the Najibullah regime, which was well organized and did not have corruption as its main feature—something that deserves mentioning—did not lose any cities except for the small frontier city of Khost.

After the Soviet Union disappeared and the Najibullah regime fell, the years 1992 to 1994 were two years of violent civil war around Kabul between the partisans of Massoud the Tajik and those of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar the Pashtun. It caused many victims and did a lot of damage. In the countryside, disorder and insecurity enabled banditry while the economic situation seriously deteriorated. The United States lost interest in the country once the USSR was out of Afghanistan.

It was in 1994 that the Taliban, Pashtuns educated and trained in Deobandi madrasas, organized and armed by the ISI, penetrated Afghanistan and seized Kandahar, and two years later, Kabul. The people, particularly in the Pashtun spheres, were relieved to welcome an organized force that would ensure their security. Dissatisfactions would be expressed later, in urban areas, against the rigid moralism of the new regime, which otherwise had no economic agenda.

Osama bin Laden, who like all the foreign combatants had left the country shortly after the Soviet withdrawal, returned to Afghanistan in 1996. His influence was gradually felt on Mullah Omar, who was leading the country. A new wave of apprentice jihadists moved into Afghanistan. Gradually, through a boomerang effect, jihadism turned against the impious Arab regimes (including Saudi Arabia) and “the Crusaders and the Jews.”


  1. On this subject, see Chaliand, Gérard (1989), “Remarques sur l’intervention soviétique en Afghanistan”, Stratégiques, No. 2.
  2. The French weekly, L’Express, July 16-22, 1982.