Soviet Troops Leave Afghanistan Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After a decade of bloody fighting, the Soviet Union ended its occupation of Afghanistan.

Summary of Event

Afghanistan, a nation about the size of Texas, has been called the “highway of conquest” because invaders have swept through the region since the time of the ancient Persians and Greeks. In fact, the very borders of Afghanistan owe less to any rational or historical nation-state development than they do to the whims of more powerful neighbors. The citizens of Afghanistan are therefore ethnically and culturally diverse, and most view themselves as members of clans, families, villages, or regions rather than as Afghans. Afghanistan;Soviet occupation Soviet Union;and Afghanistan[Afghanistan] [kw]Soviet Troops Leave Afghanistan (1989) [kw]Troops Leave Afghanistan, Soviet (1989) [kw]Afghanistan, Soviet Troops Leave (1989) Afghanistan;Soviet occupation Soviet Union;and Afghanistan[Afghanistan] [g]South Asia;1989: Soviet Troops Leave Afghanistan[07150] [g]Afghanistan;1989: Soviet Troops Leave Afghanistan[07150] [c]Colonialism and occupation;1989: Soviet Troops Leave Afghanistan[07150] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1989: Soviet Troops Leave Afghanistan[07150] Karmal, Babrak Taraki, Nur Mohammad Amin, Hafizullah Gorbachev, Mikhail [p]Gorbachev, Mikhail;Soviet occupation of Afghanistan Najibullah, Mohammad Daud, Mohammad

In addition to this lack of national identity, another important factor in Afghan history has been the country’s economic underdevelopment. Even in the late 1970’s, Afghanistan lacked a railroad system and had few paved roads. Life expectancy was around forty years, and annual per-capita income was only $168. All these factors combined to make the Afghanistan government in Kabul seem distant—some said as if in another world—to the average rural Afghan.

Called the “Finland of Asia” because it was nonaligned but friendly with the Soviet Union, Afghanistan was ruled for decades by a weak king. This stable if ineffective form of government was overthrown in July, 1973, by Prince Mohammad Daud, who led a coup of leftist military officers. Although he was a member of the royal family, Daud abolished the monarchy and proclaimed Afghanistan a republic. There was no real democracy in this new “republic,” but Daud did put forth a populist program that, at least on paper, appeared to aim at some modernization and included talk of land reform.

After a few years, however, Daud had managed to alienate much of Afghan society. Muslim fundamentalists doubted his commitment to Islam when he tried to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood, and workers were repulsed by his strikebreaking, antilabor policies. Food shortages and increased unemployment forced hundreds of thousands of Afghans to go abroad to find work by the late 1970’s.

These factors combined with an increasingly uncertain attitude toward the Soviet Union to push the pro-Soviet People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan[Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan] (PDPA) into opposition to Daud’s government. As discontent with Daud grew, the PDPA began to prepare to overthrow him. Many new party members were recruited, particularly from the ranks of the officer corps of the army and air force. Finally, in April, 1978, the armed forces overthrew Daud’s government, and power passed to the secretary-general of the PDPA, Nur Mohammad Taraki.

The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan was to prove to be as riddled with factions and splits as the nation it intended to lead. Attempts at land reform, educational expansion, introduction of women’s rights, and modernization were hampered by the inexperience and the often heavy-handed methods of the mainly urban PDPA officials sent to carry them out. Although these errors certainly played a major role in fomenting conservative dissent, it is difficult to see how any government that wished to change tradition-bound Afghanistan could have failed to anger the conservative rural population.

Worst of all, the new regime increasingly was seen as atheistic by the deeply religious rural masses. The growing alienation of many Afghans caused by these erroneous policies began to worry Taraki and his Soviet allies. Many of these mistaken methods came to be seen as the work of Hafizullah Amin and his faction in the PDPA.

After a visit to Moscow in September, 1979, Taraki returned to Kabul determined to change the PDPA government’s course, which meant, most likely, the arrest of Amin. After a Wild West-style shootout at the People’s Palace, Amin escaped, only to return with supporters and capture Taraki. On October 9, it was announced that Taraki had died from a long-standing illness. Although the details remain murky, there is little doubt the “illness” from which Taraki died was administered by Amin or on his orders.

There was little love lost between the new ruler of Afghanistan and the Soviet leadership. Amin generally was believed to be responsible for making a mess of the PDPA reform program and had embarrassed the Soviet Union severely by murdering its favorite, Taraki, only days after his widely celebrated trip to the Kremlin. If all this were not enough, Amin was making nationalist noises against the Soviet Union, on one occasion to a gathering of Communist diplomats.

Soviet troops leave Afghanistan on the Salang Highway.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Having considered military intervention for months as a possible solution to the spreading rebellion within Afghanistan, the Soviet Union struck in late December of 1979. On the evening of December 27, a special Soviet assault unit attacked the palace in Kabul and executed Amin. Four days later, Babrak Karmal arrived from the Soviet Union and was installed as new PDPA secretary-general and president of Afghanistan.

Karmal attempted to backpedal on many of the most unpopular programs of his predecessors, even bringing non-Communists into his cabinet. Amnesty was offered to refugees, and major revisions were made in the land-reform legislation that had so upset feudal landlords. Karmal also made great efforts to portray himself as a good Muslim. Official speeches began with a traditional Islamic incantation, and a new flag containing the old Muslim colors of black, red, and green replaced the former red flag. The new Soviet-supported government went so far as to give mullahs free tours of the Islamic areas of the Soviet Union to convince Muslims that Communism and religion were compatible.

Although Karmal’s policies were much more gradual, and perhaps realistic, than those of previous PDPA governments, Karmal failed to win popular support. He was simply identified too closely with the old PDPA policies and perceived too widely as a Soviet puppet for any of these measures to have significant effect. Therefore, despite the endeavors of Karmal and the Soviets, the civil war raging at the time of the Soviet invasion continued and even intensified in the light of heightened antiforeign feeling, particularly in the rural areas.

The anti-PDPA and anti-Soviet resistance movement was able to stand up to the massive force brought against it for a number of reasons. The resistance movement had the advantage that its followers were fanatically determined to fight the Soviets to the bitter end. Because the mullahs declared the struggle to be a holy war against infidels, the fight against the Kabul-based government and its Soviet allies took on an intensely religious tone. Moreover, the cultural tradition of “blood for blood” meant that every Soviet attack left Afghan family members pledged to avenge their dead. The Red Army could not win by seizing a central command area, because the resistance was as decentralized and dispersed as the country itself. Likewise, economic measures from Kabul were of little use in a country of mainly self-sufficient farmers.

Added to this difficult situation, the Soviets found themselves fighting an enemy with powerful international backing. Rebels regularly slipped across the border to Pakistan or Iran, where pursuit by the Soviets was not politically possible. Furthermore, the rural Afghan rebels found themselves aided by the United States, which provided them with massive amounts of sophisticated weapons along with cash.

By the time Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, the war in Afghanistan was a bleeding sore for Soviet foreign policy. It seemed impossible to defeat the rebels, and the fighting was demoralizing many at home and tarnishing the Soviet image abroad. Gorbachev concluded that a settlement that would allow Soviet withdrawal was imperative.

In May, 1986, the ineffective Karmal was replaced by Mohammad Najibullah, who was encouraged to seek a political compromise with the mujahideen. At the same time, the Soviet leader launched an intensive diplomatic campaign to find a way to end the fighting. Finally, on May 15, 1988, the Soviets announced their intention to begin removing their troops. By the time the last Soviet soldier left in 1989, the Soviets had suffered 13,310 dead and 35,478 wounded. There were no reliable estimates of the number of dead Afghans. The nation was left with countless physical and psychological scars.


The Soviet military withdrawal from Afghanistan was a step toward peace in that troubled land. Sadly, however, the fighting and dying did not end with the removal of Soviet soldiers. The civil war between the Kabul-based PDPA government and the rural antigovernment rebels continued to rage.

As the Soviet Union removed its troops from Afghan soil, the antigovernment forces boasted that the days of Najibullah and the Kabul “Communists” were numbered. This prediction, which was widely supported by Western experts and echoed in the Western media, proved to be a mirage. Instead of falling into the hands of the rebels, the Kabul government shocked most observers with an unexpected show of strength.

There were a number of reasons for this surprising development. Without the unifying common enemy the Soviets had provided, the anticommunist resistance began to fragment, and members began to fight among themselves. Another more fundamental reason for the surprising staying power of Najibullah and for the continued fighting was that not all Afghans opposed the PDPA-imposed reforms. Among certain—particularly urban—members of Afghan society, the reforms so heavy-handedly initiated by the PDPA were, all the same, things to be defended.

For all the political intrigue and violence, the various PDPA reforms were, at least partly, motivated by a desire to modernize Afghanistan and create a more just society. Although the countless violations of human rights committed by the PDPA government helped spark the rebellion, it is almost certain that any fundamental changes would have provoked strong reactions. Traditionalist landlords could hardly be expected to welcome land reform even if it was mandated by the most devoutly Islamic government, and the education of women struck a raw nerve among the rural male population. Among rural rebels who viewed education as synonymous with atheism and often had a policy of publicly executing teachers suspected of teaching women to read, it was not only “communism” that was the enemy but also what in the West would be considered progress.

Many urban Afghans who deplored the violations of the PDPA or even opposed socialism thus thought they had little choice but to support the government, considering the possible alternative. When the element of foreign intervention by the Soviet Union was stripped away, a fundamental split between different parts of the Afghan populace was revealed.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan certainly contributed to the tragedy of a poor nation. The Soviet intervention was not only a violation of Afghanistan’s national rights but also a failure in its own terms. Soviet troops did not and could not have defeated the antigovernment forces they sought to destroy. The result of their intervention was only to heighten the bloodshed already in progress.

Still, it is important to note that the causes behind the civil war were deeply rooted in Afghan society. The urban, educated sectors of the Afghan population had grown increasingly opposed to continuing as a backward country, out of touch with the late twentieth century. For their part, the predominantly rural traditionalists saw modernization as a threat to their way of life and religion. These tensions continued to play themselves out in the 1990’s, eventually leading to the emergence and dominance of the Taliban, Taliban a Muslim extremist group that enforced a strict version of sharia, Sharia or Islamic law, in the large areas of Afghanistan under Taliban control, including Kabul.

The Taliban’s treatment of women and rigid imposition of sharia provoked many outcries from human rights organizations, but the group’s removal from power came about as a result of its willingness to allow terrorist groups, in particular Osama Bin Laden’s Bin Laden, Osama al-Qaeda, Al-Qaeda[Al Qaeda] to train in Afghanistan and to use Afghan territory freely as a safe haven and springboard for terrorist attacks abroad. The September 11, 2001, attacks by al-Qaeda on New York City and Washington, D.C., proved the final straw for the United States and other Western governments; they finally intervened in Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban, inaugurating a new era of fragile democratic life in a nation beset by many woes that can be traced back to the Soviet invasion of 1979. Afghanistan;Soviet occupation Soviet Union;and Afghanistan[Afghanistan]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Amstutz, J. Bruce. Afghanistan: The First Five Years of Soviet Occupation. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University, 1986. Presents a wealth of information on the major people and events surrounding the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, although dated and obviously partisan to the antigovernment forces. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Borovik, Artyom. The Hidden War: A Russian Journalist’s Account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan. 1990. Reprint. New York: Grove Press, 2001. Personal eyewitness account written by a former Russian journalist who covered the war from 1980 to 1989.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gorbachev, Mikhail S. Perestroika. New York: Harper & Row, 1987. Provides a useful introduction to the thinking of the Soviet leader who withdrew troops from Afghanistan, although it must be viewed as a work of public relations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hammond, Thomas T. Red Flag over Afghanistan: The Communist Coup, the Soviet Invasion, and the Consequences. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1984. Although dated, presents a very worthwhile introduction to the key events of 1978 through 1981. In addition, devotes several chapters to speculation about future developments that are, surprisingly, still relevant. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maley, William. The Afghanistan Wars. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Well-documented and comprehensive overview of the wars fought by Afghanistan, from the Soviet-Afghan War to the conflict in the early twenty-first century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rubinstein, Alvin Z. Moscow’s Third World Strategy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988. Attempts to analyze the policy of the Soviet Union toward weaker nations. Informative, but flawed in its overreliance on a Cold War-type analysis that, at least in the case of Gorbachev and Afghanistan, seems to fly in the face of the facts. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Russian General Staff, eds. The Soviet-Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost. Translated by Lester W. Grau. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002. Dense and detailed account of the operations and tactics of the Soviet military with special attention to mistakes made and lessons learned. Includes illustrations, glossary and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Saikal, Amin, and William Maley, eds. The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Collection of essays by notable authorities on foreign affairs focuses on the significance of the Soviet withdrawal. Includes bibliography and index.

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Categories: History