Soviet Union Invades Afghanistan Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in an attempt to support the communist government that the Soviet Union had helped develop and install.

Summary of Event

On December 24, 1979, four motorized tank and rifle divisions, made up mostly of Uzbek, Tajik, and Turkmen soldiers, rolled down the Salang Highway into Kabul, Afghanistan. On December 27, Hafizullah Amin’s three-month-old government was overthrown. Amin was executed, and Babrak Karmal was installed as president. Within a week, Soviet military strength in Afghanistan reached 100,000 soldiers, nearly balancing the 150,000 in the mujahideen (freedom fighters) opposition. Afghanistan;Soviet occupation Soviet Union;and Afghanistan[Afghanistan] [kw]Soviet Union Invades Afghanistan (Dec. 24-27, 1979) [kw]Invades Afghanistan, Soviet Union (Dec. 24-27, 1979) [kw]Afghanistan, Soviet Union Invades (Dec. 24-27, 1979) Afghanistan;Soviet occupation Soviet Union;and Afghanistan[Afghanistan] [g]South Asia;Dec. 24-27, 1979: Soviet Union Invades Afghanistan[03780] [g]Afghanistan;Dec. 24-27, 1979: Soviet Union Invades Afghanistan[03780] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Dec. 24-27, 1979: Soviet Union Invades Afghanistan[03780] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec. 24-27, 1979: Soviet Union Invades Afghanistan[03780] Brezhnev, Leonid [p]Brezhnev, Leonid;Afghanistan invasion Karmal, Babrak Taraki, Nur Mohammad Daud, Mohammad Amin, Hafizullah Gorbachev, Mikhail [p]Gorbachev, Mikhail;Soviet occupation of Afghanistan Khomeini, Ayatollah Zahir Shah, Mohammad

Analysts have given a number of reasons for the invasion. One expansionist view regards the invasion as a step in the further implementation of a Russian policy espoused originally by Peter the Great and later adopted by the Soviets as well. This view allows that the annexation of Afghanistan follows the earlier takeover of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The motivation for the move is given as access to the warm-water ports of the Indian Ocean. Another reason given is that the reform-minded Marxist government of Afghanistan needed Moscow’s assistance, and Moscow could not turn a deaf ear to the needs of a newly formed Marxist state. A third and compelling argument relates the invasion to the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fundamentalist rule in Iran. Khomeini’s expressed intention of exporting his revolution made Afghanistan and the Soviet Central Asian republics prime candidates for Iranian ideological expansion. Whatever the primary reason for the invasion, the Iranian revolution apparently hastened it.

Pressure for the Soviet takeover had been building for more than a decade. Amity between the Afghan monarchy and the Soviet government had been sealed in a friendship treaty in 1921 and a neutrality and nonaggression treaty in 1926, but Afghan society began to divide along class lines and between communist supporters and detractors in the mid-1960’s.

Afghanistan was the first noncommunist Third World nation to receive Soviet aid during the 1950’s, despite traditional Afghan distrust of non-Afghans. Radio Moscow began to broadcast programs in Pashto, the chief language of eastern Afghanistan, in 1957. Soviet contacts with the Afghan leadership under monarch Mohammad Zahir Shah were of a primarily political nature during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Heads of state of the two countries visited each other. Soviet leaders used their visits to determine Afghan needs, assess Soviet access to strategic points, and propose avenues of cooperation. Afghan leaders spent two or three weeks at a stretch in the Soviet Union pursuing educational and recreational endeavors as well as negotiating aid packages.

Following each trip of an Afghan leader to Moscow, specially designed aid packages arrived in Kabul. These packages initially included kits for building flour mills, motor repair works, and asphalt factories. Later on, trained personnel brought equipment for building major roads such as the Salang Highway through the Hindu Kush and the Kushka-Qandahār Highway across Afghanistan. Soviet aid also helped develop an Afghan irrigation system, including canals and dams, and a gas pipeline, several hydroelectric plants, and several airports.

Mounted Afghan guerrillas ready for combat with Soviet and government forces in western Afghanistan, January, 1980.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The Soviets wished to preserve Afghanistan’s neutral stance in relation to the United States and the People’s Republic of China and to maintain a trade relationship with the Afghans. For this reason, every time a dispute flared up between Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, the Soviets intervened. In 1950, for example, Pakistan sealed its northern borders, effectively separating the landlocked Afghans from all port facilities and markets to their south. Seizing this opportunity, the Soviets stepped in and negotiated an agreement with the Afghan government in which the Afghans were granted duty-free transit rights in exchange for allowing the Soviets to institute a program of political education in Afghanistan. Some of the students of this institution formed the nucleus of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan[Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan] (PDPA) in 1965. Two of them, Hafizullah Amin and Nur Mohammad Taraki, were voted into the Afghan parliament.

The emergence of the PDPA threatened traditional ways of life in Afghanistan. Afghan society was ethnically diverse and operated along tribal affiliations. Most citizens followed Islamic law as well as their own tribal customary bylaws. Payment of dowries, polygamy, child marriage, and seclusion of women were all accepted practices. Ownership of water and land was regarded as an inalienable right lost only through sale or inability to pay debts, and jobs were tied to social rank rather than ability. The PDPA, with its links to communist ideology, threatened to upset this pattern of life.

The PDPA itself split into factions in 1967. The Khalq faction, Khalq faction (Afghanistan) representing southern, tribal Pushtun people, controlled the civil administration and the lower echelons of the military. The Parcham faction, Parcham faction (Afghanistan) representing northern, urban speakers of Dari, communicated with the government elite. Mohammad Daud led the Parcham faction to an overthrow of monarch Zahir Shah in 1973. Khalq and Parcham forces reunited in 1977, however, and overthrew the Daud government in 1978 in the Saur Revolution, which created the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and established the Khalq as the only authoritative party.

The new government, under Hafizullah Amin, guaranteed the cultural rights of all ethnic and national minorities. These included full legal rights for women, in particular the banning of forced marriages, polygamy, and dowries. Debts caused by usury were canceled, and farms were collectivized in a program of agrarian reform. Three billion acres of land were distributed among 285,000 farmers.

The people of Afghanistan initially welcomed these reforms, until the clergy and the other landlords discovered the full implications of collectivization. They realized, for example, that their Islamic right to honestly gained property was not protected under the new laws and that the government intended to divide their holdings equitably among the landless peasantry. Individuals from different segments of society voiced their opposition and, gradually, pockets of resistance developed, drawing membership from poor peasants who were forced to sell their property to pay for water, draft animals, seed, and equipment. Under the old system, these concerns had been relegated to the landlords; peasants merely sold their labor for a fraction of the profit derived from cultivating the land. The resisters questioned the validity of reforms imposed on the Muslim people by nonbelievers.

Opposition to the regime increased in intensity, as did the measures undertaken to suppress that opposition. Political dissidents had their homes searched without warrant and were incarcerated without due process. Some were secretly executed, including members of an educated class numbering between twenty-five and fifty thousand people. In Kerala, in the Kunar Valley, more than one hundred men and boys who refused to shout out support for the Khalq government were massacred by Afghan soldiers and their Soviet advisers. When even these severe measures failed to quell the rebellion, Amin began to sever ties with Moscow to appease the fundamentalists.

With its centerpiece of reforms at stake, and with the specter of a fundamentalist regime propped up by Iran looming large on the horizon, the Soviet government chose a military solution. The Soviets took over the communication lines, introduced censorship, and ordered all foreign media representatives to leave Afghanistan. Workers were frisked at both entrance and exit points as they went about their daily tasks, and a curfew was put into effect. Even the green band of the Afghan flag was replaced with red and, in the elementary schools, the Arabic-based alphabet was replaced by Cyrillic. Dari, the Farsi of northern Afghanistan, replaced Pashto as the official language of the bureaucracy.

The war moved from Kabul to the provincial capitals, which were often sequestered in high mountains and thick woods. The Soviets subjected such areas to repeated saturation bombing and chemical defoliation in efforts to dislodge the insurgents. Houses, foundations, and even the retaining walls of the fields and irrigation canals were demolished. Soviet forces deliberately burned wheat and rice fields and cut down fruit trees. Whole villages fled the devastated countryside, seeking refuge in Pakistan and Iran. The refugee camps provided little relief, as they lacked quality medical treatment and education. Curable physical disabilities were not treated because of a lack of facilities, and psychological disorders such as acute depression and phobic neuroses were dismissed as poor quality of life.


Relations between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan had been cordial from the end of the nineteenth century almost until the Soviet invasion. Soviet aid allowed the Afghans to construct a national infrastructure, but the hidden price of this generosity was high. The Soviets gained access to the untapped resources of Afghanistan, especially oil and gas, at prices well below world prices and indirectly disrupted the political and social structure of the country.

Following the invasion, communists and mujahideen traded attacks in the urban centers of Kabul, Qandahār, and Herāt. In Kabul, the Hazara, a Shia minority, served as scapegoat. On February 29, 1980, fifteen hundred Hazara were reported killed and two thousand were arrested. The Soviets bombed schools, hospitals, stores, and mosques. By March, 1980, more than one hundred thousand were reported dead, and the killing went on. In the repeated bombing of the village of Istalif, north of Kabul, from October 12 through October 19, 1983, five hundred were killed and the same number were wounded. In the Paktiya, Kunar, and Parvan provinces, farms were seeded with mines that detonated in the hands of curious children who picked them up. As a result of such activities, thousands of villagers were disabled or displaced. Almost four million refugees fled to Pakistan, and half that many to Iran. Approximately one million Afghans died in the struggle. Afghan communists were tortured and mutilated by fanatics.

The Soviet invaders did not escape unscathed. The Afghans refused to take prisoners of war and killed Soviets on sight. More than fifteen thousand Soviets died and more than thirty thousand were injured.

In addition to the obvious and immediate casualties of war, the Soviet invasion jeopardized the growing links between Moscow and the West. These ties were the result of West German chancellor Willy Brandt’s policy of Ostpolitik, Ostpolitik which had been in effect since 1970, and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s policy of détente, which began about the same time. Furthermore, Moscow intended to play a central role both in regulating Eastern European contacts with the West and in preventing the formation of alliances between Eastern Europe and the West that could jeopardize the acquisition of updated technology and the infusion of easy credit into the Soviet economy. The invasion of Afghanistan blocked almost all avenues of negotiation on these vital issues.

The United Nations condemned the Soviet invasion with a vote of 104 to 18, with 18 abstentions. Moscow could not ignore the worldwide impact of the condemnation, nor could it afford the cost of the war, estimated at one to two billion dollars annually. These and other considerations caused Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to announce, on April 15, 1988, that the Soviet Union would withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. The United Nations then brought the United States, the main force behind the U.N. resolutions, and Pakistan, China, and the Soviet Union to the negotiation table and worked out a program of phased withdrawal, which was completed on February 15, 1989.

The Afghan war weakened the prestige and the economy of the Soviet Union, which collapsed within a matter of years after the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Afghanistan fared even worse, as civil war ravaged the country throughout the 1990’s. Taliban Taliban forces gradually gained the upper hand and opened the door to Islamic terrorists. When the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, provoked American retaliation in Afghanistan, the Taliban forces were defeated. Afghanistan saw the restoration of a democratic constitution in 2004, and the nation held parliamentary elections in 2005. Afghanistan;Soviet occupation Soviet Union;and Afghanistan[Afghanistan]

Further Reading
  • 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">Bradsher, Henry. Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1985. Thorough analysis and discussion of the change from monarchical rule to communist rule in Afghanistan. Views the Soviet invasion globally and assesses its cost in human suffering and dollars. Includes copious notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Collins, Joseph. The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan: A Study in the Use of Force in Soviet Foreign Policy. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1986. Chapter 6 deals with the invasion, and chapters 7 and 8 address the Soviet objectives in Afghanistan.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hyman, Anthony. Afghanistan Under Soviet Domination, 1964-1983. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984. Outlines the development of Soviet and Western interests in Afghanistan. Attributes social and political upheaval in Afghanistan to foreign interference in the guise of agrarian and other reforms. Includes illustrations, bibliographic notes, 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">Malik, Hafeez, ed. Soviet-American Relations with Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. Chapters titled “Communism in Afghanistan,” by Henry Bradsher, and “Cultural Determinants of the Afghan Resistance to the Saur Revolution of 1978,” by Louis Dupree, deal with the dynamics in Afghan society that led to the communist state and to turmoil and war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newell, Nancy Peabody, and Richard S. Newell. The Struggle for Afghanistan. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1981. Early account of the invasion concentrates on the growth of anti-Soviet resistance and mujahideen tactics for neutralizing the superior Soviet armament. Includes map, illustrations, bibliographic notes, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roy, Olivier. Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Examines religious, political, and social issues in tracing the development of Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan. Pays special attention to the role of the Sufi brotherhoods and Shia Islam among the opposition groups. Includes glossary, 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">Sen Gupta, Bhabani. Afghanistan: Politics, Economics, and Society. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1986. Examines the Saur Revolution and introduces Islam as the reason for the Afghan Marxists’ inability to introduce lasting reforms. Includes illustrations, basic data, bibliography, and index.

Soviet Troops Leave Afghanistan

Taliban Begins Suppression of Human Rights in Afghanistan

Categories: History Content