Opinion

The Russian (Soviet) Experience in Afghanistan 1979-1989

Part 1 of a Series
By Mike Scruggs- Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the United States, American and Allied troops have been fighting the radical Islamist allies of Al-Qaeda (and the Muslim Brotherhood) with the objective of bringing peace and stability to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

Mujahideen fighters in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan in 1987 (photo Wikipedia)

Once part of the Persian Empire, Afghanistan is a land-locked country of 35 million people, which is approximately 80 percent Sunni Muslim and 19 percent Shia Muslim.

Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic and predominantly tribal nation. The four main ethnic groups are the Sunni Muslim Pashtun (ethnic Afghans) with 42 percent of the population, the Tajiks with 33 percent of the population, and the Hazaras and Uzbeks with about 9 percent each. The Hazaras are of partial East Asian origin (about 35 percent) and almost exclusively Shia Muslim. Many are descendents of Genghis Khan’s Mongol warriors.

The remaining approximately 7 percent are spread out over more than 30 ethnic groups. The Pashtun occupy far more than 50 percent of the country. About 80 percent of the population is reasonably fluent in Dari, the Afghan version of Persian or Farsi. Forty-seven percent are fluent in Pashto, the native language of the Pashtuns, while 11 percent are fluent in Uzbek. Approximately 5 percent are reasonably fluent in English.

The Taliban are the radical Sunni Muslim fundamentalists who ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. They are predominantly ethnic Pashtuns and are waging holy war (Jihad) against the current Afghan government. The “Northern Alliance, which dominates the current Afghan government consists primarily of Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks and are allies of the U.S. and Allied forces.

Afghanistan has been a part of many empires in its history, including the Medes, the Persians, the Greeks under Alexander, various Muslim rulers, and the Mongols. The Pashtuns created Afghanistan as an independent state in 1747 under Ahmad Shah Durrani, who united the Pashtun tribes by 1751.

In the nineteenth century, the British and Russian empires vied for dominance of Afghanistan and Southwest Asia in what has been called the “Great Game.”The British occupied Afghanistan from 1839 to 1919 and fought three Anglo-Afghan wars against the Russian-backed Pashtuns in 1839-1842, 1878-1880, and lastly in 1919, after which the British withdrew and Afghanistan was ruled by successive monarchs until a non-violent political coup in 1973 by Prime Minister Daoud Khan established the “Republic of Afghanistan.” In April 1978, a Moscow-backed Communist party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) acting through a military coup murdered Daoud and all his family and established the People’s Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA).

The PDPA immediately began to implement a liberal social agenda and Marxist economic policies. This included replacing religious and traditional laws with laws enforcing their secular and Marxist agenda. Women were forbidden to wear the traditional burqa, and men were required to cut their beards. Attending or visiting mosques was prohibited. Farmers’ debts were cancelled, and usury was banned. Women, however, were allowed to vote, and forced marriages were outlawed. Equal education, job security, health services, and free time were also mandated for women. While many in both the Communist and Western world regarded these new rules to be enlightened, they were in direct confrontation with Islamic Law and Afghan and Islamic culture.

Ferocious resistance erupted everywhere across both regional and tribal landscapes. The gathering ranks of fighters opposed to the PDPA and Russian influence become known as Afghanistan’s Mujahidin (holy Muslim warriors). They were soon engaged in sabotage and violence against both the PDPA and the DRA. The PDPA responded with typical Stalinist heavy-handed military reprisals, arrests, and executions. The Mujahidin countered with widespread, full-scale civil war.

By late in 1979, the Communist regime of Hafizullah Amin and PDPA was losing its fight against an armed tide of tribal rebellions opposing new social mandates, coercive economic policies, and Russian influence With the DRA Army unable to cope with the spreading insurgency and violence, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev decided to invoke the Brezhnev Doctrine, developed in 1968 to justify armed Soviet intervention against Czechoslovakia’s democratic revolution. This doctrine was that the Soviet Union would not allow any Soviet allied Communist regime to fall.

Several Soviet generals had serious reservations about a full-scale invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, but Brezhnev’s will prevailed, and plans and preliminary actions were set in motion. Besides the usual Communist doctrinal and foreign policy considerations, three predominantly Muslim Soviet Republics—Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan—shared their southern borders with Afghanistan. In addition, Brezhnev believed

Amin’s reckless speed and rough Stalinist approach in implementing policy changes were a major part of the problem and wanted to get rid of him. The Soviets must also have been acutely aware that in January 1979 the United States had lost an important ally in Iran, when an Islamic revolution overthrew the Shaw. Moreover, Afghanistan shares its western border and a common language with Iran. In addition, the United States began sending weapons and other covert help to the Mujahidin in July. Brezhnev and his supporters in the Soviet Politburo concluded that a successful Muslim overthrow of a Communist government on the southern border of the USSR could have far reaching negative consequences for Soviet security, power, and influence.

On Christmas Eve, 1979, Soviet airborne troops and Spetsnaz commandos began landing at Kabul airport and Bagram airbase further north. These were protected by the unsuspecting DRA Army, which though surprised, offered no opposition to their supposed Soviet allies.

On Christmas Day, 1979, the 357th and 66th Motorized Rifle Divisions (MRDs) entered Afghanistan from Turkmenistan in the north and began to advance south on the main highway. The 360th and 201st MRDs crossed the Amu Darya River, Afghanistan’s northern border with Uzbekistan, on pontoon bridges the same day. The 360th secured the Salang Pass and tunnel en route and reached Kabul on December 26, while the 201st continued and secured important towns in eastern Afghanistan.

More airborne troops were landed at Harat, Kandahar, and Jalalabad. By December 27, Marshall Sergei Sokolov, commander of the 40th Soviet Army, had 50,000 soldiers, 1,800 tanks, and 2,500 armored troop carriers in Afghanistan. More than 5,000 troops and Spetsnaz commandos surrounded Kabul. That evening Spetsnaz commandos dressed as Afghan soldiers and supported by airborne troops broke into the grounds of Duralaman Palace and after a four-hour firefight routed the defenders and killed Amin. His Soviet appointed replacement, Babrak Karmal, immediately announced the end of Amin’s reign of terror and Afghanistan’s rescue by the Red Army, citing the 1978 Treaty of Friendship and Good Neighborliness.

Meanwhile, Red Army mechanized units occupied key defense points, administrative buildings, and communications centers in Kabul. More than 750 tanks and 2,100 other combat vehicles spread like a web around the country. Within days, Red Army strength in Afghanistan was up to 80,000. Within a few months it was up to 100,000.

Overall, the operation was extremely well executed with only a few Soviet casualties, most of whom were the result of helicopter crashes. After a few days of stunned calm in major urban areas, thousands of Muslim mullahs in the unconquered rural communities began to declare a Jihad—a holy war against invading foreign infidels. In Islam, an infidel is anyone who is not a Muslim. Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists are all unbelieving infidels. The peace of military shock and awe was not to last.

Thus began over nine years of Soviet occupation and war in Afghanistan. To be continued.

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