Historical Run Up To War
Mohammed Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, was a popular leader reigning from 1933 to his exile in July 1973 when his cousin Mohammed Daoud Khan staged a surprise (bloodless) coup. Khan then proclaimed himself to be the first President and leader of the country. Khan was a progressive leader and an ardent supporter of women rights. He conducted two 5-year modernization plans which increased the work force significantly. Preceding his presidency, Khan was in office in the early 1960s as the Prime Minister of Afghanistan. It was during this period that he had a very pro-Soviet stance mainly due to constant proxy wars and disputes on the border with Pakistan. Pakistan twice defeated the forces sent by Khan to take border control of the Durand Line (the 2,640-kilometer) border between Afghanistan and Pakistan) into the Bajaur Agency, which was the agency of Federally Administered Tribal Areas until it became a district in 2018. These engagements highlighted the poor state of the Afghan Army compared to relatively modern ones of Iran and Pakistan.
Khan as Prime Minister obtained artillery and warplanes from the Soviet Union, as well as a whole series of armoured vehicles including tanks and armoured personnel carriers at a discounted price of 25 million US dollars (a bargain even at that time). Nevertheless, it was defeat at the hands of the Pakistanis, which established his reputation as a mediocre military commander--despite having been Defence Minister, Interior Minister, and even Lieutenant-general and commander of the Kabul Army Corps. Following a coup and the assassination of Daoud Khan, Taraki’s PDPA (pro Soviet, socialist) government came into power through invitation by the military in 1978. Taraki’s government made radical strides in improving conditions for the people by legalising labour unions, setting a minimum wage, establishing progressive income tax, a literacy campaign, and setting up programs that gave ordinary people greater access to health care, housing, and public sanitation. Peasant co-ops were started, and the costs of certain staple foods were reduced. However, the land reform policies that he introduced, which limited the amount of land each family had, did not go down well with many and all hell broke loose.
Taraki’s government also continued the legacy of the last king Zahir Shah to liberate women from tribal bondage and public education was provided for girls and children of various tribes. Under Taraki, it was noted that Kabul became a "…cosmopolitan city. Artists and hippies flocked to the capital. Women studied agriculture, engineering and business at the city's university.” (San Francisco Chronicle 17 Nov 2001)" The Taraki government also made the effort to eradicate opium farms – at that time 70% of the worlds opium for heroin came from Afghanistan via Pakistan and Iran. Unfortunately, feudal lords strongly opposed the land reforms, and tribesmen and fundamentalists were strongly opposed to gender equality and the education of women and children. The opium traffickers were undoubtedly infuriated. During this time, insurgent groups began violent protests and the country quickly became unstable. Taraki requested help from Moscow to try and control the rebels. The Soviets refused on numerous
occasions for good reason. (Record of Conversation between L.I. Brezhnev and N.M. Taraki, 20 March 1979) However, on 5 December 1978, the "Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good Neighborliness of 1978” was signed by Taraki and Brezhnev, which opened the door for the Soviets to be able to support their neighbour in times of strife.
The assassination of Nur Muhammad Taraki would be a key factor of the USSR Military intervention in Afghanistan; however, Taraki failed during his presidency to convince prominent members of the Kremlin to send troops from the Soviet Union to stabilize his increasingly precarious situation. Alexei Nikolayevich Kosygin, the mastermind behind moving the industrial potential of the USSR to the east before the advancing Nazi’s onslaught during WW2 and one of the old Soviet elites, discouraged several attempts by Taraki, once telling him, “We believe it would be a fatal mistake to commit ground troops. If our troops went in, the situation in your country would not improve. On the contrary, it would get worse. Our troops would have to struggle not only with an external aggressor, but with a significant part of your own people. And the people would never forgive such things ”
Undeterred, Taraki turned to Leonid Brezhnev chairman and chief of State of the USSR who warned him that full Soviet intervention "would only play into the hands of our enemies – both yours and ours”. However, Taraki did manage to secure the redeployment of two Soviet divisions at the Soviet Afghan border and delivery of Soviet weaponry as well as a contingent of 500 Soviet advisors both civilian and military.
Due to extreme and rapid economic developments, the Taraki government also incurred the wrath of the US security services (i.e., the CIA). Soon after the PDPA was established in government, the CIA assisted by Saudi and Pakistani military launched a hefty intervention in Afghanistan to support the overthrown feudal lords, tribal chieftains, mullahs, and opium traffickers. Although not commonly known, and certainly not in the West, the CIA were interfering in Afghanistan to support those who were opposed to the reformist government long before the Soviets intervened. Interestingly, Hafizullah Amin, a top official of the Taraki government (and latterly a back-stabbing opponent) was suspected by some of having been recruited by the CIA while studying in the US for years. The Kremlin was genuinely concerned that Amin, if not already working for the CIA, was at any time ready to sell out. According to most foreign observers Amin staged an armed coup on October 8, 1979 and murdered Taraki. Taraki’s supporters were subsequently killed, jailed, or exiled.
Amin was considered a "brutal psychopath” and many in the Soviet Union were alarmed by this—they certainly didn’t trust him, and particularly after the murder of Takari. In a twist of Greek Tragedy in this land which has always been subject to invasions by powerful states, Amin and Taraki previously shared what was allegedly a close relationship. Amin aimed to reduce dependency on the Soviet Union by turning to other countries including the US and Pakistan and tried to appeal to Islamist leaders. By this time, the then Carter-led US government was funding Muslim extremists to disrupt the reformist pro-communist government. This included callous attacks on schools and teachers in rural areas by the CIA-backed Mujahideen.
In 1979, the DPA government, which was essentially overwhelmed with the uprisings, asked Moscow again (the 21st time or thereabouts…) to intervene to help support them against the Mujahedeen extremists and foreign mercenaries who were both, interestingly, well financed, trained and armed by the CIA. Moscow eventually but reluctantly agreed to intervene, although it should be noted that the USSR had already been sending aid for public health, mining, agriculture, and education. The US administration under President Carter was furious about the intervention and quickly decried it a Soviet “invasion”, while in the meantime started a propaganda campaign to back up their outrage. Carter imposed a series of “penalties” on the Soviet Union which included an embargo on the delivery of grain and boycotting the 1980 Olympic games in Moscow. However, the grain embargo led to the Soviet Union looking elsewhere for grain imports and they turned to Ukraine, a part of the USSR at the time, and South America. Ironically, these measures did US grain farmers more harm than anyone else and resulted in farmer’s strikes and protests at the US Department of Agriculture in several states. The lesson from this period in history should not be overlooked by the current Trump administration—clearly sanctions encourage home grown innovations and incentives such as diversification of supplies. The Soviets refuted this accusation of “invasion” (after all, they were invited because of the Treaty and they had a valid interest in protecting bordering countries for their own security) and stated that the US was infuriated because Washington had been scheming to turn Afghanistan into an American base.
It’s apparent that when the Soviets intervened (i.e., did not invade), it was the perfect excuse for the CIA, under the most expensive operation ever undertaken, known as Operation Cyclone, to turn tribal feuding into a full-on war. They continued to fund, train, and supply the Mujahideen with arms; the Mujahideen later evolved into the Taliban, which later fractured into ISIS. In fact, years later, Zbigniew Brzezinski the Polish security advisor to Carter, admitted that the secret operations were planned to entice the Soviets into Afghanistan. He claimed he wrote to Carter and said, “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War”. (Nouvel Observateur, 1998) He claimed he had no regrets about either the war or supporting Islamic fundamentalism by giving arms and training to future terrorists. His priorities were clear: “What is more important in world history-- the Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire?”
Initially the Soviets sent in some 30,000 troops of the 40th Army on the 26 December 1979 to prop up the DPA government against the growing violent insurgency. Contrary to Western popular belief, 40th Army Commander General Tukharinov met Afghan Major General Babadzhan to inform him about Soviet troops crossing the border before the Soviet army's intervention, thus Amin, his government and intelligence services knew that the USSR was soon going to intervene. Amin was shot dead on the 27 December when Soviet troops allegedly stormed the presidential palace and a fight broke out. Despite Amin also asking for Soviet help several times, he was relatively anti-Soviet, and some believe that he was pressured into asking by other officials in the government.
The political and social situation of Afghanistan was a powerful deterrent to intervention for the Soviet power, however, there were other more historical reasons.
Another concern of the Soviet military planners was that most of their equipment, although ultra-modern, was mainly designed for European battlefields rather than the mountainous conditions of Afghanistan, which are ideal for guerrilla warfare. The Soviets learned how costly guerrilla warfare could be during WW2 in Berlin and Stalingrad and had subsequently sent veteran advisors to countries like Vietnam to help quash the powerful United States army using these same guerrilla warfare tactics. Nevertheless, the Soviets deployed forces under Marshal Sergei Sokolov and entered Afghanistan from the north through two ground routes and one air corridor on the 27 December 1979. The forces were comprised of the 56th Separate Airborne Assault Brigade, the 860th Separate Motor Rifle Regiment, 108th and 5th Guards Motor Rifle Divisions, and supported by 1800 tanks and 80000 soldiers.  When the hostilities ended in 1988 more than 100,000 Soviet combatants had been deployed. At first the Red Army rapidly secured urban centres, military bases, and strategic installations. But during the following years of war the high Soviet command would have to intervene increasingly in rural areas, engaging more frequently in guerrilla clashes, mainly because the Afghan army was plagued with desertions and lack of morale. This resulted in an alarming hemorrhage of Afghani combat forces. The US added oil to the fire by co-ordinating Mujahedin incursion raids inside the Soviet Union.
Babrak Karmal, who was the vice president and deputy prime minister during the 1978 revolution was subsequently installed as the new President until he was deposed in 1986 and replaced by Mohammed Najibullah. The various Mujahideen guerrillas intensified their actions and were supported financially and with arms by the US, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. Two Mujahideen factions were formed—fundamentalists and moderates—which led to more effective guerrilla tactics in 1981. In 1982, the UN General Assembly called for the Soviets to withdraw from Afghanistan. In 1985, Mikael Gorbachev publicly announced that he wanted to put an end to the fighting and increased the number of Soviet troops to over 100,000. That year turned out to be the bloodiest year of the nine-year war. Despite all the bloodshed and heavy fighting, the Mujahideen remained a potent adversary in the field.
In September 1986, the US/CIA started supplying the Mujahideen with Stinger missiles. The FIM-92 Stingers were surface-to-air portable missiles that could be fired from the shoulder by a single operator and from a range of ground vehicles and helicopters. While these and their descendants are effective weapons, they were certainly not the only reason that the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, despite such claims by most journalists, Western analysts, and so on at the time. Reports of their efficacy are unreliable, as are reports of the number of Soviet aircraft hit because aircraft that were hit but did not crash and could keep flying were still counted as “kills”. Moreover, at that point, the Soviets were already preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan. On the other hand, Stingers did force the Soviets to change tactics--notably by encouraging their pilots to perform bombing runs at higher altitude. Despite the rate of success, it is doubtful that it was a 70 percent hit rate as claimed by United States sources and Leshuk claims it was nearer to 20%. Neither was it the game changer that Hollywood romanced in the movie, Charlie Wilson’s War, which starred Tom Hanks and focussed on how the Stingers landed into the hands of the Mujahideen.
In fact, in 1987 the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, which provided aid/education and agricultural support to resistance-held areas, collected data through highly skilled and trained teams across the country. Part of the data they collected focused on numbers of air raids witnessed. What they found was that the peak year of bombings and rocket launchings was in 1985 and this declined dramatically in 1986 and even more in 1987. Ultimately, reports from medical and support workers across the country said that the air attacks decreased dramatically from early 1986, months before any Stingers arrived. Even more interesting is the fact that Western reports were oddly claiming the amazing efficacy of the Stingers in the US-backed Mujahideen war against the Soviets/Afghan governments six months prior to them arriving in Afghanistan (for the first several months, only around 20 were sent each month. Of course, it’s unknown exactly how many Stingers ended up with Mujahideen. Some estimates suggest that around 1000-1500 were sent in total, although the estimates vary wildly, up to 3000. On top of that it’s not known whether they all reached their destinations; estimations have been given at 200–700 unaccounted for and many might have been diverted perhaps to CIA covert operations elsewhere, kept by the Pakistani military, or in some cases sold off for personal profit by corrupt officials. All in all, the widely believed and propagated story that the Stingers changed the course of the war is largely untrue, albeit they would have some effect in addition to other missiles.
There is a lot of controversy about the events in Afghanistan in the ‘80s mainly due to propaganda, dishonest journalists and news outlets, state actors, and of course the ever-clandestine CIA. In 1988, a peace accord was signed between USSR, US, Pakistan, and DRA. Shortly afterwards, the Soviets began to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan. By February 1989, the last troops had left. This move didn’t however stop the ongoing warring in the country, which continues to this day.
Just under 15,000 Soviet troops died and over 35,000 were injured in the war that lasted some 9 years. Approximately 18,000 Afghan forces were killed, and around 75–90,000 Mujahideen’s. Sadly, around 2 million Afghan civilians died, while around 5 million fled the country, which looking at the last 25 years in Afghanistan was probably a wise, if not desperate, decision. The financial cost of the war to the Soviets is difficult to calculate—some estimates are in the region of $2 billion per year, while others are higher. Perhaps the true cost will never be known because it’s hard to put a finger on the hidden expenditure. In terms of financial cost for the US during that time, it’s probably impossible to get an accurate figure due to the amount of underhand financing and arming of the Mujahideen before and during the Soviet-Afghan war. However, Operation Cyclone started at a cost of $500,000 in 1979, increasing to $20–30 million in 1980 and by 1987 was a staggering $630 million per year. Curiously, a Federation of American Scientists document published in 2010 about the costs of major American wars (collated by Steven Daggett, a specialist in Defence Policy and Budgets of the Congressional Research Service) didn’t even mention that particular war, even though the CIA were secretly up to their necks in it. It’s quite strange that the Soviet-Afghan war was omitted considering the cost of each Stinger missile ($183,300) alone and that potentially around 1000 were sent there with approximately 600 of them never retrieved. It’s even more odd when one considers that Stingers were not, by far, the only warfare and aid supplied to the Mujahideen.
It would be completely fair to say that the US and CIA have a lot to answer for in terms of responsibility and foul play, though not just for this one war (it’s one in a long list). There was huge loss of life among the Soviet/Afghan forces, among Mujahideens, and among civilians, as well as displacement of millions of Afghanis, financial loss for the Soviets and let’s not forget ordinary US taxpayers. Of course, that was unbeknown to them or few others at the time, other than the Soviets. As one can see, from before the war and throughout the last 25 years, US/CIA presence and interference has continuously been a major destabilising and destructive factor in the region.
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