Chapter 17 – Taking on Soviet Imperialism in Afghanistan

1. Historical Context—Afghanistan’s Strategic Crossroads, 1970s Turmoil, the 1979 Soviet Invasion, and Carter’s Confused Response

At the strategic crossroads of empires, Afghanistan was for centuries the target of would-be conquerors, including Alexander the Great, Tamerlane, Babur, and Genghis Khan. In the nineteenth century, this mountainous land of fiercely independent warring tribes was famously the scene of a classic “Great Game” contested by the great powers of Czarist Russia and Imperial Britain. Joined to a lesser extent by Imperial Germany, each made serious efforts to gain dominant influence there. In the twentieth century, the competition for control of Afghanistan expanded to include the Soviet Union, India, Pakistan, Persia (Iran), and China.

During the U.S.-Soviet “détente” period of the 1970s, Soviet leaders exploited U.S. inattention in the region and stepped up aggressive actions in Afghanistan that culminated in a December 1979 invasion staged across the Soviet-Afghan border from the neighboring Soviet republics of Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. While President Jimmy Carter’s response was confused and weak, his political rival Ronald Reagan recognized the high strategic stakes involved. When he took office as president, he applied a range of instruments of his new global strategy of “peace and freedom” and “peace through strength” to expose Soviet aggression, assist the anti-Soviet Afghan resistance forces, and force a retreat of Soviet imperial power in what became a major front and tipping point of the Cold War.

The 1970s Period of Turmoil in Afghanistan that preceded the Soviet invasion began with a coup on July 17, 1973 that overthrew the nation’s constitutional monarch of the preceding forty years, King Mohammad Zahir Shah. The coup was led by Mohammad Daud, the king’s cousin and a former prime minister who, while the king was in Rome for medical treatment, took advantage of his absence by taking members of the King’s family hostage in order to force his resignation. In seizing power, Daud was supported by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), a Marxist party that included strongly pro-Soviet elements.

When Daud subsequently moved against these PDPA elements, he was overthrown and killed in an April 1978 coup supported by the Soviet Union and led by one of the PDPA’s original founders, Nur Mohammad Taraki. Not unexpectedly, Taraki quickly signed an Afghan-Soviet Friendship Treaty in May 1978 that rapidly brought a large influx of Soviet military and civilian advisors and administrators into Afghanistan. Yet Hafizullah Amin, another Marxist leader and disgruntled member of Taraki’s government, later captured and murdered Taraki with the apparent support of the Soviet Union. As these factions competed for power, popular anti-communist opposition flared in major Afghan cities, including Herat, and military resistance to Amin’s Soviet-backed central authority developed throughout the countryside.

The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan—December 1979. Amin, however soon attempted to distance himself from excessive Soviet influence. Fearful of losing control of Afghanistan, and seeking to eliminate any Afghan notions of independence, Soviet leaders decided in November 1979 to launch a massive military invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet leaders no doubt recognized that U.S. intelligence would detect Soviet invasion preparations, but they appear to have believed that the accommodationist U.S. Cold War “détente” strategy of the time would shield them from any significant negative reaction by the United States and its Free World allies. On December 25, 1979, Soviet infantry, armored, air, and Spetznatz Special Forces units struck Afghanistan in full force with no prior declaration of war. In America, it was December 24, Christmas Eve.

Early U.S. Action at the United Nations—January 1980. A Department of State public diplomacy report titled Soviet Invasion Attacked in U.N. reprints the January 6, 1980 statement to the U.N. Security Council made by Donald McHenry, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and adds the text of a condemnatory draft Security Council resolution that was defeated by a vote of 13–2, with the USSR’s vote joined by that of East Germany (DDR).

The U.S. statement rejects Soviet claims invoking U.N. Charter Article 51 on the right to collective self-defense and supports the U.N. Resolution’s words that address:

the right of all peoples to determine their own future free from outside interference, including their right to choose their own form of government . . . the obligations of Member States to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State . . . [and] calls for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan in order to enable its people to determine their own form of government, and choose their economic, political and social systems free from outside intervention, coercion, or constraint of any kind whatsoever.1

[Book pg. 402]