Semantron 23 Summer 2023

Why did the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan fail?

Aristides Hall

The invasion of Afghanistan by the 40 th Army of the Soviet Ground Forces in December 1979 marked the beginning of brutal fighting between the Soviets and the Afghan mujahedin. 1 This essay seeks to understand why Moscow was unsuccessful in subjugating Afghanistan, by examining the military and political failures that led to a humiliating defeat and withdrawal. It argues that Soviet military strategies failed to be effective against the mujahedin as a result of military incompetence coupled with political shortsightedness. It also argues that Soviet backing of the Afghan communist party was doomed to fail due to widespread ideological and religious resistance. It concludes that study of the war, though overlooked in the public conscience, remains relevant today, particularly in the context of Russ ia’s efforts to expand its influence and territory.


The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) came to power following a coup in 1978. It was an unpopular and unstable regime from the beginning. The Party was split between two wings: Parcham, led by Babrak Karmal, deriving its power from urban intellectuals; and Khalq, headed by Nur Mohamed Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, with a power base in the countryside and the Pushtun tribes. The PDPA’s program for reform – promising education for wo men and the weakening of ‘feudal relations’ – came up against the fierce conservatism of the Afghan countryside, confrontation that rapidly devolved into bloodshed. The clashes came to a head in March 1979 with the Herat Rising, the culmination of violent conservative resistance and equally violent government-sponsored repression. The Afghan leadership, controlled by Taraki and Amin, looked to the Soviets for hard military assistance in quelling the uprising, but received none. The Soviets, content with maintaining only a small military presence in Afghanistan, feared the implications of engaging the Red Army in military operations against the rebels. Worrying that 60 years of relationship-building between the two states might be jeopardized, Moscow was alarmed by the increasing anti-Soviet sentiment among the Afghan people. Seeking solutions, a KGB report favoured the widening of the Afghan regime’s political and social base. There were concerns that this would necessitate the forceful removal of Amin, whom they considered the main instigator of the use of terror and a liability, especially as he appeared to be seeking closer relations with the USA while simultaneously estranging the Soviet Union. 2 Worried by the increasingly unstable situation stoked by government repression, with provinces in open armed rebellion against the PDPA, and tired of the instability and infighting within the Khalq faction, Moscow decided it was time to start preparing a new government, which would be headed by Babrak Karmal, an exiled Soviet loyalist. At that stage, an invasion by the Red Army remained off the

1 The term mujahedin describes Afghan fighters engaged in jihad , the holy war on behalf of Islam. 2 Rodric Braithwaite, Afgantsy: the Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89 , 2011, pp. 59 and 71.


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