Semantron 23 Summer 2023

Soviet intervention in Afghanistan


While military shortfalls may have reinforced the inevitability of Soviet defeat, the ultimate driver of Soviet failure in Afghanistan was Moscow’s inability to sustain the PDPA regime in Kabul and win the political war against the mujahedin . The Soviets, despite the completion of some 142 major construction projects, 21 including the strategically vital Salang tunnel, 22 could not understand what they had to do to change the fundamental reality that they were unwelcome in Afghanistan. The PDPA also demonstrated a similar misunderstanding of Afghanistan when they tried to modernize and industrialize the country by force. The Kabul government’s political ideology, aligned with Russian Marxism-Leninism, found no audience in Afghanistan, where there was no industrial proletariat to speak of. Their laws on women’s education, seen as blasphemous, were unpopular with the deeply conservative countryside. This was well-known in the PDPA, and the response was to repress the very people they claimed to represent. Afghanistan had hosted repressive governments before, but those that preceded the PDPA government could at least claim to be following the teachings of Islam. However, the PDPA rejected Islamic fundamentals, putting itself at odds with the overwhelming majority of the country. These factors had been considered by Moscow prior to the invasion, with Yuri Andropov, chief of the KGB at the time, stating that it was impossible for the Soviets to protect the PDPA without ‘ Soviet bayonets ’ , condemning the notion that the party could command popular support. 23 This shows that the Soviets had entered Afghanistan knowing they could not sustain the PDPA government as it was. The initial motivation for the invasion had been short-term stabilization until the PDPA would be in a position to unite the nation, a doomed endeavour for a party incapable of adapting its ideology to encompass a broader support base and secure support from rural communities. Another motivator for the USSR was to keep Afghanistan out of America’s hands. The Iranian revolution of 1979 and the ensuing hostage crisis meant a loss of face and influence for Washington in the Middle East. An unstable Afghanistan was capable of falling under American influence, and this was in the forefront of the minds of the Politburo. 24 The consideration was a symptom of the type of disconnected thinking that was increasingly practised in Moscow, treating Afghanistan as yet another Cold War ideological battlefield, rather than an independent nation. It is therefore not surprising that an improvement in Soviet-American relations in the late 1980s gave General-Secretary Gorbachev the freedom to exit Afghanistan with a minimal loss of credibility among Soviet allies. For many years afterwards, the Russian public gave him credit for ending what they saw as a pointless war. It was not until 2018 that, in the context of Russian geopolitical ambition, the State Duma of the Russian

21 Paul Robinson and Jay Dixon, ‘Soviet Development Theory and Economic and Technical Assistance to Afghanistan, 1954 –1991’, The Historian , 2010, p.600. 22 Frank N. Schubert, ‘U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Afghanistan’s Highways 1960 - 1967’, Journal of Construction Engineering and Management, 117, 1991, 445-459 at p. 446. 23 Panagiotis Dimitrakis, ‘The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan: International Reactions, Military Intelligence and British Diplomacy’, Middle Eastern Studies, 2012, 511-536 at p.512. 24 David C. Gompert, Hans Binnendijk and Bonny Lin, Blinders, Blunders, and Wars: What America and China Can Learn , 2014, p.130.


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