For more than 20 years of military conflict and three years of drought had devastated much of Afghanistan. The country
experienced the collapse of basic social services and government infrastructure, widespread food shortages and the displacement
of millions of people.
In 1979, the USSR took control of the Afghan capital, Kabul, and tried through the following decade to gain control over
the whole country and its people. The invasion was a failure, costing thousands of lives and having serious consequences still
To better understand the reason for the Soviet invasion and failure, first one must understand the geography and culture
in Afghanistan. The land is mountainous and arid. Jagged, impassable ranges divide the country and make travel difficult.
Due to these physical divisions, the people are extremely provincial, with more loyalty to their specific clan or ethnic group
than to a government or a country. The people are Muslims, and extremely religious and conservative. The majority ethnic group
is the Pashtun, but there are over ten minority groups.
Starting in the 1950s, the USSR began giving aid to Afghanistan. The Soviets built roads, irrigation and even some oil
pipelines. In the 1970s, a Communist party overthrew the monarchy and tried to institute social reforms. The rural populations
saw land distribution and women's rights as alien to their traditional Islamic culture, a culture in which polygamy, covering
of women, and blood for blood practices are accepted. The Communist governments in Kabul in the 1970s lacked the popular support
of the rural population.
Soviet Withdrawal / Reprecussions
In 1989, Soviet forces pulled out of Afghanistan. Fifteen thousand Soviet soldiers and countless Afghans had been killed
in the decade-long war. Billions of dollars had been spent each year to support troops in Afghanistan. Unable to defeat the
mujahidin and pressed by world opinion to leave Afghanistan, Soviet leader Gorbachev decided that the USSR had to get out.
In part, the tide of the war had been turned by the introduction of US-made shoulder-launched antiaircraft missiles in 1987.
With these missiles, the mujahidin shot down Soviet planes and helicopters every day, increasing the monetary and human cost
of the war, and making Soviet strike tactics ineffective. Demoralized and with no victory in sight, the USSR's forces left
The war had far-reaching effects on Afghanistan, the Soviets, and the US. Several million Afghans had either fled to neighboring
Pakistan for refuge or had become internal refugees. In addition, millions more had died from starvation or from the Soviet
bombings and raids. Among the survivors were a generation that had known only war, hatred, and fear. Homes, animals, and precious
irrigation systems were destroyed, leaving the country barren and in ruin. Also, thousands of miniature land mines dropped
by the Soviet planes continued to pose a hazard to the Afghan people long after the war with the USSR ended.
The USSR was also affected greatly by its failure. It lost fifteen thousand troops, but the true damage done was in the
degradation of its image, and the billions of dollars it spent during the war. This fall from invincibility and vast expendature
of money to finance the invasion in part caused the USSR to fall apart in the early 1990s.
One long-term effect of the Soviet invasion and pull-out was the establishment of a weak state full of religious hatred
and hatred of richer nations: a breeding ground for terrorism. Though supplying the Afghan resistance with American guns and
anti-aircraft missiles seemed like a good idea for the US in the 1980s, and was the reason for the Soviets’ defeat,
now as the US invades, they are met with their own guns. The significance of the sophisticated guns has yet to be determined.
In light of the US involvement today in Afghanistan after the September 11th terrorist attacks, it is especially important
to understand the history of the Soviet's involvement there so we can avoid making the same mistakes.