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Welcome to the Occupation
By Kevin Filan

Afghanistan: The Soviet Occupation

Afghanistan |  India |  Israel |  Postwar Europe |  Vietnam


In Afghanistan, traditional laws and codes of honor were as important as parliamentary proclamations; local strongmen could wield as much power as premiers or monarchs. Despite heroic efforts toward educational and political reforms, it remained essentially a poor and largely illiterate land, whose residents were more likely to identify as members of a particular tribe than as Afghan citizens. Mohammad Daoud decided to step up the pace of modernization in 1973; he staged a coup, overthrew the monarchy, declared himself president, and instituted one-party rule. In this he received a great deal of help from the Afghan Communist Party… and from the Soviet Union, a longtime ally of Afghanistan and longtime player of what Rudyard Kipling had called the Central Asian "Great Game." In the tradition of that "Great Game," the Afghan Communists later staged an overthrow of Daoud with Soviet Aid and encouragement.

Unfortunately, the Afghan Communist Party was as divided among tribal and ethnic lines as Afghan society. The Khalqis (rural, radical nationalists) and Parchamis (more educated, metropolitan Communists who tended to be more obedient to Moscow) were frequently at open odds with each other. This only served to increase the country's instability, as the fighting within the Afghan government was matched by various rebellions throughout the countryside by religious, political and tribal leaders. Ultimately, the Soviets decided to deal with their problems in the old-fashioned way. Taking a cue from their invasions of Hungary and Poland in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviet Army rolled into Afghanistan, gunned down the Khalqui leader Hafizullah Amin, and installed what they hoped would be a more cooperative and effective Parchami government.

This decision was not universally popular among Soviet leadership. Previous Afghan requests for aid had been met with shipments of military equipment, but not troops, throughout the spring and summer of 1979. The actual decision to invade was made by a very small group of Politburo members, against the strong opposition of the military. Both Chief of USSR General Staff Marshal Ogarkov and Deputy General of the Army Akhromeev objected that the proposed limited contingent of troops could not fulfill its objectives. Still, the Soviets were confident that a military superpower would have no problem subduing a small, backward nation. They had long since crushed any opposition in the Central Asian Soviet Republics, and expected to have similar successes in Afghanistan.

The Soviets launched their invasion largely because they feared Western intervention in Afghanistan. Future events would show their fears were justified. The CIA, with the aid of its allies in Pakistan, began providing weapons and financial support to the mujahiddin, the guerrila warriors fighting the Soviets. Many of these mujahiddin espoused various radical forms of Islam, who saw the conflict as a religious crusade against the godless hordes of Soviet communism and their supporters. They found a receptive audience in Washington, where Ronald Reagan was aiding enemies of the "Evil Empire" throughout the world. Combined with aid from the Saudis and volunteer fighters from other Islamic countries, the mujahiddin soon were better-armed and better-trained than the Afghan Army. The Soviet reserve units who were originally charged with guarding cities and installations now found themselves involved in combat, against an enemy which would retreat into the inaccessible Afghan mountains, only to return after the Soviet garrisons went back to their bases.

In an effort to regain control, the Soviets took the war to the civilians and the countryside. Over five million Afghans--- a third of the country --- were driven into refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran. Millions more became refugees within the country, swelling the population of Kabul. Another million people were killed in fighting, in massacres by Soviet troops or by sheer starvation. Land-mines made much of the countryside uninhabitable; near the end, the Soviets took to scattering brightly-colored plastic toys, which exploded when picked up by children. All this did was increase Afghani hatred of their Soviet "liberators." The image of the Soviet Army fighting against Islam in Afghanistan led to a rapid rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Central Asian republics and arguably strengthened of the independence movement in Chechnya. Meanwhile, the Soviet troops became increasingly demoralized, perceived as invaders in Afghanistan and barbarians back home.

Despite all this, it became increasingly clear that there was no military solution to the Afghanistan conflict. As early as 1980 the Politburo discussed a troop withdrawal and political solution, but the Limited Contingent continued to fight in Afghanistan without a clearly defined objective. The war would continue to claim lives and resources… and Soviet credibility. The myths of the invincible Red Army and the righteous fight for world socialism died in these high, inaccessible mountains. By 1989 the Soviets finally pulled out of Afghanistan; a few months later the Berlin Wall, and the Soviet government, fell.

 

 


Mike Doughty



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