On December 25, 1979, the 40th Army of the Soviet Union entered her neighbouring country, Afghanistan in order to prop up the government of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). PDPA, a steadfast ally of the Soviet Union, was facing an existential threat from a bloody insurgency, apparently home-grown but covertly sponsored by arch rival of USSR, namely USA in the hey days of the Cold War. Over the next decade, the Soviet Union poured in billions of dollars and more than 115,000 Soviet soldiers in this quagmire.
However, after losing more than 15,000 of her soldiers the Soviet Army was forced to withdraw from Afghanistan in February 1989 because of her deteriorating domestic economic situation and political compulsions in the face of tough resistance by the foreign trained and funded Mujahadeen. It was the Soviet Union’s final foreign military intervention before her eventual dissolution in 1991which ended the Cold War raging between two ideological blocks since the Bolshevik Revolution. For Francis Fukuyama and his fans, it was the End of History while for Huntingdon and others, this cataclysmic event was the harbinger of a bigger clash at a higher level of civilisations.
Why did Soviet Union enter Afghanistan? It is very common among the western historians that the Soviet Union was just implementing the 15th century death bed wish of Peter the Great to go for warm waters, meaning thereby to extend the frontiers of the Russian empire to the coast of Arabian Sea. This was the meat of the so-called ‘Great Game’ waged in the novels by the English writers and in the memos of the British Indian officers
Yes, the Russian empire had been extending its boundaries since its founding in 14th century; however Afghanistan was an off limit to Soviet Union as it was considered to be a buffer zone for successive Russian rulers. Yes, they had their security reservations but never an intention to absorb it as one of their republics. It was poor, underdeveloped and Muslim, a drain on their economy, difficult to govern and a potential source of creating trouble for their already restive and burgeoning Muslim population. For ascertaining the real reasons, the cassis belli, of Russian intervention in Afghanistan, we will have to start from a bit earlier.
Although Operation Cyclone of CIA to topple the Soviet Union- backed Afghan government was launched after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, efforts to destabilise Soviet-backed Afghan government started long before. After realising that defeat was imminent in Vietnam, Americans started to destabilise Afghanistan to take revenge from Soviet Union for this humiliation. By 1973, CIA had recruited more than 5000 fighters from all over the Islamic world and started infiltrating Afghanistan under the command of Gulbadin Hikmat Yar and Rasool Siaf. This infiltration had the full support of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Pakistani Prime Minister Bhutto initially sided with this scheme and ouster of two provincial governments bordering Afghanistan by him should be seen in this broader geopolitical context. However he soon realised the destabilising impact of such an adventure and retracted. Cognizant of the crucial importance of Pakistan in their designs to lure Soviet Union in the killing fields of Afghanistan, Henry Kissinger specially came to Pakistan to convince him but Bhutto’s refusal to go along with the American scheme, cost him his life later on. After installing General Zia, a thorough-bred Quisling, in Pakistan, the CIA redoubled its efforts to destabilise the Afghan government under the operation codenamed Cyclone.
Afghanistan was already under turmoil for quite some time for one reason or other. Global economic recession caused by two successive oil price hikes in the 1970s had been biting the common man who was frustrated with the economic and political management of the country. The scale and speed of modernisation was hitting the traditional elite of Afghanistan who were inciting the public in the name of Islam. With each passing day, the situation in Afghanistan started getting out of hand. In February 1979, Afghan President Hafiz asked for Russian help to quell the insurgency. Although Soviet Union did not want to see a fundamentalist state emerge in Afghanistan and should have sent in their forces immediately, yet it took nearly 10 months to accede to this request of Afghan government.
Thus the real question to ask is not why Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Real question is why the Soviet Union took so long to enter Afghanistan which historically had been recognised as outer security parameter of Soviet Union. Reason for this reluctance on the part of Soviet Union to intervene aggressively lies in the complex nature of decision making in the Politburo-the highest policy/ decision-making body of the USSR at that time.
Soviet Politburo was divided in two groups. One group led by Cherenkov and his other hawkish colleagues was in favour of immediate intervention in Afghanistan. They were genuinely concerned about the rising militancy among the sizeable Muslim population living within the borders of the Soviet Union. There were many reasons for this socioeconomic alienation of Soviet Muslims ranging from their inherent tendency to resist absorption in a society dominated by the non-Muslims to historical legacies of deprivation reinforced by the inequitable public policy choices of the ruling elites. Whatever the reason, Cherenkov and his colleagues feared that if Afghanistan went for Islamic government, it would have serious repercussions for the security of Soviet Union in the long run
On the other hand, the opposing group led by Gromyko were aware of the American schemes and did not want USSR to undertake an adventure which, besides being very costly affair in terms of financial and human costs, would have no end. They were willing to increase the number of advisors and the scale of military assistance but were reluctant to commit boots on grounds for obvious geopolitical implications and wanted the Afghan government to control the situation domestically.
Soviet Union might have entered Afghanistan or atleast waited a few more years but a few geopolitical developments of the 1970s were instrumental in their decision to enter Afghanistan. During the 1970s Soviet Union had lost a lot of her friends in the Middle East as its arch rival United States had been successfully courting several countries strategically important for USSR. While Israel and Saudi Arabia were traditional American allies, loss of Egypt was a great loss for Soviet Union. Coming into power of western leaning devout Muslim General Zia in Pakistan with American blessing was a worrisome development for USSR as all her efforts to woo this strategically important country were wasted.
In these circumstances, Iranian Revolution in February 1979 totally changed the complexion; Soviet Union genuinely feared that Afghanistan would be the next domino to fall and with it the PDPA, her communist proxy in neighbouring Afghanistan. No super power can afford to be poked at her soft belly whether it is Tibet or Sri Lanka, Latin America or Yemen. Every country has her own version of Monroe Doctrine! Die had been cast; Soviet Union fell for the trap meticulously prepared by the CIA and entered the killing fields of Afghanistan on Christmas day of 1979- a desperate attempt by a super power of the time to secure her soft belly which was under threat from another super power.