Soviet invasion of Afghanistan

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Cold War
Military History of Soviet Union
Military History of Afghanistan
ConflictSoviet-Afghan War
ResultAfghan/Mujahadeen victory
Soviet Union Afghanistan
175,000 Soldiers Unknown
•15,000 Killed,
•53,000 Wounded
•90,000 Killed,
•90,000 Wounded,
•Roughly 1.3 Million Civilian deaths
Total Military Losses
68,000 180,000

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a 10-year war fought between the Soviet Red Army, Afghan, and foreign fighters in Afghanistan. The 'shooting' war is generally held to have started December 24, 1979. Soviet troops ultimately withdrew from the area between May 15, 1988 and February 2, 1989. The Soviet Union officially announced that all of its troops had left Afghanistan on February 15.

The war was regarded by many as an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country by another. The United Nations General Assembly passed United Nations Resolution 37/37 on November 29, 1983, which stated that the Soviet Union forces should withdraw from Afghanistan. However, others supported the Soviet Union, regarding it as coming to the rescue of an impoverished ally, or as a pre-emptive war against Islamist terrorists. The CIA invested US$2.1 billion over a 10-year period to create an anti-Soviet resistance.

For the history of the Soviet Union's presence in the country, see: Democratic Republic of Afghanistan


Timeline of the intervention

Various dates are given for the beginning of the war, depending on what specific event is held to be the beginning. At the beginning of 1978 the Communist regime took power in Kabul. In October 1979, the Soviet Union began mobilization. In December 1979, the final airlift of combat troops in support of the assault against the government took place. The timeline below offers a list of significant events during this period.

Prelude to intervention

  • April 27, 1978 - Hafizullah Amin stages coup against, resulting in the death of the former head of state, Mohammed Daoud Khan. The communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) takes control. Nur Mohammed Taraki is named President, Prime Minister, and General Secretary of the PDPA. Amin and Babrak Karmal are named deputy prime ministers. The country is renamed the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA).
  • Spring 1978 - Traditional tribal resistance (insurgency) begins.
  • December 5, 1978 - The PDPA signs a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union.
  • February 15, 1979 - The U.S. Ambassador Adolph Dubs is abducted by insurgents and killed during a rescue attempt ordered by Amin. The U.S. accuses the Soviet Union of initiating the gunfight leading to his death. No replacement Ambassador is appointed.
  • March 1979 - The Soviet Union begins massive military aid to Afghanistan, including 500 military advisors (with families, implying a long-term commitment) arriving to provide assistance.
  • March 10, 1979 - Afghan military units located in Herat mutiny, killing 350 Soviet citizens. By March 20, the mutiny is quelled, with great loss of life.
  • May 1979 - Soviet advisors begin taking over operations at Bagram air base from Afghan government technicians. Diplomatic dispatches and articles in Pravda begin referring to Afghanistan as a “member of the socialist community”. Many take these public statements to mean that the Soviet Union now regards Afghanistan as falling under the Brezhnev Doctrine.
  • August 1979 - General Ivan Pavloskiy, commander of Soviet ground forces arrives in Afghanistan with a staff of over 50 officers.
  • September 1, 1979 - Taraki attends the Conference of Nonaligned Nations in Havana, Cuba.
  • September 11, 1979 - Taraki returns to Kabul.
  • September 12, 1979 - Taraki is forced from power by Amin and resigns his government and PDPA posts.
  • September 14, 1979 - An assassination attempt on Amin in the Presidential palace, held to be directed by Taraki.
  • September 16, 1979 - Amin assumes Taraki's offices in the government and the Afghan Communist Party.
  • September 18, 1979 - Some elements of the previous government and military officers resist, and are killed by those loyal to Amin. Speculation abounds that Taraki has been killed in the fighting.

Preparation for intervention

  • October 1979 - General Pavloskiy and his staff depart from Afghanistan. The Soviet Union begins mobilization of Category 2 divisions in southern Soviet Socialist Republics (SSR's).
  • October 10, 1979 - The Kabul Times reports that Taraki has died due to an illness. Other reports suggest death in a shootout, by strangulation, or execution; none can be proven.
  • November 7, 1979 - In an issue celebrating Soviet National Day, the Kabul Times reports Afghanistan's role in the “continuation of the Great October Revolution”. Many view this statement as acceptance by the PDPA of the Brezhnev Doctrine in regards to Afghanistan.
  • November 28, 1979 - Lt. General Viktor Paputin, the Soviet Union's deputy minister of interior, arrives in Kabul for a meeting concerning “mutual cooperation and other issues of interest”. Many speculate he is the top KGB official responsible for coordinating invasion.
  • December 1979 - Several Tashkent based Soviet airborne battalions with heavy weapons are deployed to Bagram air base.
  • December 17, 1979 - The head of the Afghan intelligence service, Assadullah Amin – Amin's nephew, is seriously wounded in an assassination attempt and leaves the country to receive medical aid in Tashkent.
  • December 18, 1979- Airborne units stationed in Bagram move to cover the Salang Pass. This move supports the upcoming border crossing of the 357th Motorized Rifle Division, based in Tashkent.

Start of Intervention

  • December 21, 1979 - A reinforced Soviet airborne regiment is airlifted to Bagram.
  • December 22, 1979 - Soviet advisors to the Armed Forces of Afghanistan, advise the Afghans to undergo maintenance cycles for tanks and other crucial equipment. Telecommunications links to areas outside of Kabul are severed, isolating the capital. Amin moves the offices of the president to the Dar-ul-aman Palace, believing this location to be more defensible during invasion.
  • December 24, 1979 - Three Soviet division-sized units take control of all airfields in and around Kabul. Spetnaz commandos seize control of the telecommunications complex in Kabul, controlling all intra-city communication.
  • December 26, 1979 - Additional Soviet regiment and division-sized units move southward toward the Afghan border.
  • December 27, 1979 - Soviet interior advisors host a party for Afghan government officials at the Intercontinental Hotel, at its conclusion all are arrested. Soviet military advisers host a party for their Afghan counterparts, at its conclusion all are imprisoned.
  • December 27, 1979 - 700 KGB spetsnaz special forces troops, Alpha Group, in Afghan uniforms storm the Presidential Place in Kabul, taking heavy casualties, killing President Hafizullah Amin.
  • December 28, 1979 - Three additional Soviet motorized rifle divisions cross the Afghan border, supported by four reserve divisions in the Southern Soviet Union, just across the border.
  • December 29, 1979 - Babrak Karmal, leader of the Parcham faction of the PDPA appoints himself President and Prime Minister of the DRA, and General Secretary of the PDPA. Over 50,000 Soviet troops are stationed in Afghanistan.

Political and military motivations

A number of theories have been advanced for the Soviet action. Some believe the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was intended to prevent constituent SSRs in the southern Soviet Union from breaking away. At the time of the invasion, Iran had recently staged an Islamic revolution, deposing a United States-supported government. The newly instituted government was no more friendly to the Soviet Union than to the United States. This signified an additional axis of power in Eurasian politics (along with the Soviet Union itself, the People's Republic of China, and NATO), much to the Soviets' dismay.

After its revolution, Iran had sufficient religious, political, and economic motivations to expand revolution northward into the Soviet Union and/or eastward into Afghanistan. A similar Islamist revolution appeared to have been developing in Afghanistan. Iran (with a population of 65 million) was technologically sophisticated and well armed with Western (particularly American) military technology. Invasion of an impoverished, technologically unsophisticated Afghanistan that supplied an eastern flank to Iran was considered by most political and military strategists to be preferable for the Soviet Union to any overt action against Iran.

Both theories are supported by public statements made by Leonid Brezhnev at the time declaring the Soviet Union had a right to come to the assistance of an endangered fellow socialist country (and presumably its own fellow SSRs). This assertion of a right is now known as the Brezhnev Doctrine.

Western analysts at the time also believed that the Soviet Union's presence in Afghanistan was motivated by a desire to bring its forces closer to a strategic choke-point: the mouth of the Persian gulf, the conduit for most of the world's oil supertankers. Afghanistan is separated from the Arabian Sea by the sparsely populated Pakistani province of Baluchistan. Had there been a breakup of Pakistan or a favorable regime change, Soviet forces would have access to Baluchi or Pakistani ports. This is consistent with accounts from the Mitrokhin archive, according to which the KGB had supported seccessionist/nationalist groups in Pakistan, and intensified its support after the invasion.

Political and military goals

Afghanistan is primarily rural and agrarian. The political form of government at the time was tribalistic. Strong tribal ties held the social order together. The Soviet Union had two major options for successful control:

  • Drive the resistance (mujahadeen) out of Afghanistan, depopulating the rural areas and providing control of the cities to the Soviet-backed government.
  • Use the shock power of mechanized combat to break the will of the resistance, causing so much destruction and dislocation that the civilian population could no longer resist.

Either goal supported the Brezhnev Doctrine, solidified the southern frontier of the Soviet Union, and provided a strategic counter-point to a hostile Iran.

It is also important to look at the Soviet presence in Afghanistan as encompassing a larger historical Russian goal of obtaining access to a deep-water port that is accessible year-round and is not strategically isolated, as are all other Russian ports such as Vladivostok and Arkhangelisk which are frozen a good portion of the year and the Baltic and Black Seas which are easily blockaded via Jutland and the Bosporous respectively. Had the Soviets succeeded in securing Afghanistan and perhaps created another Central Asian SSR, Karachi would be only a little over 200 miles away, allowing for virtually unrestricted access into the Indian Ocean.

War tactics and history

Afghans used the heliograph as a secure low-tech communication method. Afghans also used Stinger missiles in order to take down helicopters, which proved effective. The first one was shot down in this way on December 16, 1982.


Soviet tactics utilized the following military and economic efforts.

  • The deployment of the 40th Soviet Army (over 100,000 ground troops). With air support, logistics, MVD troops, and other miscellaneous troops, the total number is estimated by some observers at approximately 175,000 troops total. This represented almost 20% of the category 1 (front-line) divisions possessed by the Soviet Union at the time.
  • More than 5 million anti-personnel mines were dropped by the Soviet Union ([1] (
  • Russian costs (in 1986 dollars) were approximately US$20 Billion / yr.

These tactics, among other things, resulted in some of the following:

  • Approximately 90,000 Afghan combatants killed (mujahadeen and government), and 90,000 wounded. Including civilian casualities, estimates are that 10% of the total population and 13.5% of the male population was killed, 1.5 million killed overall.
  • Approximately 15,000 Soviets were killed and over 53,000 wounded.
  • Approximately 6 million refugees were driven into surrounding countries.
  • Damages of approximately $50 Billion US to Afghanistan, about 1/3 to 1/2 the net worth of the country.
  • Agricultural production reduced by 50%, livestock losses of 50%.
  • 70% of paved roads destroyed.
  • Of 15,000 villages in the country, 5,000 were destroyed outright or made economically unsupportable by destruction of all economic resources such as fields, wells or roads.


  • Rambo 3 was a movie set within the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
  • The Beast is a movie made in 1989 about a Soviet tank during the invasion of Afghanistan, set in 1981.
  • Afghan Breakdown|Afghan Breakdown/Afghanskij Izlom is a movie made by Italy and USSR in 1990 about the invasion of Afghanistan, where one of the main role plays Michele Placido known from Italian mafia TV series The Octopus/La Piovra.
  • The James Bond movie The Living Daylights, made in 1987 with Timothy Dalton as Bond, was partly set in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan.

See also

Further reading

  • Kurt Lohbeck, introduction by Dan Rather, Holy War, Unholy Victory: Eyewitness to the Cia's Secret War in Afghanistan, Regnery Publishing (November, 1993), hardcover, ISBN 0895264994

External links

es:Invasin sovitica de Afganistn fr:Guerre d'Afghanistan (1979) it:Invasione sovietica dell'Afghanistan nl:Afghaanse Oorlog (1979-1989) no:Den afghansk-sovjetiske krig ja:ソビエト連邦のアフガニスタン侵攻 fi:Afganistanin sisllissota


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