The Russians in Afghanistan
Update: British take two casualties in the town of Sangin, a base for counter-narcotics operations in Helmand Province, the "largest single source of opium in Afghanistan".
1979: THE USSR IN AFGHANISTAN: THE 10-YEAR “DIRTY WAR”
Article published in the 21 November 2004 edition of Le Monde (Available in the archives, subscription required).
Because, as Leonid Brezhnev affirmed in 1968, the USSR could not “remain indifferent to the fate of socialism in other countries” and, of course, “at the request” of the pro-communist government in Kabul linked to the Soviet Union by a “friendship and cooperation pact”, an airlift flown by Antonov-22’s began on Christmas Eve. Thousands of Soviet troops and heavy equipment were dispatched to the Afghan capital while, on the Central Asian border several hundred kilometers to the north, armored columns invaded the country.
Operation Squall 333 met with practically no resistance and on the evening of Thursday December 27th, 1979, all objectives were secured. President Hafizullah Amin, who had overthrown the regime of President Taraki in a bloody palace coup, was summarily executed and Babrak Karmal, who was flown into the country from Moscow, became the new Afghan “strong man”.
The perfectly executed coup d’état raised concern in the international community and, in particular, in the United States, because it was the first time that the USSR had installed a regime in power in a country outside the Soviet Bloc.
This scenario was identical to that eleven years earlier in Czechoslovakia. The events in Prague were a repetition of those in Budapest in 1956, when Khrushchev invaded Hungary. Each time, there was the same overriding concern: to restore a system conforming to the Soviet model and to install a lasting government subservient to Moscow.
Beyond its geographic sphere of influence, the URSS was accustomed to act by proxy, sending the Cubans to Angola and to Ethiopia and using the Vietnamese to invade Cambodia.
Why did the Russians act out of character, risking a dangerous international escalation, even if Washington would let it pass with a timid denunciation of "flagrant interference” before arming the resistance? The Soviets would come to regret this hasty decision which resulted from a September meeting of a handful of aging Politburo members including Brezhnev, Suslov, Gromyko, Andropov, Ustinov and Kossygin. It would be revealed later that the Soviet Army was against the intervention. It was mainly the KGB that stoked the fires. The reservations of Red Army generals were soon to be vindicated by facts on the ground. The USSR had thus entered in 1979 into a “dirty war”, which it would lose. Ten years later, on 15 February 1989, when Lieutenant Boris Gromov, Commander of the Soviet Forces in Afghanistan, crossed the frontier at Termez, he would be the last Soviet soldier to leave the country.
Ten years of war would kill a million Afghani men, women and children in a country that numbered 14 million inhabitants when the Soviets took the decision to invade. The Soviet troops would pay a heavy price: 15,000 “zinc caskets” were sent home from Afghanistan. A total of 630,000 Soviet men and officers would rotate and out of the Afghani quagmire, a traumatic experience for the Soviet Union. 50,000 troops strong in January 1980, the Soviet military contingent would number 115,000 men a year later. In ten years of combat and terror, the Red Army would never gain the upper hand and would succeed only in reinforcing the “Islamic rebellion” which Moscow had hoped to eradicate, doubtlessly because of the determination of Afghan resistance leaders to sow the seeds of Islamic radicalism in the region.
FIVE MILLION REFUGEES
When the Soviets closed the chapter on this “colonial expedition”, five million Afghanis were in refugee camps in Pakistan and in Iran. The economy had been bled to death, agriculture devastated, the school system no longer existed and the countryside was littered with landmines. A generation of Afghanis had been sacrificed. When, after September 11, 2001, the United States would study scenarios to wipe out the Taliban and to capture Osama bin Laden, six Russian generals who had fought in the Afghan valleys and mountains would amplify their advice and warnings. We learned the lesson that the conquest of the Afghan people is an impossible mission. All those who have tried, have failed (…). When the first caskets start coming backed draped with the stars and stripes, the Americans will be bitterly recall recall Vietnam. They knew what they were talking about: Afganistan was, from many standpoints, the Vietnam of the Soviet Union.
But in December 1979, the Soviet generals were far from coming around to this point of view. They became far more obsessed with delivering a blow to what they saw as a dangerous Islamic and tribal contamination threatening to spread to the majority Muslim Republics of Central Asia than with controlling a country said to be the key to “warm water ports”.
Despite the fact that they disposed of 5000 military advisors within the Afghan Army, the situation was to slip their grasp. Since the April 1978 Revolution that had put an end to the Dourani dynasty, which had founded the Kingdom of Afghanistan in 1747, the Afghani government has been a “brother”, who, through a communist coup d’état against Prince Daoud, has seized power in Kabul. But a series of bloody palace coups would transpire due to rifts between the Khalq and Parsham factions of the DPC (Democratic and Popular Party), leaving the country with no stability.
Weakened by desertion and successive purges, the Afghan Army would no longer have the remotest chance of defeating a rebellion calling for an insurrection against an increasing oppressive "communist and anti-religious” government whose ranks would not cease to swell.
The September 1979 murder of President Taraki, who enjoyed the confidence of Moscow, and his replacement by the unstable and brutal Hafizullah Amin would precipitate events and convince Moscow to install its vassal, Babrak Karmal. He would remain in power for five and a half years -nearly a record- until his replacement by Mohammad Najibullah in May 1968. Despite the success of the Mujahedeen, the old head of the Khad, the Afghani political police, would remain in power until the departure of Soviet troops in 1992.
[Fourteen] years later, in [July 2006], as the US troops of Operation Enduring Freedom and NATO forces struggle to annihilate Islamist Taliban militias long supported by the Pakistani Army, Afghanistan justly deserves its reputation as the Land of Eternal War.