Hoping to bolster its geopolitical position, a great power sends troops to Afghanistan and installs a puppet leader.  That leader has little authority with the influential tribal chieftains and insufficient means to buy their complicity.  Resistance soon grows into a full-blown insurgency, which leads to harsh reprisals by the occupying forces.  The vicious circle becomes untenable, the great power withdraws in ignominy, and Afghanistan reverts to its usual state of Hobbesian premodernity.

That, in short, is the story not only of the Soviet invasion started on Christmas Day 1979, but of the British intervention known as the First Afghan War (1839-42).  After two miserable years, 16,000 soldiers and camp followers retreated from Kabul in January 1842; only one British survivor made it back alive.  Scottish poet Thomas Campbell left the war’s fitting epitaph:

Few, few shall part, where many meet!

The snow shall be their winding-sheet,

And every turf beneath their feet

Shall be a soldier’s sepulchre.

Another British intervention came four decades later, when this same land was seen as central to the security of the Raj amid the ongoing “Great Game” in Central Asia.  The Second Afghan War is remembered, if at all, through Kipling’s grim verses:

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,

And the women come out to cut up what remains,

Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains

An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

The Soviet intervention repeated all of the British mistakes of 1839, but the consequences were more serious.  The ensuing war in Afghanistan did not “cause” the collapse of the Soviet Union any more than the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand “caused” World War I, but it revealed and exacerbated major structural weaknesses.  Over half a million impressionable young men did tours of duty and, like their counterparts in Vietnam, came to believe that politicians got them into a quagmire but denied them the means to win.  Last December, the Rossiiskaya Gazeta marked the 30th anniversary of what it called a “large-scale military operation the goal of which was a mystery to all.”  Neither the Politburo nor the military had a clear set of objectives, the Gazeta wrote, let alone an exit strategy.  In The Great Gamble, former NPR Moscow correspondent Gregory Feifer gives credence to the claim of a Soviet general staff officer that “no one ever actually ordered the invasion of Afghanistan”—it happened through inertia and the confusion of the sclerotic Soviet leadership.

In the decade before the invasion, Moscow’s influence in Afghanistan was steadily growing, at the modest cost of a few infrastructure projects.  After four decades of uneventful rule, King Mohammed Zahir Shah was dethroned in a 1973 coup by his cousin and former prime minister Mohammed Daoud, who abolished the monarchy.  Unlike the ineffective king, President Daoud was a despot intolerant of any dissent.  While continuing to receive economic aid and arms from the Soviets, he clamped down on the small but influential pro-Moscow People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan.  In April 1978, after one of its leaders was killed, the PDPA temporarily overcame its factional squabbles and colluded with sympathetic army officers to stage a coup.  Daoud and his family were killed, and Afghanistan became a “democratic republic” under PDPA secretary-general Nur Muhammad Taraki.

What followed was a compressed Marxist version of the shah’s experiment in neighboring Iran, minus the petrodollars: massive modernization imposed on a society steeped in Islamic tradition.  Within months a series of decrees abolished traditional sharia practices such as arranged marriages and polygamy, banned usury (endemic in the villages), and mandated school attendance for girls.  The local village elite, Muslim clergy and landowners, were treated with disdain or outright hostility.  Young PDPA activists, mainly students, were sent into the countryside to “reeducate” the people.

Then came an ambitious agrarian reform program and the cancellation of farmers’ debts to landowners.  Although meant to benefit them, such measures could not buy the support of mainly illiterate peasants whose worldview was founded on village traditions accentuated by Islam and an historic hatred of foreigners.  Those same measures caused dismay among the powerful landowners and tribal leaders, who were not offered a compensating stake in the new order.  In the summer of 1978 the Nuristani elders started a rebellion in eastern Afghanistan, invoking Allah against Taraki’s “infidel” regime.  When Taraki was killed in a palace coup by his PDPA rival Hafizullah Amin, it made no difference.  The insurgency soon spread to other ethnic groups.  The government executed captured rebels and suspected sympathizers, but the army rank and file proved unreliable.  As tens of thousands of soldiers deserted or joined the rebels, Kabul appealed to Moscow for military assistance.

Starting in early 1979 the Soviets provided military advisors, helicopter pilots, tank drivers, and presidential guards, but Moscow was reluctant to commit large regular units.  The U.S. decision in July 1979 to arm the rebels may have forced the Kremlin’s hand.  As President Jimmy Carter’s national-security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, said in a 1998 interview, “According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the mujahideen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan . . . [b]ut the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise.”  The goal of the policy, he said, was to provoke a Soviet military response: “We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.”  On the day the Soviets officially crossed the border, a delighted Brzezinski wrote to Carter, “We now have the opportunity of giving to the Soviet Union its Vietnam War.”

The Soviets were concerned that President Amin was losing control.  The KGB residents in Kabul warned that his “harsh repressions” would consolidate the opposition, and his reliability as an ally of Moscow was becoming uncertain.  The original Soviet objective appears to have been no more than a change of leadership and a temporary presence while the client Afghan army reasserted government authority in rebel areas.  Amin was killed by Soviet special forces on the first day of the operation; Kabul radio announced that the country was “liberated” from his misrule; and one of the PDPA’s founders, Babrak Karmal, was flown in from Prague to take over.  Kabul was quickly secured, but the provinces were another story.

First, the Soviet army was not prepared for an anti-insurgency role.  Its doctrine, tactics, training, and order of battle were predicated on a war against NATO forces on the plains of northern Central Europe.  Fighting an elusive enemy in an unfriendly terrain and without a clear set of objectives, the Soviets invariably achieved tactical successes but failed to translate them into strategic gains.  In the 19th century the czarist army fought effective counterinsurgencies in Central Asia and in the Caucasus; a century later, those old skills needed to be relearned and a new combat doctrine developed.  By the mid-1980’s specially trained air-assault and Spetsnaz forces had the skills, but it was too late to compensate for the absence of doctrine.

Second, the mujahideen had supply bases and sanctuaries in Pakistan and, to a lesser extent, Iran, which provided them with logistic and moral support.  Assured of Western backing, they felt that they could not lose—short of the Soviets engaging enormous forces and chasing them across Afghanistan’s southern, eastern, and western borders, which was diplomatically out of the question.  External support coupled with traditional martial spirit, hatred of foreigners, and invocation of Islam provided a steady influx of motivated recruits to different “Muj” groups all over the country.  Those groups remained fragmented and tribal, but they could not be defeated in detail.  Pacification of one area usually coincided with a fresh flare-up in another, previously “pacified” area.  The decentralized nature of the mujahideen meant that there was no way a massive concentration of superior Soviet forces could secure a decisive outcome.

Third, the Soviet Union was no longer as indifferent to the outside world’s disapproval as Khrushchev had been in October 1956, when he crushed the Hungarian revolution.  The U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics was psychologically more effective than many Americans realized.  In Brezhnev’s dotage the Soviet leadership lacked the ruthlessness and singularity of purpose it had displayed in 1968 in Czechoslovakia.  The Kremlin’s reluctance to allow the army to use indiscriminate reprisals would have seemed quaint, as well as treasonous, to Stalin.

Fourth, in spite of the Soviet regime’s control of the media and public discourse, no domestic consensus on the war could be constructed.  Long used to communicating its foreign policies in terms of Marxist dogma—“internationalist duty,” “response to foreign aggression,” etc.—the Kremlin could not bring itself to present the intervention in simple geopolitical terms: that having a friendly regime in Afghanistan, in the southern backyard of the Soviet Union, was a prerequisite for national security, justifying all associated sacrifices.  Had it done so, the public (in the Soviet Union’s Slavic heartland, at least) might have responded more favorably.

Fatally for the Soviets, the political solution was impossible.  Babrak Karmal did reverse some of the contentious policies of his doctrinaire predecessors, invoked the name of Allah in his speeches, replaced the irritating red flag introduced by Taraki with the traditional Afghan tricolor, and released thousands of political prisoners.  Nothing worked: Installed by foreigners and dependent on them, he was fatally tainted.  The same applied to his more ruthless successor, Mohammad Najibullah, who took over with Soviet approval in 1986.  He was able to retain limited control for a couple of years after the completion of the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, but his long-term fate was sealed.

The most enduring legacy of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan is the growth of political Islam and jihadist terrorism as a global phenomenon, but the decision to turn militant Islam into a policy tool was made in Washington.  In his now-famous interview with Le Nouvel Observateur in January 1998, Zbigniew Brzezinski was asked if he had any regrets about the consequences of his policies:

B: Regret what?  That secret operation was an excellent idea. . . . Indeed, for almost ten years, Moscow had to carry on an unsupportable conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.

Q: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic fundamentalism, giving arms and advice to future terrorists?

B: What matters more to world history, the Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire?  Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?

Q: Some stirred-up Moslems?  But isn’t Islamic fundamentalism a world menace today?

B: Nonsense! . . . There is no global Islam.

The rest, as they say, is history.  Let us end by noting the almost hysterical exaggeration in Brzezinski’s conceited claim.  Afghanistan was not the graveyard of the Soviet system.  Most fighting was Afghan on Afghan: The Soviet commitment was limited; the casualties (15,000 killed in combat) were not very serious on an annual basis and certainly not regime-threatening.  The Afghan blunder was expensive and bad for military morale, but not fatal.  It is more reasonable to assert that all the conviction had leached out of the Kremlin well before Brezhnev was dead.  The Soviet Union was the husk of a dying system before a single Soviet soldier crossed the Afghan border.