Graveyard of Empires? Comparing Soviet & American Wars in Afghanistan

by Dr. Jeff Jones

Amid the recent chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, most observers in the media drew comparisons with the hasty US retreat from Saigon in 1975. It seems more fruitful, however, to explore some points of comparison and contrast with the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s and the US/NATO conflict there of the past twenty years, specifically the reasons both wars began; the ways in which the wars were conducted, and the nature of the eventual withdrawals by both defeated powers. The key is not just to compare and contrast the wars, but to link them. Because the debacle we are witnessing now unfolding in Afghanistan began not just twenty years ago, but actually forty years ago with the start of the Soviet-Afghan War and the covert US role in that conflict.  

In April 1978 the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) seized power in a very bloody coup d’etat. A couple of key developments afterward culminated in the Soviet invasion of late 1979. For one, there were two different factions within the PDPA, and while they had set their differences aside to work together against the previous government, now that they were in power the differences between the two factions, Khalq (“masses”) and Parcham (“flag” or “banner”), reemerged with a vengeance. The more radical Khalq faction, led by Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, had the upper hand and began to purge members of the more moderate Parcham faction, which was led by Babrak Karmal. 

In addition, the Khalq leadership carried out some very radical reforms in the countryside, including land reform and also policies negating arranged marriages and allowing young girls to go to school alongside boys. These were progressive reforms, but they were carried out hastily and haphazardly and with little regard for the population’s religious sensibilities—for example, many devout Muslims refused to support the land reform program because they considered taking someone else’s property to be un-Islamic. As a result, opposition to Afghanistan’s new communist regime emerged almost immediately with the rise of the mujahedeen (holy warriors), which are bands of rebels in the countryside who took up arms against the new communist government.

By 1979 the situation was growing increasingly chaotic, with the Khalq leadership of the PDPA purging members of the more moderate Parcham faction and the mujahedeen gradually growing in strength to fight against the new communist regime (led by Taraki). The Soviets looked upon this situation wearily and saw the root of the problem as Taraki’s second-in-command, Amin. Soviet leaders decided that Amin would have to go which they believed would allow Taraki (Khalq) and Karmal (Parcham) to slow the pace of reform and form a coalition government with broader appeal and more popular support. The Soviets were thus very upset when, in September 1979, Amin seized the upper hand and actually overthrew Taraki (who died as a result) and seized power. This was, from a Soviet perspective, the worst-case scenario and simply unacceptable, so they decided as a result to invade, remove and kill Amin, andput Karmal in power, which is exactly what they did in late December 1979.   

The Soviets had no intention of staying in Afghanistan to fight a long and bloody war. On the contrary, they intended an intervention on the model of their prior invasions of Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968). The idea was that they would come in, shore up the leadership by getting rid of Amin and putting Karmal in power, and then get out in six months to a year. However, with the growing insurgency by the mujahideen in the countryside against the communist regime, the Soviets found themselves drawn into a quagmire and fighting a decade long war there.

All of this was of course during the Cold War; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan put an end to détente and ushered in a new, nasty phase of the Cold War. US President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski gave an interview in 1998 in which he admitted that the US had begun providing monetary support to factions of the mujahideen in July 1979, six months before the Soviet invasion, even though the Carter administration vehemently denied such claims by the Soviets at the time. In fact, one key difference between the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s and the US/NATO War there in the 2000s is the role of the other major power (and its allies) in supporting the insurgency: in the 1980s, US support for the mujahideen, matched dollar for dollar by Saudi Arabia and funneled through Pakistan, ballooned to become the largest “covert” campaign in US history. Russia under Putin also provided support for the Taliban against the US in the last 10-12 years, but nothing on the scale of the support provided by the US and its allies to the mujahideen in the 1980s.

In addition, the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s the US/Saudi Arabia/Pakistan supported the most radical and extremist elements within the mujahideen leadership, which was a very divided force with numerous different mostly ethnically defined factions that were not always on the same page. The bulk of US and Saudi funding, for example, went to the predominantly Pashtun faction of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who had made his reputation in the early 1970s as the leader of a student radical Islamicist group that went around campus at Kabul University splashing acid into the faces of young women not wearing a veil. Meanwhile, the CIA was busy recruiting the likes of Osama bin Laden and other Arabs from the Middle East to come to Afghanistan to fight against the infidel Soviet invaders. US foreign policy in the 80s, in short, played a pivotal and rather nefarious role in creating and fanning the flames of what is now decades of war and destruction in Afghanistan. The Soviets bear the brunt of the blame, for sure, for invading the country and also for conducting an absolutely brutal war there with very high civilian casualties, but the US is definitely culpable as well for creating the horror that has been Afghanistan’s history since 1980. 

Thus, one clear point of contrast in the two wars concerns the reasons for the invasions of Afghanistan. The Soviet invasion of late 1979 was, as noted, due to the complicated geopolitical considerations of the Cold War and the internal political developments of Afghanistan itself. The US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 was, on the other hand, due to 9/11 and the presumed Afghan role therein for, at the very least, giving refuge to bin Laden and al Qaeda to operate in the country. In the aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush Jr.’s administration demanded that Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, in power since 1996 after emerging from the mess of the 1980s/early 90s, hand over bin Laden. The Taliban responded that it would only consider doing so if the US provided evidence of bin Laden’s involvement in the attack, which the Bush administration refused to do, citing “national security interests.” There was, therefore, at least a slight opening to pursue a diplomatic path to secure bin Laden’s capture, with him brought to justice in an international court and without the further bombing and destruction of Afghanistan. 

Panorama of the mountains. Lake Kulikolon. Pamir, Tajikistan. HDR

Obviously, however, this was the path not taken, and the US responded as it always does with a bombing campaign instead (the kind of militaristic response that is counter-productive over the long-term and creates these very issues and problems in the first place). The invasion removed the Taliban from power (temporarily as it turns out), but also killed many civilians (and no doubt created more virulently anti-American terrorists in the process). The Taliban—out of power by early 2002—retreated to the countryside and, over time, began its insurgency against US forces and the Afghan Army trained and supplied by the US, while the US, like the Soviets before them, found themselves sucked into a quagmire they could not easily get out of—indeed, it wound up being twice as long as the Soviet War, twenty years instead of just ten.

It is not difficult to see why both the Soviet and then the US missions in Afghanistan failed. The bottom line in both cases is that the foreign powers tried to engage in “state building” (even as the US denied doing so) with Afghan political leaders who ultimately had little-to-no legitimacy among the vast majority of their population. The Soviets accomplished their initial mission, which was to get rid of Amin and put Karmal in power, but in so doing they created a “puppet” regime seen as alien and illegitimate by most Afghans. For the duration of the war, the Soviets focused on controlling the major urban centers and little else as they tried to train the Afghan communist government army to fight the war for themselves. The height of control for the Soviets and the Afghan communist government was about 40% of the country, and that had diminished significantly by the end of the conflict. Of course, some Afghans supported the communist regime and the Soviet occupiers; but the vast majority, particularly in the countryside, did not, and therein lay the greatest difficulty for the Soviets. 

It was a model doomed to fail because the Soviets failed to create a government with the legitimate support of the population. One key reason for this was the rampant corruption of the communist regime of Afghanistan in the 80s as well as that of their Soviet overlords; in 1986 new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev decided to remove Karmal and replace him with Muhammad Najibullah, former head of the Afghan communist government’s secret police. Najibullah and his brother over the years became infamously corrupt leaders despised by most of the Afghan population. 

All of this may sound familiar because a very similar scenario developed during the US war of the 2000s in Afghanistan. US and Afghan Army forces strove to control the major cities—the provincial capitals—while much of the countryside remained outside of its control. Meanwhile, like the Soviets before them, the US sought to train and supply an Afghan government army to fight against the Taliban once the US withdrew—obviously that did not work out at all. The Afghan governments led by Hamid Karzai (2002-2014) and then Ashraf Ghani (2014-2021) were, like the communist regimes of the 80s, infamously corrupt and also totally lacking in legitimacy in the eyes of the bulk of the population—these were, just like the regimes of Karmal and Najibullah, illegitimate puppet regimes held up by foreign forces, a house of cards waiting to fall, which is of course exactly what we witnessed last month. To rule the provinces both of these figures relied on strong local provincial warlords, many of whom were extremely corrupt.

Herein, in fact, lies the key link between the two wars, the Soviet conflict of the 80s and the US War since 2001: many of the corrupt local provincial warlords ruling throughout the country in the last twenty years were the same mujahedeen figures (or their successors) supported by the US and its allies in the war against the Soviets in the 1980s! Ismail Khan, a key Tajik mujahideen leader against the Soviets in the 80s who fought against the Taliban in the late 1990s and then became the Provincial Governor of Herat in the early 2000s, is but one key example. While no longer in that position in recent years, he remained until last month, when he was captured by Taliban forces, the key figure/warlord of Herat Province. He is one of several such figures who directly link the US policy of supporting the mujahideen rebels in the 80s against the Soviets to the post-Taliban governments of Karzai and Ghani, and this is a key reason these governments had no legitimacy among the broader population.

In addition, the pro-Soviet Afghan communist regime of the 80s, for all of its many failings, was at least multi-ethnic in composition (albeit controlled by Pashtuns, the majority ethnic group in the country). This was one of the key reasons the Soviets preferred Karmal’s multi-ethnic Parcham faction of the PDPA to the overwhelmingly Pashtun Khalq faction of Taraki and Amin. The US, on the other hand, found itself in a rather unique and quite difficult scenario as far as the ethnic composition of Afghanistan is concerned. The Taliban, which originated in the early/mid 90s with strong support from Pakistan, is overwhelmingly Pashtun in composition. As a result, most Pasthuns saw the multi-ethnic government of the last twenty years (albeit led by Pasthuns—both Karzai and Ghani are Pashtun) as particularly illegitimate. This was clearly reflected in the composition of the Afghan army created and trained by US forces there: there were some Pasthun troops within the pro-US Afghan government, but it was disproportionately comprised of ethnic minority groups like the Tajiks and Hazaras (and others). This was a recipe for failure in a country with a Pashtun majority that has for the vast majority of its history (for better or for worse) been dominated by Pashtuns. 

US military leaders tried to address this problem in the early years of the Barack Obama administration amid the “surge” of US troops into Afghanistan in 2009-10. They purposely recruited a larger number of Pashtuns into the Afghan government army, but by 2011 such efforts had stalled because the Taliban successfully took advantage of this change in US policy to infiltrate the Afghan government army and attack US military trainers, which happened on several occasions. As a result, the Afghan government army was never truly representative of the population—neither is the Taliban of course, but at least it reflects the country’s ethnic majority, the Pashtuns—and was thus set up mostly to fail.

And the US conduct of its war in Afghanistan did fail, leading us to a comparison of the ways in which the two defeated powers, the Soviets in the 80s and the US last month, withdrew from their respective wars. In short, there really is no comparison; clearly defeated by the mujahideen by the mid-80s, the Soviets began talks on withdrawal that finally took hold when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev solidified his power (he publicly referred to the war in Afghanistan as a “bleeding wound” in a 1986 speech). On the basis of the Geneva Accords signed in April 1988 the Soviets began withdrawing from the country the following month, finally pulling their last troops out in February 1989. Afghans lined the streets and hills of Afghanistan to wave and celebrate the withdrawal, which, certainly in contrast to what we saw last month, was orderly and mostly without incident. 

Ironically, the Afghan communist government of Najibullah left behind by the Soviets (and still supported by them), managed to survive for three more years and outlived the Soviet government itself! The latter collapsed by the end of 1991, whereas Najibullah’s communist regime managed to hold on until April 1992 in Afghanistan. There was one key reason for that which is glaringly absent in the current situation: at the end of the Soviet-Afghan War the various ethnically based factions of the mujahideen turned their guns on each other and began vying for power before they had actually taken power, which made it easier for the Afghan communist regime to hold on. But, of course, with the collapse of the USSR and thus the end of Soviet support it was just a matter of time before the collapse of Najibullah’s regime in Afghanistan. By contrast, while there are different factions within today’s Taliban, they are a relatively united force (and, as noted, largely ethnically homogenous), so the US-supported illegitimate government there, led by Ashraf Ghani, fell very quickly.   

Is Afghanistan the “Graveyard of Empires?” This is the sort of popular conceptualization that can be blown out of proportion. The Soviet-Afghan War was no doubt a major contributing factor (among many) in the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. In the Soviet and US wars in Afghanistan, both powers behaved and conducted themselves precisely like empires: pursuing their own geopolitical goals with little to no regard for the wellbeing of the local population. Many would argue that their actions reflected very little knowledge of the local population which fueled local corruption. This corruption was at the root of the corrupt practices of their own governments—which reflect illegitimate occupation regimes that were doomed to fail. This is the mentality of empire, and empires, which history has shown, are destined to fall. The main lesson I hope (but quite frankly doubt) that US leaders will take from this experience is a total reconsideration and reconfiguration of how it conducts foreign policy—otherwise, yes, the US is quite possibly the next gravestone to be added to Afghanistan’s “Graveyard of Empires.” 

Dr. Jeff Jones, who grew up in Liberty, NC, teaches Russian-Soviet and Contemporary World history at UNC-Greensboro and is working on a book entitled “Smoke, Mirrors and Memories: A Cultural History of the Soviet-Afghan War” (forthcoming 2022).