5. Afghanistan (1979 - 1992) (ATL)

This page covers the fighting in Afghanistan that started in 1979 with the Soviet invasion of this country. We have also covered the causes of the conflict in European region Paper 3 Topic 16 ATL: Khrushchev and Brezhnev

Note that this topic is part of Paper 2 Cold War Topic 12, Rivalry, Mistrust and Accord; the Soviet invasion can also be used as an example of a Cold War crisis.

Guiding questions:

 Why did the Soviet Union invade Afghanistan in December 1979?

How did the Soviet military intervention lead to war?

What was the impact of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan?

What was the nature of the Soviet-Afghan conflict?

What was the impact of foreign involvement in the conflict?

How and why did the Soviet Union withdraw its forces from Afghanistan in 1989?

What are the similarities and differences in the nature of the conflicts in Vietnam and Afghanistan?

Why did a civil war develop in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal and what was its outcome? 

1. Why did the Soviet Union invade Afghanistan in December 1979?

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979.  Afghanistan, a country on the border of the Soviet Islamic republics, was a rural, tribal Islamic country of 15 million people.  Despite the Soviet Union’s apparent numerical and technological military superiority, the war lasted for nine years, until February 1989 and ultimately led to the victory of the Mujahideen.  

Starter activity: Why was Afghanistan considered strategically important to the Soviet Union?

In pairs look at the maps below and discuss why Afghanistan may have been seen as strategically important to the USSR.

Note that the CNN Cold War video on Afghanistan could be shown in conjunction with the following tasks as it provides a good overview of the situation in 1979 and why the Soviets got involved. The video and questions can be found here: 6. Cold War conflicts in Asia: Videos and activities 

Task One

ATL: Thinking and communication skills

Read the information below and discuss with a partner the questions that follow:

In April 1978 the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan [PDP] seized power.  The PDP was brought to power in a military coup and it established a left-wing regime.  The USSR portrayed the coup as a popular revolution.  Nur Mohammad Taraki was installed as the President and he looked to the Soviet Union for support. Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, sent thousands of advisors to ‘advance socialism.’  The Afghan Prime Minister, and leader of the PDP, was Hafizullah Amin.  Afghanistan was a poor agricultural country, and the first major reform implemented by the new regime was land reform – redistributing land from the landowners to the peasants.  Other decrees introduced a secular education system which offered literacy courses to women in the same classes as men.  Women were also encouraged to stop wearing the veil.  Amin had stated that he wanted to build socialism in Afghanistan in just 5 years.  These reforms were opposed by fundamentalist Muslims who believed that they were not in line with their religious beliefs and challenged the authority of the Islamic priests, the Mullahs.  They were also opposed by factions within the PDP and more widely in the countryside by those that felt that the reforms went against their traditions and culture.  Some Afghans fled the turmoil in the country for neighboring Pakistan, others joined the Mujahideen, guerilla-style military units who declared a Jihad [holy war] against Amin’s regime.  In Iran crowds supported the call for a Jihad against the ‘godless’ communists.

The peasant based guerilla fighters of the Mujahideen mainly relied on Soviet weapons they had captured from government forces.  Thousands of recruits from the refugee camps in Pakistan crossed the border to join the Mujahideen’s jihad.  The Afghan government army was trained and mechanized by the Soviets, however every month thousands of its troops deserted and Kabul made increasingly urgent pleas to Moscow for Soviet troops to be sent in.  When Soviet officials were killed in Herat, the Soviet politburo discussed the matter with more urgency.  However, Amin resisted Soviet calls to slow down his reforms and he instead responded to the increasing violence with brutal oppression and a campaign of terror.  President Taraki visited Moscow to discuss how to contain the opposition to his government.  Taraki agreed with the Soviets that Amin should be removed, that the terror should end and the pace of reform be slowed.  However, when Taraki returned to Afghanistan Amin had him arrested and executed in October 1979.  Amin now understood that the Soviets wanted him ousted and began to seek ties with the west via the CIA. 


  1. Why was there opposition to the PDP’s reforms in Afghanistan?
  2. What recommendations were made by Moscow with regards to containing this opposition?
  3. What role did a] Taraki and b] Amin play in the developing Afghan crisis?
  4. What was the extent of Soviet involvement in the crisis?
  5. How committed was the Soviet Union to the government in Kabul by October 1979?

The USSR decision to invade Afghanistan in December 1979 was made after several months of hesitation in Moscow.  For centuries, foreign nations had attempted to conquer Afghanistan and all had failed and the Soviets understood that a military intervention would be both costly and incur international criticism.  Nevertheless, as you discovered when considering the maps and the potential strategic significance of Afghanistan in the starter activity, the Soviets deemed a ‘friendly’ government in Kabul essential for homeland security.  Indeed, Afghanistan was close to the Persian Gulf oil, and Indian ocean ports, it bordered Iran in the west and Pakistan in the south and in the north it shared a border with the USSR’s central Asian republics. The central Asian republics were, as Afghans were, Muslims. 

Task Two

ATL: Thinking skills

In pairs read through the chart below and discuss which of the following factors may have been the most important in the Soviet decision to invade Afghanistan in December 1979.  Discuss with your partner which reasons the USSR would have made public as the official rational for intervention.

Now do Task Two under Guiding Question 8 here: ATL: Khrushchev and Brezhnev where you can read a defense of the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan by Alexander Bovi.

Task Three

ATL: Thinking and communication skills

Discuss with a partner which of the following perspectives on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan you agree with.

Afghanistan and ‘Orthodox Western Historians’

The invasion of Afghanistan was evidence of the Soviet Union continuing to pursue ‘Marxist-Leninist’ expansionism and this invasion led to the ‘Second Cold War’.

 Afghanistan and ‘Revisionist Western Historians’

The Soviet invasion was defensive and in response to a genuine threat to their security, a threat that was within its sphere of influence.  The US responded cynically and took advantage of Islamic fundamentalism in the region. It was President Carter’s response and then the policies of President Reagan that led to a Second Cold War

2. How did the Soviet military intervention lead to war?

On 24
th December, 1979 the Soviet Union airlifted thousands of troops into Kabul and 700 Soviet troops and KGB agents dressed in Afghan uniforms stormed the palace where Amin was hiding and assassinated him on 27th December.  Kamal was installed as president.  The Soviets also sent in an occupation force of 115, 000 troops. 

Soviet troops quickly tool control of urban areas and military based.  However, the presence of foreign forces only exacerbated opposition to the Kamal regime and incited nationalist sentiments.  Kamal attempted to crush the uprising with mass arrests, torture, and executions which only fueled hostility to his government. He demanded that Soviet troops put down the rebellion that they had now galvanized and the USSR subsequently found itself drawn further and further into the conflict.  Soviet airpower and artillery was used to bombard opposition forces.  Five million Afghans fled the country.

Task One

ATL: Self-management and communication skills

Get into groups of four.  Two of you are writing a press briefing for the Soviet newspaper Pravda, the other two will prepare a press report for the US newspaper the Washington Post. 

You have been tasked to write a 300-word report explaining the reasons for the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. 

You need to conclude with a brief prediction of how the conflict might develop in the next 18 months

3. What was the impact of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan?

The Soviet Union miscalculated what the response from the US would be to military intervention in Afghanistan.  In the US, Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security advisor to Jimmy Carter [1977 – 1981], had seen the left wing government in Afghanistan as a major threat before the Soviet invasion.  He suggested to President Carter that the USSR may use the ‘Afghan crisis’ to move south to seize control of the oil in the Persian Gulf.  Then in Iran, a revolution brought down the Shah’s government and led to the establishment of an Islamic Republic under the Supreme leader the Ayatollah Khomeini.   The Shah had been a US ally and this led to further anxiety in Washington.  The US sent covert assistance to the Mujahideen in July 1979; initially this was mainly communications equipment

Therefore, after the invasion in December 1979, US President Jimmy Carter condemned the action which was deemed Soviet expansionism.  The US did not accept the Soviet claim that it was an issue of homeland security and containment.  It did not see the military intervention akin to Soviet action in Czechoslovakia in 1968.  This was the first time the Soviets had used military force to expand their control outside the ‘accepted spheres of influence’ since the 1940s. Thus:

  • Carter claimed that this action represented the most serious threat to world peace since 1945.
  • Carter announced the ‘Carter Doctrine’ which pledged US intervention in the Persian Gulf if its interests were threatened there.
  • Carter announced an increase in US military funding for the next five years
  • The US refused to ratify the arms limitations agreement SALT II
  • Carter banned the export of electronics to the USSR and ended the agreement to sell the Soviet grain
  • The US boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympic games
  • Ultimately, the invasion of Afghanistan ended the period of détente that had led to a period of relaxation in the confrontation between the superpowers. 
  • 34 Islamic nations supported a UN resolution condemning the intervention and demanded the immediate withdrawal of Soviet forces
  • The UN General Assembly passed a resolution protesting the interventions
  • The Western allies of the US condemned the intervention as a threat to western security. 

The US supplied Soviet weapons that it bought from Czechoslovakia and from Israel to the Mujahideen via Pakistan.  Britain also sent missiles and significant support was given by Saudi Arabia.  Turkey sold stockpiles of weapons left from the Second World War to the guerrillas, and the People’s Republic of China also provided light weight equipment to facilitate the guerilla war against the Soviets. 

Pakistan was the conduit for this military assistance.  Its secret service, the ISI, was able to allocate weapons to the groups it most favoured.  These groups tended to be the most militant and fundamentalist.  Pakistan believed that these groups would provide the most reliable ally after the Soviet had been defeated

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

Read through the material above and use the information to complete the following chart:

Task Two

ATL: Thinking skills

In pairs discuss the following questions

1.Why was the US response so hostile to the invasion?

2. Why did other Western states adopt a similar position on the invasion?

3. To what extent was the response of other Islamic states predictable?

4. Why did the communist People’s Republic of China send weapons to the Mujahideen?

4. What was the nature of the Soviet-Afghan conflict?  

‘The basic policy failure of the Soviet Afghan invasion was the belief that foreign power could be used to secure the survival and ultimate success of a regime that demonstrably could not survive on its own.’ 

Odd Arne Westad. The Global Cold War. [CUP. 2007]. P. 326

Task One

ATL: Thinking and self-management skills

The Soviet-Afghan conflict was a guerilla war.  You can find a definition of a guerilla war here: ATL: introduction to themes and prescribed content  under Theme Two.

1. Look at the map above and read through the information below (click on the eye).  Using this information as a basis, in small groups research the Soviet Afghan war.  You need to include information on the nature of the conflict, key battles, strategies and tactics and the significance of technology such as the US Stinger missiles. 

2. Discuss in pairs the ways in which the Afghan War showed the characteristics of a guerilla war.

Note: Watch the CNN Cold War video on Afghanistan for more information on how the war was conducted.

Soviet strategy:

  • Soviets occupied cities and communication centers
  • Soviets launched nine combined offensives into Mujahideen territory, they also led concentrated attacks to break sieges and engaged in sporadic fighting with guerilla units. 
  • Soviets would be able to win individual engagements and battles and break sieges but would find Mujahideen had returned to the village or territory the following day. 
  • Low morale and desertions from the Afghan army continued
  • Strategy 1: Use of aerial bombing of village to force out the guerrillas and isolate them from the civilians shelters and resources.
  • Strategy 2: Use of subversion via spies sent in to join the Mujahideen to undermine the guerillas.
  • Strategy 3: Search and destroy operations were used to destroy guerrilla units which relied on helicopter gunships.  Villages would be occupied and remaining Mujahideen sympathizers tortured and killed.
  • KHAD – Afghan Secret police spread misinformation and propaganda against the Mujahideen

Mujahideen strategy

  • Mujahideen waged a guerrilla war breaking up into small mobile units
  • 80% of country not consistently under government control
  • Mujahideen fighters joined the Afghan army to get weapons and information about planned operations and offensives
  • High levels of morale and did not attempt to hold territory
  • Thousands of Muslim radicals came to fight the Jihad from the Middle East and North Africa
  • Camps in Pakistan trained guerrilla fighters
  • Osama bin Laden built training facilities for foreign fighters inside Afghanistan
  • Significant supplies of weapons and equipment from US
  • Weapons from other foreign states
  • After 1981 US President Ronald Reagan stepped up assistance to the Mujahideen and supplied US Stinger missiles

5. What was the impact of foreign involvement in the conflict?  

Task One

ATL: Thinking and self-management skills

In pairs, use your research on the nature of the Soviet Afghan conflict complete the following grid on the impact of foreign involvement in the war.  You can add other nations that were involved to this grid.  You might have to pursue some additional research to add sufficient detail.

Table on country involvement in the Afghan War

6. How and why did the Soviet Union withdraw its forces from Afghanistan in 1989?  

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

According to the extract below, what reasons did Gorbachev have with withdrawing forces from Vietnam?

When Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union he planned to withdraw from Afghanistan, however he needed to do this without the humiliation of an open retreat. Indeed, he wanted to achieve a similar exit from the war as US president Nixon had attempted from Vietnam, he wanted ‘peace with honor.’  Gorbachev understood that the war in Afghanistan was not only deeply unpopular within the Soviet Union but also hugely costly.  The war cost the USSR $8 billion per annum.  This was not sustainable as the Soviet Union was facing economic stagnation and decline. Gorbachev’s priority was to improve the living standards of his own citizens and he needed funds for his domestic reforms.

Furthermore, Gorbachev also wanted to bring about the end to the Cold War confrontation and arms race with the US.  A key area of hostility between the superpowers was the conflict in Afghanistan and the indirect or proxy war which was being waged there. In addition, hostility with the PRC was exacerbated by the war in Afghanistan and the Chinese had made it clear that there would not be a reduction in the build-up of its forces on the border until the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan.

Gorbachev initiated the scaling down of Soviet intervention in Angola, Mongolia, and pressured their allies the Vietnamese to withdraw from Cambodia in 1988. The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan was also in line with the broader foreign policies of the new Soviet leader.

Task Two

ATL: Thinking skills

7. What are the similarities and differences in the nature of the conflicts in Vietnam and Afghanistan?  

Task One

ATL: Self-management and communication skills

In small groups review the material and information you have gathered from this section and your study of the conflict in Vietnam.  Identify in your groups comparisons and contrasts between the conflicts in terms of how the war was fought, the role of foreign involvement and factors that determined the outcome.  

8. Why did a civil war develop in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal and what was its outcome?

Task One

ATL: Thinking and communication skills.

In pairs read through the following bullet points and discuss the reasons for the development of civil war in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal.  With your partner, prepare a short speech to deliver at the United Nations which explains why a civil war has developed and recommend possible action that the international community could take to establish peace in Afghanistan.

  • With significant Soviet support, the communist government held on to power in Kabul until early 1992.
  • The United Nations attempted and failed to establish a ‘transitional process’ acceptable to all the parties.
  • In February 1992 an alliance of two powerful militia was formed called the Northern Alliance.
  • On 15 April militia’s allied to the government mutinied and took control of Kabul airport.
  • President Najibuillah took refuge in the UN compound.
  • 26 April the Northern Alliance partners agreed to form a new coalition government.  It excluded the Hizb-i Islami group led by Gulbuddin Hikmatyar who was backed by Pakistan. 
  • Hikmatyar launched missile attacks on Kabul.
  • In June 1992 Burhanuddin Rabbani became president of the Islamic State of Afghanistan (ISA)
  • Fighting developed between rival factions and Hikmatyar continued to launch strikes on Kabul
  • Rabbani was again elected president in December 1992.
  • In January 1994, Hikmatyar joined forces with General Abdul Rashid Dostum to oust Rabbani and this launched full-scale civil war in Kabul.
  • The UN continued to attempt to find a resolution and compromise between the warring factions however it lacked international engagement in resolving the civil war in Afghanistan.
  • The US withdrew from the peace process until after the Taliban had taken Kabul in 1996.
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