Soviet-Afghan War Origins

sa.jpgOn the morning of February 15th, 1989, after a war of unexpected length and surprising brutality, the last soldier of the Soviet Red Army, its commanding general Boris Gromov, crossed the bridge at Termez out of Afghanistan and back home to the U.S.S.R., thus ending the ruinous conflict.  When Soviet troops first crossed the treacherous frontier a decade before they hardly could have predicted—nor could have anyone in the world for that matter—the difficulty they would face in pacifying a seemingly backward and primitive people and that they would ultimately fail.  But perhaps they should have suspected the problems they would encounter.  The 1979 invasion was hardly the world’s largest country’s first Afghan adventure.  Throughout much of the 19th century, Russia and Great Britain sparred in the region and produced a number of dustups and intrigues, during a period commonly known as The Great Game.  While Russia did gain some territory from these episodes, they managed to escape the era without any major blights on their military record, unlike the British who suffered major reversals in two Anglo-Afghan wars.  Perhaps, though they saw the failures of the British excursions, having not experienced them firsthand lead them to a false confidence.  Or perhaps by the late 20th century they became empowered by their vast technological advantage and in that put their ultimate trust to give them victory.  It would not have been the first time a superpower made that mistake.  But all of this begs the question, why invade in the first place, regardless of the supposed advantages?  What was there to gain from the conquest of essentially a primitive central Asian backwater?  The answer can be found, like many answers when discussing the Cold War era, in the preservation and expansion of an ideology.  In an attempt to further proselytize the world masses to the doctrine of Communism and compete in the world influence market with the United States and the West by propping up a failing communist regime, the Soviet Union launched a war that would become one of the leading factors in its ultimate demise.

Afghanistan had, for most of its existence as a nation, been in constant turmoil.  However, for a forty year period, beginning in 1933, a period of relative stability was achieved under the reign of King Zahir Shah.  Twenty years into these peaceful days, a relationship with the Soviet government was forged.  The Afghan Prime Minister, Mohammoud Daoud, intended to bring his country’s army into the twentieth century.  To that end he requested military aid from the United States.  However, the “U.S. rejected [his] request and Daoud turned to the Soviet Union for military aid” (The Origins of the Soviet-Afghan War).  Hereafter, the Soviet Union would continue attempts to expand its influence over Afghanistan.  Daoud was deposed in 1963 but, according to Robert Morris, was later able to “overthrow the venal monarchy of King Zahir Shah” (A19) and declare Afghanistan a republic.  Though he accepted Soviet military aid to modernize the Afghan army and many of the officers he relied on during the coup had been trained in the Soviet Union, Daoud also began making overtures to other Muslim nations on trade, including those with close ties to the United States like Iran and Saudi Arabia, and through a number of  purges, began eliminate more leftist members of the government.  A country study published by the U.S. government has stated that while “loosening of ties with the Soviet Union was gradual” his move toward “the right and realignment made the Soviets anxious.”  It also made their Afghan clients upset.  In April 1978 troops loyal to Afghan communists—as well as non-communist elements that disliked Daoud—staged a coup.  Morris has reported that “a leftist commander launched his jet fighters [from Bagram airport] with withering effect on Daoud’s presidential palace” (A19).  Daoud was killed in his own palace and a new government under Nur Muhammad Taraki of the Marxist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) was established.

The coup did little to increase stability in the country.  Within the PDPA there were divisions, not to mention the obvious conflict between a government with an atheistic communist ideology and a fervently Muslim population.  Within the fractioned PDPA the Soviets had favored the continued rule of Taraki, however his deputy Prime Minister and rival Hafizullah Amin conspired against him, had him murdered, and seized power in September of 1979.  Upon doing so, Amin tried, as the U.S. country study states, “to moderate what many Afghans viewed as an anti-Islam regime.”  His efforts however were in vain and the echoes of rebellion were in the air.  Even before Taraki’s death, “the Afghan government repeatedly requested the introduction of Soviet forces in Afghanistan” (“Soviet war in Afghanistan”).  In December of that year Soviet troops stormed the frontier and parachuted into Kabul.

According to the United States government sponsored study of Afghanistan, “The Soviet Union [was] always interested in establishing a cordon sanitaire of subservient or neutral states on its frontiers [and] was increasingly alarmed at the unstable, unpredictable situation on its southern border.”  It goes on to say that, “Perhaps as important, the Brezhnev doctrine declared that the Soviet Union had a ‘right’ to come to the assistance of an endangered fellow socialist country.”  Also, the influence of the United States can not be understated.  Initially it was believed that U.S. involvement did not begin until after the invasion, but in 1998 in an interview with French periodical Le Nouvel Observateur, former national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski said:

According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention (76).


Also, it has been noted by Steven Coll that Amin had met with U.S. diplomat J. Bruce Amstutz at least five times in 1979 and while the “discussions were stilted and unproductive” (48) they still aroused concern with the Soviets.  It has also been seen in declassified top secret Soviet documents that the Politburo was concerned about American intervention in the country.  In a top secret report by Soviet ministers from December 1979 it was worried that “efforts were made to mend relations with America as a part of the ‘more balanced foreign policy strategy’ adopted by H. Amin” (160).

In its attempt to avoid the loss of a pliable client state, even one with little strategic significance, apparently for no other reason than to keep it from becoming too friendly with its rival ideologically, the U.S.S.R. made a critical blunder.  They underestimated the resolve of not only Afghanistan’s inhabitants but also the resolve of those willing to keep it from falling under Soviet control.  Over the course of the war, the Afghan mujahadeen would receive support from the United States as well as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and even the communist Chinese.  Ironically, the fight to preserve an ideology in that seemingly inconsequential country eventually lead to that ideology’s collapse in the country where it had originally germinated and bloomed over seventy years before.


 Works Cited


Blood, Peter, ed.  Daoud’s Republic, July 1973-April 1978 & Communism, Rebellion, and Soviet Intervention.  Afghanistan:  A Country Study.  Washington:  Government Printing Office for the Library of Congress.  2001.  http://countrystudies.us/afghanistan/28.htm & http://countrystudies.us/afghanistan/29.htm.


Brzezinski, Zbigniew. “How Jimmy Carter and I Started the Mujahideen.” Le Nouvel Observateur 15 Jan.1998:  76


Coll, Steven. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.


“Documents on the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan.”  Cold War International History Project.  Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.  Nov. 2001:  160.   http://www.wilsoncenter.org/topics/pubs/e-dossier_4.pdf.


Morris, Roger.  “Afghanistan:  another ill-fated attempt?”  The Globe and Mail 1 March 2007:  A19.


“Soviet war in Afghanistan.”  Wikipedia.  6 Jan. 2008    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_war_in_Afghanistan.


“The origins of the soviet-afghan war.”  Alternative Insight.  1 Nov. 2001.  http://www.alternativeinsight.com/Afghan_War.html.


 “Documents on the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan.”  Cold War International History Project.  Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.  Nov. 2001:  160.   http://www.wilsoncenter.org/topics/pubs/e-dossier_4.pdf.


This is the abstract for a paper I wrote for my Research, Writing, and Analysis class.  Consider it the teaser trailer for the feature presentation (full paper) that will be posted later this week. 

The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, 1979:  The Ideologically Motivated Blunder of a Superpower


Just before Christmas in 1979, Soviet troops from the Red Army began to crash across the border with Afghanistan.  Ten years later, they would limp back home, badly, and even fatally, wounded.  The decade long war, a war in which they would hold every technological advantage, was no doubt unpredictably brutal and long to its planners.  But should they have known better?  This was their neighborhood they were playing in, not some distant, unfamiliar land.  They had been front row witnesses, and occasionally participants, in the adventures and follies of empires in Afghanistan for decades.  What caused them to repeat the mistakes of the past?  Was it arrogance and reliance on their modern technological arsenal?  Or was it what Louis Dupree once told William Maley, author of The Afghanistan Wars, that once Afghanistan is in your blood, you can never get rid of it?  Did they just have the bug?

Through my research, I intend to show that The Soviet Union’s ill-fated adventure into this strange and treacherous land was a result of, as was so much else during the Cold War, a quest to expand an ideology to other lands, whether by friendly, coercive, or brutal methods.

flag1.jpgIt seems that Past Tense should perhaps change it’s name to Test Tense, as three out of the last fours posts have involved a test of some sort, and one that one wasn’t much of a post at all, just a picture.  I could say that I’m just trying to better educate the blog-reading public, and while that is partially true, it’s really just because I’m lazy.  I didn’t even come up with these tests.  But in an effort to keep this blog from completely dying, I figure lazy posting is better than no posting at all.  And so I present to you yet another test.

 This test was conducted by Intercollegiate Studies Institute and was administered to 14,000 college freshmen and seniors from 50 institutes of higher learning.  The test consisted of 60 multiple choice questions on American history, government, and economy.  The point of the test was to see which institutions did the best job of increasing the knowledge of these subjects over the course of a students time there.  Well, it also showed something else–that American college’s (and apparently high schools) are not doing a good job of teaching these things.  No school scored better than a D+, for freshmen or seniors.  These aren’t Podunk U. or Bob’s Junior College.  These are legit academic powerhouses.   Rutgers, Duke, Cal, University of Michigan, half of the Ivy League, Murray State.  Yes, Murray State!  This is bad news.

Naturally, I had to take this test for myself.  I did pretty well, though not as well as I would have liked.  I scored 49 out of 60, an 81.67%.  Most of the questions I missed were among the last ten and had to do with economics, an admitted weak spot in my arsenal.  There were some gimmee questions, but most at least made me stop and think for a second.  (There were two questions that I had answered correctly originally, but changed my answer.  Never second guess yourself.)  So I wouldn’t say it was an easy test, but certainly I would have expected most college students to get at least a C, especially seniors.  When I got my score, it also gave me the average scores people have gotten for the month and since the test has been online, September 2007.  Both of those scores were 71.5%.

So, now the challenge.  Can you beat my score.  Remember, no googling.  Post your scores and what you thought of the test in the comments.  Have at it!  Go!

For a good and pretty interesting post on teaching history to high school students (and my comments on it) check this out on Blog 4 History.

Don’t Forget


The Forgotten War


I’ve been reading a bit lately about the Korean War.  Not only has this been a gap in my own history knowledge, but I would wager my next paycheck that I’m not the only one who lacks any real understanding of this war.  World War II and Vietnam get all the attention, but Korea has long been overlooked, hence the moniker The Forgotten War.  Hard to imagine a war in which nearly 50,000 Americans were killed could be forgotten.  It was the first major armed conflict of the Cold War involving the United States and a Soviet proxy and the first test of UN solidarity in the face of a major world conflagration.  It was called a “police action” at the time, but to the men on the ground it was a war in every sense of the word.  Up to this point about the only knowledge I had on the subject was that there was in fact a war between North and South Korea and there must have been some renegade doctors working the field hospitals sewing stitches by day, and busting them at night with hilarious hijinx and wacky nurse-chasing antics.  I got that from M.A.S.H.  Like I said, I’m just beginning to look into this subject and as I do I plan on imparting the knowledge gained onto you, the faithful reader or meandering netizen.  Until then–notice I’m not giving myself a deadline–lets test your knowledge with a Korean War pop quiz.  Put your answers in the comments.  After a few have answered I’ll give the answers.  Ready, go (and no Googling or Wiking)!

1.  Who was President when the Korean War broke out?

2.  What decade did the war take place in, and what years specifically?

3.  Who was the commanding General for the United Nations forces at the outset of the war?

4.  What eventually happened to him? 

5.  What other Asian country became involved in the war?

Extra-Credit-Really-Hard-Bonus Question:  Where did the UN forces make a daring amphibious landing that the Supreme Commander gave a 1-in-5000 chance for success?

Pop Quiz

Ominous title, I know.  Well, a history teacher in the Bay Area thought that his students needed one.  A pop quiz on World War II.  His students are juniors and, hypothetically, had studied WWII in both their sophmore and junior years.  The results were less than impressive.  As an article in the San Francisco Chronicle details:

If high school juniors’ answers to a World War II questionnaire were strung together, here’s how history would look:

World War II took place in 19-something, when Theodore Roosevelt was president and the Germans claimed to be the best race.

Hoping to aid Third World countries, the United States joined the war to stop racism and end the dispute over Jews.

The head of the Nazis was a killer named Hitler whose evil partner, Mussolini, was president of the USSR. Ultimately, the war ended with the bombing of Iwo Jima and Hitler’s suicide. Then a treaty was signed.

Well, I just finished watching The War and Ken Burns must have really screwed up because I don’t remember it happening like that.  Unfortunately in our schools these days, history seems to be getting pushed off to the side.  I’m sure its always been a tough task for teachers to make what seems like old, dusty stuff to kids seem alive, interesting, and relevant.  It seems like other subjects, like math, english, and science, are given priority.  I’m not expert on education, and maybe those others are more practical, but as someone who loves history and sees the value in knowing our own, I find it sad that it appears to be neglected in many cases.  It’s tough for teachers because there’s always more every year and its tough to cover a couple hundred years in a school year without skimming over everything.  I remember when I was in school, it always seemed like the history classes barely got past the pilgrims.  Things like the Civil War and especially WWII seemed like they were thousands of years away, not tens.  In my junior year my American History teacher actually started the year with the Civil War because she knew we’d never have time to get to even the twentieth century if we didn’t.  I don’t have any answers or suggestions for making this better, like I said, I’m no expert on education.  Just some rambling thoughts.

Below is the quiz that the HS kids took, with the answers in small print at the bottom.  Quiz yourself and post your score.  I promise not to make fun of you…too much.  (I got 100%, BTW).

World War II quiz

Test your World War II knowledge – or your children’s. This Chronicle questionnaire was administered in San Francisco to 36 sophomores, 34 juniors and 20 seniors – but without benefit of multiple-choice options. Below is a multiple-choice version of the quiz, with each choice – incorrect, correct and nearly correct – taken from the students’ original answers.

1. When was World War II?

a. 1700

b. 1939 to 1945

c. Europe: 1930 to 1945; U.S.: 1941-1945

d. 1967

2. Who was president during most of World War II?

a. Woodrow Wilson

b. Theodore Roosevelt

c. Franklin Delano Roosevelt

d. Harry Truman

3. Who was Winston Churchill?

a. Prime Minister of the U.K.

b. General of the U.S.

c. A dictator

d. Some important dude

4. Who was Adolf Hitler?

a. Super evil guy

b. Nazi leader

c. Killer of Jews

d. All of the above

5. Who was Benito Mussolini?

a. Soviet leader

b. An explorer

c. Dictator of Italy

d. A columnist

6. Who was Rosie the Riveter?

a. Icon of U.S. female participation in the war

b. A protester

c. Gay gang member

d. Congressman

7. What caused the U.S. to join World War II?

a. Fighting over Hawaii

b. Revenge

c. Zimmerman’s note

d. The bombing of Pearl Harbor

8. How did World War II end?

a. Two atomic bombs were dropped in China

b. Hitler’s suicide

c. Germany lost as Allies pushed into Berlin, Japan was bombed by two atom bombs, and Emperor Hirohito surrendered.

d. Americans and Russians freed the Jews

9. What was the war about?

a. Racism

b. Communism

c. Boston tea

d. Liberation of Europe and the Pacific

10. What was the Holocaust?

a. Genocide of over 6 million Jews and others

b. Slavery

c. Killing of those that weren’t white

d. People looking down on Jews


1. b; 2. c; 3. a; 4. d; 5. c; 6. a; 7. d; 8. c; 9. d; 10. a


This question was asked by my sister.  Its good to have the support of the family.  And the recognition that I am her intellectual superior, even though she’s the one in the family with a college degree.  Why else would she call me “wise one”?  Here was her question:

“Well I was just thinking this past, I mean a week ago, what is the history behind the Labor Day holiday, so could you enlighten me oh wise one??”

The Labor Day holiday in the United States dates back to the late nineteenth century.  This era in American history saw a lot of tension between working folks and industry.  Strikes and walkouts were farily commonplace as workers fought for the establishment of what they deemed to be fair labor laws and practices, whether better wages, a shorter work day, etc.  Unfortunately, due to extremism on both sides of the issue, these strikes and demonstrations often led to bloody riots and in some cases even pitched battles.  The most famous riot with lasting repercussions was the Haymarket Riot in Chicago in May of 1886.

Workers had gone on strike on May 1st to force an eight-hour workday into law and on May 3rd violence erupted when strikers attacked a replacement worker trying to cross the picket line.  The police intervened and after the ensuing scrum, four strikers were dead.  Anarchist Albert Parsons immediately began spreading the word that the police had been sent to kill the strikers at the behest of the business interests there.  The next day a large rally was held at Haymarket Square that began so peacefully that the mayor of Chicago, who had stopped to watch it, decided to walk home early.  After a while, the police moved in to disperse the crowd when someone hurled a bomb in their direction.  A riot ensued which left seven policemen and at least four workers dead.  These events are seen as instrumental to the international labor movement and are the inspiration for the May Day workers holidays celebrated around the world.  But wait, Labor Day isn’t in May in the United States.  No it is not.  Here’s why.

As early as 1882, the Knights of Labor, a prominent workers organization in the late 1800’s, began holding a parade in New York City to honor the working man, which took place in early September.  Also, for some time the Central Labor Union had been pushing Congress to establish a holiday for the worker.  Since many of the unions and working orgainizations who would have preferred May 1st for the holiday–as it is internationally–were fraught with anarchists and socialists, President Grover Cleveland stepped in to support the Knights of Labor for their date.  In 1894 the first Monday in September was designated Labor Day by the Congress.