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Russia: Soviet Invasion 20 Years Ago Ushered In Afghanistan's Collapse

  • Charles Recknagel



Twenty years ago this month, Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan and helped set off a political and economic collapse of the country from which it has yet to recover. The director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, Mohammad Nazar, was in Kabul the day the Soviet troops arrived and speaks about his impressions.

Prague, 30 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- When the Soviet army arrived in the Afghan capital on December 27, 1979, few people could have foreseen that it was the beginning of a nearly ten-year war which the Red Army would lose.

Soviet troops arrived in the wake of the killing of the Kabul regime's Moscow-backed leader, Nur Mohammad Taraki, in a power struggle between his forces and those of his more westward-looking prime minister. Moscow said it was sending its troops to assure stability under the new president, Hafizullah Amin, while the West accused the Soviet Union of forcefully making Afghanistan its satellite.

Mohammad Nazar, now director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, was in Kabul the day the Soviet troops arrived. At the time he was a university student and working as a broadcaster for the Turkmen service of Radio Kabul-Afghanistan. He says the mood in the capital that day was one of defiance.

"The reaction was [very] strong against this invasion. And after a few days, all the people who live in Kabul, almost all of them, in the evening [went to the roofs of their houses] and shouted Allah-u Akbar [God is Great] and that Russian soldiers must leave Afghanistan ... And then the communist party members came to the street and they fired Kalashnikovs at the buildings and into the air and then after half an hour or so this stopped."

He says at the time people were of two opinions about what would come next. The first was that the Soviet troops would never leave. The second was that the Afghans would fight to the death until they did.

"There were two kinds of opinions. One of them, they said they will fight against them to the end. And some groups of people thought [the Russians] would never leave because when the Russians went to any area they never left, for example, in Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan. But the majority of the people, in university and everybody, and some of our communist friends also, said it is unacceptable to have the Russian soldiers here."

Within months, the Red Army deployment was bogged down in a ten-year guerrilla war which would cost it almost 50,000 casualties, including close to 14,000 dead. At the same time the war would kill thousands of Afghans -- just how many remains unknown. The fighting also drew in Western and Muslim states which were determined to resist the Soviet intervention. Pakistan funneled U.S. and Saudi aid primarily to Islamist groups which were among a number of factions battling the Soviet troops.

Moscow's hands-on role in Afghan affairs is generally believed to have begun with an April 1978 coup by which the Afghan communist party hoped to fundamentally restructure the tradition-based society. But the political upheaval, the Soviet invasion and the war which followed only tore Afghanistan's delicate mosaic of different ethnic and religious groups apart.

In an effort to divide and conquer, Moscow pitted one group against another until there was no trust left between them. By the time the Soviet army withdrew, the country was so destabilized and divided that the resistance factions turned upon one another.

Today, Afghanistan is in a protracted struggle between the dominant Islamist Taliban militia, dominated by Pashtuns, and a loose northern coalition supported by ethnic Tajiks, Turkmens, Uzbeks, and Shiite Hazaras which still holds ten percent of the country. Neighboring countries both fear Afghanistan's civil war and regularly intrigue in it. Often, the only secure profession for young Afghan men -- born for 20 years into warfare -- is to serve in a militia which will protect and support his family.

At the same time, Afghanistan's economy has been utterly destroyed and its fields have become the world's leading source of poppies used in manufacturing illicit heroin.

Nazar says that the sad state of affairs sharply contrasts with Afghan life before the long years of war began. He recalls a country which on the eve of the April 1978 coup sought to be non-aligned and was considered to have good economic potential.

"Afghanistan's economy was starting to grow. And Afghanistan had very good relations with its neighbors, Iran and Arab countries and also with the Soviet Union at that time. Afghanistan was one of the, as an economic case, one of the good countries with big chances."

Now, he says, Afghanistan's only hope is for its ethnic and religious groups to talk about their differences, rebuild their trust, and for outside countries to cease interfering. But how long that will take no-one can predict.

The Soviet intervention did not only usher in Afghanistan's collapse. Many analysts believe it also hastened the end of the Soviet Union itself. The ten-year Soviet-Afghan war -- one of the longest in modern history -- sapped the strength of the Red Army and with it the sense of Soviet patriotism and willingness for economic sacrifice.

Well before the war ended, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power with new priorities of improving relations with the West, de-escalating the arms race, and freeing up Soviet resources for economic reforms.

By the time the last Soviet troops left Afghanistan on February 15, 1989, Moscow had abandoned all notions of forcefully keeping satellite states. Just months later it gave up supporting Communist rule in Eastern Europe.

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