Preferred Citation: Kakar, M. Hassan Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion and the Afghan Response, 1979-1982. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1995 1995.

Why Did the Soviet Union Invade?

Invasion without Invitation

Since the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan when Amin was in power, the invitation for its troops should have come from him. As prime minister and minister of defense, president of the Revolutionary Council, and general secretary of the party, Amin was the central figure. Having probed this question, which encompasses the whole aspect of Afghan national life and, to some extent, international relations as well, I have concluded that neither Amin nor the Revolutionary Council had either orally or in writing asked the Soviet Union to send its troops into Afghanistan, although Soviet officials had made extensive efforts to frighten them about an imaginary danger directed at Afghanistan. But the Soviet government as well as the Karmal regime have fabricated stories contrary to this conclusion.

In December 1979 Soviet officials told Amin that the “revolution” was in danger from the United States, which was about to launch a massive assault from the Persian Gulf. To meet the assault, Afghanistan should be prepared militarily. Amin then requested Soviet military weapons on a large scale, a request that was granted. But the Soviet officials made it known that the effective use of a variety of advanced weapons required the presence of Soviet military experts and instructors to train the Afghans, a proposal that had already been accepted and was once again confirmed.[41] Already on 7 July 1979, a Soviet battalion disguised as aircraft technicians had landed at the Bagram air base north of Kabul “to protect and defend the airfield where our [the Soviet] aircraft were landing bringing aid cargo to Afghanistan.…The place was a sort of bridgehead where Soviet specialists and advisers with their families could assemble if the situation got worse.”[42] By 6 December the number had increased to 2,500.[43] Amin demanded an explanation from the new Soviet ambassador, Fikrat A. Tabeyev, who explained that the buildup was in response to increased activity by the imperialists along the frontiers. Tabeyev also said that the Soviet experts were at the base to train the Afghans in the use of weapons. Amin seemed concerned but made no comment. On 18 December, A. H. Hakeemi, commander of the Bagram airbase, informed Amin that the Soviets seemed to be up to something sinister, similar to what they had done in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Amin assured him that things would be all right shortly. Amin was probably hopeful about the outcome of his scheduled meeting with the foreign minister of Pakistan, Agha Shahi. The meeting did not take place. Amin planned to summon political officials in the military together with commanding officers of the Kabul area to the headquarters of the Ministry of National Defense. He intended to tell them that of late the Soviet attitude toward Afghanistan had changed and that on all important matters they were to act only on his orders. But hours before the scheduled meeting, the Soviet cook and waitresses poisoned Amin, and the occupation began.[44]

The Soviet government and the regime of Karmal have claimed that the troops sent into Afghanistan were in line with article four of the Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighborliness, and Cooperation, which Taraki and Brezhnev had concluded in Moscow on 5 December 1978. Leaving aside whether or not the treaty was legally valid, we may note that the article stipulates that in the case of military cooperation, appropriate agreements should be concluded in advance. The treaty reads in part, “In the interests of strengthening the defense capacity of the high contracting parties, they shall continue to develop cooperation in the military field on the basis of appropriate agreements concluded between them.” First, “cooperation in the military field” is a vague phrase that may or may not be taken to mean the dispatch of troops by one contracting party to the assistance of another. Second, even if this phrase does mean the dispatch of troops, the treaty nevertheless stipulates that “appropriate agreements” be concluded between the parties. Such agreements had not been concluded, nor had the Kabul government indicated a willingness for them. Contrary to the general view, during Amin’s rule the government was not so weak that its opponents could overthrow it. Except for a disturbance in the Rishkhor military division by pro-Taraki officers, a disturbance that was quickly suppressed, no major uprising took place while Amin was in power. “Until the invasion the [Islamic opposition] parties were more or less dormant, because they received virtually no assistance from outside.”[45] The security situation in Afghanistan was far from being so desperate as to need Soviet troops. The Soviet Union, before the invasion, had not officially raised the issue with the government of Amin. Had Amin requested military aid, as distinct from weapons, the Soviet Union would have obtained a document about it, a point so significant that it was bound to affect, as it did, its relations with Afghanistan and to some extent also with the region and the world. The Soviet Union never produced such a document. After the invasion the Soviet Union fabricated stories justifying its actions, one of which said that members of the Revolutionary Council had asked the Soviets to send troops to Afghanistan.

Since Amin was the central figure both in the party hierarchy and the state, and since he had driven away his rivals, and since he had assigned his own men to key positions in the party as well as the government, it is inconceivable that someone else would have dared to invite Soviet troops. The subsequent claims by Karmal and the Soviet Union are groundless. Henry Bradsher has described and analyzed these claims in detail.[46] Here I only evaluate the claims. According to an official Soviet declaration, the military assistance was in the form of “a limited contingent” that “[would] be used exclusively in rebuffing the armed interference from the outside.” It was also declared that the “limited contingent [would] be completely pulled out of Afghanistan when the reason that necessitated such an action exists no longer.”[47] In subsequent declarations, the word contingent was changed to contingents. By making this statement, the Soviet leaders put themselves into such a position that to justify their actions they had to tell lies about this as well as related issues. When the Soviet Union withdrew its forces in 1989, after ten years of war, it declared that the “limited military contingent” in Afghanistan numbered 105,000 men. If this number can be described, as the Soviet Union so described it, as a “limited contingent,” then ordinary language is obviously inadequate.

Also, in ordinary language the phrase “armed interference from the outside” means interference by one country in the internal affairs of another—in the present case, in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union never substantiated its claim, because the armed forcesof no other country had intervened. By “armed interference from the outside” the Soviet Union in fact meant the Afghan mujahideen who struggled against the government, which had usurped power. As many uprisings had shown, most Afghans (with the exception of a small number of pro-Moscow communists) considered the communist government illegitimate, a usurper. While a civil war was going on among the contending Afghan groups, the Soviet Union intervened in favor of its surrogates. Its intervention was therefore nothing but an unprovoked, armed aggression. Besides, the Soviet government committed the aggression at a time when a government friendly to it was in power. In the course of the ten years that the Soviet troops were in Afghanistan, they fought against Afghans, not against the army of another country.

If the Soviet Union sent troops to Afghanistan to be used “exclusively for assistance in rebuffing the armed interference from the outside,” why did they kill President Amin and topple his government, which they claimed to have invited them? On this point the Soviet argument was that Amin had been overthrown not by its forces but by the true Afghan revolutionaries. However, the Soviet Union itself repudiated this fabrication. On 23 December 1989 the Soviet Supreme Council declared the dispatch of troops to Afghanistan unconstitutional. While castigating Leonid Brezhnev and others for sending the troops into Afghanistan, it declared that the decision to invade Afghanistan “was made by a small circle of people in violation of the Soviet constitution, according to which such matters belong to the jurisdiction of higher state bodies.”[48]

Another “reason” was given more prominence in the Soviet official declarations. According to this claim, the southern flanks of the Soviet Union had become “insecure” and “the Pentagon and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency were counting on stealthily approaching our territory more closely through Afghanistan”; thus, the Soviets “had no choice but to send troops.”[49] First, this claim is not in line with the allegation that the troops were sent to repel foreign aggression. Second, the Soviet Union provided no evidence to substantiate the claim. How could Afghanistan pose a threat to the Soviet Union when a government led by their own comrades was in power there when the Soviets intervened? Moreover, when a government feels its boundaries have become insecure, does it then have the right to invade other countries? If this were to be accepted as a norm of behavior, what would happen to international relations? In such a case any stronger country could justify invading its weaker neighbors. The law of the jungle would prevail.

More specifically, across the wide Soviet empire no other country except Turkey had as geographically distinct boundaries as Afghanistan had with it. Afghanistan was separated from the Soviet empire for 2,300 kilometers, for the greater part by the River Oxus and then by an uninhabitable desert. It is strange to think that the Soviet state would have been unable to safeguard its boundaries against a smaller country, even if a hostile government were in power. After all, the Soviet Union had adjusted boundaries with its much bigger neighbors, notably China, and coexisted with them. Throughout history, conquests and massive migrations occurred as nomadic hordes descended from the north on the settled populations in the south—not the other way around. The concern that the Soviet leaders showed about the “insecurity” of their southern borders was a mere rationalization for their drive for expansion, a drive reminiscent of nineteenth-century colonialism. It was also a reflection of the problems that they had with the Muslim nations of the Central Asian Republics, such as the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen, and other groups whose kinsmen live across the border in Afghanistan.

The claims were a cover-up for an agenda the Kremlin decision makers had for Afghanistan. The agenda was to rule it through an outcast group of communists, much as the Soviets had dominated Bukhara in the early 1920s. Since the independent-minded Amin and his government stood in the way, they had to be removed. On 12 December 1979 the Soviet politburo, chaired by Leonid Brezhnev, endorsed the KGB view and decided to invade. In the KGB’s view, “The situation [in Afghanistan] [could] be saved only by the removal of Amin from power and the restoration of unity” in the ruling party. The Kremlin ruling group adopted this view because it considered Amin to be “insincere” toward the Soviet Union; he was pursuing “a more balanced foreign policy” and was bent on purging the party and state of potential opponents. “The Soviets had never trusted Amin, regarding him as a power-hungry politician of dubious ideological convictions.”[50] In waging an undeclared war on the Afghans in what historian Barbara Tuchman has called “The March of Folly,” a few superannuated Soviet leaders ignored the sound advice that their own premier Kosygin had given to Taraki earlier in the year: “If our troops were sent in, the situation in your country would not improve. On the contrary, it would get worse. Our troops would have to struggle not only with an external aggressor, but with a significant part of your own people. And the people would never forgive such things.”[51]

In the present interdependent world, a secret decision made by a few irresponsible men in the Soviet empire to wage an unprovoked war on Afghanistan was bound to be opposed by millions of men and women; it also led to the intensification of the cold war. Luckily, this was the last decision of its kind the Soviet leaders would make.

In installing Karmal, the Kremlin decision makers acted on the view that what counted was success, and that before the god of success the scruples of human behavior did not count. The Soviets had built their empire with this precept in mind. But could they succeed in Afghanistan with the outcast Karmal and his faction of Parcham?

Why Did the Soviet Union Invade?

Preferred Citation: Kakar, M. Hassan Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion and the Afghan Response, 1979-1982. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1995 1995.