82 Afghanistan

Afghanistan and the Cold War

During the early Cold War, Afghanistan attempted to maintain a non-aligned status, receiving aid from both the Soviet Union and the United States, but ended up relying heavily on assistance from the Soviets.

Learning Objectives

Detail how the Cold War spilled over into Afghanistan

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In the late 19th century, Afghanistan became a buffer state in the ” Great Game ” between British India and the Russian Empire.
  • Following the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919, King Amanullah unsuccessfully attempted to modernize the country, but throughout the first half of the 20th century maintained good relations with the Soviets.
  • Afghanistan remained neutral and was neither a participant in World War II nor aligned with either power bloc in the Cold War.
  • However, it got caught up in the Cold War rivalry as both the Soviet Union and the United States vied for influence by supporting Afghanistan’s infrastructure.
  • In 1958, Afghanistan’s prime minister Daud Khan tried to create a treaty with America against the Soviet Union because he was frightened of a potential Soviet invasion and needed modern weapons.
  • After the Americans turned down the Afghanistan government, the Soviet Union provided financial aid, military personal training, and modern weapons, such as AK-47s and rocket launchers.
  • Prime Minister Daud Khan was forced to resign in 1963 because of the dependence he had created on the Soviet Union.

Key Terms

  • Great Game: A term used by historians to describe a political and diplomatic confrontation that existed for most of the 19th century between Britain and Russia over Afghanistan and neighboring territories in Central and Southern Asia. Russia was fearful of British commercial and military inroads into Central Asia, and Britain was fearful of Russia adding “the jewel in the crown,” India, to the vast empire it was building in Asia. This resulted in an atmosphere of distrust and constant threat of war between the two empires.
  • Mohammed Zahir Shah: The last King of Afghanistan, reigning from November 8, 1933, until he was deposed on July 17, 1973. During his four decades of rule, he became a prominent Afghan figure worldwide, establishing friendly relations with many countries and modernizing his country.

Afghan-Soviet Relations

In the 19th century, Afghanistan served as a strategic buffer state between Czarist Russian and the British Empire in the subcontinent during the so-called Great Game. Around the 1830s, Imperial Russia wanted to conquer Afghanistan because of the potential economic profit.

Afghanistan’s relations with Moscow became more cordial after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The Soviet Union was the first country to establish diplomatic relations with Afghanistan in 1919 after the Third Anglo-Afghan war and signed an Afghan-Soviet nonaggression pact in 1921, which also provided for Afghan transit rights through the Soviet Union. Early Soviet assistance included financial aid, aircraft and attendant technical personnel, and telegraph operators.

After the Third Anglo-Afghan War and the signing of the Treaty of Rawalpindi on August 19, 1919, King Amanullah Khan declared Afghanistan a sovereign and fully independent state. He moved to end his country’s traditional isolation by establishing diplomatic relations with the international community and following a 1927–28 tour of Europe and Turkey, introduced several reforms intended to modernize his nation. A key force behind these reforms was Mahmud Tarzi, an ardent supporter of the education of women. He fought for Article 68 of Afghanistan’s 1923 constitution, which made elementary education compulsory. Slavery was abolished in 1923.

Some of the reforms that were actually put in place, such as the abolition of the traditional burqa for women and the opening of a number of coeducational schools, quickly alienated many tribal and religious leaders. Faced with overwhelming armed opposition, Amanullah Khan was forced to abdicate in January 1929 after Kabul fell to rebel forces led by Habibullah Kalakani. Prince Mohammed Nadir Shah, Amanullah’s cousin, in turn defeated and killed Kalakani in November 1929 and was declared King Nadir Shah. He abandoned the reforms of Amanullah Khan in favor of a more gradual approach to modernization but was assassinated in 1933 by Abdul Khaliq, a Hazara school student.

Mohammed Zahir Shah, Nadir Shah’s 19-year-old son, succeeded to the throne and reigned from 1933 to 1973. Until 1946, Zahir Shah ruled with the assistance of his uncle, who held the post of Prime Minister and continued the policies of Nadir Shah. Another of Zahir Shah’s uncles, Shah Mahmud Khan, became Prime Minister in 1946 and began an experiment allowing greater political freedom, but reversed the policy when it went further than he expected. He was replaced in 1953 by Mohammed Daoud Khan, the king’s cousin and brother-in-law. Daoud Khan sought a closer relationship with the Soviet Union and a more distant one towards Pakistan. Afghanistan remained neutral and was neither a participant in World War II nor aligned with either power bloc in the Cold War. However, it was a beneficiary of the latter rivalry as both the Soviet Union and the United States vied for influence by building Afghanistan’s main highways, airports, and other vital infrastructure. On per capita basis, Afghanistan received more Soviet development aid than any other country.

A photo of Zahir Shah, king of Afghanistan, seated in a chair in military attire.
Zahir Shah: Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, who reigned from 1933 to 1973.

Relations During the Cold War

The Cold War spanned from the 1950s to the 1990s and was full of conflict between America and Russia. The main superpowers waged war through proxies, or super allies, because any direct conflict with each other could result in nuclear war. The Cold War shaped the Russian mindset about developing countries.

Afghan-American relations became important during the start of the Cold War. In 1958, Prime Minister Daoud Khan became the first Afghan to speak before the United States Congress in Washington, DC. His presentation focused on a number of issues but most importantly underscored the importance of U.S.-Afghan relations. While in Washington, Daoud met with President Dwight Eisenhower, signed an important cultural exchange agreement, and reaffirmed personal relations with Vice President Nixon that began during the latter’s trip to Kabul in 1953.

At that time, the United States declined Afghanistan’s request for defense cooperation but extended an economic assistance program focused on the development of Afghanistan’s physical infrastructure—roads, dams, and power plants. Later, U.S. aid shifted from infrastructure projects to technical assistance programs to develop the skills needed to build a modern economy. Contacts between the United States and Afghanistan increased during the 1950s, especially during the Cuban Revolution between 1953 and 1959. While the Soviet Union was supporting Cuba’s Fidel Castro, the United States was focusing on Afghanistan for strategic purposes: to counter the spread of communism and the strength of the Soviet Union into South Asia, particularly the Persian Gulf.

At the beginning of Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1953, the Soviet government had three main long-term objectives. The first was to threaten the Iranian oilfields or put themselves in a position to do so in the coming years. The second was to strengthen influence in the Indian Peninsula. The last goal was to divert western weapons to unproductive areas.

Leading up to the Soviet intervention in the 1970s, Afghanistan’s policy was that of non-alignment, meaning they did not want a superpower ally. However, they still remained on good terms with both America and the Soviet Union. In 1958, Khan tried to create a treaty with America against the Soviet Union because he was frightened of a potential Soviet invasion and needed modern weapons. After the Americans turned down the Afghanistan government, Afghanistan asked U.S.S.R. for aid. With this agreement, the Soviet Union provided financial aid, military personal training, and modern weapons, such as AK-47s and rocket launchers. Daud Khan was forced to resign in 1963 because of the dependence he created on the Soviet Union.

Rise of Anti-Soviet Sentiment

Mohammad Sardar Daoud Khan, who was the former Prime Minister of Afghanistan, seized power in a 1973 coup and became Afghanistan’s first president, making plans to diminish the nation’s relationships with the Soviet Union and instead forge closer contacts with the West.

Learning Objectives

Connect Soviet involvement in Afghanistan to the rise of anti-Soviet efforts

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In 1973, while King Zahir Shah was on an official overseas visit, Mohammad Sardar Daoud Khan, a former Prime Minister of Afghanistan, launched a bloodless coup and became the first President of Afghanistan.
  • In opposition to his foreign policy as Prime Minister, Daoud sought to distance himself from the Soviets and forge closer relations with the West, especially the United States.
  • President Daoud met Leonid Brezhnev on a state visit to Moscow from April 12 to 15, 1977, and told the latter that Afghanistan would remain free, and that the Soviet Union would never be allowed to dictate how the country should be governed.
  • Daoud tried to modernize and improve the economy of Afghanistan, but made little progress.
  • The PDPA, a Soviet-backed communist party, seized power in a military coup in 1978 best known as the Saur Revolution.
  • Although supported by the Soviets, the actions taken by the leaders of the PDPA further strained relations with the USSR, which eventually led to their planning an military intervention.

Key Terms

  • Saur Revolution: A revolution led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) against the rule of self-proclaimed Afghan President Mohammed Daoud Khan on April 27-28, 1978. It led to civil war and the intervention of the Soviet Union.
  • Leonid Brezhnev: The General Secretary of the Central Committee (CC) of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), presiding over the country from 1964 until his death in 1982. His 18-year term as General Secretary was second only to that of Joseph Stalin in duration. During his rule, the global influence of the Soviet Union grew dramatically, in part because of the expansion of the Soviet military during this time. His tenure as leader was marked by the beginning of an era of economic and social stagnation in the Soviet Union.
  • Mohammad Sardar Daoud Khan: The Prime Minister of Afghanistan from 1953 to 1963 who later became the first President of Afghanistan. He overthrew the Musahiban monarchy of his first cousin Mohammed Zahir Shah and declared himself as the first President of Afghanistan from 1973 until his assassination in 1978 as a result of the Saur Revolution led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). He was known for his progressive policies, his efforts for the improvement of women’s rights, and for initiating two five-year modernization plans that increased the labor force by about 50 percent.

Republic of Afghanistan

Amid charges of corruption and malfeasance against the royal family and poor economic conditions created by the severe 1971–72 drought, former Prime Minister Mohammad Sardar Daoud Khan seized power in a non-violent coup on July 17, 1973, while Zahir Shah was receiving treatment for eye problems and therapy for lumbago in Italy. Daoud abolished the monarchy, abrogated the 1964 constitution, and declared Afghanistan a republic with himself as its first President and Prime Minister. To counteract his previous mishaps as Prime Minister, Daud led Afghanistan back towards independence and non-alignment. Additionally, Daud sent troops as well as diplomats to surrounding nations to build up foreign relations and decrease Afghanistan’s dependence on the Soviet Union.

President Daoud met Leonid Brezhnev on a state visit to Moscow from April 12 to 15, 1977. Daoud asked for a private meeting with the Soviet leader to discuss the increased pattern of Soviet actions in Afghanistan. In particular, he discussed the intensified Soviet attempt to unite the two factions of the Afghan communist parties, Parcham and Khalq. Brezhnev described Afghanistan’s non-alignment as important to the USSR and essential to the promotion of peace in Asia, but warned him about the presence of experts from NATO countries stationed in the northern parts of Afghanistan. Daoud bluntly replied that Afghanistan would remain free, and that the Soviet Union would never be allowed to dictate how the country should be governed.

After returning to Afghanistan, Daoud made plans to diminish his government’s relationships with the Soviet Union, and instead forge closer contacts with the West as well as oil-rich Saudi Arabia and Iran. Afghanistan signed a cooperative military treaty with Egypt and by 1977, the Afghan military and police force were being trained by Egyptian Armed forces. This angered the Soviet Union because Egypt took the same route in 1974 and distanced itself from the Soviets.

During Daoud’s presidency, relations with the Soviet Union continually deteriorated. The Soviets saw his shift to a more Western-friendly leadership as dangerous, including criticism of Cuba’s membership in the Non-aligned Movement and the expulsion of Soviet military and economic advisers. The suppression of political opposition furthermore turned the Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Party (PDPA), an important ally in the 1973 coup against the king, against him.

In 1976, Daoud established a seven-year economic plan for the country. He started military training programs with India and commenced economic development talks with Imperial Iran. Daoud also turned his attention to oil-rich Middle Eastern nations such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, and others for financial assistance.

Daoud had however achieved little of what he had set out to accomplish in 1978. The Afghan economy hadn’t made any real progress and the Afghan standard of living had not risen. Daoud also garnered much criticism for his single party constitution in 1977, which alienated him from his political supporters. By this time, the two main factions of the PDPA, previously locked in a power struggle, had reached a fragile agreement for reconciliation. Communist-sympathizing army officials were already planning a move against the government. According to Hafizullah Amin, who became Afghan head of state in 1979, the PDPA started plotting the coup in 1976, two years before it materialized.

Saur Revolution

In April 1978, the communist PDPA seized power in Afghanistan in the Saur Revolution. Within months, opponents of the communist government launched an uprising in eastern Afghanistan that quickly expanded into a civil war waged by guerrilla mujahideen against government forces countrywide. The Pakistani government provided these rebels with covert training centers, while the Soviet Union sent thousands of military advisers to support the PDPA government. Meanwhile, increasing friction between the competing factions of the PDPA — the dominant Khalq and the more moderate Parcham — resulted in the dismissal of Parchami cabinet members and the arrest of Parchami military officers under the pretext of a Parchami coup.

In September 1979, Nur Muhammad Taraki, the leader of PDPA, was assassinated in a coup within the PDPA orchestrated by fellow Khalq member Hafizullah Amin, who assumed the presidency. During his short stay in power (104 days), Amin became committed to establishing a collective leadership. When Taraki was ousted, Amin promised “from now on there will be no one-man government…” Attempting to pacify the population, he released a list of 18,000 people who had been executed and blamed the executions on Taraki. Amin was disliked by the Afghan people. During his rule, opposition to the communist regime increased and the government lost control over the countryside. The state of the Afghan military deteriorated under Amin; due to desertions, the number of military personnel in the Afghan army decreased from 100,000 in the immediate aftermath of the Saur Revolution to somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000.

Meanwhile in the Soviet Union, the Special Commission of the Politburo on Afghanistan, consisting of Yuri Andropov, Andrei Gromyko, Dmitriy Ustinov, and Boris Ponomarev, wanted to end the impression that the Soviet government supported Amin’s leadership and policies.

Amin remained trustful of the Soviet Union until the very end, despite the deterioration of official relations with the Soviet Union. When the Afghan intelligence service handed Amin a report that the Soviet Union would invade the country and topple him, Amin claimed the report was a product of imperialism.

A photo of several tanks surrounding a building the day after the Marxist revolution on April 28, 1978.
Saur Revolution: The day after the Marxist revolution on April 28, 1978.

The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan

On December 27, 1979, Soviet Union forces stormed the Tajbeg Palace in Afghanistan and killed Afghan President Hafizullah Amin, then installed Babrak Karmal as Amin’s successor.

Learning Objectives

Review the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the challenges it faced

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was formed after the Saur Revolution on April 27, 1978.
  • By mid-1978, a rebellion started, with rebels attacking the local military garrison in the Nuristan region of eastern Afghanistan. Civil war soon spread throughout the country.
  • In September 1979, Deputy Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin seized power, arresting and killing President Taraki.
  • Based on information from the KGB, Soviet leaders felt that Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin’s actions had destabilized the situation in Afghanistan and the USSR started to discuss how to respond.
  • Deteriorating relations and worsening rebellions led the Soviet government, under leader Leonid Brezhnev, to deploy the 40th Army on December 24, 1979; arriving in the capital Kabul, they staged a coup, killing president Amin and installing Soviet loyalist Babrak Karmal from a rival faction.
  • The Soviets did not foresee taking such an active role in fighting the rebels; however, their arrival had the opposite effect as it incensed instead of pacified the people, causing the mujahideen rebels to gain strength and numbers.
  • The fighting became the Soviet-Afghan War, which lasted for over nine years and was often brutal, with the mujahideen staging guerrilla -style tactics with weapons supplied by the U.S. and other allies.
  • The UN, along with much of the international community, was highly critical of the Soviet actions.

Key Terms

  • People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA): A socialist party established on January 1, 1965. While a minority, the party helped former prime minister of Afghanistan, Mohammed Daoud Khan, overthrow his cousin, Mohammed Zahir Shah, and established the Republic of Afghanistan. Later in 1978 this party, with help from the Afghan National Army, seized power from Daoud in what is known as the Saur Revolution.
  • KGB: The main security agency for the Soviet Union from 1954 until its break-up in 1991, acting as internal security, intelligence, and secret police.
  • Babrak Karmal: An Afghan politician installed as president of Afghanistan by the USSR when they invaded in 1979. Policy failures and the stalemate that ensued after the Soviet intervention led the Soviet leadership to become highly critical of his leadership. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union deposed him and replaced him with Mohammad Najibullah.


Prior to the arrival of Soviet troops, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) took power after a 1978 coup, installing Nur Mohammad Taraki as president. The party initiated a series of radical modernization reforms throughout the country that were deeply unpopular, particularly among the more traditional rural population and the established power structures. The government vigorously suppressed any opposition and arrested thousands, executing as many as 27,000 political prisoners. Anti-government armed groups were formed, and by April 1979 large parts of the country were in open rebellion. The government itself was highly unstable with in-party rivalry, and in September 1979 the president was deposed by followers of Hafizullah Amin, who then became president.

Based on information from the KGB, Soviet leaders felt that Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin’s actions had destabilized the situation in Afghanistan. Following his initial coup against and killing of President Taraki, the KGB station in Kabul warned Moscow that Amin’s leadership would lead to “harsh repressions, and as a result, the activation and consolidation of the opposition.”

Despite earlier commitments to not intervene in Afghanistan, as the situation continued to deteriorate from May–December 1979, Moscow changed its mind on dispatching Soviet troops. The reasons for this turnabout are not entirely clear, and several speculative arguments include the grave internal situation and inability for the Afghan government to quell the rebellion; the effects of the Iranian Revolution that brought an Islamic theocracy into power, leading to fears that religious fanaticism would spread through Afghanistan and into Soviet Muslim Central Asian republics; and the deteriorating ties with the United States. Conservatives believe that this process was reflective of growing Soviet political influence in the world and that Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in December 1979 was an attempt to preserve, stabilize, and militarily intervene on behalf of the communist regime and thus improve their own political standing.

Soviet Invasion and Coup d’état

On October 31, 1979, Soviet informants to the Afghan Armed Forces, under orders from the inner circle of advisers under Soviet premier Brezhnev, relayed information for them to undergo maintenance cycles for their tanks and other crucial equipment. Meanwhile, telecommunications links to areas outside of Kabul were severed, isolating the capital. With a deteriorating security situation, large numbers of Soviet Airborne Forces joined stationed ground troops and began to land in Kabul on December 25. Simultaneously, Amin moved the offices of the president to the Tajbeg Palace, believing this location to be more secure from possible threats. According to Colonel General Tukharinov and Merimsky, Amin was fully informed of the military movements, having requested Soviet military assistance to northern Afghanistan on December 17. His brother and General Dmitry Chiangov met with the commander of the 40th Army before Soviet troops entered the country to work out their initial routes and locations.

On December 27, 1979, 700 Soviet troops dressed in Afghan uniforms, including KGB and GRU special forces officers, occupied major governmental, military, and media buildings in Kabul, including their primary target – the Tajbeg Presidential Palace.

That operation began at 7 p.m. when the KGB-led Soviet Zenith Group destroyed Kabul’s communications hub, paralyzing Afghan military command. At 7:15, the assault on Tajbeg Palace began; as planned, president Hafizullah Amin was killed. Simultaneously, other objectives were occupied. The operation was fully complete by the morning of December 28, 1979.

A Soviet-organized government, led by Parcham’s Babrak Karmal but inclusive of both factions, filled the vacuum. Soviet troops were deployed to stabilize Afghanistan under Karmal in substantial numbers, although the Soviet government did not expect to do most of the fighting in Afghanistan. As a result, however, the Soviets were now directly involved in what had been a domestic war.

Soviet paratroopers aboard a BMD-1 tank in Kabul during the Soviet invasion.
Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan: Soviet paratroopers aboard a BMD-1 tank in Kabul.

International Reaction

Foreign ministers from 34 Islamic nations adopted a resolution that condemned the Soviet intervention and demanded “the immediate, urgent and unconditional withdrawal of Soviet troops” from the Muslim nation of Afghanistan. The UN General Assembly passed a resolution protesting the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan by a vote of 104–18. According to political scientist Gilles Kepel, the Soviet intervention or “invasion” was “viewed with horror” in the West, considered a “fresh twist” on the geo-political “Great Game” of the 19th Century in which Britain feared that Russia sought access to the Indian Ocean and posed “a threat to Western security,” explicitly violating “the world balance of power agreed upon at Yalta” in 1945.

War Continues

Soviet troops occupied the cities and main arteries of communication, while the mujahideen waged guerrilla war in small groups in the almost 80 percent of the country that escaped government and Soviet control. Soviets used their air power to deal harshly with both rebels and civilians, leveling villages to deny safe haven to the enemy, destroying vital irrigation ditches, and laying millions of land mines.

The Soviets did not foresee taking on such an active role in fighting the rebels and attempted to downplay their involvement as light assistance to the Afghan army. However, the arrival of the Soviets had the opposite effect as it incensed instead of pacified the people, causing the mujahideen to gain in strength and numbers. Originally the Soviets thought their forces would strengthen the backbone of the Afghan army and provide assistance by securing major cities, lines of communication, and transportation. The Afghan army forces had a high desertion rate and were loath to fight, especially since the Soviet forces pushed them into infantry roles while they manned the armored vehicles and artillery.

The mujahideen favored sabotage operations such as damaging power lines, knocking out pipelines and radio stations, and blowing up government office buildings, air terminals, hotels, cinemas, and so on. In the border region with Pakistan, the mujahideen would often launch 800 rockets per day. Between April 1985 and January 1987, they carried out over 23,500 shelling attacks on government targets. They concentrated on both civilian and military targets, knocking out bridges, closing major roads, attacking convoys, disrupting the electric power system and industrial production, and attacking police stations and Soviet military installations and air bases. They assassinated government officials and PDPA members and laid siege to small rural outposts.

By the mid-1980s, the Soviet contingent was increased to 108,800 and fighting increased throughout the country, but the military and diplomatic cost of the war to the USSR was high. By mid-1987 the Soviet Union, now under reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev, announced it would start withdrawing its forces. The final troop withdrawal started on May 15, 1988, and ended on February 15, 1989. Due to its length, it has sometimes been referred to as the “Soviet Union’s Vietnam War” by the Western media, and is thought to be a contributing factor to the fall of the Soviet Union.

The United States and the Mujahideen

The United States viewed the conflict in Afghanistan as an integral Cold War struggle, and the CIA provided assistance to anti-Soviet mujahideen rebels through the Pakistani intelligence services in a program called Operation Cyclone.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the ties between the United States and the mujahideen

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Although U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s focus was more on Iran during the months before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he initiated a covert program through the CIA to financially support the Afghan rebels, the mujahideen, in July 1979.
  • After the Soviet invasion in December 1979, which was a surprise to Carter, the CIA expanded the program, code-named Operation Cyclone, and began providing weapons along with money to the mujahideen through the Pakistani intelligence services.
  • Operation Cyclone was one of the longest and most expensive covert CIA operations ever undertaken. More than $20 billion in U.S. funds was funneled into the country to train and arm Afghan resistance groups.
  • The U.S.-built Stinger antiaircraft missile, supplied to the mujahideen in very large numbers beginning in 1986, struck a decisive blow to the Soviets.
  • The Stingers were so renowned and deadly that in the 1990s, the United States conducted a “buy-back” program to keep unused missiles from falling into the hands of anti-American terrorists, an effort which was covertly renewed in the early 2000s.
  • Conspiracy theorists have alleged that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda were beneficiaries of CIA assistance, a claim which is refuted by many experts.

Key Terms

  • mujahideen: The term for one engaged in Jihad. In English usage, it originally referred to the guerrilla type military outfits led by the Muslim Afghan warriors in the Soviet–- War, but now may refer to jihadist outfits in other countries.
  • Operation Cyclone: The code name for the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) program to arm and finance the Jihadi warriors, mujahideen, in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, prior to and during the military intervention by the USSR in support of its client, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.
  • Reagan Doctrine: A strategy orchestrated and implemented by the United States under the Reagan Administration to overwhelm the global influence of the Soviet Union in an attempt to end the Cold War. Under this doctrine, the United States provided overt and covert aid to anti-communist guerrillas and resistance movements to “roll back” Soviet-backed communist governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

U.S. Response to Afghan-Soviet War

American President Jimmy Carter was surprised by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, as the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community during 1978 and 1979—reiterated as late as September 29, 1979—was that “Moscow would not intervene in force even if it appeared likely that the Khalq government was about to collapse.” Indeed, Carter’s diary entries from November 1979 until the Soviet invasion in late December contain only two short references to Afghanistan, and are instead preoccupied with the ongoing hostage crisis in Iran. Despite the focus on Iran, Carter had authorized a collaboration between the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and through the ISI, the CIA began providing $500,000 worth of non-lethal assistance to the mujahideen on July 3, 1979—several months before the Soviet invasion.

In the aftermath of the invasion, Carter was determined to respond vigorously to what he considered a dangerous provocation. In a televised speech, he announced sanctions on the Soviet Union, promised renewed aid to Pakistan, and committed the United States to the Persian Gulf’s defense. Carter also called for a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, which raised a bitter controversy.

The thrust of U.S. policy for the duration of the war was determined by Carter in early 1980 when he initiated a program to arm the mujahideen through Pakistan’s ISI and secured a pledge from Saudi Arabia to match U.S. funding for this purpose. U.S. support for the mujahideen accelerated under Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, at a final cost to U.S. taxpayers of some $3 billion.

Operation Cyclone

Operation Cyclone was the code name for the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) covert program to arm and finance the Jihadi warriors, mujahideen, in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, prior to and during the military intervention by the USSR in support of its client, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. The program leaned heavily toward supporting militant Islamic groups that were favored by the regime of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in neighboring Pakistan, rather than less ideological Afghan resistance groups that had been fighting the Marxist-oriented Democratic Republic of Afghanistan regime since before the Soviet intervention. Operation Cyclone was one of the longest and most expensive covert CIA operations ever undertaken. Funding began with $20–$30 million per year in 1980 and rose to $630 million per year in 1987. Funding continued after 1989 as the mujahideen battled the forces of Mohammad Najibullah’s PDPA during the civil war in Afghanistan (1989–1992).

President Reagan greatly expanded the program as part of the Reagan Doctrine of aiding anti-Soviet resistance movements abroad. To execute this policy, Reagan deployed CIA Special Activities Division paramilitary officers to equip the mujihadeen forces against the Soviet Army. Although the CIA and Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson received the most attention for their roles, the key architect of the strategy was Michael G. Vickers, a young CIA paramilitary officer working for Gust Avrakotos, the CIA’s regional head who had a close relationship with Wilson. Vicker’s strategy was to use a broad mix of weapons, tactics, logistics, and training programs to enhance the rebels’ ability to fight a guerrilla war against the Soviets. Reagan’s program assisted in ending the Soviet’s occupation in Afghanistan.

The United States offered two packages of economic assistance and military sales to support Pakistan’s role in the war against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan. The first six-year assistance package (1981–87) amounted to $3.2 billion, equally divided between economic assistance and military sales. The U.S. also sold 40 F-16 aircraft to Pakistan during 1983–87 at a cost of $1.2 billion outside the assistance package. The second six-year assistance package (1987–93) amounted to $4.2 billion. Out of this, $2.28 billion was allocated for economic assistance in the form of grants or loan that carried the interest rate of 2–3 percent. The rest of the allocation ($1.74 billion) was in the form of credit for military purchases. More than $20 billion in U.S. funds was funneled into the country to train and arm the Afghan resistance groups. The support proved vital to the mujahideen’s efforts against the Soviets.

The U.S.-built Stinger antiaircraft missile, supplied to the mujahideen in very large numbers beginning in 1986, struck a decisive blow to the Soviet war effort as it allowed the lightly armed Afghans to effectively defend against Soviet helicopter landings in strategic areas. The Stingers were so renowned and deadly that in the 1990s, the United States conducted a “buy-back” program to keep unused missiles from falling into the hands of anti-American terrorists. This program may have been covertly renewed following the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan in late 2001 out of fear that remaining Stingers could be used against U.S. forces in the country.

The Soviets were unable to quell the insurgency and withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, precipitating the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, the decision to route U.S. aid through Pakistan led to massive fraud as weapons sent to Karachi were frequently sold on the local market rather than delivered to the Afghan rebels. Karachi soon “became one of the most violent cities in the world.” Pakistan also controlled which rebels received assistance. Of the seven mujahideen groups supported by Zia’s government, four espoused Islamic fundamentalist beliefs—and these fundamentalists received most of the funding.

Conspiracy theorists have alleged that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda were beneficiaries of CIA assistance. This is refuted by experts such as Steve Coll—who notes that declassified CIA records and interviews with CIA officers do not support such claims—and Peter Bergen, who concludes: “The theory that bin Laden was created by the CIA is invariably advanced as an axiom with no supporting evidence.” U.S. funding went to the Afghan mujahideen, not the Arab volunteers who arrived to assist them.

President Reagan meeting with Afghan Mujahideen leaders in the Oval Office in 1983
Reagan and the Mujahideen: President Reagan meeting with Afghan mujahideen leaders in the Oval Office in 1983.

Emergence of Extremism

The Taliban is an Sunni Islamic fundamentalist movement that rose to power in Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew in 1989 and ruled from 1996-2001, enforcing a strict interpretation of Islamic law that resulted in the brutal treatment of many Afghans, especially women.

Learning Objectives

Generalize how the conflict in Afghanistan led to the rise of Islamism and the Taliban

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In 1989, with mounting international pressure and military losses against the Afghan rebels, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, ending the Soviet-Afghan War.
  • Fighting in Afghanistan continued, with the Afghan government under the leadership of President Mohammad Najibullah launching attacks against the rebels without international support.
  • Afghanistan descended into political chaos and an estimated 25,000 people died during this period.
  • Southern and eastern Afghanistan were under the control of local commanders and in 1994, the Taliban, a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist political movement, took control of southern Afghanistan and forced the surrender of dozens of local leaders.
  • In 1996, the Taliban seized Kabul (the capital ) and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, imposing a strict form of Sharia, which resulted in the brutal treatment of many Afghans, especially women, including sex trafficking and massacres.
  • In 2001, the Taliban was overthrown and a new government established, but Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world due to a lack of foreign investment, government corruption, and the continued Taliban insurgency.

Key Terms

  • Al Qaeda: A militant Sunni Islamist multi-national organization founded in 1988 by Osama bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam, and several other Arab volunteers who fought against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
  • Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan: An Islamic state established in September 1996 when the Taliban began its rule of Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul. At its peak, the Taliban established control over approximately 90% of the country, whereas parts of the northeast were held by the Northern Alliance. The regime ended on December 9, 2001, forced out by the Northern Alliance backed by U.S. air forces.
  • Taliban: A Sunni Islamic fundamentalist political movement in Afghanistan currently waging war (an insurgency, or jihad) within that country. From 1996 to 2001, it held power in Afghanistan and enforced a strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law, of which the international community and leading Muslims have been highly critical.
  • Osama bin Laden: The founder of al-Qaeda, the organization that claimed responsibility for the September 11 attacks on the United States, along with numerous other mass-casualty attacks worldwide.

Soviet Withdrawal From Afghanistan

Faced with mounting international pressure and numerous casualties, the Soviets withdrew in 1989 but continued to support Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah until 1992. Following the Soviet withdrawal, some of the foreign volunteers (including Osama bin Laden ‘s Al Qaeda) and young Afghan refugees, went on to continue violent jihad in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and abroad. According to political scientist Mohammed H. Hafez, some of the thousands of Afghan Arabs who left Afghanistan went on to become “capable leaders, religious ideologues and military commanders,” who played “vital roles” as insurgents or terrorists in places such as Algeria, Egypt, Bosnia, and Chechnya. Tens of thousands of Afghan refugee children in Pakistan were educated in madrases “in a spirit of conservatism and religious rigor,” explains political scientist Gilles Kepel, and went on to fill the ranks and leadership of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Sipah-e-Sahaba in Pakistan. When the Soviet Union fell shortly after its withdrawal from Afghanistan, the volunteers were overjoyed, believing that—in the words of Osama bin Laden—the credit for “the dissolution of the Soviet Union… goes to God and the mujahideen in Afghanistan… the US had no mentionable role.”

Continued Civil War

From 1989 until 1992, Najibullah’s government tried to solve the ongoing civil war with economic and military aid, but without Soviet troops on the ground. Pakistan’s spy agency (ISI), headed by Hamid Gul at the time, was interested in a trans-national Islamic revolution that would cover Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. For this purpose, Pakistan masterminded an attack on Jalalabad for the mujahideen to establish its own government in Afghanistan. Najibullah tried to build support for his government by portraying his government as Islamic, and in the 1990 constitution the country officially became an Islamic state and all references of communism were removed. Nevertheless, Najibullah did not win any significant support, and with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, he was left without foreign aid. This coupled with the internal collapse of his government led to his ousting from power in April 1992. After the fall of Najibullah’s government, the post-communist Islamic State of Afghanistan was established by the Peshawar Accord, a peace and power-sharing agreement under which all the Afghan parties were united in April 1992, except for the Pakistani supported Hezb-e Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar started a bombardment campaign against the capital city Kabul, which marked the beginning of a new phase in the war.

Due to the sudden initiation of the war, working government departments, police units, and a system of justice and accountability for the newly created Islamic State of Afghanistan did not have time to form. Atrocities were committed by individuals of the different armed factions while Kabul descended into lawlessness and chaos. For civilians there was little security from murder, rape, and extortion. An estimated 25,000 people died during the most intense period of bombardment by Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i Islami and the Junbish-i Milli forces of Abdul Rashid Dostum, who created an alliance with Hekmatyar in 1994. Half a million people fled Afghanistan.

Southern and eastern Afghanistan were under the control of local commanders such as Gul Agha Sherzai and others. In 1994, the Taliban (a movement originating from Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-run religious schools for Afghan refugees in Pakistan) also developed in Afghanistan as a political-religious force. The Taliban first took control of southern Afghanistan in 1994 and forced the surrender of dozens of local Pashtun leaders.

In late 1994, forces of military commander Ahmad Shah Massoud held on to Kabul. Rabbani’s government took steps to reopen courts, restore law and order, and initiate a nationwide political process with the goal of national consolidation and democratic elections. Massoud invited Taliban leaders to join the process but they refused.

A totally destroyed section of Kabul in 1993.
Afghan Civil War: A totally destroyed section of Kabul during the civil war in 1993.

Taliban Takes Power

The Taliban’s early victories in late 1994 were followed by a series of defeats that resulted in heavy losses. The Taliban attempted to capture Kabul in early 1995 but were repelled by forces under Massoud. In September 1996 as the Taliban, with military support from Pakistan and financial support from Saudi Arabia, prepared for another major offensive, Massoud ordered a full retreat from Kabul. The Taliban seized Kabul in the same month and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. They imposed a strict form of Sharia, similar to that found in Saudi Arabia.

The Taliban have been condemned internationally for the harsh enforcement of their interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, which has resulted in the brutal treatment of many Afghans, especially women. During their rule from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban and their allies committed massacres against Afghan civilians, denied UN food supplies to 160,000 starving civilians, and conducted a policy of scorched earth, burning vast areas of fertile land and destroying tens of thousands of homes. In its post-9/11 insurgency, the group has been accused of using terrorism as a specific tactic to further their ideological and political goals. Several Taliban and al-Qaeda commanders also ran a network of human trafficking, abducting women and selling them into sex slavery in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, Massoud and Dostum formed the Northern Alliance. The Taliban defeated Dostum’s forces during the Battles of Mazar-i-Sharif (1997–98). Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, Pervez Musharraf, began sending thousands of Pakistanis to help the Taliban defeat the Northern Alliance. From 1996 to 2001, the al-Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri was also operating inside Afghanistan. From 1990 to September 2001, around 400,000 Afghans died in the internal mini-wars.

The map shows that the southern two thirds of Afghanistan was Taliban territory. The remaining third of the country was divided between Dostums territory in the northwest and Massouds territory in the northeast. The Dostums territory and Massouds territory together comprised the Northern Alliance.
Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan: Map of the situation in Afghanistan in late 1996; Massoud (red), Dostum (green) and Taliban (yellow) territories.

On September 9, 2001, Massoud was assassinated by two Arab suicide attackers in Panjshir province of Afghanistan. Two days later, the September 11 attacks were carried out in the United States. The U.S. government suspected Osama bin Laden as the perpetrator of the attacks, and demanded that the Taliban hand him over. After refusing to comply, the October 2001 Operation Enduring Freedom was launched. During the initial invasion, U.S. and UK forces bombed al-Qaeda training camps. The United States began working with the Northern Alliance to remove the Taliban from power.

Fall of the Taliban: Continued Insurgency

In December 2001, after the Taliban government was overthrown and the new Afghan government under President Hamid Karzai was formed, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was established by the UN Security Council to assist the Karzai administration and provide basic security. Taliban forces also began regrouping inside Pakistan, while more coalition troops entered Afghanistan and began rebuilding the war-torn country.

Shortly after their fall from power, the Taliban began an insurgency to regain control of Afghanistan. Over the next decade, ISAF and Afghan troops led many offensives against the Taliban but failed to fully defeat them. Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world due to a lack of foreign investment, government corruption, and the Taliban insurgency.


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