Small Wars Journal

Did Reagan Defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan?

Sat, 10/14/2017 - 2:12am

Did Reagan Defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan?

Andrew D. McNaughton


In a role reversal from previous Cold War conflicts, the Soviet Union began to fight a counter-insurgency against rebel groups ultimately supported and armed by the United States. The Soviet-Afghan War (1979-89) had a detrimental effect on every element of the Soviet Union. The eventual defeat of the Soviet Union in this conflict, contrary to earlier accounts, was caused more by Soviet factors than anything else, including Ronald Reagan and American aid.

The foremost reason for the Soviet defeat was that the Red Army did not and could not conduct a successful counter-insurgency operation to defeat the Mujahedeen, resulting in a military impasse. Contributing to this failure are two important factors; one, that the Soviets did not address the incompatibility between the Afghan communist regime and traditional Islamic region, and two, that the political situation in the Soviet Union changed under Gorbachev. The significant contribution to the Mujahedeen by the United States dramatically increased their ability to wage a guerrilla war, however this did not translate into being a decisive factor in the Soviet defeat. Furthermore, Reagan’s 1985 policy change to push the Soviets out had the opposite effect and prolonged the war.

To analyze the effect of American responsibility in the Soviet defeat, and more specifically the actions of Reagan, the conflict must be divided into the roles played by the United States, and that of the Soviet Union.

Role of the United States

President Carter watched the communist takeover of Afghanistan fall apart almost as soon as it started. He authorized the CIA in summer 1979 to begin a covert campaign using propaganda and medical aid to help the rebel Mujahedeen, challenged through Pakistan.[i] Despite arguing for most of his presidency that the Soviet Union was not expansionist, the coup in Afghanistan arose suspicion. When the Soviets invaded in December, he had had enough, and authorized the provision of weapons to the Mujahedeen to harass the Soviets (then believed to be the most attainable goal).[ii] In allowing the CIA to funnel weapons through Pakistan, Carter also backed the Mujahedeen to wage a holy war against the Soviet occupation.[iii] Although Carter set the American involvement in motion, it was greatly increased once Reagan came to power.

Although relatively quiet on foreign policy issues during the first few years of his presidency, Reagan increased aid to Pakistan soon after his election, using the CIA’s partnership with the Pakistani ISI to funnel aid to the Mujahedeen.[iv] In 1983 Reagan issued a security directive on US Relations with the USSR, in which he stated the US objective in Afghanistan was ‘to keep maximum pressure on Moscow for withdrawal and to ensure that the Soviets’ political, military, and other costs remain high while the occupation continues.’[v] This policy assisted the Mujahedeen, who by now had been assisted by Pakistan into forming more cohesive fighting units, to increase the pressure on the Soviet military. There was a nuanced change in 1985 however. In his Security Directive 166, Reagan wanted to create a situation in Afghanistan that would force the Soviets to withdraw.[vi] This amounted to an escalation in the American pressure on the Soviets, and entailed the introduction of the Stinger anti-air missile. The authorization of this ground-to-air heat seeking missile destroyed the CIA’s policy of plausible deniability (all weapons provided to the Mujahedeen were of either British, Chinese, or Eastern Bloc manufacture).[vii] The introduction of the Stinger missile is one of the most cited-reasons in early accounts of the war for the Soviet decision to withdraw. The Mujahedeen did employ the missile to great success, shooting down numerous helicopters and forcing the Soviet air forces to change their tactics.

The problem with the American escalation after 1985 and the Stinger missile was the timing. First, the introduction of the Stinger allowed the Soviet forces to develop different tactics and countermeasures. Although the Soviets lost many aircraft the missile did not hamper Soviet operations, and furthermore the development of countermeasures compromised the missile technology.[viii] Second, as the Americans were escalating the conflict through 1985-86, the Soviet forces were attempting to set the conditions to withdraw in early 1986.

Although Reagan’s strategy after 1985 was to force the withdrawal of the Soviet forces, his escalation did not factor into the Soviet decision making process.[ix] American assistance to the Mujahedeen was by far the most expensive element of the Reagan Doctrine, totalling around $650 million each year in the mid 1980s.[x] Reagan concluded in 1989 when the Soviets did finally withdraw that the CIA’s aid had contributed to a major victory. The problem with this account is that during the war the Mujahedeen did not defeat the Red Army nor did they have it in any kind of retreat.[xi] The end effect of American aid was a military stalemate, which was in line with the initial American policy, however after 1985 was counter-productive and was not a decisive factor in the Soviet withdrawal.

Role of the Soviet Union

One of the underlying reasons for the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan was the incompatibility of communism and Islam. Although the reasons for the Saur Revolution are outside the scope of this analysis, the incompatibility needs some explanation. In 1978 when the DRA was first created the country underwent a transition that included land reform, and increased women’s rights. The new government, with its base mainly in the urban areas, offended the traditional Islamic base and historical social fabric of Afghanistan.[xii] The second issue with the Revolution was that it did not follow the Marxist-Leninist example, where the revolution begins in the rural areas. Together these factors led to the DRA heavily relying on Moscow for support in order to survive. By 1979 uprisings against the government took place across the country, and the conscript Afghan army was reluctant to fight, and in many cases mutinied. Combined with the prospect of losing a new client state and the potential harm to the Soviet image, the USSR agreed to deploy troops in early December 1979.

The main reason for the Soviet defeat was failure of the Red Army to conduct a successful counter-insurgency operation. The initial operation, modeled on the rebellions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, was to replace the failing Afghan leader and ‘stabilize the situation, strengthen the army, and then withdraw.’[xiii] Once in Afghanistan however the Red Army found itself fighting along side the Afghan army against Mujahedeen guerrilla forces.

The Red Army was not equipped to fight guerrillas, and quickly realized that their tactics designed for the battlefields of Europe and China were ineffective. They changed from fast and large-scale operations to concentrating on retaining strategic locations and lines of communication.[xiv]

The escalation of 1985 also saw the depopulation tactics to separate the Mujahedeen from the supportive rural areas, only increasing the hostility towards the Red Army.[xv] This is entirely counter-productive to a successful counter-insurgency operation.

Coinciding with the advent of Gorbachev to the political scene in Moscow, the Red Army in Afghanistan was expanded but used less frequently, transferring the burden to the Afghan army.[xvi] In 1986 the first Soviet forces were withdrawn, and the official policy changed to one of national reconciliation. Although Gorbachev started the process of withdrawal, the arguments for this began much earlier.  Gorbachev wanted to push through his reforms, and the overdue sealing of the ‘bleeding wound’ was in his way.[xvii] The Russian people and army had lost faith in the Afghan war, further pushing Gorbachev to end the occupation.


The Soviet Union was not totally defeated in Afghanistan, but it was also unable to win. The Red Army, although harassed and restricted, responded to new technology and tactics and did not lose to the Mujahedeen despite the vast amounts of American aid. Its tactics and lack of understanding of the battlespace prevented victory. Politically, the Soviet Union was trapped in Afghanistan and by the end of the 1980s. Gorbachev’s reforms were more important than the damage to prestige caused by withdrawal. The communist regime in Kabul did manage to survive until the fall of the Soviet Union, further halting the argument that the American aid defeated the Soviet Union. In sum, military and political factors within the Soviet Union were of much greater cause to the Soviet defeat than Reagan’s action.


Bearden, Milton. 2001. "Afghanistan, Graveyard of Empires." Foreign Affairs 17-30.

Clark, William P. 1983. National Security Decision Directive Number 75 - U.S. Relations with the USSR. NSDD, Washington, DC: The White House.

Cogan, Charles G. 1993. "Partners in Time: The CIA and Afghanistan since 1979." World Policy Journal 73-82.

Daley, Ted. 1989. "Afghanistan and Gorbachev's Global Foreign Policy." Asian Survey 496-513.

Gorbachev, M.S. 1985. "Conference of Secretaries of the CC CPSU, Held in the Office of CC CPSU General Secretary Comrade M.S. Gorbachev." History and Public Policy Program Digitial Archive. Library of Congress, Volkogonov Collection.

Kuperman, Alan J. 1999. "The Stinger Missile and U.S. Intervention in Afghanistan." Political Science Quarterly 219-263.

Pach, Chester. 2006. "The Reagan Doctrine: Principle, Pragmatism, and Policy." Presidential Studies Quarterly 75-88.

Saikal, Amin. 2010. Islamism, the Iranian revolution, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Vols. 3 - Endings, in The Cambridge History of the Cold War, edited by Melvyn P. Leffler and Odd Arne Westad, 112-134. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Staff, Russian General. 2002. The Soviet-Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost. Edited by Lester W. Grau and Micheal A. Gress. Translated by Lester W. Grau and Micheal A. Gress. Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press.

Young, John W., and John Kent. 2013. International Relations Since 1945: A Global History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

End Notes

[i] Cogan, “Partners in Time,” 76.

[ii] Kuperman, “The Stinger Missile,” 221.

[iii] Saikal, “Islamism, the Iranian revolution, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan,” 130.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Clark, “U.S. Relations with the USSR,”  4.

[vi] “U.S. Policy, Programs, and Strategy in Afghanistan,” 1.

[vii] Bearden, “Afghanistan, Graveyard of Empires,” 20.

[viii] Kuperman, “The Stinger Missile,” 249.

[ix] Cogan, “Partners in Time,” 74.

[x] Pach, “The Reagan Doctrine,” 82.

[xi] Daley, “Afghanistan and Gorbachev’s Global Foreign Policy,”  497.

[xii] Young and Kent, International Relations Since 1945, 346.

[xiii] The Russian General Staff, The Soviet-Afghan War, xxiii.

[xiv] Russian General Staff, Soviet-Afghan War, 25.

[xv] Daley, “Afghanistan and Gorbachev’s Global Foreign Policy,” 498.

[xvi] Russian General Staff, Soviet-Afghan War, 26.

[xvii] Gorbachev, “Conference of Secretaries,” 4.


About the Author(s)

Andrew D. McNaughton is a post-graduate War Studies student at King’s College London. He is a graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada with a Bachelors in Military and Strategic Studies and is a serving junior officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force.


This article is incomplete and not passable as any sort of analysis. The errors of omission are more glaring than those of commission:

Firstly, the author does not delve into the internal dynamics within Afghanistan, nor the transnational Pashtun ethnicity that resides in southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. Afghan demographics militate against the creation of a unitary state, whether Communist, Islamist or Liberal Democratic, and the Pashtuns act as a lever that Pakistan can use to destabilize Afghanistan, or even vice versa.

Secondly, the “Soviet factors” include an occupation force that was inadequately small in size, causing the Soviets to rely on unreliable Afghan auxiliaries, and brutal scorched earth tactics reminiscent of German counterinsurgencies during World War II. In addition, Soviet social and economic decline had begun prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – during the period in which the U.S. government came to believe that the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact/Comecon were be durable if not permanent – and Reagan’s policies only hastened the inevitable.

Thirdly, there is no insight into what the Mujaheddin thought. How dependent were they on American aid channeled by Pakistan? Where was the breaking point at which they would begin cooperating with the Soviets and Afghan Communists? Objectively, one can assume that the Mujaheddin were in fact less dependent upon the U.S. than the North Vietnamese were on the Chinese and Soviets in the 1960s and 1970s: at no point were the Mujaheddin using F-16s or M60s against the Soviets, and operating from a basing area protected by hundreds of thousands of U.S. personnel. Indeed, Washington and Islamabad both worked to keep their involvement below the threshold that would invite Soviet retaliation against Pakistan or NATO.

Fourth, how exactly was counterinsurgency a “role reversal” for the Soviet Union? The Soviet Union had previously waged successful counterinsurgency warfare from 1917 to 1923 and 1930 to 1956.

Lastly, the U.S. was not militarily defeated in South Vietnam, but it was a defeat. Much as the Afghan Communist government collapsed, so too had South Vietnam three years after the American withdrawal.