Small Wars Journal

The Soviet-Afghanistan War: Direct and Indirect Intervention

Mon, 08/01/2016 - 3:17am

The Soviet-Afghanistan War: Direct and Indirect Intervention

Alexander Liffiton

The Soviet (USSR) Intervention in Afghanistan from 1979-1989 was a long drawn out conflict that bled supposedly unending Soviet resources, and ultimately helped lead to a global shift in power. The Soviet defeat changed the course of world politics. To understand how the Soviet intervention came to take place one must look at the Regional Security Complex (RSC).  Afghanistan straddles the border between the Middle Eastern complex and the South Asian complex; it acts as an insulator state with little influence over either region, although the regions themselves influence it. It is also helpful to note that the RSC’s in the Cold War were heavily influenced by the Cold War policies of the Superpowers; the USSR did not want to lose influence within the two regions and see the United States (US) begin to dominate them. The most substantial question when looking at the Soviet Afghanistan War is why did the two superpowers of the Cold War era decide, as in the case of the Soviet Union to intervene directly in Afghanistan, and in the case of the United States and her allies ‘delegate’ or use the Mujahedin to fight the Soviet Union. Regan (1998) hypothesizes that governments were more likely to intervene during the Cold War, in a limited time frame, and when certain domestic and international conditions are met.  Idean Salehyan’s 2010 article is particularly helpful when studying the American response and why the U.S. and its allies ‘delegated’ responsibility to foreign Afghan nationals, hypothesizing that the reasons include cost-effectiveness, Cold War tensions, and lack of local knowledge. This article will show why the USSR and the US decided to intervene directly and indirectly and how the RSC’s influenced their decisions.

The purpose of this paper is to discern why the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan, and why the United States and its allies delegated to the Mujahedin. However a brief historical context is needed to understand the Soviet-Afghanistan War. The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan began in December of 1979.  The USSR invaded in order to put down mutinies within the army and to ensure that the pro-Soviet Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) stayed in power. Within the next year the USSR was drawn into increasingly hostile engagements throughout Afghanistan. By 1980 the US and other nations had begun to supply the rebel group known as the Mujahedin. Over the next decade fighting would take its toll on the Afghani population but also the USSR itself, which became war weary. In 1986 the US supplied surface-to-air missiles to even the playing field between the Mujahedin and the USSR airpower. A year later the USSR started a withdrawal of troops, the last Soviet troops were withdrawn in 1989. The primary actors in this conflict were the USSR and the Afghan proxy government that it propped up and the Mujahedin rebels that fought against the Soviets. Secondary actors include the United States, Pakistan, China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, all of which supplied the rebels in their fight against the USSR. In keeping with the aforementioned focus, details of the war are kept to a minimum unless they directly relate to one of the theories that are posited here.

Afghanistan is unique to the world in the sense that it is an insulator state between the Middle East and the South Asian Regional Security Complex. The South Asian Complex is dominated by the India-Pakistan dyad, whereas the Middle Eastern Complex is largely multipolar with most powers being comparable to one another. Regionally, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, and Pakistan with a 1640-mile borderline border Afghanistan. Iran, its neighbour and the Middle East while interested in Afghanistan have other ‘pressing issues’ that they must attend to and as such Afghanistan’s major influences on the regional level come from Pakistan and the South Asian RSC. Pakistan’s main interest in Afghanistan was in opposing the Soviet Union, as it was a US ally. In the Cold War, Afghanistan’s situation in the global world was largely defined by the two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States of America. Both the US and the USSR tried to influence Afghanistan and by extension the regions that it sits between. The Soviets intervened directly and the US by sending aid to the rebel fighters. The insulation factor plays an important role, but only in that both the United States and the Soviet Union used regional powers to fight Cold War battles by jockeying themselves into better positions in the regions, which they felt would give them more leverage over their rival superpower. As such the RSC is important in that it serves as a catalyst for the war, because of its ties to both the USSR and the US. Ultimately this jostling for supremacy in the region would have horrible effects for both the USSR and eventually the US (Buzan & Waever, 2007).

The Soviet Intervention can be explained by Regan’s hypothesis that “intervention in intrastate conflict will be more likely during the Cold War” (Regan, 1998:767). Regan believes that, ‘the zero-sum environment of the Cold War increased the expected payoff coming from confronting the adversary on the territory of a third party’ (Regan, 1998:768). This ties in specifically with Afghanistan in that the USSR stood to gain or at least keep the status quo if a pro-Soviet government was still in charge of Afghanistan. Regan also hypothesizes that short time estimations also increase the chance of intervention. The superpowers found it beneficial to jockey for power against one another in the third world, rather than directly against each other which could have much more dire consequences. As Regan writes, ‘ultimately it is the decision process that is key to understanding the choices made, but each decision is predicated on a number of domestic and international conditions that constrain choices’ (Regan, 1998:769). Understanding that, ‘Afghanistan itself is a product of a hugely expensive Cold War’ (Reuveny & Prakesh, 1999:694) is central to grasping why the Soviet Union’s Politburo authorized a ‘limited’ intervention force be sent to Afghanistan in December of 1979. This decision to send troops would ultimately lead to a ten yearlong struggle between the Soviet Union and Afghani insurgents and the significant weakening of the Soviet juggernaut. Historians and political scientists have tried to understand why the USSR invaded in 1979. Many cite Cold War pressures as a major reason why the invasion occurred. The Cold War in the late 1970s was once again reaching a period of relative hostility between the Soviet Union and the United States, some have linked this intensifying of hostilities to, ‘the failure of the U.S. congress to consent to ratification of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) in the summer of 1979’ (Kalinovsky, 2009:50). The situation was also made worse by the Iranian revolution of 1979. The USSR was concerned that since the US has lost a major ally, Iran, that it would be ‘shopping’ for a new Middle Eastern ally to keep up US interests in the region. This possibility was further brought to the forefront by KGB reports that Amin; the PDPA’s leader had been meeting with the Americans (Feifer, 2009). These concerns line up well with Regan’s (1998) Cold War hypothesis, which states, ‘internal conflicts that are in areas…in global powers’ spheres of influence will provide incentives for interventions’ (Regan, 1998:767). The USSR’s concern about US movements within the region led to a power projection that took the form of a Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. The USSR believed that the intervention would, ‘send a message to all continents that Moscow remained a vital world power’ (Feifer, 2009:4). This power projection was not just a feather ruffling exercise either, the USSR believed that it had a ‘moral duty’ to protect Communism as leader of the worlds Communist party, as such the Politburo, or at least some members, felt that a pro-western Afghanistan would greatly damage the Soviet-blocs image to the world. As Fred Halliday writes, ‘the PDPA was… in effect a pro-Soviet communist party: its overthrow would constitute the credibility of the Soviet bloc as a whole’ (Halliday, 1999:678). This was the view that initially spurred Soviet interest in 1979 whereas in the previous year the USSR had ignored requests for support by the PDPA. The fact that there was a possibility that Afghanistan would lean to the West created the need, at least in the eyes of the USSR to intervene. This concern for Communism is an ideological tie that is at the heart of Cold War intervention policies, ‘any internal dispute could easily be cast in terms of an ideological contest waged between East and West (Regan, 1998: 767). The Soviet Union, worried about losing face and global power moved quickly to protect their interests in Afghanistan and the region as a whole, on December 12th, 1979 Soviet forces first moved into Afghanistan for what they thought would be would be a quick fought war.

The USSR thought that they could change the political nature of Afghanistan, apparently forgetting the long history of failure that occupying nations had in Afghanistan (Feifer, 2009). Armed with this belief the Soviet Union went into Afghanistan with a ‘limited force’ that the Politburo thought would be sufficient (Kalinovsky, 2009) to quell to Mujahedin. This ‘limited contingency’ was sent by the Soviet Union because it believed that they could defeat the rebels quickly and decisively. The USSR operated under the assumption that a quick victory would shore up their image and power projection within the regions. ‘The Soviet leadership…operated with a time scale of some months or at most a year or two for all this to be achieved’ (Halliday, 1999:680). This echoes Regan, who writes that intervention is likely when, ‘the projected time horizon for achieving the outcome is short’ (Regan, 1998:757). The idea that the Soviet’s only wanted to go into Afghanistan with a limited time scale and force can be understood by Soviet aims in intervening in Afghanistan. Soviet goals during the 1979 invasion were simple. ‘The use of a limited contingent of Soviet troops to put down an Afghan army mutiny’ (Kalinovsky, 2009:51), this shows that the USSR was not thinking of a war at all, merely a sort of peacekeeping force to ensure that the PDPA pro-Soviet government stayed in power. This short-term plan though was soon dropped by the USSR which openly admitted that, ‘Soviet troops would have to play a leading role’ (Kalinovsky, 2009:53) in the rebuilding of Afghanistan. Regan also mentions that states are more likely to intervene when certain domestic and international conditions are met. These conditions are: ‘costs in terms of international reputation, national interests, and domestic constraints against potential benefits’ (Regan, 1998:760). The Soviet Union’s position in the world and its domestic constraints were amplified by Cold War tensions and as such cannot be treated lightly. Soviet foreign policy was largely dominated by four men in the Politburo, the Minister of Defence Ustinov, KGB chief Andropov, Foreign Minister Greymko, and the party ideologue Suslov (Halliday, 1999), these four had enough domestic political clout in the USSR to ensure that any domestic opposition to the war was marginalized. The international reputation of the USSR was on the line as it was, ‘in a perpetual contest with the United States and China for influence, particularly in the Third World’ (Kalinovsky, 2009:51). The Soviet Union considered all of these things when it decided to intervene in Afghanistan, effectively sentencing the country to ten years of strife and warfare. The remarkable fact is that while, ‘Afghanistan was a major Soviet concern’ … it was, ‘never the sole determinant of policy towards that country’ (Halliday, 1999:677). This serves to reaffirm Regan’s hypothesis that states will intervene in response to global perceptions.

The United States and its allies, Pakistan and Egypt, along with China, and Saudi Arabia decided in response to Soviet intervention to supply the Mujahedin with aid and arms to fight the Soviet 40th Army, a force that was in the eyes of the Mujahedin, the rebel group opposing Soviet rule, occupying Afghanistan. Saleyhan’s article ‘The Delegation of War to Rebel Organizations’ gives insight into why a delegated policy was used in Afghanistan as opposed to direct confrontation. Saleyhan’s work advances the position that states will often, ‘choose to empower insurgencies’ (Saleyhan, 2010:493) instead of bear the direct costs of fighting themselves. The US and the other nations that funded the Mujahedin did so knowing that this strategy was potentially more cost-effective, in that hurting Soviet interests would be best served through indirect means rather than outright condemnation. Saleyhan’s theory supports the Afghanistan case specifically when he writes, ‘delegation is employed as a cost-saving device and can be used when the principal lacks task-specific knowledge and expertise’ (Saleyhan, 2010: 495). The US, Pakistan et al knew that intervening on behalf of the Afghani people would have dire consequences for their troops. Instead, as Larry Goodson writes, ‘the US set up a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) pipeline through Pakistan to funnel aid to the resistance’ (Goodson, 2007:475). ‘The lethal Kalashnikov AK-47 automatic rifles were supplied through Egypt to provide ‘plausible deniability’ for U.S. involvement (Sidky, 2007:859) This covert aid that both Pakistan and the US supplied, as well as Egypt’s involvement in the Mujahedin increases the validity of Saleyhan’s theory that, one of the most common strategies that states employ when confronting their international enemies is funding, harbouring, and sponsoring rebel organizations, insurgents or ‘terrorist’ groups’ (Saleyhan, 2010:494). The weapons and aid that were provided by all the nations opposed to the Soviet occupation totalled close to $9 billion. The Soviet Union’s intervention ‘had not been worth the strain it had placed on the Soviet Union’s relationship with… the Muslim world’ (Kalinovsky, 2009:58). The US and it’s allies decided to press this advantage for all it was worth by supplying the Mujahedin rebels and hoping that it would drain Soviet resources, as Sidky wrote the US used Afghanistan, ‘to give the USSR its own Vietnam by drawing it into the Afghan trap’ (Sidky, 2007:858), this was achieved in no small part by the U.S. who funnelled in Stinger Missiles from Pakistan (Reuveny & Prakesh, 1999). With these missiles the Mujahedin finally were able to break the back of the USSR and in 1987 the Soviet Union decided to formulate a strategy to withdraw from Afghanistan (Feifer, 2009). Saleyhan also comments, much like Regan that ‘rebel groups often benefited from external assistance, particularly during the Cold War’ (Saleyhan, 2010:496). Sidky writes in support of this, ‘the overall ideological…conditions…that befell Afghanistan were orchestrated by a coalition of regional and global powers’ (Sidky, 2007:858). This accurately sums up the US, Pakistan, China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia’s positions on supplying the Mujahedin, the issue of Afghanistan was not the freedom or liberty of her people, Afghanistan was an ideological battleground between the East and West, and in the case of China the Sino-Soviet split. This option to support the Mujahedin was attractive to the states as it afforded them a chance to hurt the USSR without bearing the costs that interventionist policies incur. Another boon, for the US in particular, was that even with its external support for the Afghani’s, ‘the international community and foreign governments often look the other way when external states support rebel organizations’ (Saleyhan, 2010:503). This lack of condemnation was considered an ideological victory in the Cold War when most conflicts took on a Soviet against the United States tinge. Finally Saleyhan postulates that governments will use local rebels when they lack enough local knowledge (Saleyhan, 2010). The US and it’s partners that helped supply the Mujahedin were very aware that they did not have enough local knowledge to effectively help the Afghan cause by sending direct overt involvement. Funding the Mujahedin provided legitimacy to the rebels that the state governments could not attain by direct involvement. The delegation tactic used by the US can also be thought of in light of deterrence because the neither the USA or the USSR for that matter wanted an open conflict between the two nations. This mutual deterrence led to the USA delegating anti-Soviet tasks to the Mujahedin.    

The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan was supposed to be a quick campaign to get the pro-Soviet government back on track. Ten years later and over one million people dead the USSR finally left Afghanistan. As Afghanistan is an insulator state the RSC’s that surround it have influence over the country, specifically the South Asian complex, however during the Cold War superpower influence took precedence over any regional influence, the regional powers remained largely silent on the issue of Afghanistan. The major participants in the conflict were the Mujahedin, the USSR and it’s Afghani puppet government. The United States and other regional and global powers had big roles in supplying the rebels in order to combat the USSR. The reasons for Soviet intervention and US delegation to the Mujahedin to deal with it are the most interesting factors of the war in political terms. Regan’s theory that the Cold War made intervention more likely was proven to be correct here as ideological goals to precedence over strategic and obtainable goals. The Soviet-Afghan War is an example of this as the USSR believed it would be a short war, domestic and international pressures were met, and that intrastate conflicts during the Cold War drew the superpowers in.  The US and its partner’s response to use ‘delegation’ as Saleyhan calls it proved to be cost-effective and weakened their main adversary the Soviet Union. The Soviet-Afghanistan was provides many facets of analysis and by studying these two choices by two great powers one can see the paths that both chose and why.


Feifer, Gregory. 2009. The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan. New York: Harper.

Goodson, Larry. 1998. ‘Periodicity and intensity in the Afghan War.’ Central Asian Survey. 17 (3): 471-488.

Halliday, Fred. 1999. ‘Soviet Foreign Policymaking and the Afghanistan War: From ‘Second Mongolia’ to ‘Bleeding Wound’. Review of International Studies. 25 (4): 675-691.

Kalinovsky, Artemy. 2009. ‘Decision-Making and the Soviet War in Afghanistan: From Intervention to Withdrawal.’ Journal of Cold War Studies. 11 (4): 46-73.

Regan, Patrick. 1998. ‘Choosing to Intervene: Outside Intervention in Internal Conflicts.’ The Journal of Politics. 60 (3): 754-779.

Reuveny, Rafael, and Aseem Prakash. 1999. ‘The Afghanistan War and the Break down of the Soviet Union.’ Review of International Studies 25 (4): 693-701.

Saleyhan, Idean. 2010. ‘The Delegation of War to Rebel Organizations. Journal of Conflict Resolution. 54: 493-515.

Sidky, H. 2007. ‘War, Changing Patterns of Warfare, State Collapse, and Transnational Violence in Afghanistan: 1978-2001.’ Modern Asian Studies. 41 (4) 849-888                                                                                 

About the Author(s)

Alexander Liffiton is a recent graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science with an MSc in Conflict Studies. His particular areas of interest are international relations, peacekeeping studies and security and national defense studies. His regional areas of study include Sub-Saharan Africa, Northern Africa and South Asia.