Aggression or insecurity? International communist hierarchy and Soviet motives for the invasion of Afghanistan

Soldier after a mission in Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan. (Photo by Viktor Khabarov), Washington Post

In his 1980 State of the Union Address, Jimmy Carter pitched a radical shift in the United States’ foreign policy to Congress. Twin crises of the previous year — the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — had forced him to retreat from his human rights agenda. The Carter administration declared the latter the “latest Soviet attempt to extend its colonial domination… an aggressive new step against a relatively defenseless nation.”[1] The United States returned to its traditional policy of containment with the Soviet Union. In hindsight, was this an accurate assessment? Why did the Soviet Union invade Afghanistan in 1979? There are two popular interpretations. Their arguments are two broader views of the Cold War ambitions of the Soviet Union. The Carter administration and its doctrine represent the first. They see the USSR as a great power in the same sense as the United States: primarily concerned with survival and willing to accept strategic parity with the other great powers.[2] In this, the realist argument, the invasion of Afghanistan was an opportunist move. The Soviets saw a failing state to their south and an opportunity to expand towards the Persian Gulf. The events in Afghanistan leading up to the invasion were domestic issues; the invasion was an aggressive move that sought a positive outcome. This perspective is inconsistent with evidence made public since the fall of the Soviet Union. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) had meddled in Afghan affairs for over a decade before the invasion. The USSR had a vested interest in the Afghan regime. To allow it to fail would have had costs to the Soviet position that this argument does not consider. The second group sees the invasion as a defensive move.[3] To these academics, the Soviet Union was an exception with foreign policy obligations different to those of other powers. Their expansionism was implacable. To communism, parity was impermissible. Even less permissible was the appearance of communism retreating: Afghanistan, an important partner in Central Asia, was in the midst of an Islamist rebellion. The situation posed three threats to the Soviet international order. First: The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), a CPSU partner since 1965, was in complete collapse. To allow them to fail would threaten their relationship with communist parties worldwide. Second: Islamism posed a rival ideology to communism, threatening the Central Asian republics. Third: Afghan leadership was increasingly turning to Pakistan and the United States for aid and infrastructure. The regime turned towards nonalignment at best and reversal at worst. To acknowledge these threats as genuine is to at least implicitly endorse the second argument. This article addresses that thesis.

It is important to consider the repercussions an Islamist victory in Afghanistan would have had to the communist system. There were two factors: the involvement of the Politburo in Afghanistan before the invasion and how they corralled other communist parties in response to the deteriorating situation in the country. Were these relationships “fraternal” or “paternal”? The first group takes the fraternal position. In their view, the CPSU was no more than a member of the communist system that offered friendly advice and exerted private influence on individuals. Before the invasion of Afghanistan, their domination of foreign parties had been on a downward trend.[4] With respect to Afghanistan, they see the formation of the PDPA in 1965, their reconciliation in 1977, and their rise to power in 1978 as purely domestic developments. In their eyes, the invasion was an aberration. The second group correctly identifies a patriarchal attitude towards Afghanistan and other communist parties. From the emergence of the PDPA until the invasion in 1979, the Soviet Union recruited communists as agents for Soviet intelligence services to keep the Politburo informed on the party and to intervene in local affairs. Archives of declassified Soviet documents reveal the extent of their involvement.

The PDPA was plagued by factionalism from as early as its second year of existence. Two factions emerged with differing visions for its future. The Khalq faction was hardline-Leninist and envisioned an immediate socialist revolution by building a tightly disciplined working-class party.[5] Amongst their leadership were future general secretaries Nur Muhammed Taraki and Hafizullah Amin. They enjoyed the majority support of the Afghan military. The Parcham faction pursued a more gradual, moderate vision for Afghanistan. Babrak Karmal, their leader, felt that Afghanistan was “too undeveloped for a Leninist strategy” and that a national democratic front of patriotic forces had to be established in order to steer the country towards socialism. Neither faction alone held adequate support amongst Afghans to govern. Understanding this, the Politburo set about actively mending the rift. Foreign communist parties, which had either ignored the Afghan struggle or lined up support for one of the factions, were recruited in service of the cause. Khalq had ties to the Iranian Tudeh Party and communists in Iraq. Parcham had made inroads with the Socialist Party of Australia, National Awami Party in Pakistan, and the Communist Party of India.[6] All five parties embarked on a sudden reconciliation campaign in May 1976.[7][8] Their efforts were too coordinated to have been anything but a Soviet-orchestrated response. Why go to the trouble of reuniting an Afghan communist party out of power? The Soviet Union tried to preserve the numerical strength of the party despite irreconcilable differences between Parcham and Khalq. They were preparing the PDPA to govern Afghanistan. The Politburo would later be involved in the Saur Revolution that brought them to power in April 1978.[9] These maneuverings are significant in two ways. They evidence the Soviet Union’s deep involvement in Afghan politics well before the Saur Revolution. The maneuverings also gave foreign communists the impression that the PDPA was indispensable to the USSR. To allow the PDPA to collapse was therefore a threat to the paternal Soviet position in the communist system.

Just as the fall of communism threatened relationships abroad, the rise of the mujahideen threatened the Soviet Union in domestic terms. Islamism contested Central Asia as a rival ideology to communism for almost a century. Those countries, even under communism, were closer to Mecca than to Moscow. Their struggle was dormant. Afghanistan threatened to reawaken it. Secretary Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, thrust into power after the Saur Revolution, purged the PDPA of Parcham. With the moderate influence over social policy eliminated, Khalq implemented a wave of policies “ever less acceptable to the Afghan population at large”.[10] Agrarian policy in the countryside was forced upon a population of independent, conservative Muslim farmers and pastoralists. Taraki reignited the centuries-old Pashtunian ethnic conflict. He meant to unite the rural population against Pakistani forces encroaching on the Afghan border — in a spectacular failure, the plan instead alienated the Pashtun population and inflamed anti-government resistance into a jihad against the regime in Kabul.[11]

In the first press conference after the Saur Revolution, Nur Muhammad Taraki insisted to reporters in Kabul that the new regime was “democratic, Islamic, reformist, and nonaligned.”[12] He promised government policy focusing on “agrarian reform,” perhaps in an effort to dissuade Western scrutiny. Taraki persisted in this endeavor only until August 1978, when they made a pivot towards the Soviets. When Hafizullah Amin rose to power in September 1979, that alignment once again came under question. The Politburo, sympathetic to Taraki, reprimanded Amin for an “insulting” and “wounding” coup. Leonid Brezhnev himself was described as “literally enraged” by the assassination of Taraki, whom he had promised his physical protection.[13] According to declassified documents, the Soviet Committee for State Security first had suspected Amin of intending to withdraw from the Soviet sphere of influence for months. At first examination it is difficult to determine whether this claim was genuine or simply meant to justify retribution against Amin. He studied education at Columbia University in New York and the University of Wisconsin in 1962.[14] At this time, they alleged Amin had gained American contacts and come under the influence of interested parties in the United States. In April 1979, a special commission comprising of top Soviet officials reported that Amin had been purging Soviet loyalists, and that “his loyalty to Moscow was in question”.[15] In an attempt to wrest some autonomy from the Soviet Union, he had begun to form links with Pakistan and the People’s Republic of China. To the Politburo’s alarm, the commission found that Amin had held secret meetings with U.S. chargé d’affaires Bruce Amstutz.[16] Unbeknownst to the Soviets, no deal had been struck, but it contributed to an emerging mutual distrust between the two parties.

There were numerous indicators in the final two months of Amin’s Afghanistan symbolically distancing itself from the Soviets, as the Soviets attempted to rein them back in. Amin lacked faith in the Politburo’s well-intentions after the September ambush. The Kabul Times maintained a stream of pro-Soviet propaganda, but throughout November and December, articles began to appear praising Western donations and infrastructure projects.[17] In response, Moscow began to refer to Afghanistan a member of the “socialist community,” a designation typically reserved to Warsaw Pact nations.[18] This was a stern warning that the Brezhnev Doctrine might be used against the Afghan regime, as it had in 1968 against Czechoslovakia. At the same time, the exiled Babrak Karmal escalated his accusations against Amin. In Karmal, the Soviet Union saw an opportunity to reestablish a more loyal regime in Kabul and made their approval of his accusations clear. Amin had “tried to strike a deal with the Pakistanis,” according to Karmal.[19] At the time, the allegations were “open to question.” We now know that Amin opened a dialogue with Pakistan, with whom he tried to secure bilateral relations. The negotiations, however, were fruitless, and the Soviets were aware of the result. The trigger of real panic amongst the Politburo was an accelerating case of domestic insecurity; but the opening of the regime to the West prompted concerns over the long-term loyalty of Afghanistan. Yuri Andropov sounded the alarm in a memorandum to Brezhnev in December.

“Contacts with an American agent about issues which are kept secret from us. Promises to tribal leaders to shift away from USSR and to adopt a “policy of neutrality”. Closed meetings in which attacks were made against Soviet policy and the activities of our specialists. The practical removal of our headquarters in Kabul. Diplomatic circles in Kabul are talking about Amin’s differences with Moscow. There is no guarantee that Amin, in order to protect his personal power, will not shift to the West.”[20]

Lev Gorelov, an adviser to the Armed Forces of Afghanistan, also described a panic in the political ranks.

“Moscow, following conspiracy fears, believed that everything happening in the region was directed against it and projected the situation onto Afghanistan. From American documents declassified since, it does not follow that the Americans maintained relations with Amin or made any bet on him. The United States viewed Afghanistan as part of the Soviet sphere.”[21]

There is no indication in declassified documents that Amin intended to stage a reversal. But that issue is for another article — the question here is not whether the Soviets should have invaded, but what in their intelligence convinced them to do so.

The Carter administration’s position on Afghanistan fails to hold up to scrutiny in the modern day. The argument that the invasion was an aggressive act underestimates the geopolitical reach and capabilities of the Politburo. Their domination of the PDPA strengthened their position in Afghanistan, which they held until the situation deteriorated and their commitment became a liability. The Politburo acted to defend their place in the hierarchy of communist parties. The rebellion against Nur Muhammad Taraki threatened the Central Asian republics. Hafizullah Amin alarmed the Politburo to such an extent that they felt Afghanistan might turn to Pakistan and the United States. What the USSR had to lose was a testament to their strength. Fifty years earlier, it was how another Soviet leader had seen their place in the world.

Kto — kogo?[22]

Who conquers whom?

[1] Carter, Jimmy. “The State of the Union Address Delivered Before a Joint Session of the Congress.” American Presidency Project, University of California, Santa Barbara, 23 Jan. 1980.

[2] Arnold, Anthony. Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion in Perspective. Hoover Institution Press, 1981. pp. xiii.

[3] Ibid. pp. xiv.

[4] Ibid. pp. xv.

[5] Ruttig, Thomas. Islamists, Leftists — and a Void in the Center: Afghanistan’s Political Parties and Where They Come from (1902–2006). Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Afghanistan Office, 2006.

[6] Arnold, Anthony. Afghanistan’s Two-Party Communism. Hoover Institution Press, 1983. pp. 53.

[7] Party Life (New Delhi), 26 May 1976. The media wing of the Communist Party of India.

[8] Socialist (Sydney), 24 November 1976. The media wing of the Socialist Party of Australia.

[9] Arnold. Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion in Perspective. pp. 68.

[10] Ibid. pp. 77.

[11] Ibid. pp. 79.

[12] Arnold. Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion in Perspective. pp. 95.

[13] Ibid. pp. 99.

[14] Arnold. Afghanistan’s Two-Party Communism. pp. 54.

[15] MacEachin. Predicting the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan.

[16] Ibid.

[17] The Kabul Times, 10 October 1979.

[18] Arnold. Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion in Perspective. pp. 88.

[19] Ibid. pp. 89.

[20] “Personal memorandum Andropov to Brezhnev.” December 01, 1979, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, APRF, from notes taken by A. F. Dobrynin and provided to Norwegian Nobel Institute; provided to CWIHP by Odd Arne Westad, Director of Research, Nobel Institute; trans. for CWIHP by Daniel Rozas.

[21] Sheinin, Artem, and Lev Gorelov. “Как Это Было.” Art of War, 19 Nov. 2011,

[22] Arnold. Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion in Perspective. pp. xiii.