Why Afghanistan?

On the eve of 1980 the USSR invaded Afghanistan with invitation from the ruling body. Quickly the USSR inserted its own leader, Babrak Karmal (Geldern.) This led to a decade long war that robbed the USSR of precious public support, money and resources, and positive international attention. But why did the Soviet Union do this? Afghanistan was an underdeveloped foreign country. And what implications did this military and political move have on the Soviet people?

According to Pravda, or The Truth, the Soviet Union involved itself because of, “the imperialist interference in the internal affairs of democratic Afghanistan… that jeopardized the republic’s very existence,” (Petrov). Untold in the article, the Soviet Union was also in the midst of economic downturn, social pressure to reform, and international tension. Afghanistan looked like a solution to almost all of these problems because of its location and resources.

In the 1960’s the Soviet national income rose ~5.9% annually which fell to a low of 2.1% in 1981; gross national product fell from 6% in the 1950’s to 2% following 1979; and investment capital growth fell from 7.6% in 1966 to .6% in 1979 (Freeze, 440). The USSR faced economic issues across almost all aspects of measure. Agricultural output growth shrank from 21% increase in 1966 to 6% in 1981; specifically, crop yields were 180mil tons in 1975, 40mil tons being imported, but this was 76mil tons short of the annual goal (Freeze, 441).

Socially, citizens across the Union rioted over food because of the economic strain. These riots included Sverdlovsk in 1969, Dnepropetrovsk in 1972, and Gorky in 1980 as over ¾ of citizens fell below the established poverty line (Freeze, 443-444). Workers also went on strikes across the Soviet Union. These economic and social factors created a toxic environment of political corruption and capitalist black market. Throughout the 1980’s, some 21million people worked within the black market to supply up to 83% of the population (Freeze, 443).

The Soviet Union saw Afghanistan as a new rallypoint to regroup Soviet interests. Afghanistan held strategic value for trade, harvestable land, and resources to offset the issues the USSR was facing. The initiating event was a USSR Politburo meeting after hearing rumors the Marxist Afghanis were considering to ally with the USA (Freeze, 446). Unfortunately, the Soviet Union found itself in its own Vietnam War. Despite the idealism and rationalism behind the invasion it was ultimately unsuccessful and after a decade the Soviets finally left the country alone, but not before losing tens-of-thousands of soldiers, spend social-program funding to offset economic issues, and ruining relations with NATO and Third World countries (Geldern.)

Works Cited

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Geldern, James Von. “Invasion of Afghanistan.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. June 30, 2015. http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1980-2/invasion-of-afghanistan/.

Petrov, A. “On Events in Afghanistan.” Pravda, December 31, 1979. https://dlib-eastview-com.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/browse/doc/13629304?searchLink=%2Fsearch%2Fsimple.

9 thoughts on “Why Afghanistan?

  1. Good job grounding this narrative in the Freeze text and using the Current Digest, Jordan. Check out Ethan’s post about the broader context (and unforeseen consequences) of US support of the Mujahideen, and Tim’s post about the social tensions the war unleashed, especially where popular music was concerned.


  2. Jordan, you’ve done a great job evaluating the reasons for the invasion of Afghanistan! That quote from Pravda provides such great insight into the contradictions within their reasoning. Nice post!


  3. Interesting post, Jordan. Afghanistan seemed to amplify many of the internal issues in the USSR. Afghanistan is notoriously difficult to control due to the terrain, along with political and social tensions within the state.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I found it kind of conflicting that the Soviet Union’s reason for invasion as “imperial interference”. Throughout the USSR’s existence, it prided itself as being anti-imperialist, despite a lot of it’s actions being devoted to extending Soviet imperialist influence — the Warsaw Pact, Vietnam, and in this case, Afghanistan. Really interesting post!


  5. This is an intriguing post, Jordan! Afghanistan has consistently been a flashpoint in many conflicts because it is the foothold to the Middle East. It is strategic to provide arable land that most of the territory. Good analysis.


  6. I like how you relate Soviet involvement in Afghanistan to the Vietnam War. I definitely see some clear parallels there, especially in terms of the lack of success the USSR experienced.


  7. I definitely agree that Afghanistan represented a potential source for economic turn around and power for the USSR, but not in a way that would function the same as western imperialism in the past, or today. One thing I’d also caution against is the insertion of Babrak Karmal as party leader akin to America creating sovereign leaders to prop up authoritarian neoliberal governments (look to Chile’s Pinochet), but because the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan was a rotten factional nightmare that the Soviets were trying to stabilize.

    Initially, the PDPA led the Saur revolution, a bloodless one with a mass, democratic mandate from workers and peasants throughout Afghanistan, but as factionalism developed due to an underdeveloped party taking power in a stage that could hardly even be called embryonic is what led to their disarray. Just like the RSDWP, the PDPA had two main factions, except they were draw on the lines of industrial proletariat (parcham) and rural peasantry (Khalq) intead of their interpretations fo Social Democracy. With the often destructive Khalq faction undermining what was won in revolution, it made sense why the USSR did what they did. Unfortunately, the Saur revolution wasn’t led by Lenins, Trotskys, Sverdlovs, etc. Their revolution was led by brash academics with a poor understanding of Marxism, unequipped with the knowledge needed to fight strategically within the party, and outside of it too. As Goethe once said, in order to possess something, you must not just initially win it, but win it over and over again- what the Bolsheviks had done with their base to regain support and trust, even through some of their failures, the PDPA ignored as soon as Saur happened.


    1. Ajmal, thank you for your comment. It is important to analyze Soviet intent with Babrak. And it is also important to understand the limitations of the Afghan political revolution that led to Russian intervention because I speculate that if Afghanistan’s political climate had been more stable the USSR would have intervened economically and politically (to have an ally help with the issues the USSR had) instead of militarily. I appreciate your input as it add a lot to this post!


  8. Afghanistan had potential to create opportunity for the Soviet Union for economic development. Most likely, the Soviet Union would have controlled Afghanistan economically like pre-revolutionary Nicaragua was by the United States. I like how you reflected on the Vietnam war to make a comparison. It is unlikely the Soviets ever had chance of being successful in Afghanistan!


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