On Christmas Eve 1979, Soviet military planes carrying soldiers, well-equipped with military equipment and weapons, landed at the Kabul airport. At the same time, 400 kilometers north of Afghanistan, Soviet tank columns crossed the border between the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, heading for the Afghan capital, Kabul.
On December 27, 1979, Soviet commando troops attacked Kabul and, after blowing up the telegraph office, occupied the radio building, which was supposed to mark the symbolic capture of the capital. Although the invasion plan for a quick war seemed to be working, US National Security Adviser Brzezinski told President Jimmy Carter that now "we have an opportunity to give the Soviets their Vietnam".
Historically, the territory in the Hindu Kush Mountains has been difficult to control. The British had tried this in the 19th century, in the so-called Great Game. Knowing that Russia was also interested in Afghanistan, Britain was quick to secure the link with its colony, India, and sent troops to Afghanistan. But, it lost several battles against the Pashtun people. "War is an exciting experience for them and a change from monotonous work," the military historian Friedrich Engels wrote of the Afghans in 1857. 90 years later India gained independence and Great Britain no longer had influence in the region. But Moscow was alarmed by the renaissance of Islam in Iran and the resurgence of religion in the Asian Soviet republics and could not sit idly by.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Soviet Union helped Afghanistan by giving loans, building roads and schools, and sending specialists and consultants in all fields, including the army. What some Afghans, mostly in the capital, welcomed as modern society meant for others in rural areas the destruction of local culture. Traditional ethnic differences were joined by ideological ones: mullahs who refused to deny Allah and the Koran were killed in prisons around Kabul. On the other hand, in the interior of the country, people risked their lives if they wanted to spread communist ideas.
As a result, by the spring of 1979, Afghanistan was practically engulfed in civil war. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev believed that order could be restored in Afghanistan within six months. Moscow would install a regime loyal to the Soviets and then withdraw from this country. Like the pro-Moscow communists in Czechoslovakia a decade earlier, Babrak Karmal, the new head of government in Kabul, asked the Soviet Union for "fraternal help". The aid was intended to legalize the occupation of Afghanistan. This policy proved disastrous for the Soviet Union.
The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan was not welcomed by Western countries. On January 18, 1980, the UN General Assembly voted for the immediate, unconditional, and complete withdrawal of Soviet military forces from Afghanistan. Two weeks later, the Islamic Conference approved the UN vote. Also, in July 1980, Western countries boycotted the Summer Olympics in Moscow.
Meanwhile, the technical superiority of the Soviet superpower seemed to guarantee success. 85,000 Soviet soldiers controlled the main cities, crossings and transport hubs. Before long, as had happened against the British, the Afghan ethnic groups put aside their differences and joined the war against the Soviet invaders.
The mullahs were put at the center of the rebellion against the "infidels". And the US rushed to help the Mujahideen in their fight. The operation was run covertly by the CIA. The cost of this aid went over 6 billion US dollars. Pakistan became the logistical base of the war against the Soviets. Meanwhile, over 3 million Afghans had immigrated to Pakistan. In Afghan migrant camps, US agents began training Afghan fighters with modern weapons. They were supplied with military equipment ranging from binoculars to high-tech weapons such as Stinger missiles. After training and arming, Afghan fighters would return through the uncontrolled border to their country and fight against the Russians.
The Soviet Army was suffering heavy losses, especially after losing air superiority to American Stinger missiles. Taking advantage of the high mountains, the Afghan fighters found it very easy to destroy the Russian helicopters and planes. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union this war had become a taboo subject. Although the war in Afghanistan lasted twice as long as the Second World War, there was a complete lack of information, especially about the losses of the Soviet army.
As the Americans once did in Vietnam, the Russians in Afghanistan realized that this war could not be won. What started as a six-month operation lasted almost 10 years. In 1986, Gorbachev called the war in Afghanistan a "bleeding wound" that needed to be closed and ordered the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
On February 15, 1989, General Boris Gromov was the last Russian soldier to cross the "Friendship Bridge" between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Moscow had spent about 85 billion dollars on the lost war. Officially, 15,000 Soviet soldiers had died in this war, but the real number is many times higher. Moscow's attempt to transform a feudal country into socialism cost a million lives. Over a thousand villages were destroyed and five million Afghans fled to neighboring countries.
After the withdrawal of the Russians, the holy warriors, now with the status of freedom fighters, began to fight against each other as before. "The Mujahideen cannot trade a Kalashnikov for a shovel," people were often heard saying. Many Afghans welcomed the Pakistan-backed Taliban, a radical Islamist movement that maintained law and order in many countries. But it soon became apparent that the radical Taliban were the rulers of terror. The Taliban introduced Sharia law into their sphere of influence and mercilessly persecuted anyone who wanted to establish secular state structures and supported Western policies and values. After the intervention of NATO forces in Afghanistan in 2001, a Russian veteran would say: "Afghanistan cannot be won. The Americans and the Germans must understand this as well. You can only retreat to the defensive, close the borders and hope that the Afghans will come to their senses." (Source: Spiegel/Geschichte).
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