History of Afghan crisis: Soviet-Afghan war of 1979

saddam hussain samo
Saddam Hussain Samo on Soviet-Afghan war of 1979

On 24th December 1979, in an unpredictable manner, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to install more responsible communist leader by removing Hafizullah Amin and suppress the rebellions of the local religious people commonly known as Mujahedeen. As already discussed, after the removal of Sardar Daud in a bloody coup in 1978, Mujahedeen uprising took place and was growing stronger day by day against the un-Islamic pro-Marxists policies of the communist leaders in a religiously conservative country like Afghanistan. The Soviet Union occupied government’s buildings; got Amin killed, successfully installed Babrak Karmal and started to suppress Mujahedeen.

The invasion of Afghanistan pushed the US for the immediate action because it knew that if Moscow was left untouched, it would, after consolidating its power in Afghanistan, move towards Pakistan and ultimately occupy the Persian Gulf for oil. Since the rivalry between the US and Soviet Union for the global supremacy was under way in the form of the Cold War, ignoring the expansion of Moscow in Afghanistan by the US would have been tantamount to accept its defeat. The intelligence agency of the US, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was working on the best possible options to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

The president of Pakistan, General Zia-ul-haq, wished to support CIA by providing clandestine support to Afghan insurgents only if the US committed to protect Pakistan from Soviet retaliation.1 Zia knew that the next target of Moscow would be Islamabad. Hence, the only way to stop the Soviets in Afghanistan was to work closely with the US in assisting the Afghan mujahedeen. On the other hand, CIA believed that the indirect support to Afghan Mujahedeen through Pakistan was the safest way to at least resist the Soviet Union and increase its cost of intervention. It was because Washington was sure that Mujahedeen could not defeat the Soviet army.

For the purpose of assisting Afghan Mujahedeen, president Carter initially offered $400 million in aid to Pakistan, but General Zia dismissed it as “peanut” but soon he was rewarded a package of $3.2 billion in economic and military aid for over next five-year period by Reagan administration.“A significant portion of military aid budget under $3.2 billion package was allocated to Pakistan’s purchase of F-16 fighter bombers. The five-year aid package was followed by a commitment in 1986 of $4.02 billion in aid over the next six year.”3 Zia exploited the situation meticulously by rejecting early small package because he knew that it was more in the national interest of the US, not Pakistan, to defeat Moscow in Afghanistan. The role of the CIA was simple. It would provide weapons and money to the ISI and Pakistani agency would further supply weapons and provide training to different Mujahedeen groups. The CIA was not physically engaged, they were seeing the progress of the war by sitting back at home lavishly. 

Although, Pakistan recognized 7 groups of Mujahidin in Afghanistan, but t favored and provided weapons and money to two factions, Jamat-e-Islami and Hizbe Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Saudi Arabia supported Abdul Rasul Sayyaf because of his affiliation with Wahabi theology. 4 According to CIA estimation in 1989, about 4000 Arab volunteers were organized under Sayyaf in Afghanistan.

General Zia appointed his close confidant Lt. General Akhter Abdur Rehman as a head of ISI in 1979 to conduct the biggest clandestine operation in Afghanistan. General Zia also wished to not involve CIA in the operation and set strict rules to keep them at bay. CIA would not be allowed to cross border in Afghanistan and all weapons and trainings to the Mujahedeen would be given solely by ISI without the interfering of the later.5 Apart from local Mujahedeen, some 35,000 holy warriors joined Afghan war from 1979 to 1989. Many came from Middle East among whom was Osama-bin-Laden.6 Besides American aid, Saudi Arabia also provided million of dollars to ISI to help Mujahedeen. More than 1000 madrasahs were established in Pakistan along Pakistan-Afghan border during the war with the purpose of providing training and encourage young Mujahedeen to fight against the Soviet army in Afghanistan.7

The result of the war was surprising for the US. By 1984, Mujahedin had killed or wounded 17000 Soviet soldiers. They controlled 62 per cent of land. The war had cost the Soviet government $12 billion in direct expenses while the US spent only $200 million plus another 200 million contributed by Saudi Arabia.8 To completely damage the air strike capacity of the Soviets, the US provided anti-aircraft missiles called Stingers to the Mujahidin. The missiles forced the Soviet army to give up its air assault.

Keeping in view the losses of Moscow in the war, the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who was appointed in 1985 as a General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, decided to get out of the mess. Geneva Accords were signed to set a deadline for the withdrawal of Soviet soldiers and supply of arms by the two superpowers in Afghanistan. Civilian Prime Minister of Pakistan, Muhammad Khan Junejo, against the wishes of Zia, signed it. According to Zia the agreements deprived Mujahedeen of gaining power in Afghanistan. Whatsoever, the US won the cold war by defeating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan without shedding a single drop of blood of its own soldiers. The war finally ended on 15th February 1989, when the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan as per agreements. However, there was still pro-communist leader named Najibullah, who was in power and indirectly supported by Moscow. He finally fell in 1992 indulging Afghanistan in a new civil war among the mujahedeen, who were previously supported by the US and Pakistan. The US, soon, after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, packed the bags and left without making an arrangement for power sharing among the different warlords and ethnic groups. As a result, a new civil war started in Afghanistan among mujahedeen that led to the formation of Taliban in 1994.


  1. Gates, from the shadow, p.144.
  2. Dennis Kux, the United States and Pakistan, 1947-2000, pp. 256-57.
  3. Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan between mosque and military, p.209
  4. Ibid. p.212
  5. Steve Coll, Ghost Wars, penguin 2014, pp. 63-64.
  6. Ahmed Rashid, “The Taliban exporting extremism “, Foreign Affairs, November-December 1999.
  7. Zahid Hussain, Frontline Pakistan, p.80.
  8. Steve Coll, Ghost Wars, penguin 2014, p.89.


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