The Bear Went Over the Mountain

Nov. 1, 2011

When the Soviet armed forces entered Afghanistan on Christmas Eve in 1979, they did not intend to stay long. They had come to help the floundering communist government in Kabul suppress an uprising by tribal factions. They expected to restore order on the southern flank of the Soviet Union and be gone in a few months at most.

They had no intention of engaging directly in general combat with the insurgents—the Soviets were there as backup for the armed forces of their client regime. They had no idea they would remain for nine years, suffer huge combat casualties, leave a record of failure and oppression, and depart under fire from vengeful Afghans.

Strictly speaking, it was not an invasion. It was an intervention, requested and welcomed by the Afghan leader, who did not understand that he would not long survive the experience. By early 1980, the Soviet forces had taken over the conflict from the local operators and made it their own.

No outside power had conquered the Afghans since Genghis Khan and the Mongols turned the trick in the 13th century. The Soviets would be no exception.

They hoped in vain that their withdrawal in 1989 would not be perceived as a defeat. To their dismay, Afghanistan would be known as “the Soviet Vietnam.”

Soviet troops navigate a ridgeline in Afghanistan.(Photo from the A. Zhirnov collection)

Marxists Meet the Mujahedeen

Beginning in the 19th century, czarist Russia and then the Soviet Union contended with Britain for influence in Afghanistan, which lay strategically between southern Russia and British India. When the British pulled out of India in 1947, they left the Soviets with a free hand. Afghanistan fell solidly into the Soviet camp as the result of a Marxist overthrow of the Afghan government in 1978. A pro-Soviet junta proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) and installed Mohammed Noor Taraki as President.

The new regime introduced a Marxist program of modernization and secularization. Among the changes were radical redistribution of land, anti-religious propaganda, education for women, banning the burqa, and a new red flag in the Soviet style. The outrage was strongest in rural Afghanistan, where traditional values prevailed and the recognized authorities were the tribal chief and the village mullah, not the distant national government.

Within a year, there was armed resistance in 25 of the 28 provinces. The rebels were called mujahedeen, “soldiers of God,” the name adapted from the jihad or holy war they declared against the Kabul government in March 1979. When the Soviets arrived, the jihad was extended to cover them, too.

The mujahedeen clustered into some 30 local bands with no central organization. They were armed with whatever weapons they could get. Some carried single-shot Martini-Henry rifles captured from the British in the 1880s. Their stronghold was the rugged Hindu Kush, an extension of the Himalayas that dominated the geography of eastern Afghanistan and from which they could mount raids and ambushes.

The armed forces of the DRA were equipped with Soviet tanks, gunships, and export models of older Soviet airplanes, but even with increased aid, they could not stamp out the insurgency. President Taraki asked the Soviet Union to send military forces, but before Moscow could act, Taraki was ousted and killed in a coup staged by his deputy, Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin. Amin renewed the request for military support.

Foremost of the Soviet Union’s concerns was the potential emergence of a hostile Islamic state on its southern border. The Soviets did not trust Amin and suspected him of seeking closer ties to the West. Their worst fear was that he might strike a deal to allow US bases in Afghanistan.

The Soviets had used military force before to whip wavering satellite states back into alignment. It worked well in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. The “Brezhnev Doctrine”—promulgated by Leonid Brezhnev, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union—held that the USSR had the right to intervene in other communist states to ensure the interests of world socialism.

Soviet tanks near Kandahar, where the USSR had taken over a military base. (ITAR-TASS photo by B. Kavashkin and V. Zufarov)

The Soviets Go In

The decision in December 1979 to invade Afghanistan was not made by the entire Politburo but rather by a small circle consisting of Brezhnev, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov, and KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov. They overrode the objections of Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, chief of the General Staff, and senior military officials who warned that there was no military solution in Afghanistan.

Brezhnev, 73 and ailing mentally and physically, was motivated in part by his dislike of Amin. The intervention plan was vague. Soviet forces were to prop up the Afghan regime and protect Soviet interests, but there were few details on what they were supposed to do. The job was given to the 40th Army, hastily redesignated the “Limited Contingent of Soviet Forces in Afghanistan.”

On Christmas Eve, elite Soviet forces flew into Kabul, and Bagram military airport, 35 miles to the north. The next day, motorized rifle divisions entered Afghanistan from Soviet Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Amin was jubilant, which was a mistake.

On Dec. 27, Soviet commandos dressed as Afghans attacked Amin’s palace, killed him, and replaced him with Babrak Karmal, one of his rivals who was presumably more compliant.

Within a week, 50,000 Soviet troops were in Afghanistan and secured the major cities, airfields, and roads. By the end of the month, their numbers grew to 80,000. Soviet air forces deployed to bases at Bagram, Jalalabad, Kandahar, Shindand, and Herat.

The Afghan Army, resentful of the Soviet invasion and of taking orders from heavy-handed outsiders, balked at fighting and desertions rose. Before the losses had run their course, one entire regiment, complete with arms and equipment, went over to the enemy.

Contrary to pre-intervention plans, Soviet troops became the DRA’s main fighting force, and the Soviets adopted an open-ended commitment. Their first big engagement in March was an attempt to flush insurgents out of the mountains in the east and block supply routes from Pakistan. In September, the Soviets launched the first of nine numbered operations, none of them successful, to gain control of the strategic Panjshir Valley.

What arguably had begun as an intervention took on the full trappings of an invasion. The United Nations, by vote of 104 to18, called for Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Soviet tanks near Kandahar, where the USSR had taken over a military base. (Photo via

Failed Strategies

Fighting the mujahedeen was difficult. The Soviets could not strike at their vital centers because there weren’t any. The rebels hid in caves in the mountains, retreated to their villages when not actively engaged, and came out only when conditions were in their favor. They rarely massed their forces, so direct attacks were of limited value. Their needs were modest, which reduced their vulnerability to interdiction of their supply routes.

Two main leaders emerged, Ahmad Shah Massoud, the “Lion of Panjshir” in the eastern mountains, and a radical Islamist, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, in the south.

Young Muslims from abroad flocked to join the cause. In 1982, Osama bin Laden, the son of a Saudi billionaire, set up a support infrastructure for the insurgents across the border in Pakistan. His group became known as al Qaeda, “the base.”

Following their standard doctrine, the Soviets first tried a ground strategy. But neither large-scale sweeps nor small-unit actions were effective. “Clear and hold” operations produced only temporary results. Even when remote areas of the countryside were cleared, there were never enough troops to hold them.

In 1983, the Soviets switched to an air strategy focused on shutting down supply routes and eliminating their local sources of support. The critical failing was that the Soviets would not take the political risk of bombing the training and supply camps in Pakistan, giving the mujahedeen the advantage of a sanctuary.

It was not possible to constantly patrol and interdict the 1,400-mile border and all of the individual trails. The insurgents moved mostly at night. By day, they were often able to avoid helicopters by the simple expedient of covering themselves with earth-colored cloaks.

A jihadist aims at an aerial target with a shoulder-fired Stinger missile.(ITAR-TASS photo)

Sometimes the Soviets caught insurgents or their replenishment caravans in the open, but the main effort was to establish a cordon in which the rebels could not live or move. Accordingly, Soviet airpower and artillery bombarded the area around the border to clear and depopulate it. Entire villages disappeared and refugees fled to the cities and neighboring countries.

In the valleys of the Hindu Kush and other parts of the country, the Soviet air force conducted standard operations, both in support of ground forces and in independent attacks. At one time or another, most kinds of Soviet tactical aircraft made their appearance in Afghanistan, and Tu-16 and Tu-22 bombers struck from bases in Soviet Turkmenistan.

The most effective fighter-bomber was the rugged Su-25 Frogfoot attack aircraft, comparable to the American A-10. It was heavily armored and relatively slow, but it could swoop into the mountain valleys and hit hard. It had two 30 mm cannons and carried bombs and rockets on eight underwing pylons.

However, the dominant aircraft in the conflict was a helicopter, the fearsome Mi-24 Hind, with machine guns in the nose and bombs and rockets slung under its stubby wings. There was room in back for a dozen soldiers and their equipment. The Hinds were everywhere, supporting ground forces and obliterating anything that moved in the free-fire zone near the Pakistan border.

Soviet helicopter pilots and an Afghan in 1987 at Baraki Barak airfield in Afghanistan. Two Hip helicopters are in the background.(From the personal collection of E. Kuvakin)

Afghanistan had only 3,000 miles of all-weather roads and no railways, so the Soviets relied on airlift for transportation and resupply. Heavy airlifters flew into the main bases and the cities, but the Mi-8 Hip helicopter was the workhorse in the field, serving as the standard transport and using its limited armament to complement the Hind in attack operations.

In the early years of the war, Soviet airpower was not significantly challenged. The insurgents had some Soviet SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles as well as anti-aircraft machine guns from China, which they set up on ridge lines and fired at Soviet aircraft flying in the valleys.

However, the definitive mujahedeen air defense weapon was yet to come.

Rollback—and Stinger

US funding for the anti-communist guerillas in Afghanistan had begun before the Soviet invasion, authorized by President Carter in July 1979. Operation Cyclone, the CIA program to arm, train, and finance the mujahedeen, lasted from 1979 to 1989. The money was channeled through Pakistan, which was also supporting the insurgency.

“The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is the greatest threat to peace since the Second World War,” Carter charged. In protest, he kept US athletes out of the 1980 summer Olympic Games in Moscow.

American policy took a harder turn with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. As President, he dispensed with detente with the Soviet Union and declared the intention of “rollback”—the basic objective being “to contain and reverse the expansion of Soviet control and military presence throughout the world.” Afghanistan would be a primary venue for rollback.

A Soviet KAMAZ truck is loaded with sacks of flour ferried into Afghanistan by this Il-76 cargo airplane. In the early years of the war, Soviet airpower was not significantly challenged.(ITAR-TASS photo by M. Yevstafyev)

The new CIA director, William J. Casey, was a passionate champion of the Afghan insurgents and pushed for expanded aid. Congress was agreeable, raising the allocation steadily until it reached $630 million in Fiscal 1987. The jihad was “swimming in money,” said Steve Coll, whose book Ghost Wars is the definitive account of the secret operation.

US funding and arming of the insurgents owed much to a free-wheeling Congressman whose colorful exploits later gained fame from the book and movie, “Charlie Wilson’s War.”

Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Tex.)—known, as the Washington Post put it, for “his penchant for wild parties and wilder women”—was also a fervent believer in the mujahedeen. He was a junior member of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, but since he always supported the pork barrel initiatives of his fellow members and asked for little himself except for money for the Afghans, he was extraordinarily successful. He swamped the CIA’s classified budget with more than requested.

Wilson was determined the insurgents would have the US Army’s shoulder-fired Stinger anti-aircraft missile. The Pentagon and the CIA were reluctant. They did not want a captured Stinger to fall into Soviet hands lest the technology be copied. They questioned the wisdom of giving such a missile to Islamic fundamentalists. However, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger overruled their objections and the first Stingers were shipped to the Afghans, via Pakistan, in the summer of 1986.

The Soviets would no longer have uncontested control of the air. On Sept. 25, the mujahedeen fired five Stingers and knocked down three Hind helicopters on approach to the airfield at Jalalabad.

Congressman Charlie Wilson in his Capitol Hill office, brandishing a British Enfield rifle. Enfields were part of the mujahedeen’s arsenal. (AP photo by Marcy Nighswander)

In less than a year, between October 1986 and September 1987, the insurgents destroyed 270 Soviet aircraft with Stingers.

Fixed wing aircraft were forced up to higher altitudes, out of the Stinger’s three-mile range. Helicopters flew low, along the nap of the earth, to avoid presenting the heat-seeking Stinger a stark target against the sky. In all cases, aircraft were less effective.

Ironically, the Stinger had been under criticism back home in the United States. It was said to be too difficult to use, too heavy, its warhead too small. The missile was validated in combat by the rebels in Afghanistan.

Years later, Charlie Wilson had no remorse for having helped the fundamentalists gain power. “We were fighting the evil empire,” he told Time magazine in 2007. “It would have been like not supplying the Soviets against Hitler in World War II. Anyway, who the hell had ever heard of the Taliban then?”


The Stinger was a blow to the Soviets, but they had already decided to pull out. Five years after the invasion, they controlled less territory than they did in 1980 and their airfields and lines of communication were increasingly subject to attack. They had not lost a single battle, but they were making no progress toward any of their objectives. The rising consensus in the Soviet Union was that victory was not possible, and it was time to get out.

Three of the four old men who had decided on the invasion—Brezhnev, Andropov, and Ustinov—were dead. The fourth old man, Andrei Gromyko, was no longer the influential voice he had been. In time, even Gromyko would support withdrawal.

In October 1985, the Politburo approved a withdrawal in principle but gave no specific directions. At the party congress in 1986, the new general secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, declared the Afghan war a “bleeding wound.” Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze called for “Afghanization,” turning the conflict over to the DRA.

Gorbachev did not order an immediate pullout. Concerned about Soviet prestige abroad and political support at home, he gave the army more time to achieve stability in Afghanistan. In 1987, the Soviets announced an end to offensive combat operations. Their forces would fight only in defense. At Soviet insistence, the DRA adopted a “Policy of National Reconciliation” to seek an accommodation with the insurgents.

The DRA dropped “Democratic” from its name and the country became the Republic of Afghanistan. Karmal had proved to be a weak leader and the Soviets ousted him in November 1986, replacing him with the head of the Afghan secret police, Mohammad Najibullah. Karmal went to Moscow, where he died in 1996.

A settlement was reached in the Geneva Accords, signed by Afghanistan and Pakistan, which represented the mujahedeen. The US and the Soviet Union were “guarantors.”

Mujahedeen high in the mountains of Kunar, Afghanistan. It was from ridges such as this one that they fired anti-aircraft missiles at Soviet aircraft flying through the valleys.(Photo by Erwin Lux)

Under the agreement, Soviet troops were to be out of Afghanistan within nine months and Pakistan pledged “non-interference” in Afghan internal affairs. The Soviet diplomat who negotiated the accords acknowledged that it was a face-saving exercise that allowed the USSR to “withdraw its troops in a dignified manner.”

The Soviets began withdrawing in May 1988. By October, about half of the force was gone. Some of the insurgent groups were willing to let the Soviets leave in peace. Others were not. Road convoys were regularly ambushed or fired upon from the heights along the departure routes. The Soviets resorted to carpet bombing to keep roads to the north open. The last Soviet column, consisting of 450 armored vehicles and 1,400 troops, crossed the bridge into Uzbekistan at dawn on Feb. 15, 1989. The last airplane took off from the Kabul airport the same day.

About 620,000 members of the Soviet armed forces had served in Afghanistan. Of these, 13,310 were killed and 35,478 were wounded, according to the official numbers. Actual casualties may have been substantially higher.

Characterization as “the Soviet Vietnam” is not altogether fitting. The Soviet force level in Afghanistan never exceeded 120,000, far below the US level in Southeast Asia, and the casualty toll was much lower. The pressure at home for the Soviets to withdraw was also less.

However, the war was a chronic drain on the Soviet Union, was accomplishing nothing, and was giving the USSR a bad name among the leading nations of the world. Soviet armed forces never controlled more than 20 percent of the country, and it is hard to deny that they were beaten by the ragtag insurgents.

Some 1.3 million Afghans were believed killed in the war. More than seven million became refugees, were internally displaced, or fled abroad. Travel within the country remained hazardous, not only because of the ongoing conflict but also from thousands of mines scattered by both sides along roads and trails.

The Taliban Takes Over

Najibullah’s government demonstrated surprising strength in the months following the Soviet departure. The Afghan armed forces, led by a hard core of professional officers, had recovered from their decline. The army, grown to about 60,000 troops, held the large cities.

Assistance from the Soviets continued. They not only left behind most of their armor and artillery and large stores of ammunition but also gave the Afghans Scud missiles for long-range bombardment. Well after the withdrawal was supposedly complete, Soviet crews were still in country operating Scuds.

With the Soviet foray into Afghanistan foiled, the United States lost interest and turned to other priorities. One piece of business remained. In a highly classified program approved secretly by Congress, the CIA attempted to buy back the leftover Stinger missiles. Of the 2,300 Stingers sent to Afghanistan, about 600 were still in rebel hands. The CIA recovered a few dozen of them, but there was an active market for Stingers in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The price shot up from $70,000 to $150,000 per missile.

A column of armored personnel vehicles navigates a road in Herat as the Soviet Army leaves Afghanistan. Departing convoys were regularly ambushed by the mujahedeen.(ITAR-TASS photo by V. Zavyalov)

When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, aid to the Afghan government and armed forces stopped. “The elimination of fuel supplies was taking its toll,” said historian Artemy M. Kalinovsky. “Najibullah’s air force, which provided a crucial advantage over mujahedeen forces, was grounded.”

Najibullah lasted as long as he did partly because the insurgents were fighting each other in a factional civil war. Time ran out for him in 1992. Headed off as he attempted to reach the airport and leave, Najibullah took refuge in the UN compound in Kabul where he lived for the next four years. When radical Islamic forces captured Kabul in 1996, they seized Najibullah, killed him, and hanged his body from a lamp post.

As the mujahedeen factions clashed with each other, a new center of power, the Taliban—or “students of Islam”— emerged. The adherents were mostly young, orphans of the war, or persons without jobs or homes, stirred to action by radical mullahs.

The mujahedeen were swept back by the Taliban. Massoud, now heading a group called the Northern Alliance, still held the Panjshir Valley and a section along the Tajikistan border, but the Taliban possessed most of the country. Hekmatyar, who had twice been prime minister during the mujahedeen civil war, went into exile in Iran.

The Taliban’s “commander of the faithful” was a one-eyed spiritual leader named Mullah Omar, who became de facto head of state in 1996. Once again, the stage in Afghanistan was set for the next round of history.

John T. Correll was editor in chief of Air Force Magazine for 18 years and is now a contributing editor. His most recent article, “The Campaign for Goldwater-Nichols,” appeared in the October issue.