War without end: conflict in Afghanistan, from the Cold War Soviet invasion to the Taliban
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 is widely viewed through the prism of the great Cold War confrontation between east and west. Yet, writes Elisabeth Leake, the occupation also ignited a tinderbox of local grievances that continue to torment the country to this day
On 3 August 1978, the central council of the Islamic Society of Afghanistan (Jamiat-i-Islami) wrote an impassioned plea to Kurt Waldheim, secretary-general of the United Nations. In their letter, they decried Afghanistan’s political leaders, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), as a “power-thirsty gang” intent on destroying Afghanistan’s political and social fabric and lacking any respect for humanitarian norms or human rights. The Council demanded UN intercession, warning that “the continued survival of this group will endanger the peace of this region of the world”.
This warning soon came true. On 24 December 1979, the Soviet Politburo issued a public directive justifying the deployment of Soviet troops into Afghanistan to support their allies, the same PDPA. The Soviets, the Politburo claimed, sought “to give international aid to the friendly Afghan people” and to prevent “anti-Afghan actions from neighbouring countries”.
Within days, 50,000 Soviet troops were on the ground in Afghanistan. They would remain there for almost a decade as part of Soviet efforts to keep their local allies in power.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was one of the moments that defined the 1980s. It took place against the backdrop of the global Cold War, in which the Soviet Union and the United States (as well as China) vied for supremacy. Indeed, so international was the Cold War during the 1970s and early 1980s that, while US and Soviet leaders pursued talks on limiting strategic arms and the balance of power in Europe, Soviet forces backed independence movements in southern and eastern Africa as American troops withdrew from Vietnam.
While Vietnam remains the most enduringly remembered of the Cold War’s “hot wars”, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had equally explosive consequences – not just for the Cold War superpowers, but for regional relations in south and central Asia, and Afghanistan itself.
It signalled the end of détente and a resurgence in Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. It also led to an international outcry, including public condemnation in the UN General Assembly. In 1980, US president Jimmy Carter called for economic sanctions and a boycott of that year’s Moscow Olympics, declaring, in his State of the Union address, that “the Soviet Union must pay a concrete price for their aggression”.
Afghanistan's agony: the key dates in decades of politics in turmoil and warJanuary 1965 | The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan forms in the nation’s capital, Kabul, against a backdrop of constitutional reform. Groups such as the Islamic Society of Afghanistan also begin organising.
17 July 1973 | The king’s cousin, Mohammad Daoud Khan launches a coup d’etat, establishing the Republic of Afghanistan.
27 April 1978 | The PDPA launches a coup, killing Daoud and his family, and announces the creation of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. The PDPA and the Soviet Union sign a treaty of friendship in December.
15–20 March 1979 | A popular uprising against the PDPA takes places in Herat. The PDPA forcibly retakes the city, resulting in between 5,000 and 25,000 civilian deaths.
3 July 1979 | US president Jimmy Carter authorises limited financial support for Afghan resistance groups, working alongside Pakistan.
24 December 1979 | Soviet troops enter Afghanistan, with the Politburo citing the December 1978 treaty of friendship.
14 January 1980 | The UN General Assembly resoundingly passes a resolution demanding the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops.
11 March 1985 | Mikhail Gorbachev comes to power in the Soviet Union. He begins looking for ways to ensure a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.
14 April 1988 | UN-negotiated Geneva Accords are signed, paving the way for the withdrawal of Soviet troops.
15 February 1989 | The final Soviet forces withdraw from Afghanistan. Fighting nevertheless continues, and the United States and Soviet Union continue to provide financial support to combatants.
1990 | The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there are at least 6.3 million Afghan refugees worldwide.
29 April 1992 | A new interim government assumes authority in Afghanistan, uniting a coalition of resistance groups. However, infighting continues, preventing the government from being effective.
27 September 1996 | The Taliban seizes Kabul, effectively becoming Afghanistan’s rulers. Resistance continues in north-eastern Afghanistan, headed by the Northern Alliance.
December 2001 | Three months after the 9/11 attacks, the Northern Alliance – with backing from the US and its allies – topples the Taliban from power.
February 2020 | The United States and the Taliban sign the Doha Agreement, in which the US agrees to withdraw its troops before the May of the following year.
May 2021 | The Taliban launches an offensive against Afghan government forces. It goes on to take Kabul that August.
Yet this common narrative of Afghanistan in the 1980s – one of Cold War competition and intervention by the so-called “great powers” – tells only a partial story. In this regard, the Islamic Society of Afghanistan’s UN petition sheds far greater light on how and why a war would break out that would engulf not just Afghanistan and Afghans, but also regional and international powers alike.
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Soviet invading forces encountered a nation already embroiled in civil war – one which would go on to outlast the 1980s, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War itself. Violence had broken out more than a year earlier in the aftermath of the coup that brought the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan to power in April 1978.
The PDPA had formed in the mid-1960s during Afghanistan’s era of constitutional reform. While it outwardly pledged to pursue Afghan democratisation, in internal documents the party declared its allegiance to Marxism. Upon splitting into two factions, known as “Khalq” and “Parcham”, in 1973 the latter backed former prime minister Mohammad Daoud Khan in overthrowing his cousin, King Mohammed Zahir Shah, and seizing power.
After being sidelined under Daoud, however, the two factions reunited and launched an unexpected attack on the government in 1978, which culminated in Daoud’s assassination – and gave the PDPA an opportunity to govern.
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The PDPA pledged itself to a socialist Afghanistan, likening its “Saur Revolution” to Russia’s 1917 October Revolution. But the new government’s heavy-handed attempts at political, economic and social reform, alongside its willingness to employ violence to enforce its writ, led to local resentment.
By the autumn of 1978, resistance had erupted across Afghanistan’s provinces, ranging from Nuristan to Kandahar and from Paktia to Kunar. It only spread from there. By the time Soviet troops invaded, three-quarters of the country was in a state of rebellion.
As fighting expanded across the country, a political exodus took place. Individuals and groups labelled enemies of the state by the PDPA sought shelter abroad. A number of political figures settled in and around the city of Peshawar in Pakistan, joining an older coterie of Afghan intellectuals and activists who had fled persecution in earlier times. While living abroad, these groups sought to mobilise Afghans inside and outside the country against the PDPA. They took a leading role in encouraging and supporting an armed resistance, and some groups went even further, seeking to reshape Afghan politics and society.
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One of the older groups already active around Peshawar was the Islamic Society of Afghanistan. Originally formed at Kabul University in the mid-1960s, its leaders had fled to Pakistan in the early 1970s after coming into conflict with Afghanistan’s then-president: Mohammad Daoud Khan. From exile in 1978, the society’s leaders had written to the UN to protest the PDPA’s coup and activities.
But letter-writing was not the organisation’s sole activity. It soon began encouraging armed resistance against the regime, drawing on social and political networks stretching across Afghanistan and Pakistan to deploy men and arms against the PDPA and their Soviet backers.
Its members also travelled abroad, across the Middle East and Europe and to the United States, to lobby foreign states for aid. It published pamphlets to ensure that the world saw the tragedy that was unfolding in Afghanistan, and to promote its own political alternatives. The Islamic Society envisioned a post-conflict Afghanistan in which Islam infused modern politics. It was a vision just as radical as the PDPA’s.
Clash of ideologies
The activities of the Islamic Society of Afghanistan, taken alongside those of the PDPA, point to a war that initially had little to do with the Cold War. The conflict that began in Afghanistan in mid-1978 was fundamentally political. It was between competing visions of Afghan politics and society, and of how Afghanistan should be governed, put forward not just by the PDPA and the Islamic Society but also by a variety of other groups.
Socialism, Maoism, Islamism, parliamentarianism, monarchism and ethno-federalism were just a few of the alternative systems touted as the PDPA’s coup, its failures of governance, and the subsequent outbreak of conflict created an opportunity for different Afghan interest groups to make a play for their visions of Afghanistan to rise to the fore.
Yet regional and Cold War politics fundamentally complicated the conflict, ensuring that none of these Afghan visions ultimately came to pass. Even before the Soviets invaded, they had been involved in Afghanistan. The PDPA’s leaders had immediately sought Soviet support and recognition, despite ignoring Soviet suggestions to moderate their policies and seek local allies.
The scale of Soviet activities changed after December 1979, but shoring up the Afghan state remained a priority – alongside eliminating any armed resistance. This latter effort largely failed
The scale of Soviet activities changed after December 1979, but shoring up the Afghan state remained a priority – alongside eliminating any armed resistance. This latter effort largely failed, as the Soviet presence neither increased local support for the PDPA nor succeeded in rooting out insurgents.
From the United States, the Carter administration began providing limited amounts of covert aid in 1979, partially fuelled by concerns of further Soviet spread south-west at a time when Iran was in the throes of revolution and Pakistan’s military dictator, Mohammad Zia-ul Haq, had just executed the nation’s former civilian leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
The initial amount of aid provided was not enough to create a “Soviet Vietnam”, as Carter’s National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, later claimed it could. But this early US support did help establish an aid pipeline that would balloon in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion, as part of subsequent president Ronald Reagan’s determination to roll back Soviet influence.
Another consequence of this covert aid from the United States was to help further militarise the conflict, although American administrators were indiscriminate about which resistance groups received support. In US Cold War calculations, the ability of Afghan resistance groups to produce a military stalemate against superior Soviet firepower mattered far more than local debates about Afghan politics and society.
Regional partners took further advantage of Cold War politics. As an ally of the US, and host to many of the Afghan resistance groups in exile, Pakistan was exceptionally placed to manipulate the conflict for its own ends. Not only did its Inter-Services Intelligence take responsibility for distributing foreign aid to Afghan resistance fighters, but the nation’s military dictator, General Zia, used this position of influence to shape local and regional politics.
He chose to provide particularly strong support to Afghan resistance groups that shared his own interests in the Islamisation of politics, including the Islamic Society and the Islamic Party of Afghanistan (Hizb-i-Islami). This, in turn, narrowed the windows of opportunities for other reform-minded Afghan groups, which received less financial and military aid.
The fact that Zia’s government could wield such influence was due in part to a second Afghan exodus. The PDPA coup and subsequent Soviet invasion was accompanied by one of the 20th century’s largest refugee crises, as Afghan people fled the spread of the conflict.
Some migrated within Afghanistan, while others went abroad. Millions settled in Pakistan and Iran, while tens of thousands more travelled to India, western Europe, and North America. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that almost half of Afghanistan’s population was forced on the move due to the war, sparking an international humanitarian crisis. As one Afghan refugee in Iran wrote to the UNHCR, seeking to reunite with family in Germany, “the tyrannical and cruel regime of Afghanistan has limited our peaceful life”.
As host to several million Afghan refugees, Pakistan worked with international partners, including the UNHCR and other UN agencies, to house and support this population. But in seeking to ease the administrative burden of managing the refugees, Pakistani officials turned to the same Afghan resistance groups that had been armed and funded to fight the Soviets.
Groups including the Islamic Society and Islamic Party became intermediaries between Afghan refugees on one hand, and camp and government administrators on the other. They often demanded party membership in return for access to humanitarian aid, giving them outsized influence among many Afghan exiles.
A cycle of violence
At least five different conflicts thus fit under the guise of the “Soviet invasion of Afghanistan”.
They include the war over Afghan politics, the global Cold War, and the regional competition for influence over Afghanistan and within south Asia. But they also include the humanitarian struggle over the rights of Afghan civilians and their ability to return home, and the debates in the international community as United Nations members discussed the legality of the Soviet invasion and gave the organisation the mandate to facilitate a negotiated Soviet withdrawal.
The intersections between these conflicts simultaneously expanded and constricted the nature of the war in the 1980s. They created new opportunities for some groups inside and outside Afghanistan but also limited the conflict’s outcomes, as well as the nation’s political possibilities and place in international politics.
Islamist groups came into the spotlight, and for the first time vied seriously to rule a post-conflict Afghanistan. Their own activities – supporting an armed resistance, interceding for refugees, and lobbying the international community – coalesced with PDPA reforms, which were initially very hostile to Islam. They also benefited from Pakistani favouritism, giving such groups exceptional influence.
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Increasingly, in the realm of Afghan politics, debates about Afghanistan’s future involved discussions about Islam’s political, rather than just personal or religious, role. But such debates did not necessarily reverberate outside of the country.
Most notably, the UN-led discussions that ultimately resulted in the Soviet withdrawal of troops by February 1989 involved representatives of only four participants: the US, the Soviet Union, Pakistan, and the PDPA. Despite the key role that resistance groups had played in stalling the Soviets and undermining the stability of the PDPA-led state, and the stated sympathies of the international community, members of such groups were excluded.
There was little discussion about what a post-conflict Afghanistan should look like, how this might be achieved, or how civil war combatants might reconcile their differences. Consequently, UN negotiations only resulted in the withdrawal of Soviet troops.
The civil war continued long after the Cold War superpowers lost interest. Fighting between local interest groups persisted in Afghanistan, despite several attempts at creating political coalitions. Afghan civilians and infrastructures continued to bear the brunt of that war. Many refugees were unable to return home, even as international aid began to slow down. Several towns and villages had been so damaged by more than a decade of conflict that they could hardly sustain local livelihoods, while black markets and corruption ran rampant.
These developments created the opportunities for the fundamentalist Taliban movement to come to power, taking advantage of the destruction and ongoing infighting. And even then, the violence did not stop. What has emerged is a war that is now entering its fifth decade. Many of the dynamics that have developed in Afghanistan in the 21st century can only be understood by looking at this longer history of conflict in the region.
But even this perspective is narrow. It focuses all too often on Afghanistan as a site of warfare or intervention, and therefore fails to recognise the alternative forms of politics and society imagined and sought by many Afghan people themselves.
What has emerged is a war that is now entering its fifth decade. Many of the dynamics that have developed in Afghanistan in the 21st century can only be understood by looking at this longer history of conflict in the region
The Islamic Society of Afghanistan’s letter to the UN reveals an organisation that sought real political and social change and adopted a universally recognised language of rights and world peace. It was not just an insurgent group fighting to push back invading forces: it aimed to create an Afghanistan that adopted tenets of political Islam while engaging with international society.
Indeed, it continued to fight in the ongoing civil war, and joined a coalition government in 1992. It was part of the Northern Alliance that continued to combat the Taliban after it came to power, and its members took part in further governing coalitions after 2001. But its earlier political visions never came to pass.
The war, then, must be seen not just through the prism of Cold War alliances or of a desire by all Afghan people to return to existing norms. For some Afghans, it was an effort to create something new. Only by recognising such aspirations – as well as the ways in which they failed to materialise – do the real ramifications of the Soviet invasion become clear.
Elisabeth Leake is associate professor of international history at the University of Leeds. Her latest book is Afghan Crucible: The Soviet Invasion and the Making of Modern Afghanistan (Oxford University Press, 2022)
This article was first published in the June 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine