David N. Gibbs: Reassessing Soviet Motives for Invading Afghanistan

Roundup: Talking About History

[David N. Gibbs IS Associate Professor of History and Political Science University of Arizona.]

ABSTRACT: This article reassesses Soviet motives for invading Afghanistan in 1979, based on newly available archival materials, especially from the former USSR. The article argues that these Soviet documents show that the 1979 invasion reflected defensive rather than offensive objectives. Specifically, the USSR sought to restrain extremist elements of the Afghan communist party, who were undermining stability on the southern Soviet frontier. The findings of this article are at odds with with long-standing views that the invasion of Afghanistan was part of a larger Soviet strategy aimed at threatening the Persian Gulf and other western interests.

The December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was clearly a major turning point in the history of the cold war. The invasion was the largest single military action by the Soviet Union since 1945, and the Afghan crisis had a major influence on U.S. foreign policy, triggering a shift away from the relatively restrained policies of détente, which had characterized the 1970s, toward the much more forceful policy that followed the crisis. At a global level, the invasion was a watershed event, delegitimizing Soviet policy, and communism more generally, in the eyes of world public opinion. The U.S. program to arm the mujahiddin guerrillas, who were fighting the Soviets, evolved into the largest single operation in the history of the Central Intelligence Agency and was a key component of the “Reagan Doctrine,” which aimed to roll back pro-Soviet regimes worldwide. Unlike other Reagan Doctrine actions—in Central America, Angola, and Cambodia, for example—that aimed at destabilizing perceived Soviet proxy forces, the CIA’s operation in Afghanistan was directed against regular Soviet combat forces.

Now, a quarter century later, we can more accurately assess why the invasion occurred, owing to the considerable amount of new information that has emerged from U.S., as well as Soviet and Eastern Bloc archives. The newly released documents provide insight into the Soviet decision-making process. Specifically, I will emphasize the Soviet collections that have been made available through the services of the Cold War International History Project (CWIHP), based at theWoodrowWilson Center inWashington, D.C.,1 as well as additional Soviet materials available from the National Security Archive (NSA), also in Washington, D.C.2 Diplomatic historians generally regard both of these two document collections as authentic and authoritative. Together, these two collections constitute the only major holdings of English-translated Soviet documents pertaining to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. They contain the opinions of the Central Committee members, including Leonid Brezhnev, Andrei Gromyko, Yuri Andropov, Alexei Kosygin, and Boris Ustinov, as these individuals reacted to developments during the period 1978–80; they also include the views of Soviet military and diplomatic personnel within Afghanistan. With this new information, I will reassess Soviet motives in mounting the invasion.

The Soviet invasion had its origins in an April 1978 coup, led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), a relatively small communist-led party. The takeover triggered a large-scale rural rebellion against the new government, leading to a major insurgency by the end of 1978. The Soviet Union supported the PDPA government in its efforts to oppose the insurgency. In December 1979, the USSR sent a military force comprising approximately one hundred thousand troops to occupy Afghanistan. This action has been overwhelmingly viewed as a Soviet invasion, and it was internationally condemned as such. The Soviet military force remained in Afghanistan until 1989, when the occupation ended.

At the time of the invasion and for an extended period afterward, few doubted that the Soviet invasion force threatened western security. It was widely believed that the Soviets sought to use Afghanistan as a strategic springboard for further offensive action—with the ultimate aim of controlling the oil resources of the Persian Gulf (and in some variants the invasion also sought to achieve Soviet control of Indian Ocean territory, thus giving the USSR a warm water port3). The perceived threat that the invasion posed for the region, and especially for the security of the Persian Gulf, was widely publicized by analysts associated with the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), a public policy group that had lobbied in favor of an alarmist view of Soviet intentions.4 Established in 1976, the CPD’s founding statement claimed: “The principal threat to our nation, to world peace, and to the cause of human freedom is the Soviet drive for dominance.”5 The Afghan invasion was viewed as a vindication of the CPD worldview, and its members repeatedly emphasized its importance.6

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter enshrined this alarmist view of the Soviet invasion in his “Carter Doctrine,” which threatened war against the Soviets if they attacked the Gulf. In his memoirs, Carter notes that “the threat of this Soviet invasion to the rest of the region was very clear—and had grim consequences. A successful takeover of Afghanistan would give the Soviets a deep penetration between Iran and Pakistan and pose a threat to the rich oil fields of the Persian Gulf area and to the crucial waterways through which so much of the world’s energy supplies had to pass.”7 Academic analysts at the time of the invasion regarded the incident as a serious security threat to the United States and its allies; such views even appear in some recent writings on the topic.8

A rare exception was George F. Kennan.Writing shortly after the Afghanistan invasion, Kennan questioned the official logic; he expressed doubt that the invasion threatened western security. While acknowledging that the invasion was illegal—“The pretext offered [for the invasion] was an insult to the intelligence of even the most credulous of Moscow’s followers”—Kennan insisted that the action reflected “defensive rather than offensive [Soviet] impulses.” Afghanistan, he emphasized, was “a border country of the Soviet Union,” and it represented a natural security concern for the Soviets.9 In what follows, I will argue that recently declassified documentary materials strongly support Kennan’s view of the invasion — as an essentially defensive act — rather than the more alarmist interpretation offered by the Carter administration.



In the historiography of the cold war, the dominant view has been that of Kennan’s 1947 “X” article in Foreign Affairs, namely, that the Soviet Union sought global expansion. Soviet expansionist tendencies, it was thought, were based on the fundamental features of the Russian national character, reinforced by the ideology of Marxism-Leninism.68 Kennan himself would later adopt more moderate, even dovish, views with respect to the cold war (including as we have seen, on the specific issue of Afghanistan).69 But it is his 1947 essay that remains the most influential of his writings. A more recent updating of this perspective may be found in John L. Gaddis’s enormously influential post-mortem study, We Now Know.70 Gaddis argues that archival disclosures have largely confirmed Kennan’s original ideas with respect to the innately expansionist qualities of Soviet foreign policy. And Michael Cox (writing in 2003) notes that during the cold war, “the Soviet threat was real enough. That much is obvious from any reading of the new [Soviet] primary sources.”71

Analysts like Gaddis portray the cold war in asymmetrical terms, with a relentless Soviet aggressiveness against a restrained, defensively oriented United States. For the Afghanistan case, at least, the Gaddis view of the cold war is not confirmed. The CWIHP and NSA documents show that the Soviets were content to live with a neutralized Afghanistan and had little interest in turning the country communist. What undermined this arrangement was not Soviet subversion, but the Shah’s effort to turn Afghanistan toward theWest in 1974. Nothing in the documents indicates that Soviet agents planned the April 1978 coup. And contrary to the views of Klass, the Soviet Union was reluctant to invade. Its aim was to restrain what Soviet leaders regarded as an irresponsible PDPA leadership, which risked destabilizing the USSR’s southern frontier. The idea that the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan posed a threat to the security of the Persian Gulf is a myth. To be sure, the December 1979 invasion was a heavy-handed act of aggression against the people of Afghanistan, but the documentary record is clear that it was not a threat to western security or a more generalized act of regional aggression.

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