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The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan

The conflict, which became a proxy war between the Soviets and US, had dramatic geopolitical consequences. (Getty Images)
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Updated 24 April 2020

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan

The long conflict between the Cold War superpowers turned the country into a terrorist breeding ground


On Dec. 24 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan following the overthrow and assassination of Nur Muhammad Taraki, the man installed by Moscow the year before as leader of its puppet regime in Kabul.

It was the beginning of an ultimately pointless bloody conflict with the guerrilla forces of the mujahideen that would rage for nine years, claiming the lives of 15,000 Soviet troops and more than a million Afghans, and ending in Moscow’s humiliating withdrawal from the country

The conflict, which became a proxy war between the Soviets and US, had dramatic geopolitical consequences. Arguably, it hastened the breakup of the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991. It also created a breeding ground for terrorism, leading to the rise of Osama bin Laden, who fought alongside the mujahideen.

PESHAWAR: Military intervention fueled the long conflict between the Cold War foes, the Soviet Union and the US, which backed rival Afghan sides. For the next nine years, the Red Army fought a losing war against Afghan mujahideen fighters supported by Afghanistan’s neighbors, Iran and Pakistan, Western countries, China and most of the Arab world.

Soviet forces withdrew by Feb. 15, 1989 under the terms of the Geneva Accords. Since Moscow was unable to provide the critical military and economic assistance that had sustained the communist regime in power, President Mohammad Najibullah was forced to quit in April 1992 and the mujahideen captured power.

However, the mujahideen’s failure to restore peace and stability due to their infighting offered the Taliban a chance to seize power. Though foreign fighters, including Arabs such as Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, had come to Afghanistan to take part in the earlier Afghan jihad against the Soviet forces, the Taliban regime allowed them to stay for ideological reasons.

The Soviet invasion was aimed primarily at propping up the communist regime weakened by infighting between the Khalq and Parcham factions of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan and preventing the US from gaining influence in its neighborhood. The move alarmed neighboring countries, particularly Pakistan, which feared it would be invaded next since the Soviet Union could attempt to intervene in its Balochistan province and reach the warm waters of the Arabian Sea. Meanwhile, Iran, which was seeking to consolidate its February 1979 Islamic Revolution, was apprehensive about Soviet intentions due to past hostility in their relations.

Concerted pressure from democratic countries could force the Soviet Union to pull its troops out of Afghanistan, Information Minister Muhammad Abdo Yamani told Austrian newsmen in Riyadh on Sunday.

From a wire story on the front page of Arab News, Feb. 4, 1980

In the wider Middle East, the Soviet invasion caused uncertainty as Arab countries traditionally close to the US tried to figure out Moscow’s next move. This was the first time the Soviet Union had invaded a country outside the European bloc and signalled a new aggressive trend of Soviet expansionism. There were also worries the presence of Soviet forces in Afghanistan could embolden communist and radical elements in the region.

Except for the pro-Soviet radical Arab states, such as South Yemen, Syria, Algeria and Libya, as well as Palestine Liberation Organization, most countries in the Middle East sided with the US. Saudi Arabia and Egypt spearheaded support for the Afghan mujahideen, breaching their relationship with the Soviet Union for many years. Not until 1992 was Riyadh finally able to restore diplomatic relations with Moscow.

Key Dates

  • 1

    Afghan president Mohammad Daud Khan is killed in a Soviet-backed military coup that installs a modernizing communist government, triggering an Islamic insurgency.

    Timeline Image April 27, 1978

  • 2

    Coup-leader and Afghan president Nur Muhammad Taraki signs a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union.

  • 3

    Taraki is deposed by a rival communist faction led by former ally Hafizullah Amin. Taraki is murdered the following month on Amin’s orders.

    Timeline Image Sept. 11, 1979

  • 4

    Moscow, fearful that Amin is in talks with the US, sends troops into Afghanistan.

  • 5

    Russian special forces storm the presidential palace in Kabul, killing Amin.

  • 6

    Soviets install Babrak Karmal, the exiled leader of a faction of the Marxist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, as head of government.

    Timeline Image Dec. 29, 1979

  • 7

    Soviet Union pulls out the last of its troops after nine years of war.

  • 8

    Saudi Arabia restores diplomatic relations with Moscow.

  • 9

    The communist flag is lowered for the last time over the Kremlin as Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev resigns and hands power to Boris Yeltsin, the first leader of the newly formed democratic Russian state.


The Soviet invasion also had other repercussions. As the Cold War intensified, more countries drifted toward the two blocs. Several Middle Eastern countries were among 65 nations that joined the US-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Diplomatic relations were broken and trade relations suffered. It took years to repair the damage and restore the relationship to near normalcy.

For Middle East nations, a worrying development was the radicalization of citizens inspired by the call for jihad in Afghanistan.

In 1979, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian Islamist teacher, played an instrumental role in issuing a fatwa (edict), along with several well-known Muslim scholars, declaring jihad the individual obligation of every Muslim. This was a departure from the established Islamic law that made it the prerogative of the Muslim state and the ruler.

The fatwa prompted many Arabs, including those living comfortably in the West, to travel to Pakistan en route to Afghanistan to join the war against the Soviet forces. Among them was the

For Middle East nations, a worrying development was the radicalization of citizens inspired by the call for jihad in Afghanistan.

Rahimullah Yusufzai Peshawar

In time, the term Afghan-Arabs was coined to describe the mostly Arab veterans of the war in Afghanistan. Those who returned home after the Soviet forces’ pullout or at other times tried to recruit and organize others to wage war against governments in their native states.

Afghan-Arab fighters had their biggest impact in Algeria, where Djafar Al-Afghani led an armed campaign, and in Egypt, where Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Mohammad Showky Al-Islambouli inspired violent attacks against the government.

A page from the Arab News archive showing the news on Feb. 4, 1980.

Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi and other militants who heralded the so-called Islamic State, or Daesh, also trained and fought in Afghanistan. Many war veterans headed to Bosnia-Herzegovina to fight in support of Muslims against the Serbs and Croats. All these insurrections eventually collapsed, but not before causing significant damage in terms of life and property, and forcing targeted states to adopt tough coercive measures that at times invited criticism.

The defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and its subsequent breakup in 1991 reinforced the perception among jihadists that if one superpower could be humbled, so could others. It was this belief that encouraged militant fighters to take on the US and its allies after the coalition invaded Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in October 2001 to avenge the Al-Qaeda-directed 9/11 attacks.

  • Rahimullah Yusufzai is a senior political and security analyst in Pakistan. He was the first to interview Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar and twice interviewed Osama bin Laden in 1998. Twitter: @rahimyusufzai1

US officials: Iran sent emails intimidating American voters

Updated 2 min ago

US officials: Iran sent emails intimidating American voters

  • Intelligence director: “These actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries”

WASHINGTON: US officials accused Iran on Wednesday of being behind a flurry of emails sent to Democratic voters in multiple battleground states that appeared to be aimed at intimidating them into voting for President Donald Trump.
The announcement at a rare, hastily called news conference just two weeks before the election underscored the concern within the US government about efforts by foreign countries to spread false information meant to suppress voter turnout and undermine American confidence in the vote.
The activities attributed to Iran would mark a significant escalation for a nation that some cybersecurity experts regard as a second-rate player in online espionage, with the announcement coming as most public discussion surrounding election interference has centered on Russia, which hacked Democratic emails during the 2016 election, and China, a Trump administration adversary.
“These actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries,” said John Ratcliffe, the government’s top intelligence official, who, along with FBI Director Chris Wray, insisted the US would impose costs on any foreign countries that interfere in the 2020 US election and that the integrity of the election is still sound.
“You should be confident that your vote counts,” Wray said. “Early, unverified claims to the contrary should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.”
Wray and Ratcliffe did not describe the emails linked to Iran, but officials familiar with the matter said the US has linked Tehran to messages sent to Democratic voters in at least four battleground states that falsely purported to be from the neo-fascist group Proud Boys and that warned “we will come after you” if the recipients didn’t vote for Trump.
The officials also said Iran and Russia had obtained voter registration data, though such data is considered easily, publicly accessible. Tehran used the information to send out the spoofed emails, which were sent to voters in states including Pennsylvania and Florida.
Ratcliffe said the spoofed emails were intended to hurt Trump, though he did not elaborate on how. An intelligence assessment released in August said: “Iran seeks to undermine US democratic institutions, President Trump, and to divide the country in advance of the 2020 elections. Iran’s efforts along these lines probably will focus on online influence, such as spreading disinformation on social media and recirculating anti-US content.”
Trump, speaking at a rally in North Carolina, made no reference to the press conference but repeated a familiar campaign assertion that Iran is opposed to his reelection. He promised that if he wins another term he will swiftly reach a new accord with Iran over its nuclear program.
“Iran doesn’t want to let me win. China doesn’t want to let me win,” Trump said. “The first call I’ll get after we win, the first call I’ll get will be from Iran saying let’s make a deal.”
Both Russia and Iran also obtained voter registration information, though such data is considered easily, publicly accessible. Tehran used the information to send out the spoofed emails, which were sent to voters in states including Pennsylvania and Florida.
Asked about the emails during an online forum Wednesday, Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said she lacked specific information. “I am aware that they were sent to voters in multiple swing states and we are working closely with the attorney general on these types of things and others,” she said.
While state-backed Russian hackers are known to have infiltrated US election infrastructure in 2016, there is no evidence that Iran has ever done so.
The voter intimidation operation apparently used email addresses obtained from state voter registration lists, which include party affiliation and home addresses and can include email addresses and phone numbers. Those addresses were then used in an apparently widespread targeted spamming operation. The senders claimed they would know which candidate the recipient was voting for in the Nov. 3 election, for which early voting is ongoing.
Federal officials have long warned about the possibility of this type of operation, as such registration lists are not difficult to obtain.
“These emails are meant to intimidate and undermine American voters’ confidence in our elections,” Christopher Krebs, the top election security official at the Department of Homeland Security, tweeted Tuesday night after reports of the emails first surfaced.