GlobalRussia Afghanistan: The Untold Story.

Russia Afghanistan: The Untold Story.


Russia Afghanistan relations occupy a centre page in the history of Central Assia. The withdrawal of the U.S and allied forces from Afghanistan has made it a compelling study to grasp the importance of a relationship that has spanned the cold war era to the present developments in the region.

The Russia State

Russian Afghanistan relations in the past seven decades. Beginning from 1922 when Russia was known as the first country to recognise the independence of Afghanistan, both countries have maintained a relationship founded on mutual understanding. The Russia or Russian Federation is a country in Asia.  In terms of location, Russia spans Eastern Europe and Northern Asia. That positions it on the northeastern part of the Eurasian sub-continent. That puts both as a focal point in strategic studies. It is the largest country in the world covering about 17,075,200 sq km.  It is about two times the size of Canada, the world’s second-largest country. In other words, Russia covers about one-eighth of the total inhabitable land on earth. It is bordered to the north by the Arctic Ocean, to the east by the Pacific ocean and the south by the Black and Caspian Seas.

Russia was once the most prominent and leading republic of the erstwhile Union of Soviets Socialist Republics (USSR) which consisted of sixteen republics. The country once again became an independent republic after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia is home to diverse people and cultures. The vast majority of the population are ethnic Russians inhabiting the country with about 120 other ethnic groups. The diversity of its people is also reflected in their many languages, religions and cultural institutions. The population of Russia is mostly concentrated near the fertile lands around Moscow, the country’s capital.

The Russian republic is an offshoot of Imperial Russia. The latter played key roles in the Eurasian continent from medieval times up to the Russian Revolution of 1917. In 1922 it became a union republic. It took on the role of a key player in international affairs in the post-WWII era. The country became embroiled in the Cold War with the U.S from1945-1992.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia aligned with some other former Soviet republics to establish the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Despite the political transformation, the country has undergone along with changes in the economic order, the new Russia has maintained its position as a world power.

Russian Relations With Neighbours

Russia relations with neighbours have been cultivated for over a century. A detailed study reveals that both nations have been engaged in bi-lateral roles on one hand and multilateral roles with other nations of Central Asia on the other.

The relationship is one punctuated by series of treaties of cooperation and mutual understanding on various issues affecting both nations. However, relations between the two have not been completely devoid of hostilities as well. In the early history of this relationship, two events stand out as the most significant.

The first was Russia’s position as the first country to recognize Afghanistan’s independence in 1919 while the third Anglo-Afghan war was ongoing. Second, was the follow up with the signing of a Friendship Treaty between the two nations on February 28, 1921, immediately after the war. Other countries began to henceforth recognize Afghanistan’s status as an independent nation, including the U.S in 1934.

Soon after WWII, the USSR (Russia’s successor nation) enhanced the old relationship with Afghanistan. Russia began providing aid to assist in the development effort of the latter. In December 1978 Soviet leader  Leonid Brezhnev and President Nur Taraki of Afghanistan signed a second Friendship Treaty between the two nations.

The treaty was meant to build closer “friendship and cooperation” between Afghanistan and the USSR for the next twenty years. Moscow pledged both economic and military assistance to Kabul during the period covered by the agreement. In September 1979 Nur Taraki was murdered in another coup organized by members of the same Communist Party(PDPA).

The Khalq faction of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan clashed with the Parcham faction resulting in Taraki’ s death. The Soviet Union’s intervention to prop up the communist party led to a prolonged war. The ouster of Najibullah from office in 1992 ended Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. Afghan bitterness against Moscow has calmed in the years of the U.S invasion of Afghanistan. Indeed Afghanistan Russia relations have improved tremendously since 2014.

Moscow has since established an embassy in Kabul and a consulate general in Mazar – e -Sharif. It should be pointed out that Russia no longer has a common border with Afghanistan since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Still, Afghanistan remains central to Russian foreign policy in Central Asia. For much of the 19th century, Afghanistan was a highly prized jewel between Russia and the British raj. When Czarist Russia sought to establish a direct trading route to India through Afghanistan in 1837 the British Empire rose in opposition. 

The underlying reason was that Russia could through Afghanistan encroach into Central Asia. From that, an inroad nay is forged into Britain’s jealously guarded Indian subcontinent.  Russia quickly established a diplomatic office in Kabul in 1878.

Why is Afghanistan important to Russia?

Russia is concerned about unfolding events in Afghanistan for several reasons. First, Afghanistan occupies a strategic location in Central Asia. Uncontrolled violence in Afghanistan could have ripple effects on several former Soviet satellite republics such as Kirghistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Second, Afghanistan as an Islamic State is known to harbour several Taliban warlords with ties to Muslims in former Soviet satellite republics.

Russia is apprehensive of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in countries sharing a common border with former Soviet republics. The possibility of al-Qaeda activists reestablishing bases in Afghan territory from where attacks can be launched against Russian interests is very worrying to Moscow. It would be recalled that the September 11 attacks on the  World Trade Centre twin towers in New York was planned in al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan in 2001. 

World Trade Center In New York
World Trade Center in New York

Russia is also known to be home to a handful of restive Muslim communities, especially in Chechnya. This accounts for Russian interest in getting involved in Taliban negotiations with the Afghan authorities. It is therefore the desire of Russia that peace is restored in Afghanistan as the U.S withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan commences.

Would Russia benefit from U.S withdrawal?

The U.S has promised continued assistance to the Ashraf Ghani led administration after Washington’s withdrawal of troops. However, Moscow’s numerous concerns over Afghanistan have necessitated Russia’s close monitoring of the situation in Kabul. Russia has a worrying narcotics problem among its population. One major source of income to Afghans is the cultivation of poppy from which opium is produced. Much of the opium related narcotics from Afghanistan finds its way to the market in Russia.

Russian wants to maintain considerable influence over a future government in Kabul to have a measure of control over preventing the influx of hard drugs into Russia. In addition, Moscow would like to improve trade and commerce relations with the government in Kabul as the U.S departs. Moscow is also determined to have a good relationship with any future government in Kabul, be it Taliban or otherwise. It is certain that Russia would not want any troops presence in Afghanistan for now, but could settle for measured military cooperation.

Is Russia considered a military threat to Afghanistan?

Russia is not a military threat to Afghanistan today and would not be for the foreseeable future after U.S withdrawal. Russian presence in Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet has not been significantly threatening to countries in the region. Russia and Afghanistan have no common border as the three main former satellite nations serve as a bulwark between the two.

The three states are Tajikistan, Kirghistan and Kazakhstan. However, Moscow has a measure of military influence in the region. Russia has a handful of military bases in Kirghistan and Tajikistan under the tutelage of two institutions. The two institutions are the Collective Security Treaty Organization which has nearly 20,000 troops and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

In addition, Moscow wields considerable influence with other regional powers such as China, India, Pakistan and Iran. Russia would only seek a working relationship with the Taliban if the substantive government of Ashraf Ghani collapses over time. For now, Russia has a good military relationship with the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

Is Russia involved in the Peace negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban?

Russia has consistently shown keen interest in the ongoing negotiations between the Taliban and Kabul. In a recent statement, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Zamir  Kabulov said Russia is closely monitoring the peace talks between the two parties. He stated further that “The Taliban at least for now is a positive factor from the point of view of ensuring the security of our Central Asian partners”, amid a militant threat and could take control of Afghanistan unless peace efforts accelerate. From all indications, Moscow is more concerned about the impact of the war on Russia’s former Soviet republics than Afghanistan itself.  Moscow’s role in the negotiations is peripheral as it receives delegations from both the Taliban and Kabul representatives.

What are the likely consequences of U.S withdrawal from Afghanistan?

In April 2021 U.S President Joe Biden reaffirmed the proposed withdrawal of U.S troops and NATO troops in Afghanistan. The initial proposal was announced by his predecessor, Donald Trump. Former U.S  president, Donald Trump worked out a program of withdrawal that would have pulled the last American soldier from Afghanistan in May 2021. Trump initiated a peace plan which involved negotiations between the incumbent administration of Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban leaders.

The plan was geared towards ensuring a smooth transition to a unity government after U.S troops and NATO troops withdrawal. The culminating Doha agreement, signed in February 2018 left room for more negotiations to work out details of an Afghan administration acceptable to “all parties”. The term “all parties” refers to Afghan warring factions and all nations sharing a common border with Afghanistan. Pakistan and China are among the neighbouring nations that witnessed the signing of the Doha agreement.

However, no mention has been made of Joe Biden’s efforts to continue the negotiations after Donald Trump left office if any. Neither has there been a concrete assurance of continued military assistance to the Afghan government in the post-withdrawal period.  Biden merely shifted the date of departure of the last U.S forces to September 11 to commemorate the anniversary of the 2001 New York bombings.

In mid-May, he withdrew the first U.S forces in Afghanistan from Helmand Province. Two weeks later U.S forces departed Bagram Air Base at midnight unannounced, and without a formal hand over to the Afghan army. The precipitous withdrawal process caught the Afghanistan administration off guard. Taliban fighters have also taken advantage of the confused withdrawal process to advance into government-held districts without resistance.

Morale among Afghan forces has dropped considerably. Taliban insurgents have reportedly seized nearly all border crossings to Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. The odds against the Afghan rulers are many. There is disunity among government officials making it impossible for the President and military commanders to mount a vigorous campaign against the Taliban.

The remaining foreign forces in Afghanistan are not giving desired support to the Afghan army in rural areas. Worse still, most of the Afghan forces who surrendered have been executed by the Taliban. There is no intention on the part of the Taliban to obey the rules of engagement in war.

The consequences of the confused withdrawal are mounting and giving the Taliban advantage over the Afghanistan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF). There are predictions among Russian foreign ministry officials that the Afghan administration in Kabul may not survive longer than six months after the last U.S and NATO troops in Afghanistan leave.

Afghanistan is obviously on the brink of another prolonged civil war. The UN has dispatched an envoy from its New York headquarters to Kabul to facilitate negotiations between the government and Taliban warlords. However, the Taliban have not demonstrated any serious commitment to continuing any negotiations because of its steady gains and advances in the fighting.

All the gains that attended the U.S invasion of Afghanistan are being gradually eroded, even before the withdrawal is completed. The ultimate goal of the Taliban is to establish a fundamentalist Islamic government in Afghanistan. That has been evident in all places under the control of Taliban leaders in the past three years. There are reports that young girls in the newly captured districts are being forcefully married out to Taliban foot soldiers. The gains made in women education,  since the 2001 invasion are being reversed. Women are compelled to put on the burka in schools and many will most likely lose their jobs.

Fighting between Afghan army troops and Taliban fighters has progressively shifted from district headquarters to provincial capitals. Many provincial capitals are on the verge of collapse as the civil war intensifies. As in the past, the fall of the government in Kabul will not end the civil war.

After the Soviet-Afghan government collapsed in 1989 Najibullah continued the civil war with the mujahedeen until 1992. From 1992 to 1994 when factional fighting rent Kabul, factional leaders continued the civil war.  After the Taliban established a government in Kabul, the Ahmed Shah Massoud led Northern Alliance and other resistance groups continued the civil war against the Taliban until the American invasion in October 2001. From all indications, the fall of the Ashraf Ghani led government would not end the war in Afghanistan. A new phase of the conflict in Afghanistan will definitely usher in another endless civil war.

Ashraf Ghani, The President Of Afghanistan
Ashraf Ghani, The President of Afghanistan

However, Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan can alter the current situation in the country to some extent if the government in Pakistan is willing to do so. Afghanistan would be better placed in a good position to negotiate with the Taliban if Pakistan insists on it. This is so because most of the Taliban warlords as in the Mujahedeen days have their basses in Pakistan. Also, most weapons have always reached rebel fighters in Afghanistan through Pakistan.

The U.S is in a position to prod Pakistan to intervene decisively in the post-Doha negotiations to ensure there is an agreement that would guarantee peace after the withdrawal of forces. The Taliban and Afghan government negotiators owe it a duty to bequeath a legacy of peace to posterity in Afghanistan. But if they fail to negotiate, Afghanistan will once again drift into anarchy that the consequences can only be imagined. 

The Soviet Union

The Soviet Union as a geographical expression was a mosaic of nation-states spanning parts of northern Europe and Asia. It stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic and Black Seas in Central Asia. It existed as a state from 1922 to 1991 and was notably called the Union of Soviets Socialist Republics (USSR). The USSR comprised sixteen national republics governed according to socialist principles.

The principal nation from which the USSR originated was Russia. Much of the country was located north of the 60 degrees parallel.  At the peak of its existence, the land area of the USSR covered 8,650,000 sq miles (22,400,000 sq km). This accounts for about one-sixth of the Earth’s land area. The country covered about two and half times the size of the United States of America. It covered parts of eastern Europe and much of northern Asia.

Soviet Union Map
Soviet Union map

The USSR was bounded in the west by six eastern European nations namely: Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Finland and Norway. It was bounded in the south by North Korea, Mongolia, China, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. The country was bounded in the north by the Arctic Ocean and in the east by the Pacific Ocean.

The Soviet Union stretched for about 6,800 from the Bering Sea in the east to the Baltic Sea in the west. The stretch of the land from north to south is 2,800 miles from the northern coast of Chelyuskin Cape to Kushka on the northern fringes of Afghanistan in the south.

Governance was was in accord with the constitution of a federated union. During the seven decades it existed, Russia remained the dominant state. Other component republics were Ukraine, Belorussia (Belarus), Uzbekistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. The USSR was a successor state to the old empire known as Czarist Russia. The capital was Moscow, the same as the capital of Russia today. 

The Soviet Union had one paramount constitution adopted after 1930 and occasionally amended before 1977. The political foundation rested on the council of the Soviets, a body of People’s Deputies found at every administrative hierarchy. The entire country (USSR) was under the control of the Supreme Soviet headquartered in Moscow.

The Supreme Soviet had two chambers – the Soviet of the Union consisting of 750 elected members. The second is the Soviet of Nationalities also made up of 750 members representing all the various political divisions. Of these, each republic union had 32 while 11 came from every autonomous republic. Five came from every autonomous region and one from every autonomous district.

Voting was hardly based on strict democratic principles or procedures. Choice of candidates was allowed only from a list of candidates submitted by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). As a rule of thumb, all legislation was approved only by the two chambers of the Supreme Soviet. The Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, a small group in the political hierarchy controlled by the Politburo of the Communist Party, made all decisions. All such decisions were unanimously approved by the deputies.

What was the population of the Soviet Union?

At the peak of its existence, the Soviet Union was the world’s largest country and had more than one hundred nationalities in it. The combined population varied over the years, sometimes affected by wars and the brutal exterminations of the Bolshevik revolution. The population in 1940 was 194,000,000.

By its projected estimated growth at the time, the population would have reached a total of 224,000,000 in 1950. Soviet military and civilian losses during WW2 according to the Soviet Academy of Sciences is put at 26.6 million. The recorded population of the Soviet Union in 1970 was 241,720,000. However,  the population in 1991, a year before its disintegration was 287,728,000.

Soviet Economy

The economy of the Soviets was founded on socialist principles. It relied heavily on socialist ownership, production, distribution and exchange. The combination of a dictatorship with a socialist economy simply demonstrated that the Soviet Union was a closed system.

Afghan  government

Afghanistan is the Islamic Republic administered by three branches of power. These are the executive, legislature and the judiciary. The administrative system had checks and balances. At the head of government is President. Ashraf Ghani took over from Hamid Karzai in 2014.

War in Afghanistan

The Soviet war in Afghanistan was one of many in history, for which Afghans have acquired a reputation for savagery. The Hindu Indians have a long-standing aphorism expressed in a prayer of deliverance from “the venom of the cobra, the teeth of the tiger and the vengeance of the Afghan”. If there is anything Afghans collectively loath in their psyche, it is conquest.

Afghans are a proud people over whom defeat can only be temporarily accepted. They are fiercely independent and would always fight back with dogged determination to right every perceived wrong or injustice served on them.

They were conquered by Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BC. Again, they suffered humiliating defeats in the hands of Genghis Khan and many more adventurous invaders before achieving statehood status after defeating Britain in the war of 1922. When the Soviet Army of 50,000 troops commanded by Marshall Sergei Sokolov crossed the border into Afghanistan on December 24, 1979, the stage was set for a replay of past misadventures.

“Shoravi Padar Lanath”, was the cry of beggars and shop keepers alike in the streets of Kabul. The curse  (“God damn the Russians”)  replaced morning pleasantries in the city’s ancient bazaar. The other cry, “Afghanistan is no more” was echoed across the land. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to restore the political stability needed to shore up the communist government in Kabul. The communist government of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was under attack from mujahedeen guerrillas operating mainly from the countryside.

 The anti-communist Muslim mujahedeen resistance received assistance from Pakistan, U.S, Saudi Arabia, China and the United Kingdom. From the onset therefore the war seemed characterized by Cold War rhetorics and strategies. More than two million people fled the country to Pakistan and Iran.

The origin of the war is traceable to the Saur Revolution which removed the centrist government of Mohammad Daud Khan from office in the April 1978 coup. The communist leaning People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) led by President Nur Taraki embarked on far-reaching reforms aimed at modernization of the country. The attendant land reforms were deeply unpopular and roundly rejected nationwide especially in rural communities. The communist government was intolerant of criticism and resorted to imprisonment and execution of political opponents in detention.

By 1979  opposing militant groups took up arms against the government and many began to head for exile. The assassination of the Party’s General Secretary Nur Taraki on orders of his deputy prime minister Hafizullah Amin introduced a new dimension to the crisis. Meanwhile, events were being closely monitored in Moscow amid concerns that Amin would switch toward Washington DC.

Soviet Communist leader Leonid Brezhnev ordered a pre-emptive invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet troops on December 24, 1979. The first directive upon arrival in Kabul was to arrange a coup and arrest Amin and his close political associates. Three days later, on December 27 they were killed by Soviet forces. Amin was replaced by Babrak Karmal, a Moscow loyalist and former ambassador to the Soviet Union.

Leonid Brezhnev, The Russian President
Leonid Brezhnev, The Russian President who ordered the invasion of Afghanistan

Events went according to the Brezhnev Doctrine, which declares that communist neighbours would not be allowed to slip out of the Soviet grip. The Soviet invasion triggered a large scale international backlash. In  January 1980 Muslim nations in a resolution denounced the invasion. They called for immediate and unconditional Soviet withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan at a meeting of the 34 member Organization of Islamic Cooperation(OIC).

The United Nations (UN) General Assembly by unanimous decision condemned the invasion of Afghanistan and demanded immediate Soviet withdrawal of troops. Of the 152 member nations only four, Angola, East Germany, Vietnam and India voted in support of the invasion to resolve an internal crisis.

Soviet troops in Afghanistan were deployed to cities and key communication centres. The mujahedeen controlled the countryside covering over 75 per cent of the country. The guerrillas launched attacks on Soviet and Afghan army troops from their havens in the rugged mountains. Moscow employed decisive use of its air force to attack mujahedeen positions, sometimes adopting very brutal tactics. In extreme cases, Soviet tactics included levelling entire rural communities to prevent them from serving as havens for resistance fighters.

The initial Soviet plan was to occupy the cities and stabilize the new government of Karmal in Kabul and withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. The projected time to accomplish the task was six months.  However, persistent attacks from mujahedeen resistance compelled them to stay longer. Over time the Soviet troops’ deployment increased to over 100,000.

The number of troops did not bring much difference to the war effort. Casualties remained high on both sides, bringing the war to a stalemate. By mid-1988, Mikhail Gorbachev the new Soviet leader yielded to pressure at home and abroad to end the war. He began taking steps to end the war by announcing a proposed withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. A timetable for the withdrawal of  Soviet troops was arranged. The withdrawal of Soviet troops commenced in May 1988 through to February 15, 1989. Thereafter Afghanistan returned to the fold of non-aligned nations.

One intriguing aspect of the war in Afghanistan was the array of sources from which weapons were funnelled to the Afghan resistance. From the beginning of the Saur Revolution in April 1978, hordes of refugees began pouring through the Afghanistan border into Pakistan and Iran. Border areas of  Afghanistan would serve as havens and recruitment centres for guerrillas of the resistance movement.

Pakistan also served as a much more important conduit pipe for channelling weapons to Afghan rebels than Iran after 1979. The bulk of such weapons came through Pakistan military authorities actively involved in covert activities. The principal recipients were the seven allied Islamic Alliance groups of Mujahedeen forces.

From 1980 onwards, the volume of light arms flowing into Afghanistan increased steadily. Supplies came via Pakistan from the U.S, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait and China. The supply of weapons from diverse sources was not a surprise as the Soviet Union was coming out for its first military adventure outside the Warsaw Pact countries since WWII ended.

Afghanistan presented an opportunity to test the performance of newly manufactured weapons of various nations against new Soviet inventions. Secondly, Muslim countries supported the Mujahedeen in their Jihad or Holy declared by their kith and kin against the “Soviet infidels”. U.S military aid came through clandestine operations coordinated by the CIA and rose to the tune of about 40 million U.S dollars.

Military aid from Washington DC to the Afghan resistance grew nearly sixfold to about 250 million dollars in 1985 and by 1986 increased to 470 million dollars. Indeed Congress approved aid to the Afghan guerrillas reportedly rose to 600 million dollars in 1987. Besides, it was no longer done in secret. Weapons were also funnelled to the Afghan mujahedeen from China through Pakistan. They included automatic rifles, heavy machine guns, mortars, mines, grenade launchers and numerous other tactical battlefield assault weaponry.

The weapons supply emboldened the seven Afghan parties operating from the Pakistan Afghanistan border to launch more attacks against the Soviet invaders. These stocks were complemented by weapons captured by mujahedeen fighters during ambushes on Soviet forces. In addition, Afghan Army deserters handed their weapons over to the resistance. Saudi Arabia and Kuwaiti weapons supplies reached the mujahedeen from international markets independent of U.S sponsored operations.

From 1985 to 1986 more sophisticated weapons such as Blowpipe anti-aircraft missiles from Britain began to reach the mujahedeen. The Swiss-made Oerlikon rapid-fire anti-aircraft 200 mm gun also reached resistance. Newly ingested anti-aircraft guns to an extent checked control of attacks from the air by Soviet-Afghan jet bombers and the menace from Mi-24 (Hind) helicopter gunships.

Blowpipe missiles and the Oerlikon firepower proved more effective than the SAM- 7s which earlier reached the mujahedeen fighters. The new weapons turned out to be more manoeuvrable and could be fired from any angle. The U.S made shoulder-launched Stinger anti-aircraft missile was introduced to the resistance in the second half of 1986.

Stinger missiles changed the fortunes of the war but supplies were scarce. Several Soviet aircraft were downed by the newly introduced Stinger missiles. Even with the new advantage, huge offensives from Soviet-Afghan troops dampened resistance fighters’ morale. Also, air dominance by Soviet-Afghan planes and helicopters sometimes made border crossing difficult for the mujahedeen. So the war wore on, almost stalemated.

How Did The Soviet Afghanistan War End?

The Soviet Afghanistan war ended without Moscow’s mission being fulfilled. Afghanistan’s communist government,  destabilized after the assassination of President Taraki which resulted from rivalry among the ruling elite was in disarray. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was ordered by President Brezhnev to restore stability. 

After ten years of heavy commitment to the war in Afghanistan and the resulting stalemate, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev decided to pull out. He referred to the war as a “bleeding wound”, as the war became a huge burden to the Soviet economy. In addition, a total of about 14,453 Soviet soldiers died,  53,753 wounded and 264 were declared missing. Losses to the Afghan army were equally high reaching about 19,000. During the ten years of the Afghan war, the USSR was ruled by four presidents in succession namely Leonid  Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko and Mikhail Gorbachev.

All were deeply committed. But the colossal involvement created divisions between the ruling Party apparatchik and the military. The reputed invincibility of the Soviet Red Army was brought into question. Soviet Afghanistan war veterans especially those from the independent Soviet republics outside Russia established unions to protest against the war. In the new era of “glasnost”, (Gorbachev’s openness and reforms) the Communist Party hegemony began to face challenges.

The Soviet Union was progressively being ostracized in the international community. And, Gorbachev’s liberal economic reforms seemed incapable of sustaining a costly foreign military intervention. Faced with failure to establish a sympathetic government in Afghanistan, Gorbachev, signed an accord to end the Afghan war.  By the accord reached with the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan the Soviet Union agreed to withdraw its troops. The Accord was signed on April 15, 1988, at the Geneva headquarters of the United Nations.

THE Geneva Accords: Who signed it?

The Geneva accords on Afghanistan were the agreements signed in Geneva, Austria to end the decade long conflict between the government of Afghanistan and the Mujahedeen fighters based in Pakistan. The accord was signed on April 14, 1988.

It was signed by representatives of the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan. A total of three bilateral documents were signed to end the war which raged across Afghanistan from 1978 to 1989. There was also a  “Declaration on International Guarantees” signed by the United States and the Soviet Union as “states – guarantors”.

The United States Secretary of State George Shultz signed on behalf of the U.S government while Soviet  Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze signed on behalf of the government in Moscow. The two countries signed one of the three agreements as witnesses.

The three agreements so documented have been adopted and known as the Geneva accords. The accords paved the way to enforcing  Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. A final resolution ended the conflict that made Central Asia the focus of global attention from the moment the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979.

What were the short and long term effects of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan?

The short and long term effects of Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan had grave consequences for the country. It ushered in a new phase in the struggle for political power by various groups in Afghanistan. The mujahedeen became more focused on the removal of the communist-led government from power. The departure of Soviet forces made clear that Najibullah no- longer had backed on the ground from foreign soldiers. However, Moscow continued to supply military materiel to Kabul.

On the other hand, the mujahedeen continued to receive support from Pakistan, U.S, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle East countries. As noted earlier, the opposition fighters existed in factions, each of them supported by a foreign country. Division among the mujahedeen was therefore exploited by Najibullah to deny them victory.

The arrival of thousands of fighters of bin-Laden led al-Qaeda from the Arabic countries in 1988 bolstered the opposition. Besides, Al- Qaeda came with Muslim fundamentalist doctrines that would later lead to the declaration of an Islamic State. Also, the collapse of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev meant that Soviet aid including military supplies ended.

Overwhelmed by assault from numerous fighting groups, loss of loyal supporters and mass defections in the military, the Kabul government collapsed. Najibullah resigned as President and sought refuge in the United Nations compound in  April 1992. That marked the end of the first phase of Afghanistan’s civil war which began in 1989 after Soviet withdrawal.

The second phase of Afghanistan’s civil war lasted from 1992- 1996.

After the collapse of the Najibullah led government of the People’s Democratic Party, the country remained unstable. The rivalry between the mujahedeen factions led to heavy fighting in Kabul. Each of the factions had the support of a foreign country seeking to wield influence in Afghanistan. The countries were Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Sections of Kabul served as strongholds for different militia groups. Kabul experienced relentless bombardment from all sides and no faction could form a central government. The Taliban a militant group backed by Pakistan gained upper hand in the fighting with al-Qaeda support in 1996. The Taliban overran Kabul, established a government, and declared Afghanistan an Islamic state to be governed strictly with fundamentalist principles.

The third phase of Afghanistan’s civil war began after the Taliban set up a government in Kabul in 1996. It ended with the U.S invasion in 2001. Some guerrilla factions defeated by the Taliban and uprooted from Kabul in 1996 stirred up resistance. The most prominent among the rebel guerrilla groups was the National Alliance led by Ahmed Shah Massoud. The National Alliance waged relentless battles against the Taliban which controlled most of the country. The Alliance controlled a small territory in the north of the country. Massoud was however assassinated by treacherous al-Qaeda elements disguised as pressmen on September 9, 2001.

Why was the U.S invasion of Afghanistan significant?

On October 7, 2001, the U.S invasion of Afghanistan remains one of the long-term effects of the 1979 Soviet invasion. One consequence is that it brought the U.S into direct conflict with the Afghan Taliban which has lasted for twenty years. It has also led to NATO and multinational troops involvement in another conflict after the Gulf war. Another serious consequence worth considering is the rise of al Qaeda and its continued threat to Western interests to date. This is important because the Taliban allowed al- Qaeda bases from which it planned attacks on targets in the U.S.

Soviet troops

The Soviet army is one of the country’s most cherished institutions. The role played by the Red Army as it was then called during WW2 is still continually exalted and celebrated in Soviet life. The army was widely acclaimed as the saviour of the motherland. The might of the Soviet military in the 1970s and 80s conferred on Moscow a legitimate claim to the status of a superpower.

Soviet Defence Minister in the Brezhnev administration, Dmitry Ustinov said, “the Soviet Military has everything it needs to fulfil worthily its sacred mission…The Soviet Union has the military capability to complement its foreign policy”. This grandstanding was beyond mere confidence in its personnel. It encompassed all areas of the military, including military hardware, procurement policies and manufacturing.

In the area of strategic weapons, the Soviet Union had begun to enjoy “essential equivalence” with the U.S. Moscow already had numerical superiority in some weapons systems at the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT 11) with the U.S. At the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the USSR was “ahead 1,398 vs 1,054 in intercontinental ballistic missile launchers, 950 vs 656 in submarine-launched ballistic missiles and an estimated 7,836 vs 3,253 in megatonnage, an important measure of a nuclear arsenal’s sheer destructive force”.

As the mujahedeen insurgency grew in the countryside, Soviet leaders persuaded Hafizullah Amin to allow the Soviet military to intervene. Amin rejected the offer off-hand. Thus in pursuit of the Brezhnev Doctrine, the Soviet leader ordered the invasion of Afghanistan on December 24, to be followed by “Operation Storm 333”. Operation Storm was the coup sponsored by Moscow to oust Amin from office. At midnight the airlift of Soviet forces into Kabul International Airport began.

The Soviet Union also possessed an impressive array of conventional weapons, sufficient to match its Cold War-era rhetorics. The U.S and some NATO allies embarked on demobilization of forces for decades after WWII. On the contrary, the USSR continued to expand the size of its army to 3.6 million. That number was almost double that of the U.S and second only to China’s 4.4 million.

In the decade before the Soviet foray into Afghanistan its tank force reportedly “grew by 35%, artillery by 40% and fixed-wing tactical aircraft by 20%”. Defence analysts at the Pentagon believed that “on average, one new medium-range  SS-20 mobile missile system, with three warheads is deployed every week. Twenty warships are delivered to the Soviet navy every year vs 12 for the U.S in 1979”.  Such was the state of military preparedness of the USSR when Moscow invaded Afghanistan, December 1979.

Ground troops crossed the border with columns of tanks from Turkmenistan into northern Afghanistan. Nearly 400 Soviet aircraft landed at Kabul International airport and Bagram airbase between December 24 and 27, 1979. Another phase of the invasion by ground troops began after the assassination of Amin on December 27. On December 28, a Soviet motorized rifle division of about 12,000 troops moved southwards from Kushka in the west to Kandahar. A second division moved from Termez through the Salang Pass and split to Bagram and  Kabul.

By December 31 troops movement to different parts of Afghanistan had consolidated Soviet grip on Kabul and the major cities. The countryside was not occupied by Soviet troops. The Afghan army took charge of the movement of men to the countryside when necessary.

Is Russia considered a military threat to Afghanistan?

Russia is not a military threat to Afghanistan today and would not be for the foreseeable future after U.S withdrawal. Russian military presence in Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet has not been significantly threatening to countries in the region. Russia and Afghanistan have no common border as the three main former satellite nations serve as a bulwark between the two.

The three states are Tajikistan, Kirghistan and Kazakhstan. However, Moscow has a measure of military influence in the region. Russia has a handful of military bases in Kirghistan and Tajikistan under the tutelage of two institutions. The two institutions are the Collective Security Treaty Organization which has nearly 20,000 troops and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

In addition, Moscow wields considerable influence with other regional powers such as China, India, Pakistan and Iran. Russia would only seek a working relationship with the Taliban if the substantive government of Ashraf Ghani collapses over time. For now, Russia has a good military relationship with the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

Is Russia involved in the Peace negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban?

Russia has consistently shown keen interest in the ongoing negotiations between the Taliban and the Kabul government. In a recent statement, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Zamir  Kabulov said Russia is closely monitoring the peace talks between the two parties. He stated further that “The Taliban at least for now is a positive factor from the point of view of ensuring the security of our Central Asian partners”, amid a militant threat and could take control of Afghanistan unless peace efforts accelerate. From all indications, Moscow is more concerned about the impact of the war on Russia’s former Soviet republics than Afghanistan itself.  Moscow’s role in the negotiations is peripheral as it receives delegations from both the Taliban and government representatives.

My interest and love for blogging in the area of political and economic developments were cultivated during my days at Government College Ughelli. We had a set of very committed and dedicated teachers from the UK, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. There were two American Peace Corps members along with a handful of Africans. In April 1970 we watched a documentary on John F Kennedy. That documentary inspired me greatly. The following day I visited the College library for more information. I went through a large stack of The Readers Digest. I also stumbled across another international journal, The English Listener. Upon graduation from college and while at the University of Ibadan, l read American Time Newsweek magazines regularly. My bias was for International Relations. This background has proved an invaluable asset to me in my years of teaching and contributing articles to media organizations as a freelance writer and encouraged me to set up a blog:


  1. This is a very thorough and nuanced history. I should mention that in some historian’s opinion, the cold war actually started in 1920, after the USA invaded (along with the German Freikorps [paramilitary] that they had just been fighting, Japan, Great Brittan, and about 30-40 other countries, if the Wikipedia article on the Russian Civil War is to be believed.) Its not too difficult to believe that each of these countries had their own internal unrest / violence as well. So for instance the Freikorps were also doing battle with the police of the newly established socialist government at home (the Weimar Republic), and in the USA Italians and Jews and socialists/leftists were jailed and deported in an attempt to block a potential uprising (and to block women’s voting rights from becoming a reality, like they had in Finland, Russia, and Germany in 1907, 1917, 1918). It was too late- women got voting rights, and the USA fell into its Red Scare #1. (Right now, we are on #3.) But the USA never acknowledged that the USSR was a country until 1933, despite the fact that all other countries of note had. That was downright rude of us, and I would like to apologize for it. Even now we don’t acknowledge the sacrifice of the 47.5 million Soviet and Chinese communists who lost their lives in WW2, because it would make our own sacrifice of under a half million seem less of a big deal. That isn’t even taught in schools here, nor is the fact that the Soviets eliminated 80+% of the Wehrmacht (Nazi military) single-handedly. On Wikipedia, that fact is buried under a mountain of details intentionally, and not even in the main WWII article. You have to go to the article on the Eastern Front, in the Results section- it is the 2nd sentence in the first paragraph.

    I would like to thank the authors here for helping me understand the past. It is a complex, chaotic, and blood tale that emerges. Still, I would rather know than be another sheet, with my consent manufactured like everybody else around me. Best wishes.


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