The Soviet-Afghan War: A Case Study of Realism in International Relations

Afghanistan became the subject of U.S. attention in 1979 after the Soviet Union crossed its borders with the landlocked Central Asian country and invaded it. The Soviets went on to occupy Afghanistan until 1989 when it finally decided to withdraw. This was not the first time Afghanistan fell victim to the intrigues of world superpowers. The Persians, Arabs, Mongols, British, and Czarist Russia each have at one time or another disturbed Afghanistan’s peace and tranquility and have tried to bring Afghanistan under their domination for self-serving purposes. This was exactly what the Soviets were doing when they invaded Afghanistan in 1979. A communist regime had arisen in Afghanistan, and the Soviet invasion was designed to secure the life of the regime for it was being threatened by a populist insurgency that had the modest backing of the United States. But the United States perceived this invasion as a move toward greater Soviet expansion and the infringement of mutually understood spheres of influence. In other words, Soviet expansion into Afghanistan threatened U.S. security and interests in the South Asia-Persian Gulf region, and thus the United States decided to back the Afghan rebels in their fight against the Soviet occupation. This paper explores the background to the Soviet invasion and treks onto the discussion of many of the factors that were involved in the U.S. decision to respond to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Within the course of Afghanistan’s modern history, one significant instance of the squashing of Afghanistan’s sovereignty by foreign powers took place during the reign of Amir Abdurrahman Khan in the late 1800’s. While demonstrating immense prowess and command over domestic affairs, Amir Abdurrahman Khan was unable to determine his country’s preferred geopolitical standing with relation to two of the world’s biggest powers in the late 19th century[1]. The British Empire and Tsarist Russia were preoccupied with what they called “The Great Game” in South and Central Asia. These two superpowers had essentially sandwiched Afghanistan and had taken it upon themselves to draw Afghanistan’s borders in order to render it a sufficient buffer zone between their respective territories. In the process, a significant amount of Afghanistan’s territories had been snatched away by both powers, such as the present-day Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federal Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to the south as well as historical territories such as Bukhara and Samarkand to the North. These externally imposed borders, as a matter of fact, have remained to this day and Afghanistan has never been able to reclaim its lost territories.

Decades later beginning in 1919, King Amanullah entered into a bout of hostilities with British forces along the Pashtunistan frontier in order to wrestle out of the grip the British had on Afghan foreign policy. It would later be known as the third and final Anglo-Afghan War by historians. By the end of the third Anglo-Afghan war, Amanullah was able to win Afghanistan its independence, and the event has been immortalized in the Afghan national psyche. But this period of independence would be short-lived, due to the machinations of the British. King Amanullah was introduced as an apostate to the Afghan populace in 1929 after pictures of his Europe tour were distributed. These pictures, taken by British agents, showed Queen Soraya accompanying King Amanullah without donning the chaadar, or headscarf. These pictures were then distributed to the Afghan public, which in turn provoked a reactionary conservative upheaval against King Amanullah. Habibullah Kalakani, a militia commander from Northern Afghanistan, came out on top. Kalakani held power in Kabul for a few months before Nadir Khan entered Kabul alongside British escorts and Pashtun militias to remove Kalakani. The case of King Amanullah demonstrates yet again that foreign interference cannot be overlooked when studying the course that Afghan affairs had taken during what is considered the modern period of Afghan history, which essentially began with the reign of Amir Abdurrahman Khan and the experiences he had with imperial powers in the early 1880’s.[2]

While the 19th and early 20th century belonged to the British, the mid-20th century mark set off a period characterized by deep Soviet involvement in Afghanistan that did not cease until 1992. Soviet involvement was brought on by Sardar Muhammad Daud Khan’s pursuit to modernize Afghanistan’s infrastructure and institutions. The Soviets were the only major cold war superpower willing to assist Daud in his efforts. The other superpower, the United States, perceived Afghanistan as insignificant in its strategy of counterbalancing Soviet influence in South Asia and instead focused on assisting Pakistan by entering into security and economic pacts with the newly breakaway subcontinent nation. At the time, the Cold War had begun to intensify, and Pakistan was of major importance to the designs of John Foster Dulles, the U.S. Secretary of State under Eisenhower. Dulles wanted to encircle the Soviet Union by virtue of George Kennan’s policy of “containment” through countries militarily allied with the United States. Pakistan entered into a security alliance with the United States in 1954 and had allowed for an American air base to be built in Peshawar from which U-2 flights were launched. As a consequence of entering into an alliance with Pakistan, the United States under Eisenhower as well as successive presidents refused Afghan pleas for military aid. Rushing to launch his modernization efforts coupled with the unwillingness of the U.S. to support him, Daud had no choice but to take what he could get given his immediate situation and thus Afghanistan fell into the yoke of Soviet influence.

By placing their hand in Afghanistan, the Soviets proceeded with undertaking what can be perceived as a “hegemonic project.” The United States was able to read Soviet intentions, and while the United States had no strategic interests in Afghanistan, it still tried to take measures such as making contacts with liberal elements of the Afghan bureaucracy and establishing trade relations in order to open an Afghan market for U.S. goods all for the sake of preventing the Soviet Union from spreading communism into Afghanistan.[3]But the Soviets felt they were entitled to Afghanistan for it was their southern neighbor and thus the Soviets assumed that Afghanistan would naturally be within their sphere of influence. Taking Afghanistan was also the most logical way of surrounding hostile neighbors for security purposes, and along with friendly-client states such as Syria, Yemen, India, Burma, North Korea, and Vietnam, Afghanistan would have helped complete the Soviet encirclement of the Persian Gulf and China.[4]The Soviets had in fact been focusing on Afghanistan as well as the Middle East since the advent of the Cold War. In a speech to the United Nations in 1951, Soviet Foreign Minister V.M. Molotov stated that the future of the Soviet Union “lies south of Baku.”[5]This statement demonstrates that Afghanistan had been figured within the imperialist designs of the Soviet Union long before its invasion by the Soviet Union in 1979.

Thus, the Soviets began to compete with the United States for influence in Afghanistan in the 1950’s. An incident which sums up this competition happened in November of 1959 when Louis Dupree, an American anthropologist based in Afghanistan, was told by a Soviet oil exploration team that the Soviets would be in Afghanistan for a long time, that the Afghans needed their help, and that Afghanistan was the Soviet Union’s neighbor and Americans should go home.[6]Even Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev expressed his concerns over American influence in a country which he perceived to be within his country’s sphere of influence:

I went there [to Afghanistan] with Bulganin on our way back from India [in 1955]. It was clear that America was courting Afghanistan…The Americans were undertaking all kinds of projects at their own expense…The Americans hardly bother to put a fig leaf over their self-centered, militaristic motives…It’s my strong feeling that the capital which we have invested in Afghanistan hasn’t been wasted. We have earned the Afghan’s trust and friendship, and it hasn’t fallen into American’s trap; it hasn’t been caught on the hook baited with American money.[7]

With keeping the United States out of Afghanistan in mind, the Soviets established a sort of presence in Afghanistan that was somewhat equivalent to the colonial presence of Great Britain in India. For the Afghans, Soviet aid came with a price. One sign of this ominous change in Soviet-Afghan relations came with an increased economic relationship between the two sides which had greater benefits for the former. Soviet entrenchment into the Afghan economy began by the construction of highways that linked the Soviet Union to Kabul. Much of the Soviet-Afghan trade was channeled through these highways. The U.S. and the Soviet Union – but to a much higher degree the Soviet Union – lent capital to Afghanistan for consumption and development purposes. In fact, much of Afghanistan’s foreign currency expenditure came from Soviet credit.[8]Afghan economic subjugation under foreign powers would grow to the point where Afghanistan would resemble a Soviet plantation. During the first five-year plan and third five-year economic plan, the Afghan state focused primarily on the production of raw materials needed by its lenders like the Soviet Union and neglected to produce those products that the Afghan people needed for domestic consumption. Under these aforementioned economic plans, no priority was given to wheat, whereas cotton for export to the Soviet Union was given the highest priority.[9] Furthermore, the Soviets and the Afghans signed an agreement which allowed for the Soviet Techno-Export Company to engage in extensive mineral and oil exploration in Afghanistan. The Soviets produced a number of reports on mineral showings and commercial deposits and committed millions of dollars in further resource exploration. Eventually, the Soviets took over the Afghan hydrocarbon industry for themselves.[10] The Soviets then went on to take advantage of Afghanistan’s natural gas. In the late 1960’s, the Soviet Union and Afghanistan signed a technical contract for the extraction of Afghan natural gas. Based on this contract, Afghanistan had to export natural gas to the Soviet Union for ten years, and in 1972 and 1973 respectively the price was at $0.174 and $0.19 per 1,000 cubic feet of gas whereas the price in Iran was $0.307 per 1,000 cubic feet of gas.[11]This served as evidence that the Soviets were tying Afghanistan down into subjugation, foreboding the actual occupation of Afghanistan that would begin in 1979.

What President Daud and other Afghans within the pre-Communist establishment failed to realize was the long-term implications of Soviet economic and military assistance. The Soviets made significant inroads into Afghan society – without any pun intended – literally paving the roads and highways they would use in order to invade and occupy Afghanistan in 1979. During his last two years as President, Daud strengthened his ties with U.S. bloc countries such as Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia due to worries of increasing Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. Daud began a purge of pro-Soviet elements within the state apparatus and replaced them with traditional right-wing liberal forces. The Soviets were displeased with Daud’s actions to say the least. In a meeting between President Daud and Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow in January 1977, the situation got quite heated. Brezhnev reportedly told Daud to get rid of what he called “imperialist advisors” in Afghanistan. Daud, according to an aide, slammed his fist onto the table and angrily told Brezhnev that Afghans were the masters of their own house and that no foreign country could tell them how to run their affairs.[12]As a result, relations between the two countries deteriorated. With Soviet encouragement, the two pro-Soviet parties in Afghanistan – the Khalq and the Parcham – united to form a single party in the summer of 1977. The party’s military officers staged a coup on April 28, 1978, seizing state power and murdering Daud and his family in the process. Afghanistan was thus proclaimed a “Democratic” republic and in essence became a Soviet satellite state. What Daud failed to foresee, unfortunately, was his downfall being brought about by Soviet aid. He overlooked the possibility of aid and assistance turning into a tool used to subjugate Afghanistan under Soviet control and influence. To put it in a nutshell, Daud and his loyalists “failed to understand the long-term costs of Soviet penetration through economic and military assistance programs.”[13]

The Communist takeover of Afghanistan occurred in April 1978. But before that, the Soviets had been nurturing the growth of Communism for well over two decades. The Communist movement in Afghanistan was comprised of a miniscule elite that was highly educated and was located almost entirely in the capital city of Kabul. They considered themselves as nationalists and modernizers seeking to launch a national-democratic revolution in a socioeconomically primitive nation that was highly illiterate. The roots of Afghanistan’s communists were essentially born out of a reaction to Cold War politics. After having been rejected by the Eisenhower administration, the Afghans turned to Moscow for military aid late in 1954. By July 1956, the Afghans and the Soviets entered an agreement which essentially began the orientation of the Afghan army and air force to Soviet ways. The Soviets had trained well over 4,000 Afghan military officers up until the Communist takeover of Afghanistan on Soviet soil, exposing them to ideological indoctrination.[14] Soviet military aid to Afghanistan also added up to a significant amount – $1.25 billion through 1979. Afghanistan’s entanglement with the Soviet Union led to the Sovietization of a very significant class of Afghans. Students and intellectual circles in Kabul became curious about the applicability of a Marxist model of development in Afghanistan with the assistance of their Soviet partners. Soon after the 1956 military agreement, discussion groups interested in Communism began to form in Kabul. These groups would coalesce in 1965 to form the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). Their constitution, aside from calling for the party to work in uniting all social classes to form a socialist state, also held party members responsible for solidifying Afghan-Soviet relations.[15]At around the same time as the formation of the PDPA, Afghan Air Force Commander Abdul Qadir established his own organization of pro-Soviet military officers, known as the ‘Afghan Armies’ Revolutionary Organization’ (AARO). Abdul Qadir and his organization were intricately linked with – if not controlled by – the Soviet Defense Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU.[16] These pro-Soviet groups in Afghanistan – the PDPA and AARO – worked in conjunction to overthrow Daud’s government when Daud decided to pull Afghanistan out of the Soviet orbit in 1977.

The United States responded quite cautiously to the communist overhaul of the Afghan state. The Department of State’s position was to not relinquish Afghanistan for it would be harmful to Afghanistan’s neighbors that were aligned with the U.S. and that it was important for the U.S. to maintain an interest and presence in Afghanistan. America’s abandonment of Afghanistan would have been perceived by the Soviets as having accomplished the objective of reducing U.S. and western influence in Afghanistan and the overall South Asian region.[17]What the United States also began doing in 1979 was providing Afghan Islamic groups who were exiled in Pakistan with financial and military assistance to fight the pro-Soviet state in Afghanistan. The aim, on the part of the United States, was to aid these Afghan rebel groups in hopes that they would topple the communist state and establish one that was friendlier to the U.S.[18]In a way, U.S. actions put the Soviet Union in a position to enforce the Brezhnev Doctrine, which stated that any country which has gone socialist and has joined the Soviet bloc cannot be reversed, and thus the Soviets invaded and began its occupation of Afghanistan in December 1979 in order to preserve Afghanistan’s socialist-communist status.

The Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan can be divided into two stages. In the first stage, from December 1979 to May 1986, Afghanistan was under the rule of President Babrak Karmal, who was essentially the Soviet-appointed boss of the Afghan Communist Party. The second stage marked the political phase of the Soviet occupation and the Soviets’ transition out of Afghanistan. The first phase began with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. The Soviets decided to invade and occupy Afghanistan in order to preserve a state closely linked to the USSR and to prevent Afghanistan from gravitating toward friendlier relations with the United States.[19]The invasion and occupation was also claimed to be in the best interests of the USSR, as stated by Leonid Brezhnev in an interview:

The unceasing armed intervention, the well-advanced plot by external forces of reaction created a real threat that Afghanistan would lose its independence and be turned into an imperialist military bridgehead on our country’s southern border. In other words, the time came when we no longer could but respond to the request of the government of friendly Afghanistan. To have acted otherwise would have meant leaving Afghanistan a prey to imperialism, allowing the aggressive forces to repeat in that country what they had succeeded in doing, for instance, in Chile where the people’s freedom was drowned in blood. To act otherwise would have meant to watch passively the origination on our southern border of a seat of serious danger to the security of the Soviet state.[20]

The United States’ response, as articulated by the Carter administration, described the Soviet invasion as a threat to American spheres of influence – South Asia and the Persian Gulf. In presidential statements, Jimmy Carter described the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as posing the biggest threat to America’s security since World War II. Carter also argued that if the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan were not met with severe consequences, the Soviets would be tempted to move further until it had control of warm water ports in the Indian Ocean and even further until they had control of Persian Gulf oil fields and by virtue control over a major portion of the world’s oil supplies. Carter also noted that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan severely altered the “strategic situation” in South Asia and that it put the Soviets within critical range of the U.S. sphere of influence in the Persian Gulf and South Asia. In response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States adopted a realist mindset and went ahead to forge an alliance with the Islamic world as one of the first steps in taking up a realist posture. In order to prevent Soviet expansion past Afghanistan and into the Middle East and Persian Gulf region where U.S. vital interests were at stake, the United States – beginning with the Carter administration – characterized the invasion and later the occupation of Afghanistan as a threat to the security of all Islamic nations and it began portraying itself as the “natural ally” of the Islamic world.[21]

The United States proceeded to tap into its alliances with Muslim allies such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to contest the Soviet Union’s possible move into South Asia and the Persian Gulf. In Pakistan, President Zia-ul-Haq extended his support for CIA efforts out of fear that the Soviets would extend past Afghanistan and take over his country, thus enabling the Soviets to achieve their goal of accessing warm waters in the Indian Ocean that in turn would create passage into the Persian Gulf. Carter would activate the alliance with Pakistan, but it was President Reagan who would solidify the alliance. In a top-secret presidential finding signed by Carter in December 1979 and later by Reagan in 1981, it was stated that the CIA would have to work through Pakistan and to accommodate Pakistani interests in assisting the Afghan rebels. The CIA’s operations in Afghanistan would not be unilateral, and an emphasis was placed on liaison with Pakistani intelligence.[22]Zia turned down Carter’s offer of $400 million in aid, but accepted Reagan’s offer of $3.2 billion as well as permission to buy F-16 fighter jets, a privilege available only to NATO allies and Japan.[23] After all, the United States was in an alliance with Muslims – particularly Pakistan – in order to contain Soviet expansion, and the limited priorities of the whole would have to prevail over the singular interests of a single entity within the alliance. As the realist Kenneth Waltz states: “Alliances are made by states that have some but not all of their interests in common. The common interest is ordinarily a negative one: fear of other states.”[24]

The United States also furthered its alliance with Saudi Arabia as a result of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which had hitherto been based solely on oil transactions. The Saudi elite felt threatened by the Soviet expansion into Afghanistan and shared the American perception that the move was a step toward further expansion into the Persian Gulf and South Asia and that Pakistan needed to be assisted in containing the Soviets.[25]The head of Saudi intelligence – Prince Turki al-Faisal – arrived at a formal agreement with the CIA in July 1980 to match U.S. congressional funding for the rebels. Riyadh would send their share of funding to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, and from there the Saudi ambassador would transfer the money to a CIA-controlled bank account in Switzerland from which arms purchases were made.[26]As mentioned previously, the U.S. decision to carry out operations against the Soviets in Afghanistan were for the sake of protecting U.S. interests in South Asia and the Persian Gulf; however, the efficacy of such operations would be in question if it did not include the involvement of Muslim entities involved in the region and thus the United States made it a priority to tap into its alliances with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to achieve their goal of undoing a geopolitical shift that occurred as a result of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which was something all parties within the alliance were concerned about.

            Even before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, the Carter administration decided to give covert support to the Afghan rebels in their efforts against Afghan communists. The stimulus for the decision, however, had been the advisory relationship between National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and President Carter. This relationship enabled the uncovering of a deeply buried personality trait within President Carter, which was the willingness to take bellicose measures at a time of personal political crisis as well as a national security crisis. Brzezinski recommended that the support for Afghan rebels be authorized by President Carter. Brzezinksi’s rationale for covert support of the Afghan rebels was that there were too few opportunities to embarrass the Soviets in the Third World. The United States, Brzezinski believed, needed to seize this opportunity. Based on Brzezinski’s encouragement, Carter signed a presidential “finding” in July of 1979 which authorized the CIA to spend about half a million dollars on propaganda and psychological operations, in addition to providing radio equipment, medical supplies, and cash to Afghan rebels. These materials were passed to Pakistan’s intelligence services (ISI) for distribution to the Afghans.[27]

American aid to the Afghans would continue – and also increase – in this manner even beyond the Soviet withdrawal. But the aid to Afghan rebels began with Brzezinski’s suggestion to Carter. Brzezinski had the ear of President Carter. During the 1976 presidential campaign, Brzezinski tutored Carter on international affairs. During his tenure, Carter spent about a half hour every morning with Brzezinski going over the daily intelligence briefing. Brzezinski also set the daily foreign policy agenda, and he would always share his views on issues with Carter.[28] It appears that Carter especially valued his relationship with Brzezinski. Carter noted that: “There was no doubt in Zbig’s mind that he had a permanent, solid relationship with me.” To an aide, Carter admitted that “if he was on a long plane ride overseas, if he couldn’t have Rosalyn sitting beside him, he would like to have Zbig.”[29]What is evident from these statements is that Brzezinski enjoyed a kind of relationship with Carter which Betty Glad and Michael Link identify as an “organic” relationship. An “organic” relationship flows out of a deep-rooted personal association or from a successful operational assignment in which the president comes to trust the judgments the adviser brings to his role.[30] Furthermore, this relationship enabled Brzezinski to act as what Link and Glad call a “reality testing bolsterer” for Carter at a time when Carter was in deep political trouble as a result of Soviet expansion into Afghanistan and the Iran Hostage Crisis happening under his watch. A “reality testing bolsterer” is described in this manner:

Reality testing bolsterers reconcile the President’s psychological propensities with the requirements of the external environment. The distinguishing features of this type are twofold. Where there is a disparity between a president’s psychological needs and the external environment’s demands, these advisers consciously mediate between the two. In effect, the adviser provides a function at the interpersonal level similar to that performed by the ego at the intrapsychic level. Their ability to move the president depends on the intensity of his affective needs and the degree to which their counsel meets those needs.[31]

Brzezinski, as a result of being a reality testing bolsterer, managed to convince Carter that action against the Soviet Union would allay both domestic political concerns centered on public perception of his ability to properly manage foreign policy as the general elections came up, as well as realist national security concerns which were spurred by the fear of the Soviets threatening U.S. interests in South Asia and the Persian Gulf. The origins of U.S. action against the Soviets in Afghanistan, therefore, were rooted in Carter’s sheer need to simply act as a result of personality needs.

After Carter left office, Ronald Reagan would permit the continuance of CIA operations in Afghanistan. However, Reagan’s Afghan policy would take on an added dimension. Instead of merely containing the Soviets and punishing them within Afghanistan, Reagan would adopt a policy that was designed to subject the Soviets as well as their communist ideology to “rollback” from wherever they were situated. Realist concerns were at the heart of Reagan’s policy not only toward the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, but toward the Soviet Union as a whole. To “rollback” communism meant undermining the ideological, economic, and geopolitical standing of the Soviet Union around the world. This meant the United States had to take a strongly realist approach toward the Soviet Union, even if it meant defeating the Soviets militarily. With respect to Afghanistan, the Reagan administration was just as sensitive – if not more sensitive – to the realist concerns that related to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan as the Carter Administration. Zia enticed the Reagan administration into expanding the effort against the Soviets in Afghanistan. In a meeting with Reagan’s CIA director William Casey in 1981, Zia presented a large map of the Middle East and South Asia that had a red template covering Afghanistan and spreading across Iran and Pakistan, approaching the Persian Gulf and the warm waters of the Arabian Sea. What Zia was indicating was that the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan signaled the traditional Soviet desire to expand to the point of attaining warm water access and thereby threatening U.S. interests in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region.[32]Casey got the message, and thus American operations in Afghanistan continued under the Reagan Administration.

American operations in Afghanistan were going well. By 1984, according to American estimates, Afghan rebels were almost in complete control of Afghanistan’s countryside; the Soviets had lost hundreds of aircraft, thousands of tanks, trucks, jeeps, and other vehicles. The Soviets had already spent over $12 billion on the war in Afghanistan. On the other hand, the United States had only spent about $200 million in support of the rebels, not counting the matching contributions made by Saudi intelligence.[33] It was now time to intensify the effort in Afghanistan in order to drive the Soviets out instead of simply harassing them. The motivation to go all-in and push the Soviets out of Afghanistan came from the assessment of Reagan Administration’s main characters who were the main determinants of the Afghan effort – Reagan himself as well as CIA director William Casey. Reagan’s anti-communist stance and how it drove foreign policy had been clear to all as he assumed the presidency in 1981. But what was crucial was Casey’s role as the lead man in the Afghan operations. Casey was religiously anti-communist; he saw relations between the United States and the Soviet Union in Manichean terms, and Casey was determined to challenge Soviet power regardless of the risks. He possessed no qualms about the American alliance with the ultra-conservative Muslims of Saudi Arabia and the radical Islamists in Pakistan. In fact, Casey strengthened and justified the alliance with Muslim countries for he thought that the Islamist militancy espoused by these countries was one of the few truly effective antidotes to Soviet communism.[34]

By 1985, American domestic politics had also been a factor in continued U.S. involvement with the Afghan rebels. The mainstream media, as well as the U.S. Congress, were fully condoning the effort against what was perceived as an atrocious, brutal, and offensive Soviet move against the poor, helpless, but noble Afghan people. There are even suggestions that the media was furnishing the war; grotesque portrayals of Soviet actions were being superimposed over the airwaves. According to the domestic politics rationale, without the media there would not have been an impetus for U.S. involvement, and without U.S. involvement there would not have been media frenzy over the Soviet occupation.[35]As the media caught on with Afghanistan, so did Congress. Even Democrats were showing support for the efforts against the Soviet occupation in order to gain anti-communist credentials. Charlie Wilson’s intrigue with the Afghan rebels and his willingness to rally Congress to ratchet up support for the Afghan rebels are well-known. Domestic politics, as it appears, served as fuel to a certain extent for what was an intensified effort to achieve realist goals in Afghanistan by 1985.

It appears as though both the United States and the Soviet Union were involved in Afghanistan due to an issue of utmost importance for realists – security. The Soviet Union sought to preserve a communist regime that would aid in protecting its southern underbelly, and the United States sought to bolster Afghan rebels as a means of preventing Soviet expansion out of Afghanistan and into areas of U.S. interest. By 1985, it became even clearer that Afghanistan was a matter of pursuing realist objectives through realist means. The United States would employ tactics of both an economic and a military nature to deal a blow not only to Soviet troops but also to Soviet prestige. According to Waltz, military strength is a key determinant in the preservation of security based on realist theory: “Realist theory, old and new alike, draws attention to the crucial role of military technology and strategy among the forces that fix the fate of states and their systems.”[36] The intensification of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan came through the signing of ‘National Security Decision Directive 166’ or ‘NSDD-166’ by President Reagan in the spring of 1985. NSDD-166 would essentially enable the United States to display its military sophistication and to employ it as a means of accomplishing their goals of securing U.S. interests in South Asia and the Persian Gulf. The goal of the United States dating back to the Carter Administration was to harass the Soviets in Afghanistan. Now, with NSDD-166 in place, the goal transformed into driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan. NSDD-166 requested from Congress over $450 million for the year 1986 alone, in addition to authorizing a supply of some of the most advanced U.S. weaponry which included the ‘Stinger.’ Overall, the aid allocated to the Afghans in 1985 through NSDD-166 exceeded the total of aid for the previous five years combined.[37]The effect of NSDD-166 on Soviet forces in Afghanistan were crippling and it made the Soviet occupation difficult to bear, eventually leading to a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989.

In addition to NSDD-166, the United States took additional military and economic measures to bolster their security in the face of what appeared to be Soviet aggression by virtue of their invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Security, according to realists, is measured in the following manner: “How secure a country is depends on how it compares to others in the quantity and quality of its weaponry, the suitability of its strategy, the resilience of its society and economy, and the skill of its leaders.”[38] By this measure, the United States showed an incredible degree of security through its ability to successfully engage in economic and military warfare with the Soviets and in a sense the United States able to out-secure itself relative to the Soviets. Reagan decided to draw an already economically weak Soviet Union into an arms race which it could not afford. By some accounts, the Soviets were forced into spending half of their country’s GDP on defense as a result of the arms race with the United States, whereas the United States was spending only about 6 percent of their GDP.[39]The Soviets simply could not stay competitive, and their ability to stay competitive was further hampered by a drop in global oil prices brought about as a result of a scheme devised by the United States and Saudi Arabia. In 1985, CIA director William Casey asked the Saudis to dramatically increase their production of oil, which would bring prices down and as a result would prevent the Soviets from earning vital hard currency at normal levels. The scheme would work; the price of oil dropped from $30 a barrel to $10 in April of 1986.[40]The losses in oil revenue were compounded by the costs of the arms race as well as the costs incurred by the war in Afghanistan. Altogether, these economic losses would bring about the accelerated demise of an already declining Soviet Union.

Due to the damage done to Soviet strength and security by Reagan’s policies toward the Soviet Union, Gorbachev set off a radical shift of previous Soviet policy not only toward Afghanistan, but also policy on relations with the West.  The Soviets realized that the Communist regime in Afghanistan could not rely on itself and was extremely dependent on Soviet assistance. At first, Gorbachev not only maintained war efforts in Afghanistan but he also increased the intensity of the war against the Afghan rebels by attempting to seal the border with Pakistan to prevent aid from reaching the Afghan rebels. Gorbachev had even employed the strategy of using Spetznaz (Soviet special forces) to take the war to the rebels in remote and mountainous areas of Afghanistan that were under rebel control. But the war in Afghanistan did not fit into Gorbachev’s broader policies which were underpinned by the principles of “glasnost” and “perestroika.” These principles forced Gorbachev to become more open about the Soviet war in Afghanistan, which was costing the Soviets a great deal of blood and treasure. The Soviets realized that they could not force the consolidation of communist power in Afghanistan. In order to put the policy of “national reconciliation” in Afghanistan underway, the Soviets sacked Afghan President Babrak Karmal because of his lack of popularity and his identification with the Soviets. They brought Mohammed Najibullah, who up until that time had been in charge of Afghanistan’s internal security agency, in Karmal’s place because he represented the majority Pashtun ethnic group in Afghanistan and had risen through the ranks of the Communist party. Najibullah’s task was to cultivate “national reconciliation,” manage the diminution of Marxism as the national ideology, and bring an end to fighting, all in concert with a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.[41] In essence, the Afghans had to usher out Soviet influence and to undo the geopolitical shift that had occurred in 1979 which made Afghanistan a Soviet satellite state as well as a battleground in a broader Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Soviets were committed to bringing forth a resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan by setting up a gradual process of withdrawal. They achieved this task through their active participation in the drafting of what is known as the “Geneva Accords.”[42] The stage had been set for the drawdown of the war and the withdrawal of Soviet troops almost a year before the last Soviet soldier withdrew from Afghanistan. On April 14, 1988, the Geneva Accords were agreed upon between Najibullah’s government in Afghanistan and the Government of Pakistan, with the Soviet Union and the United States of America serving as co-guarantors to the accords. The signing of the Geneva Accords was the conclusion of a six-year long process of negotiations under U.N. purview between these four countries, and it was a process that dealt mainly with the issue of when and how a Soviet withdrawal would take place.

Afghanistan, in the end, became the venue for a fierce battle between the Soviets and U.S. proxies in the form of Afghan rebel groups. The rationale behind the decision for the Soviets to invade Afghanistan and the U.S. decision to respond to the invasion by supporting the rebels was clear: to secure themselves as well as their interests in the face of the other side’s aggression. Realism can best explain the prevalence of security in this situation, and how the need to secure drove each country to act the way it did. In a world dictated by anarchy and chaos, states must acquire as much military and economic power as possible to secure themselves. As a result, it was Epicurus who argued: “There is no law; there is only power.” As far as alternative theories in explaining the Soviet-Afghan war are concerned, American domestic politics as a prime reason for the American decision to carry out operations in Afghanistan could not be fully validated in the face of the realist objectives that underpinned the decision. At best, American domestic politics was a secondary reason during Reagan’s tenure as personality was during Carter’s tenure. The realist objectives behind the decision, however, remained constant through both the Carter and Reagan Administrations. If anything, personality in the case of Carter and domestic politics in Reagan’s case were enablers that factored into each president’s effort to meet their realist objectives in Afghanistan, which were of utmost importance. Thus, realism as a theory stands as the most legitimate explanation for the U.S. decision to aid Afghan rebels in their fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.


Bonosky, Phillip. Washington’s Secret War Against Afghanistan. (New York: International Publishers, 1985).

Bradsher, Henry. Afghan Communism and the Soviet Intervention. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)

Coll, Steve. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. (New York: Penguin Books, 2004).

Dupree, Louis. “Post-Withdrawal Afghanistan: Light at the End of the Tunnel”. In The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan. Amin Saikal and William Maley, Eds. (Cambridge University Press, 1989).

Emadi, Hafizullah. “State, Modernisation and Rebellion: US-Soviet Politics of Domination of Afghanistan”. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Jan. 26, 1991), pp. 176-184.

Falk, Richard A. “The Afghanistan ‘Settlement’ and the Future of World Politics”. In The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan. Amin Saikal and William Maley, Eds. (Cambridge University Press, 1989).

Garrison, Jean A. Games Advisors Play: Foreign Policy in the Nixon and Carter Administrations. (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1999).

Ghobar, Mir Ghulam M. Afghanistan in the Course of History, Vol. 2. (Published by Hashmat K. Gobar, February 2001

Hartman, Andrew. “’The Red Template’: U.S. Policy in Soviet-Occupied Afghanistan”. Third World Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 3 (June, 2002), pp. 467-489.

Kengor, Paul. The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism. (New York: Harper Collins, 2006).

Lohbeck, Kurt. Holy War, Unholy Victory: Eyewitness to the CIA’s Secret War in Afghanistan. (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1993).

Michael W. Link and Betty Glad. “Exploring the Psychopolitical Dynamics of Advisory Relations: The Carter Administration’s ‘Crisis of Confidence’”. Political Psychology, Vol. 15 No. 3 (Sept. 1994), pp. 461-480.

Moens, Alexander. Foreign Policy Under Carter: Testing Multiple Advocacy Decision Making. (Oxford: Westview Press, 1990)

Ralph H. Magnus and Eden Naby, Afghanistan: Mullah, Marx, and Mujahid, (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2002).

Rasul Bakhsh Rais. “Afghanistan and the Regional Powers”. Found in Asian Survey, Vol. 33, No. 9 (Sep. 1993)

Waltz, Kenneth N. Realism and International Politics. (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2008).

[1] Dupree, Louis. “Post-Withdrawal Afghanistan: Light at the End of the Tunnel”. In The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan. Amin Saikal and William Maley, Eds. (Cambridge University Press, 1989). Pg. 34.

[2] Ghobar, Mir Ghulam M. Afghanistan in the Course of History, Vol. 2. (Published by Hashmat K. Gobar, February 2001).

[3] Emadi, Hafizullah. “State, Modernisation and Rebellion: US-Soviet Politics of Domination of Afghanistan”. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Jan. 26, 1991) , 177.

[4]Lohbeck, Kurt. Holy War, Unholy Victory: Eyewitness to the CIA’s Secret War in Afghanistan. (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1993)., 21.

[5] Ibid , 25.

[6]Emadi, Ibid, 177.

[7] Ibid, Pg. 178

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, 179.

[12] Ibid, 181.

[13] Rasul Bakhsh Rais. “Afghanistan and the Regional Powers”. Found in Asian Survey, Vol. 33, No. 9 (Sep. 1993), Pg. 912.

[14] Coll, Steve. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 39.

[15] Bradsher, Henry. Afghan Communism and the Soviet Intervention. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 2-9.

[16] Bradsher, Ibid, 10.

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

[19] Emadi, Ibid, 181.

[20] Ibid

[21] Emadi, Ibid, 183.

[22] Coll, Ghost Wars, 58.

[23] Ibid, 62.

[24] Waltz, Kenneth N. Realism and International Politics. (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2008), 60.

[25] Coll, Ghost Wars, 72.

[26] Ibid, 81-82.

[27] Ibid, 46

[28]Moens, Alexander. Foreign Policy Under Carter: Testing Multiple Advocacy Decision Making. (Oxford: Westview Press, 1990), 42-43.

[29] Garrison, Jean A. Games Advisors Play: Foreign Policy in the Nixon and Carter Administrations. (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1999), 13.

[30] Michael W. Link and Betty Glad. “Exploring the Psychopolitical Dynamics of Advisory Relations: The Carter Administration’s ‘Crisis of Confidence’”. Political Psychology, Vol. 15 No. 3 (Sept. 1994), 464.

[31] Ibid, 466.

[32] Hartman, Andrew. “’The Red Template’: U.S. Policy in Soviet-Occupied Afghanistan”. Third World Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 3 (June, 2002), 467-468

[33] Coll, Ghost Wars, 89.

[34] Ibid, 88-93

[35]  Bonosky, Phillip. Washington’s Secret War Against Afghanistan. (New York: International Publishers, 1985),


[36] Waltz, Ibid, 63.

[37] Kengor, Paul. The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism. (New York: Harper Collins, 2006), 232-233.

[38] Waltz, Ibid, 65.

[39] Kengor, Ibid, 241.

[40] Ibid, 251

[41] Ralph H. Magnus and Eden Naby, Afghanistan: Mullah, Marx, and Mujahid, (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2002), 128-132.

[42] Falk, Richard A. “The Afghanistan ‘Settlement’ and the Future of World Politics”. In The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan. Amin Saikal and William Maley, Eds. (Cambridge University Press, 1989). Pgs. 150-151.

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