Through the 1970s, Afghanistan had been governed by a president who was friendly to the Soviet Union, but it was not reliably under Soviet control. That president, Mohammad Daoud Khan, became convinced that the local communists were plotting against him. He struck first, assassinating one communist leader in April 1978, and arresting others.
Instead of preventing the plot, this coup-from-above triggered it. In April 1978, the communists-enabled by their strong presence in Afghanistan’s Soviet-trained military-seized power.
The new regime launched an ambitious modernizing agenda: women’s rights, land reform, secularization. That project went about as well as expected. While the communists appealed to a small, educated elite in Kabul, they offended the ultra-conservative countryside. Violent guerrilla resistance gathered. The guerrillas called themselves “mujahideen,” holy warriors. The Kabul government dismissed them as “bandit elements” and “terrorists.”
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By the end of 1979, the Kabul-based communist government was teetering, nearing collapse. The Soviet authorities in Moscow blamed the incompetence, corruption, and internecine violence of their local allies. In December 1979, they overthrew and killed the then-communist leader, installed somebody more compliant, and deployed 85,000 troops to enforce their rule over the countryside. The Soviets had expected a brief, decisive intervention like those in Prague in 1968 or Budapest in 1956. Instead, the war turned into a grinding Vietnam-in-reverse. The Soviets withdrew, defeated, in 1989.
Here’s why Trump’s lopsided view of this story is so telling. Inflicting that defeat on the USSR was a major bipartisan foreign-policy priority of the 1980s. The policy was designed by Jimmy Carter’s national-security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and executed by the Reagan administration.
It’s amazing enough that any U.S. president would retrospectively endorse the Soviet invasion. What’s even more amazing is that he would do so using the very same falsehoods originally invoked by the Soviets themselves: “terrorists” and “bandit elements.”
It has been an important ideological project of the Putin regime to rehabilitate and justify the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Putin does not care so much about Afghanistan, but he cares a lot about the image of the USSR. In 2005, Putin described the collapse of the Soviet Union as (depending on your preferred translation) “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century” or “a major geopolitical disaster of the 20th century”-but clearly a thing very much to be regretted.
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The war in Afghanistan helped bring about that collapse, not because it bankrupted the Soviet regime-that was an effect of the break in the price of oil after 1985-but because it forced a reckoning between the Soviet regime and Soviet society. As casualties mounted, as soldiers returned home addicted to heroin, Soviet citizens began demanding the right to speak the truth, not only about the war in Afghanistan, but about all Soviet reality.