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Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan Was Not a Grand Design But a Grand Entanglement Resulting from Faulty Intelligence, Excessive Secrecy, and a Paralyzed Leadership, According to Conference of Former Decision-Makers

Proceedings from 1995 Conference Reveal Soviet Motivations and U.S. Internal Reactions to Soviet Move

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 409

Posted - December 21, 2012

Edited by Malcolm Byrne and Svetlana Savranskaya

For more information contact:
202/994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Related Archive Postings

The Carter-Brezhnev Project

Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan a Case of Mission Creep, According to New Book and Original Soviet Documents
October 13, 2012

Afghanistan Déjà vu? Lessons from the Soviet Experience
October 30, 2009

Afghanistan and the Soviet Withdrawal 1989 20 Years Later
February 15, 2009

The September 11 Sourcebooks, Volume IV: The Once and Future King?
October 26, 2001

The September 11 Sourcebooks, Volume II: Afghanistan: Lessons From the Last War
October 9, 2001


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The authorization to invade Afghanistan, December 12, 1979.  The Soviet leadership was so anxious about maintaining secrecy that they hand-wrote the document and circulated to individual Kremlin leaders for their signatures, which appear diagonally across the page. [Source: Fond-89]

Washington, D.C., December 21, 2012 – On December 12, 1979, the Soviet Politburo gathered to formally approve the decision made several days earlier to send a "limited contingent" of Soviet forces into Afghanistan. The secrecy was so tight that the leadership hand-wrote the authorization document in one copy and hand-carried it to each Politburo member for signature. The order does not even mention Afghanistan by name and uses cryptic language to entrust Andropov, Ustinov and Gromyko to oversee the implementation of the decision. The Yeltsin government declassified the one-page record in 1992 as part of a body of evidence for use at the upcoming trial of the Communist Party.

Ever since December 1979, the war has continued to ravage the country, and scholars and politicians continue to try to come to grips with what went wrong at each stage. Today, the National Security Archive publishes materials from the final conference of the Carter-Brezhnev Project, hosted by the Norwegian Nobel Institute at the Lysebu conference center outside Oslo, a meeting that produced major insights into Soviet decision-making on the eve of the invasion and the U.S. response to it.

According to the full transcript of the Lysebu sessions, the Soviets were concerned with Afghan leader Hafizullah Amin's perceived turn to the West, his ruthless purges of opponents in the Afghan communist party and government, and the possibility of a U.S. grand plan for the Middle East reaching to the Soviets' southern borders. The Kremlin reluctantly approved a limited invasion plan only after a strong push from Yuri Andropov's KGB intending to bring Amin rival Babrak Karmal to power, help secure his regime for its first months in power, and then leave the country. The Politburo's intelligence was badly flawed, however, exaggerating both the danger of U.S. interference and the ease of changing the regime. (For more Soviet documents and analysis, see the Archive's Russian page.)

On the U.S. side, intelligence analyses of Soviet capabilities and assessments of the situation in Afghanistan in September 1979, generally quite accurate, did not lead to a clear prediction of an invasion until mid-December and clearly did not anticipate the mode of invasion-that the Soviets would forcefully remove "their own" Amin and replace him with Karmal, who until then had been in exile in Prague. Even an Alert Memorandum to the president in which CIA Director Stansfield Turner concluded that "the Soviets may now be more inclined to gamble on a substantial intervention in Afghanistan," did not produce a top-level discussion in the Carter administration until mid-December. This turned out to be a highly accurate assessment of Soviet thinking, which, 16 years later, top Soviet political, military and KGB veterans confirmed at the oral history sessions hosted by the Norwegian Nobel Institute.

The Carter-Brezhnev Project was run by Brown University's Center for Foreign Policy Development in partnership with the Norwegian Nobel Institute and the National Security Archive.  Participants at the Lysebu sessions included ex-CIA Director Stansfield Turner; retired senior State Department adviser Marshall Shulman; former NSC staff members Gen. William Odom and Gary Sick; ex-Soviet Ambassador to Washington Anatoly Dobrynin; ex-KGB senior official Leonid Shebarshin; and former member of the Soviet General Staff Gen. Valentin Varennikov. 


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