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The September 11th Sourcebooks

Edited by Svetlana Savranskaya
October 9, 2001
Volume II: Index
Part 2. U.S. Analysis of the Soviet War in Afghanistan: Declassified
Part 3. Essay - Afghanistan: The Making of U.S. Policy, 1973-1990
The September 11th Source Books - Index
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Recently declassified documents from archives in the former Soviet Union and memoirs of senior Soviet military and political leaders present the complex and tragic story of the ten years of the Soviet military involvement in Afghanistan.  Most observers agree that the last war of the Soviet Union created or aggravated the internal dynamics that eventually culminated in the dissolution of the country itself.  The documents presented here shed light on the most important moments in the history of the Soviet war in Afghanistan—the Afghan government’s requests for assistance, the Soviet Union’s initial refusal of troops, the reversal of this policy by a small group of the Politburo and the Soviet decision to invade; the expansion of the initial mission to include combat operations against the Afghan resistance; early criticism of the Soviet policy and of the People’s Democratic party of Afghanistan (PDPA) regime; and the decision to withdraw the troops.  Taken together, these materials suggest some lessons that might be drawn from the Soviet experience of fighting a war in Afghanistan.

    The decision to send troops was made after a long deliberation and repeated requests from the leadership of the PDPA, Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin and President Nur Mohammad Taraki.  The Politburo discussions show that the Soviet leaders were very reluctant to send troops, and responded to the Afghan requests with shipments of military equipment, but not troops, throughout the spring and summer of 1979.  However, the overthrow of Taraki by Amin in September just after Taraki’s return from Moscow heightened Soviet paranoia about the possibility that Amin would become another Sadat and turn towards the U.S.  The actual decision to invade was made in secret by a very small group of Politburo members, against the strong and openly expressed opposition of the military, and only then rubber-stamped by the other Politburo members.  Both Chief of USSR General Staff Marshal Ogarkov and his Deputy General of the Army Akhromeev voiced strong objections to introducing troops on the grounds that the proposed limited contingent of forces would not be able to fulfill its objectives.

    The decision to send troops was made on the basis of limited information.  According to Soviet veterans of the events, KGB sources were trusted over the military intelligence (GRU) sources. This partly reflected the growing influence of the KGB Chairman Yu. V. Andropov, who controlled the flow of information to General Secretary Brezhnev, who was partially incapacitated and ill for most of 1979.  KGB reports from Afghanistan created a picture of urgency and strongly emphasized the possibility of Amin’s links to the CIA and U.S. subversive activities in the region.  (President Carter had already signed a secret “finding” in July 1979 authorizing covert aid to the Afghani opponents of the Taraki-Amin regime.)

    Afghanistan did not fit into the mental maps and ideological constructs of the Soviet leaders.  Their analysis of internal social processes in Afghanistan was done through the conceptual lens of Marxist-Leninist doctrine, which blinded the leadership to the realities of traditional tribal society.  Believing that there was no single country in the world, which was not ripe for socialism, party ideologues like Mikhail Suslov and Boris Ponomarev saw Afghanistan as a “second Mongolia.” Such conceptualization of the situation led to the attempts to impose alien social and economic practices on Afghan society, such as the forced land reform.

    The Soviet decision makers did not anticipate the influential role of Islam in the Afghan society.  There were very few experts on Islam in the Soviet government and the academic institutions.  The highest leadership was poorly informed about the strength of religious beliefs among the masses of the Afghan population.  Political and military leaders were surprised to find that rather than being perceived as a progressive anti-imperialist force, the Afghanis as foreign invaders, and “infidels.” Reports from Afghanistan show the growing awareness of the “Islamic factor” on the part of Soviet military and political personnel.

    The Afghan communist PDPA never was a unified party; it was split along ethnic and tribal lines. The infighting between the “Khalq” and the “Parcham” factions made the tasks of controlling the situation much more challenging for Moscow notwithstanding the great number of Soviet advisors at every level of the party and state apparatus.  The Soviet underestimation of ethnic tensions within Afghan society was one of the reasons of the unsuccessful policy of national reconciliation.

    The war in Afghanistan had a major impact on domestic politics in the Soviet Union.  It was one of the key factors in the delegitimization of Communist Party rule. Civil society reacted to the intervention by marginalizing the Afghan veterans.  The army was demoralized as a result of being perceived as an invader. .  The prominent dissident and human rights activist, Academician Andrei Sakharov, publicly denounced the atrocities committed by the Soviet Army in Afghanistan.  The image of the Soviet Army fighting against Islam in Afghanistan also contributed to a rapid rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Central Asian republics and possibly to the strengthening of the independence movement in Chechnya, both of which continue to pose major security threats to Russia today.

    The Soviet Army also quickly realized the inadequacy of its preparation and planning for the mission in Afghanistan. The initial mission—to guard cities and installations—was soon expanded to combat, and kept growing over time.  The Soviet reservists, who comprised the majority of the troops initially sent in, were pulled into full-scale combat operations against the rebels, while the regular Afghan army was often unreliable because of the desertions and lack of discipline.

    The Soviet troops had absolutely no anti-guerrilla training.  While the formal mission of the troops was to protect the civilians from the anti-government forces, in reality, Soviet soldiers often found themselves fighting against the civilians they intended to protect, which sometimes led to indiscriminate killing of local people.  Operations to pursue and capture rebel formations were often unsuccessful and had to be repeated several times in the same area because the rebels retreated to the mountains and returned to their home villages as soon as the Soviet forces returned to their garrisons.  Soviet traditional weaponry and military equipment, especially armored cars and tanks were extremely vulnerable on Afghani terrain.

    The Soviet troops also suffered from the confusion about their goals—the initial official mission was to protect the PDPA regime; however, when the troops reached Kabul, their orders were to overthrow Amin and his regime.  Then the mission was changed once again, but the leadership was not willing to admit that the Soviet troops were essentially fighting the Afghan civil war for the PDPA. The notion of the “internationalist duty” that the Soviet Limited Contingent was fulfilling in Afghanistan was essentially ideological, based on the idea that Soviet troops were protecting the socialist revolution in Afghanistan whereas the experience on the ground immediately undermined such justifications.

    The realization that there could be no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan came to the Soviet military leadership very early on.  The issue of troop withdrawal and the search for a political solution was discussed as early as 1980, but no real steps in that direction were taken, and the Limited Contingent continued to fight in Afghanistan without a clearly defined objective.

    Early military reports emphasized the difficulty of fighting on the mountainous terrain, for which the Soviet Army had no training whatsoever.  Parallels with the American War in Vietnam were obvious and frequently referred to by the Soviet military officers.

Note on Soviet sources

The main Soviet sources on the decision to intervene in Afghanistan come from the Russian Presidential Archive, the Ministry of Defense Archive and from the published memoirs of Soviet officers and political leaders.  They belong to the following categories:  the minutes of the CC CPSU Politburo discussions, which were declassified by President Yeltsin’s executive decree in 1992, the KGB and military intelligence reports from Kabul, many of which were published in the influential study The Tragedy and Valor of Afghan by veteran of the Afghan War General Alexander Lyakhovsky, political letters from USSR Ambassadors in Afghanistan to the Soviet Foreign Ministry from the Russian Foreign Ministry Archives, memoranda of conversations of the Soviet Ambassadors and other leaders with their Afghan counterparts found in the Center for Preservation of Contemporary Documentation in Moscow, analytical letters to the Central Committee and the military leadership also found in the Center for Preservation of Contemporary Documentation.  Among the most important memoirs on the Soviet war in Afghanistan are those by former Deputy USSR Foreign Minister Georgy M. Kornienko and the last Commander of the Soviet Limited Contingent of Forces in Afghanistan, General Boris Gromov.  Some of the most important documents on the Soviet War in Afghanistan were published in the English translation in the Cold War International History Project Bulletin, No. 8-9, Winter 1996-1997.

    The documents presented below provide an insight into some of the most important aspects of the Soviet decision making on the Afghan war from the decision to send in the troops to the decision to withdraw the Soviet Limited Contingent.

The following documents are published here in English translation.  In some cases we have also included the cover page of the original Russian document.

Note: The following documents are in PDF format.
You will need to download and install the free Adobe Acrobat Reader to view.

Document 1
CC CPSU Politburo Session March 17-18, 1979
Document 2
Transcript of Telephone Conversation Between Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin and Afghan Prime Minister Nur Mohammed Taraki, March 18, 1979
Source: Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Issues 8-9, Winter 1996/1997, pp. 145-146.
Document 3
Transcript of A. N. Kosygin-A.A. Gromyko-D.F. Ustinov-B.N. Ponomarev-N.M. Taraki Conversation on March 20, 1979
In March 1979, the Soviet leadership had to face a difficult situation as a result of the violent uprising in Herat, where several Soviet military advisers were executed, and the situation seemed to be spinning out of the PDPA's control.  The Afghan leadership asked for urgent Soviet military assistance.  Overall, there were over 20 requests for military assistance from the Afghan leadership in 1979.  In the telephone conversation with Afghan Prime Minister Taraki, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin explains to his Afghan counterpart that the Soviet Union would not send troops, and encourages Taraki to rely on the local population, and specifically to mobilize industrial workers of the Herat province, which shows the lack of understanding of the local situation on the part of the Soviet leadership (industrial workers, the “proletariat,” which was supposed to be the base of the socialist revolution were practically non-existent in Afghanistan).  The Politburo session, convened urgently to discuss the situation in Herat, shows the differences of opinion among the participants: while practically all Politburo members were against sending Soviet troops to Afghanistan, some of them at the same time argued that “we cannot lose Afghanistan.”  The decision arrived at after much deliberation and summed up by General Secretary Leonid I. Brezhnev was that economic and military assistance with equipment and advisers would be provided but no Soviet troops would be sent to Afghanistan.
Document 4
Andropov-Gromyko-Ustinov-Ponomarev Report to CC CPSU on the Situation in Afghanistan, June 28, 1979
Source: Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Issues 8-9, Winter 1996/1997, pp. 152-153.
Document 5
Minutes of Conversation of General Secretary Brezhnev with Erich Honecker, October 4, 1979
Document 6
Andropov-Gromyko-Ustinov-Ponomarev Report to the CC CPSU on the Situation in Afghanistan, October 29, 1979
Minutes of Conversation between Brezhnev and Honecker, and Andropov-Gromyko-Ustinov-Ponomarev’s reports to Brezhnev in the summer and fall of 1979 shed light on Soviet thinking on wider geostrategic implications of the situation in Afghanistan, the impact of the Iranian revolution in the region, perceived U.S. goals, and the suspected cooperation between Amin and the American special services.  All these considerations contributed to the sense of urgency among the Soviet leadership.
Document 7
Personal Memorandum from Andropov to Brezhnev, early December 1979
Source: Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Issues 8-9, Winter 1996/1997, pp. 159-160.
According to former USSR Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin, this unusual memorandum from Andropov to Brezhnev was especially influential in changing the General Secretary’s position on the issue of sending Soviet troops into Afghanistan.
Document 8
Alexander Lyakhovsky’s Account of the Decision of the CC CPSU Decision to Send Troops to Afghanistan—from The Tragedy and Valor of Afghan (Moscow, 1995)
Document 9
“Situation in “A”.  Handwritten CC CPSU Politburo Decision to Introduce Troops into Afghanistan, December 12, 1979
Document 10
Georgy Kornienko’s Account of the Politburo Decision to Send Soviet Troops in Afghanistan, from Georgy M. Kornienko, The Cold War: Testimony of a Participant, (Moscow, Mezhdunarodnye otnosheniya, 1994) pp. 193-195
Excerpts from Lyakhovsky’s book and Georgy M. Kornienko’s memoir The Cold War: Testimony of a Participant (Moscow, Mezhdunarodnye otnosheniya, 1994) present detailed accounts of how the final decision to send troops was made.  The only documentary evidence of that highly secret decision is the handwritten document “On the Situation in A” of December 12, 1979 signed by the Politburo members.
Document 11
Gromyko-Andropov-Ustinov-Ponomarev Report to CC CPSU on the Events in Afghanistan on December 27-28, 1979;  December 31, 1979
Source: Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Issues 8-9, Winter 1996/1997, pp. 160-161.
The Soviet reading of the situation in Afghanistan is also represented in this report presented to the Politburo on December 31, after the invasion.
Document 12
Session of the CC CPSU Politburo, January 17, 1980
Document 13
Session of CC CPSU Politburo, Janury 28, 1980; Gromyko-Andropov-Ustinov-Ponomarev Report to CC CPSU on the Situation in Afghanistan, January 27, 1980
Source: Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Issues 8-9, Winter 1996/1997, pp. 163-165.
Document 14
On the Changing Mission of the Soviet Forces in Afghanistan, from Alexander Lyakhovsky, The Tragedy and Valor of Afghan
The Politburo sessions of January 17 and 28, 1980 carried extensive discussions of the situation in Afghanistan.  Lyakhovsky and other authors report that at the same time, the top Soviet military and political leadership held secret deliberations on the possibility of early withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the first combat operations of the Soviet troops led to the change in the original mission of the Limited Contingent to include combat operations against the rebels.
Document 15
“Pravda” Correspondent Schedrov’s Letter to the CC CPSU on the Situation in Afghanistan, November 12, 1981
The letter of “Pravda” correspondent Schedrov to the CC CPSU of November 12, 1981 reflects early criticism of Soviet involvement in Afghanistan along with a realization of the inadequacy of a military solution.
Document 16
Excerpt from KGB USSR and General Staff Report of December 1982
Source: Alexander Lyakhovsky, Tragedy and Valor of Afghan, Iskon, Moscow 1995, p. 263, Translated by Svetlana Savranskaya
This report prepared by the KGB USSR and the General Staff states that the Soviet Commander of the Turkmen Military District and the Main Soviet Adviser in Afghanistan were given orders to capture an American citizen working with the mujahedeen.
Document 17
Anatoly Chernyaev’s Notes from the Politburo of the CC CPSU Session of October 17, 1985
Source: Anatoly Chernyaev, My Six Years with Gorbachev, Penn State University Press, translated by Robert English/Elizabeth Tucker, p. 42
At the Politburo session of October 17, 1985, General Secretary Gorbachev proposed to make a final decision on Afghanistan and quoted from citizens’ letters regarding the dissatisfaction in the country with the Soviet actions in Afghanistan.  He also described his meeting with Babrak Karmal during which Gorbachev told the Afghan leader: “we will help you, but with arms only, not troops.”Chernyaev noted Gorbachev’s negative reaction to the assessment of the situation given by Defense Minister Marshal Sergey Sokolov.
Document 18
Session of CC CPSU Politburo, November 13, 1986
Source: Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Issues 8-9, Winter 1996/1997, pp. 1787-181.
The first serious Politburo discussion of the need to withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan, which included the testimony of Marshal Sergei Akhromeev is reflected in the Minutes of November 13, 1986.
Document 19
Minutes of the Politburo of the CC CPSU Session of February 23-26, 1987
Source: Anatoly S. Chernyaev’s Diary, Translated by Svetlana Savranskaya
In his remarks to the Politburo on February 23 and 26, General Secreatry Mikhail S. Gorbachev return to the issue of the need to withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan several times.  He emphasizes the need to withdraw the troops, and at the same time struggles with the explanation for the withdrawal, noting that “we not going to open up the discussion about who is to blame now.”  Gromyko admits that it was a mistake to introduce the troops, but notes that it was done after 11 requests from the Afghan government.
Document 20
Colonel Tsagolov’s Letter to USSR Minister of Defense Dmitry Yazov on the Situation in Afghanistan, August 13, 1987
Criticism of the Soviet policy of national reconciliation in Afghanistan and analysis of general failures of the Soviet military mission there is presented in Colonel Tsagolov’s letter to USSR Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov of August 13, 1987.  This letter represents the first open criticism of the Afghan war from within the military establishment.  Colonel Tsagolov paid for his attempt to make his criticism public in his interview with Soviet influential progressive magazine “Ogonek” by his career—he was expelled from the Army in 1988.
Document 21
CC CPSU Letter on Afghanistan, May 10, 1988
Source: Alexander Lyakhovsky, Tragedy and Valor of Afghan, Iskon, Moscow 1995, Appendix 8, Translated by Svetlana Savranskaya
On May 10, 1988, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR issued a “closed” (internal use) letter to all Communist Party members of the Soviet Union on the issue of withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.  The letter presents the Central Committee analysis of events in Afghanistan and Soviet actions in that country, the problems and the difficulties the Soviet troops had to face in carrying out their mission.  In particular, the letter stated that important historic and ethnic factors were overlooked when the decisions on Afghanistan were made in the Soviet Union. The letter analyzes Soviet interests in Afghanistan and the reasons for the withdrawal of troops.
Document 22
Minutes of the Session of CC CPSU Politburo, January 23, 1989
Source: Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Issues 8-9, Winter 1996/1997, pp. 181-184.
The Politburo session of January 24, 1989 deals with issues of troops withdrawal and the post-war Soviet role in Afghanistan, as well as possible future development of the situation there.
Document 23
Excerpt from Statement of the Soviet Military Command in Afghanistan on the Withdrawal of Soviet Troops, February 14, 1989
Source: Alexander Lyakhovsky, Tragedy and Valor of Afghan, Iskon, Moscow 1995, Appendix 11, Translated by Svetlana Savranskaya
On April 7, 1988, USSR Defense Minister signed an order on withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.  In February 1989, the Defense Ministry prepared a statement of the Soviet Military Command in Afghanistan on the issue of withdrawal of troops, which was delivered to the Head of the UN Mission in Afghanistan on February 14, 1989—the day when the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan.  The statement gave an overview of Soviet-Afghan relations before 1979, Soviet interpretation of the reasons for providing internationalist assistance to Afghanistan, and sending troops there after the repeated requests of the Afghan government.  It criticized the U.S. role in arming the opposition in disregard of the Geneva agreements, and thus destabilizing the situation in the country.  In an important acknowledgement that the Vietnam metaphor was used to analyze Soviet actions in Afghanistan, they military explicitly referred to “unfair and absurd” comparisons between the American actions in Vietnam and the presence of Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

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