"The Intervention in Afghanistan and the fall of Détente," Lysebu, Norway, 17-20 September 1995

Although the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late December 1979 was not the sole cause of the collapse of détente in the late 1970s, it was certainly the most devastating blow to the increasingly tenuous superpower relationship. For many in the U.S. government it confirmed long-held views that the Kremlin was at heart an aggressively expansionist power, bent on sweeping through Southwest Asia to the warm waters of the Persian Gulf. Until then, the Carter administration had been of two minds on Soviet intentions - literally embodied by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. The invasion won the argument for the more hard-line Brzezinski. One of the memorable television images of the time was of an uncharacteristically grim President Jimmy Carter telling ABC News correspondent Frank Reynolds that the invasion had taught him more about Soviet thinking than everything he had learned since taking over the White House.

In reality, Soviet motivations were far more complicated and by the latter 1970s were in fact characterized much less by a penchant for aggression as by a combination of ignorance, confusion, apprehensiveness about Afghan intentions, and an almost paralyzing reluctance on the part of its aging leadership to act. Soviet leaders for months had resisted appeals by Afghan officials to intervene to settle their increasingly bitter internal rivalries. General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev was already struggling to come to grips with new perceived threats such as the Euromissile crisis and the growing realization that the Soviet economy was in dire condition. But, based on limited and sometimes skewed intelligence - including exaggerated KGB reports of internal violence and purges unleashed by the Amin regime and inaccurate assessments that the Afghan regime was about to shift allegiances to the West - a small cluster of Politburo leaders finally reached the decision to intervene militarily. Even then, the move faced strong opposition, ultimately overruled, by the USSR's senior military leadership.

None of these behind-the-scenes factors was apparent to U.S. policy-makers at the time. Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of once-classified documentation and high-level personal accounts did alternate interpretations of soviet behavior come to the fore. The Carter-Brezhnev Project was ideally placed to explore this new material, particularly on the topic of Afghanistan, and the documents and transcript in this collection are the result. As previous National Security Archive postings have intimated, one of the chief benefits of revisiting these records of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan is that it allows for fruitful, often surprising, comparisons with the U.S. military intervention in that country two decades later.