Anyone who lived through the Cold War will doubtless recall the shocking events surrounding the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the political ramifications that followed for many years. With the conflict over 30 years old, do we really understand how the invasion came about or has it been confined to history and largely forgotten?

For those that are unsure, here is a brief history of the Russian war in Afghanistan.

A country in crisis

While other countries in the region, notably Iran and Iraq, were stealing the headlines in the late 1970’s, Afghanistan was largely off everyone’s radar. In 1979 however, it was in the grip of civil war and it was truly a country in deep crisis.

The government was a newly established Soviet backed Marxist-Leninist regime that had come to power following the Saur revolution of 1978. Led by prime minister Hazifullah Amin, it was struggling in its conflict against the Mujahideen rebels.

In turn, the rebels strength was enhanced by support from mercenary Arab-Afghan volunteers and there was believed to be unofficial support for them from many countries across the world.

The Background

The Afghan government that took power following the Saur revolution was based on socialist ideals and had close links with the Soviet Union after signing a friendship treaty in 1978.

As the world moved into 1979, global support for the Mujahideen increased and on the 3rd of July, US President Jimmy Carter authorised secret aid to the rebels. In essence, the war had already begun and it is a widely held belief that the United States were looking to draw the Soviets into an ‘Afghan Trap’.

Invasion time

Soviet tanks enter AfghanistanEventually, on the 24th of December 1979, the Russian 40th Army, under direct orders from Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev marched into the capital Kabul.

Early exchanges were swift and the Soviet Union had Amin shot on 27th December 1979, to be replaced by Babrak Kamal. Popular support for the invasion was not there, however, and Kamal relied almost entirely on the support that he received from the Russian army.

A war of attrition

Although the Afghan rebels were relying on outdated and unreliable weaponry, their knowledge of their terrain proved more than a match for the Russian invaders. Outside of the main cities, Afghanistan was a baffling, uncharted wilderness dominated by many mountain ranges and when it came to strategy, the Mujahideen held the upper hand.

By 1982, the rebels held around three quarters of the country and the pattern continued as the conflict went on.

The war was to last over nine years and became known as Russia’s ‘Vietnam’ due to the seemingly interminable nature of the conflict and the unsatisfactory conclusion.

Mirroring the Cold War

The Russian invasion of Afghanistan was almost a microcosm of the Cold War itself and it led to high profile political manoeuvres between the USA and the Soviet Union, the most notable of which was the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Eventually, in 1987, Mikhail Gorbechev ordered the withdrawal of Soviet Troops, a withdrawal that was completed two years later, in 1989. In total, just over 15,000 Soviet soldiers lost their lives in Afghanistan, and the war had taken its toll on the army and on the Soviet Union as a whole.  Not to mention, of course, the hundreds of thousands of Afghan fighters and civilians killed.  The time had finally come to draw the conflict to a close.