The war against Russia 1979 to 1988
In 1978, the Democratic Republic
of Afghanistan was formed with the help of the Soviet Union.
The government was a self-described socialist state that had
overthrown the old regime led by Prince Mohammed Daoud Khan
during the Saur Revolution.
This revolution may be considered the culmination of Russian
influence, from the days of the Great Game. However, even as
the new regime took over, rumblings for independence from
Soviet influence were erupting among the local mujahideen. In
this case, the resistance to the Soviets was based more on
religion than the conflicts of the Great Game, which were more
about power and foreign relations.
The mountainous border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan
had become an important center of fundamentalist Islam. Across
the border in Pakistan, were many madrassas or schools that
indoctrinated young men into strict Islamic ways of thought.
These madrassas were particularly effective at taking in young
boys from poor families by offering to take care of all their
needs. The boys would be raised at the madrassas providing
financial relief to the family.
These orthodox religious groups became strongly opposed to
Western influence, which they viewed as antagonistic to the
religion of Islam. The mujahideen were religious fighters who
were taking up the struggle against the enemies of Islam,
which at the time were the “godless” communists of the
Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and their state sponsor,
the Soviet Union.
The Soviet strategy to deal with Afghanistan’s daunting
terrain concentrated on using modern technology, especially
attack helicopters, in place of main battle tanks as offensive
weapons. The Soviets considered the armored attack helicopter
as the perfect weapon capable of operating in areas that were
unsuited for tank warfare including mountainous terrain.
Helicopters like the Mil Mi-24 Hind not only had tank-like
firepower, but they also acted as troop transports allowing
helicopter forces to hold territory before conventional ground
forces arrived on the scene.
Moscow deployed its troops starting in the spring of 1979. The
Soviets sent both air-mobile helicopter units and airborne
units, as well as more conventional tank and BMP forces.
Again, the Afghans showed their ability to find allies even
under difficult circumstances. In this case, the mujahideen
were able to establish a relationship with the United States –
an unlikely alliance when we compare the ideologies of both
sides. Indeed, the same mujahideen who were supplied and
trained by U.S. forces during the war against the Soviets
later became the core group within al-Qaeda.
In addition to the United States, the Afghan forces also
received help from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China, the United
Kingdom and others.
One of the important weapon systems provided by the Americans
to the mujahideen was the Stinger portable anti-aircraft
missile. This missile, along with conventional anti-aircraft
guns, helped the mujahideen neutralize Soviet air power. The
Soviet forces found it especially difficult to control the
border area with Pakistan, the heartland of Afghani religious
extremism. The mujahideen practiced a strategy of placing
Soviet-controlled cities and towns under siege, something that
was made easier by the nature of the terrain.
Mujahideen forces tended to operate in rather small,
autonomous units. There was little centralization, and bases
could operate on their own if necessary for long periods of
time. It was a loose network of resistance that would later be
used as the pattern for the al-Qaeda organization and the
Taliban insurgency. Because of the structure of the resistance
forces, intelligence operations against the mujahideen were
difficult. Also, it was difficult for the Soviets to target
mujahideen leadership, and effective strikes had limited
effect due to the highly-autonomous nature of mujahideen
The Afghani strategy gradually wore down the Soviets and
sharply drove up the costs of their military and political
operations. In 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from
Afghanistan leaving behind the puppet Democratic Republic of
Afghanistan that would eventually fall in 1992.