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The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: the past's resemblance to the present, by Elisabeth Leake on the OUP blog. "Afghan Crucible" by Elisabeth Leake. published by Oxford University Press

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: the past’s resemblance to the present

On a cold, sunny afternoon, a host of delegates entered the General Assembly of the United Nations in Manhattan. When everyone had found their seats and settled in, the assembly’s president called the room to order. After holding a minute of silence for prayer and meditation, he quickly ran through a handful of administrative issues before turning to the matter that had brought the assembly together that day.

This was an emergency session. At its heart were questions about state sovereignty, political self-determination, and the nature of international relations. The United States’ representative declared: “Today we are faced with a challenge to the principles of the [UN] Charter as grave as any that necessitated our meeting during previous crises.” Another state representative told the gathered crowd: 

While most of us, for decades, had our very physical, cultural and social existence flouted, some of the founders of the United Nations have never known foreign subjugation, the denial of their very being or the situation of the dominated with no other right than that of submission … The issue before us today, in its brutality, seems to us to be shaking the foundations of our present-day civilization.

In the final vote, the General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning foreign invasion and calling for “the immediate, unconditional and total withdrawal of foreign troops.”

Current observers would be forgiven for thinking this exchange refers to the meeting of the UNGA that took place on 2 March 2022, in which an emergency session debated the Russian invasion of Ukraine and passed a resolution condemning Russian military action. In fact, this exchange took place more than 40 years ago, at the UN’s sixth emergency session, 10-12 January 1980, which focused on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, December 1979

Soviet troops had entered Afghanistan in late December 1979 to shore up the struggling Marxist regime, headed by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. Soviet troops, the Politburo insisted, were upholding a Soviet-Afghan treaty of friendship in the face of concerted attacks by Afghan resistance fighters and their Pakistani, Chinese, and US allies. However, as critics were quick to point out, the Soviets put in place a new ruler, Babrak Karmal, who had been exiled from the previous government and had been nowhere near Kabul in the run up to the intervention.

“Many of the issues discussed in 2022 resembled those in 1980: sovereignty, self-determination… foreign intervention, the nature of nationhood, and the power of nationalism.”

Many of the issues discussed in 2022 resembled those in 1980: sovereignty, self-determination, international legal debates about foreign intervention, and the nature of nationhood and the power of nationalism. However, the response to events in Afghanistan was more unified. China and the United States notably were in full agreement in decrying Soviet army movements (and in providing covert aid to the regime’s opponents). States across the Global South likewise were highly critical. For them, the Soviet invasion, coming as it did in the declining years of European decolonization, represented a dangerous precedent. In effect, it appeared as the re-colonization of a non-Western state that had struggled to and succeeded in gaining its independence. Consequently, states of the Global South showed a largely united front in criticizing Soviet activities.

Over the course of the 1980s, the collective anger of the General Assembly resulted in a series of motions demanding a Soviet withdrawal and the return of Afghan sovereignty. It also forced the UN to take a key mediating role. Over the next nine years, UN diplomats worked with their counterparts in Moscow, Washington, Islamabad, and Kabul to negotiate a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. That withdrawal would not be complete until February 1989, and even then, fighting in Afghanistan would not stop for another forty years. Notably the UN-led negotiations did not invite the perspectives of Afghan resistance groups. In turn, talks offered little scope for a concrete political settlement, given that Afghanistan was the site of a civil war between Afghans, not just a foreign intervention.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: a global conflict

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was part of a fundamentally global conflict. In part, this was due to the Cold War context in which it took place. Soviet decision-making necessitated a response from the United States. So, while the Soviets supported the Afghan Marxists, the Carter and Reagan administrations chose to aid its opponents, the Afghan resistance groups who fought to overthrow the socialist regime. However, Cold War conflict reveals only one aspect of the civil war’s inherent internationalism. The UN’s diplomatic intervention reveals another, in which international organizations played a key role. Examining the motivations and activities of different Afghan interest groups reveals a host of other global connections, both ideological and practical.

“The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was part of a fundamentally global conflict.”

The Afghan civil war of the 1980s was the culmination of a much longer conflict over the nature of politics in Afghanistan (and across the decolonizing world more broadly). Afghans sought to fundamentally reshape Afghan political, social, and economic dynamics, not only looking to local circumstances but couching their ideas in far more universalist terms and drawing in ideas circulating across the decolonizing world. Afghan Marxists thus linked their political and economic endeavours to those undertaken in Vietnam and Ethiopia or Cuba. Afghan Islamists, meanwhile, were tied into transnational Islamic networks and created their own offices across Europe and North American to lobby for political and financial support.

By exploring some of the nodes across the world in which decisions made and networks created shaped the subsequent civil war in Afghanistan, what becomes clear is that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan cannot be understood purely through the perspective of state actors, great power decision-making activities, or in the realms of interstate relations. It was a complex war that involved a wide range of interest groups, each of which had different aims: winning the Cold War, returning to earlier status quo in international relations, reshaping the relationship between religion and politics in state and international politics, reconfiguring Afghan nationhood and the broader relationship between nation and state. It was simply impossible for all these different motivations to be reconciled—by the UN’s negotiators or in bi- or multilateral relations.

Select from numbers 1 to 13 on our interactive map to explore these nodes across the world:

Click here to view the accessible version of this interactive content

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