Victor Korgun: “The Soviet Union Tried to Refrain from Sending Troops to Afghanistan”

What were the relations between the USSR and Afghanistan in the 1970s? Was the April Revolution unexpected? Was there another way? We discussed the political aspects of the situation that led to the Soviet engagement into Afghanistan with VICTOR KORGUN, head of the Afghan section of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor in the Department of Oriental Studies of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and Doctor of Historical Sciences.

– What makes Afghanistan so attractive? Why the great powers operating in Central Asia have always been so allured by that country?
– It’s due to Afghanistan’s unique geopolitical location. Throughout its history Afghanistan has been at the crossroads of international lines of communication, the “Great Silk Roads” from the Mediterranean Sea to China and India, and from Central Asia to India. Overall, there were 24 such routes crossing its territory. This contributed to Afghanistan’s prosperity from the 13th to the 15th centuries; it was a center for great thinkers, philosophers, poets, physicians, writers and architects. However, because of that and because it bordered on major powers, Afghanistan also became the target of the greedy aspirations of various conquerors.
Repeated attempts were made to conquer Afghanistan. We can recall the campaigns of the Persian kings and Alexander the Great, the invasions of northern nomads, Arabs, Mongol hordes, the expansionist campaigns of Tamerlane and, at the beginning of modern times, the colonial expansion of Great Britain, which conquered India and gained the imperial crown.
As a result, Afghanistan — formerly prosperous country with a very rich history, a place where many civilizations and cultures interlaced—has become one of the poorest countries of the world. And now the ravenous gazes of a great many states have been turned towards it for purely selfish reasons. Many others, with Russia among them, simply want to help the country to survive the hard time. The aroma of the Caspian Sea oil reaches the Afghanistan, and it has become a bridgehead for the geoeconomic and geopolitical expansion of a number of Western countries in the region.
– Can you elaborate on the relationship between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union in the pre-war period — during the reign of King Zahir Shah and his successor, Mohammed Daoud?
–Russo-Afghan and Soviet-Afghan relations have always been very uneven. There have been ups and downs for both parties, times when things went well and times when they didn’t. But after the WWII we managed to establish stable and since 1960s – friendly relations with Kabul. I worked in Afghanistan during the late 1960s and saw things with my own eyes: there was genuine friendship.
At the same time, ideology interfered with the relationship. After the late 1940s, the intelligence services of the USSR began to penetrate Afghan society, and in 1965 they were directly involved in establishing the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). Simply put, we trained, instructed and financed this party; it was under the wing of our intelligence services during all of those years.
It cannot be said, of course, that we trained or encouraged the PDPA to carry out the April Revolution—on the contrary, we even tried to overcome the split in its ranks and form a united revolutionary democratic movement in Afghanistan. But based on its theory of Marxism, the PDPA, especially its radical wing—Khalq (Masses)—forced the move towards a society that would be “free from the exploitation of man by man” without considering the objective conditions.
After Daoud came to power in the 1970s, relations between our countries became quite tense, but stable. Economic cooperation increased, but political relations were difficult. Daoud—a tough and powerful politician, a great statesman and a Pashtun nationalist—charted a course towards cooperation with the rich countries of the Persian Gulf and, to a lesser degree, with the United States. He began moving away from the USSR, which he increasingly perceived as a threat to Afghanistan’s national interests. Incidentally, the idea of a Soviet threat to Afghanistan originated in the West and dates back to the 1950s, but it was shared by many politicians inside Afghanistan.
Daoud tried to work on two fronts, just as the King had before him—this was the traditional Afghan foreign policy of balancing between two great powers: first, between Russia and Great Britain, and then, after World War II, between the USSR and the United States. This policy is still being followed today. But at the time, under President Daoud, relations with Afghanistan had deteriorated; this coincided with an incident during 1977 in Moscow when Daoud quarreled with Brezhnev during an official visit.
In 1977 we finally helped to unite the PDPA—in a strictly formal way, under pressure from the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party. Once again, however, we did not push the Afghan communists to stage a revolution. Incidentally, by his style of government Daoud to a great extent discredited the ideas he brought with him when he came to power in 1973 by abolishing the monarchy. Indeed, leftist forces, including supporters of the PDPA who entered the government after 1973 and influenced Daoud’s social-economic program—which, incidentally, was quite progressive—had participated in developing these ideas. But subsequently, Daoud swung to the right in his domestic policy, cracked down on the leftists, carried out purges and surrounded himself with people who leaned towards the West and not towards the USSR. In 1977 he introduced a constitution that gave him overtly dictatorial powers.
Naturally, this caused increased confrontation between the united communists and the authoritarian regime. The country had no parliament; there was no freedom of the press; and political parties had been banned. By the beginning of 1978, the communists were being openly repressed, which pushed them to stage a coup in April 1978.
I want to emphasize again: the revolution took place without the direct involvement of the Soviet Union. I have repeatedly talked with both our military and with Afghans—nobody maintains that Moscow prepared this coup or even took part in it. It was a total surprise and a shock for the Soviet Union when on April 27, 1978 an armed revolt broke out in Kabul. There was even mild panic: what do we do now? What type of regime will be established in Afghanistan? Either way, Moscow did not participate in the coup and was even displeased with it: clearly, it was premature.
– Could the situation that developed between April 1978 and December 1979 have gone a different way—in terms of participation by the USSR? Could a political situation have been created that did not require a direct military intervention?
– Moscow’s leadership was very well aware of the harm that would come from military intervention in Afghanistan and the overthrow of the government. Many sober minds, especially among the military, predicted that such a move was fraught with serious complications.
I was in Kabul from August to November of 1978 when the PDPA split again; purges and repressions were begun against the Parchemites; and people were simply being locked up in bunches. B. N. Ponomarev, head of the International Department of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee arrived in Kabul. He tried to settle the conflict and convince the Afghan leadership to stop the persecution—but his visit was of no avail. Indeed the vociferous propaganda campaign with rallies condemning the “enemy of the people, Babrak Karmal,” and similar things was stopped, but repressions continued.
In April 1979, General of the Army Yepishev, Chief of the Main Political Directorate of the Soviet Army, visited Afghanistan and held a number of meetings with Taraki and Amin. The Afghan leadership then began to exert pressure on Moscow for direct military aid. We supplied Afghanistan with weapons and we had military advisers working there, but the Soviet leadership refrained from entering troops, realizing the complexity of the consequences of such a step. And subsequently, the decision to intervene was made under a great amount of stress, after a long period of deliberation.
There was also a subjective element: Brezhnev’s friend, PDPA leader Nur Muhammad Taraki, was killed at Amin’s order after Amin usurped power in the country in September 1979. This also accelerated the outcome.
For as long as possible, the Soviet Union tried to refrain from sending in troops to influence the situation in the country, mitigate the escalating conflicts, stop the repressions and help Afghan society come together. It didn’t work.
From a geopolitical standpoint, Moscow was compelled to take that step by the United States. Incidentally, I recall that in November 1979, a month before the Soviet invasion, Vorobyov, a briefer on the CPSU Central Committee staff, spread out a map of Central Asia and the Soviet Union and showed how American missiles would be deployed in the Hindu Kush within range of Riga, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk and beyond. The Americans had a hand in creating an atmosphere of dread that Washington would interfere in Afghan affairs, and many of our propagandists eagerly grabbed this theory and promoted it throughout the country. Fears of losing the initiative in Afghanistan to the Americans also eventually prompted the Soviet leadership to intervene openly.
In addition, it should be recognized that the Amin regime was collapsing despite all our efforts. The Army was demoralized and state terrorism reigned in the country. An armed opposition movement was developing in the country. During Soviet times, they were termed bandits, “dusman”, but the movement was national in scope, and it spread across Afghanistan. By December 1979, there was fighting in 16 out of 28 provinces.
Amin dismantled the system of governance that was being thoroughly established for a long time. The process of disintegration became irreversible. As the situation was developing, it was likely that no course of action other than armed intervention was possible.
The Soviet action has been evaluated from different perspectives. The introduction of troops can be seen as a political mistake, and it was officially termed in the USSR as such in 1989. I would even call it a crime against two peoples—Afghans and Soviets—because what happened afterwards was not in the interests of the either one or the other. We should have held international talks, involved other participants in the political process and found arbiters who might have found a political solution. On the other hand, perhaps it was already too late: the disintegration of the Afghan state had got out of hand; it was amplified by the opportunism and arbitrariness of Amin, who had established completely unrealistic objectives e.g. ‘building of socialism within three years’ and his actions entailed mass repressions.
Moscow decided that its only course of action was to send in troops. I would like to stress one thing in particular: the Soviet Union did not plan on a long-term occupation of Afghanistan. It envisioned a very short stay in Afghan territory with the goal of stabilizing the country, returning healthy forces to power and defeating the small bands of rebels. But that is not what happened; the process had gone too far. The PDPA had become too unpopular; the Taraki and Amin policies had not found support.

Victor Korgun is a Ph.D. in History, Head of the Section of Afghanistan at the Russian Institute of Oriental Studies, Professor of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

Source (in Russian)
Translated by Vebber.

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