Why did the Soviet Union invade Afghanistan in December 1979?

The Cold War had already seen proxy wars break out in Korea and Vietnam. Developments in the Middle East drove the Soviet Union into conflict, sparking a new war. Why did this event occur?

Please use the YouTube video to go through this lesson.
The worksheet is available to download here. If you do not have access to Word, please complete the tasks as outlined in the yellow boxes on this page.

The Cold War gets its name because neither superpower pulled the trigger on one another.
But let’s quickly look at the first ‘proxy war’ that occurred as an indirect consequence of the tensions between the Soviet Union and the USA.
Watch the following video and answer these questions:

1) What do you think is meant by the term proxy war?
2) How were the superpowers responsible for escalating this conflict in Korea?
3) Based on this information, why might the Soviet Union have wanted to invade Afghanistan?

The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan

Why was Afghanistan important to the Soviet Union?

Iran had undergone its Revolution in 1979 that put a Muslim fundamentalist government in charge of the country. The Soviet Union had great influence in the country before this point, but this new government had no time for Soviet communism. Communism did not allow for religious practice and freedoms, meaning that it was at odds with this new Islam-focused government.

Brezhnev was concerned with the spread of Islamic fundamentalism on his southern border with Iran. There were 30 million Muslims in the Soviet Union: if they had a similar idea as those in Iran the Soviet Union could have fallen into a bloody civil war as both sides struggle for power.

Afghanistan bordered both Iran and the Soviet Union. It was important for the Soviet Union to have as much influence in the country as possible to help quell the spread of Islamic fundamentalist ideas.

Why was Afghanistan important to the USA?

Although the USA could stomach communism in the Eastern Bloc (via its policy of containment), the USA feared the spread of communism to other countries that bordered the Soviet Union could cause severe problems to its interests. The spread of communism had the potential to get out of control quickly if this occurred.

In addition to this, the USA had access to plenty of oil reserves in the Middle East. If the Soviet Union caused disruption in the area or, worse, have control over the area, vital oil supplies could be lost. Oil was a significant resource to keep US planes and ships running, and was a strong part of the US economy.

And finally, 60 American embassy workers based in Iran’s capital, Tehran, were held hostage at this point as a consequence of the Iran Revolution. The USA needed to look strong in the middle east to protect these workers and ensure they could be brought home. Not delivering this would have looked bad to the US public.

Stop and think: Which superpower had more to lose in this situation? Was it more important for one of them to have control of the region than the other? Why?

What was happening in Afghanistan?

Luckily for the Soviet Union, Afghanistan was going through a political crisis of its own – but this was one that the Soviet Union could use to their advantage.

In April 1978, a pro-Soviet government seized power in Afghanistan. Led by Nur Muhammed Taraki, the new government worked closely with the Soviet Union and gained economic assistance.

Due to the brutal regime that was set up, however, Taraki was toppled and Hafizullah Amin, the country’s deputy leader, took power in September 1979. Amin continued to work with the Soviet Union, but was clear that he wanted to develop a relationship with the USA at the same time. This was not the ideal situation for Brezhnev.

The country was suffering immensely in this period of political uncertainty. Other groups were jostling for power, and many in the country looked like they were about to remove Amin from power. Of particular concern were the ever-growing Mujahideen, a band of Muslim guerrilla fighters.

In desperation, Amin considered opening talks with the USA about possible support from the US in Afghanistan. Horrified at the idea of US troops in a country bordering the Soviet Union, Brezhnev acted quickly.

The Soviet Union invades Afghanistan

On December 1924, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. They claimed that they were there to support Amin, however Amin was assassinated three days later, probably as a result of Soviet commandos.

Amin was replaced by Babrack Karmal, an Afghan leader that was willing to work with the Soviet Union. He was unpopular, and was totally reliant on Soviet support to prop up his government.

As a result of Karmal’s new government, swathes of new men joined the Mujahideen to fight in the name of jihad to liberate their country of an unpopular ruler and the invading Soviet forces. Brezhnev had not counted on such opposition springing up against him in Afghanistan – it would be a difficult test for the Red Army to fight them.

Based on the information you have just read, create two newspaper stories for an Afghan newspaper reporting the important developments in the country. You can pick two of the following four dates:
1) 27 April 1978
2) 14 September 1979
3) 25 September 1979
4) 27 September 1979

Research more on the Mujahideen. Present your findings on your worksheet. Focus on the following questions to help focus your research:

Who was the leader of the Mujahideen?
What tactics did the Mujahideen use?
Why did the Red Army find it hard to fight the Mujahideen?
Were they successful in their attempt to defend Afghanistan from the Soviet Union?
How did the USA support the Mujahideen?

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