Ill-fated action in Afghanistan


Invasion: In secret proceedings in 1979, Kremlin leaders reached a decision that would help bring about the Soviets' demise.

October 12, 2001

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the rest of the world knew very little about the decision, made in secret deliberations of the Politburo.

The Soviet leadership, which was propping up a communist-oriented regime in Afghanistan, decided to act after an uprising in the city of Herat, where several Soviet military advisers were executed.

After agonized debate, the troops went in. Ten years later, they left in defeat.

The National Security Archive, an independent nongovernmental research institute and library at George Washington University in Washington, has compiled records of the once-secret Kremlin proceedings.

Here are some excerpts from the archive:

Meeting of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, March 17, 1979, Comrade Leonid I. Brezhnev presiding

Andrei A. Gromyko: Bands of saboteurs and terrorists, having infiltrated from the territory of Pakistan, trained and armed not only with the participation of Pakistani forces but also of China, the United States of America and Iran, are committing atrocities in Herat. The insurgents infiltrating into the territory of Herat Province from Pakistan and Iran have joined forces with a domestic counter-revolution. The latter is especially [made up of] religious fanatics. The leaders of the reactionary masses are also linked in large part with the religious figures.

The number of insurgents is difficult to determine, but our comrades tell us that they are thousands, literally thousands.

In my opinion, we must commence from a fundamental proposition in considering the question of aid to Afghanistan, namely: Under no circumstances may we lose Afghanistan. For 60 years now, we have lived with Afghanistan in peace and friendship. And if we lose Afghanistan now and it turns against the Soviet Union, this will result in a sharp setback to our foreign policy.

Yuri V. Andropov: Our operational data tells us that about 3,000 insurgents are being directed into Afghanistan from Pakistan. They are, in main part, religious fanatics from among the people.

Alexei N. Kosygin: In addition [to supplying arms, supplies and food], I would consider it necessary to send an additional number of qualified military specialists, and let them find out what is happening with the army. ... With whom will it be necessary for us to fight in the event it becomes necessary to deploy troops? Who will it be that rises against the present leadership of Afghanistan? They are all Mohammedans, people of one belief, and their faith is sufficiently strong that they can close ranks on that basis.

Andropov: We must finalize the political statement, bearing in mind that we will be labeled as an aggressor but that, in spite of that, under no circumstances can we lose Afghanistan.

Kosygin: In my view it is necessary to send arms, but only if we are convinced that they will not fall into the hands of the insurgents. If their army collapses, then it follows that those arms will be claimed by the insurgents. Then the question will arise as to how we will respond in the view of world public opinion.(Discussions resume after a recess)

Kosygin: I asked Comrade Taraki [Afghan Prime Minister Nur Mohammed Taraki] what was the population of Kabul. He told me it was 1,200,000. [Kosygin reports that Taraki is unable to raise fighters from among the population.] Almost without realizing it, Comrade Taraki responded that almost nobody does support the government. In Kabul, we have no workers, only craftsmen. [Communist ideology held that workers were at the heart of the communist movement.] And the conversation again turned to Herat, and he said that if Herat falls, then the revolution is doomed. And on the contrary, if it holds out, then survival of the revolution is assured.

Dmitri Ustinov: Why is this happening? The problem is that the leadership of Afghanistan did not sufficiently appreciate the role of Islamic fundamentalists. It is under the banner of Islam that the soldiers are turning against the government, and an absolute majority, perhaps only with rare exceptions, are believers.

Andropov: The economy is backward, the Islamic religion predominates, and nearly all of the rural population is illiterate. We know about Lenin's teaching about a revolutionary situation. Whatever situation we are talking about in Afghanistan, it is not that type of situation. Therefore, I believe that we can suppress a revolution in Afghanistan only with the aid of our bayonets, and that is for us entirely inadmissible. We cannot take such a risk.

Brezhnev: In my view the Politburo has correctly determined that the time is not right for us to become entangled in that war.

Telephone conversation between Soviet Premier Kosygin and Afghan Prime Minister Taraki, March 17 or 18, 1979

Kosygin: Do you have support among the workers, city dwellers, the petty bourgeoisie, and the white-collar workers in Herat? Is there still anyone on your side?

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