by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe on January 19, 2015

soviet quicksand AF

In 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, one of the seminal events in Cold War history. But Afghanistan’s problems actually began long before this happening. And the repercussions of the Soviet intervention — and later American actions — haunt us today as concerns about terrorism spread. Perhaps a look back will increase our understanding of today’s events.

19th century: The colonial rivalry between Britain and Russia over Afghanistan becomes known as the “Great Game.” Both countries treat Afghanistan as a crucial buffer and there are repeated incursions by both powers.

The Russians fear chronic instability in Central Asia. They see their influence in Afghanistan as a way to distract the British and keep them off balance in India. The Afghans, meanwhile, fend for themselves as best they can.

When the Bolsheviks replace the tsars, they continue the Great Game.

Late 19th century: Afghanistan’s boundaries are set by British and Russian accords, ignoring tribal and economic patterns and sowing the seeds of constant instability.

Mid-1930s: All Soviet civilian and military technicians leave Afghanistan, but Afghan-Soviet relations remain distant. The Soviets preach respect for Afghan independence, but mutual suspicions run deep.

1940s – 1950s: Afghanistan seeks arms and economic aid from the US, but they are rebuffed. The US sees Afghanistan as “of little or no strategic importance to the United States” and as inevitably in the Soviet sphere of influence.  The US commits to Pakistan instead, and the Afghans turn reluctantly back to the Soviets, hoping to achieve some kind of accommodation. However, the Afghans do receive some modest token of economic aid from the US.

After 1950: Afghan rulers seek Soviet and American aid for major infrastructure projects. The scale of US aid and, therefore, US political influence remains low. Soviet road building in the north of the country brings direct lines of communication from the Soviet Union to Afghanistan’s core, reorienting trade and gaining not only economic and political influence but strategic access. What the Soviets (and Americans) built well serves the logistical needs of the Soviet invasion force in 1979-1980.

November and December 1955: Premier Nikolai Bulganin and Party First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union make a highly publicized one month tour of India, Burma, and Afghanistan.

1962: Mohammad Naim Khan, Afghanistan’s foreign minister (and the younger brother of Prime Minister Mohammad Daoud), visits President Kennedy at the White House and asks for help in developing westward trade routes through the shah’s Iran to lessen dependence on the Soviet Union. Kennedy thinks this is too expensive and tells Naim to improve ties with Pakistan. Kennedy says, “the United States is a long way off and even though it is very anxious to help it can at best play a limited role.”

1965: The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) — Afghanistan’s Communist party — is formed. Within 2 years it splits into several factions, the most important being the Khalq group and the more Moscow oriented Parcham, headed by Babrak Kamal.

1970s: Afghanistan serves as a neutral buffer state and makes another effort to reduce its dependence on the Soviet Union, and to move toward truer nonalignment.

1973: Mohammad Daoud deposes his cousin (the last king) Zahir Shah and becomes the strongman-president of Afghanistan.

Mid-1970s: As President Daoud broadens Afghanistan’s international options, he seeks to consolidate his power at home. He quashes coup plots against him from both the Right and Left; he creates a new political party to back him and seeks to weaken all rival parties; he begins purging untrustworthy elements from government and the armed forces.

1974: Daoud sends Naim to Beijing to assure the Chinese (with whom Afghanistan shares a tiny stretch of border) that Afghanistan is neutral in the Sino-Soviet conflict.

November 1974: Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visits Afghanistan. Daoud is turning to pro-Western Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait for economic aid.

1975: Daoud visits the shah in Tehran and receives a pledge of up to $2 billion over a 10 year period as well as a quick loan of $400 million on easy terms.

June 1976: President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan visits Kabul; Daoud reciprocates with a visit to Islamabad 2 months later.

August 1976: Kissinger visits Afghanistan again. Daoud and Naim assure Kissinger that Afghanistan will stop its efforts to destabilize Pakistan.

July 1977: A common desire to get rid of President Daoud leads the Khalq and Parcham to reunite.

Spring 1978: Daoud pursues genuine nonalignment. He visits India, Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. An economic accord is signed with China. The shah of Iran is scheduled to visit Kabul in June 1978, and Daoud announces plans to visit President Carter in Washington.

April 1978: Daoud begins preparing a crackdown on Communists in Afghanistan.

April 27, 1978: Communist military officers overthrow Daoud in a coup d’etat. He is murdered along with his entourage and his family, including Naim. The new regime proclaims itself the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. Some accounts suggest that the Soviets were caught by surprise.

April 27-30, 1978: The role of the Soviet Union in the April 1978 coup is disputed. TASS refers to the event as a military coup, not as a “socialist revolution.” Still, within a few days, Moscow warmly embraces the new regime and begins pouring in economic and military assistance and scores of civilian and military advisers.

The Carter administration takes the new regime’s professions of non-alignment at face value, partly to avoid triggering provisions of US law that prohibit US aid for any “Communist” country. Aid continues, including a Peace Corps contingent and a small military training program. It is hoped that the “new regime would act more like ‘national communists’ than like Soviet clients” Existing economic aid ties were maintained.

NOTE: Our next post on Afghanistan will focus on the 1978 coup.


J. Bruce Amstutz, Afghanistan: The First Five Years of Soviet Occupation (Washington DC: National Defense University, 1986)

Henry S. Bradsher, Afghanistan and the Soviet Union (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1983)

Gregorian, Vartan, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan: Politics of Reform and Modernizaation, 1880 – 1946 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1969).

Eric Miller, Beyond Afghanistan: Changing Soviet Perspectives on Regional Conflicts (Alexandria, VA: Center for Naval Analyses, undated)

Photo: Abdurahman Warsame



by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe on December 2, 2014

American Embassy Tehran Former American Embassy in Tehran


Throughout the 1970s, Iran was concerned with dangers that emanated from both the region and the Soviet Union.

Engaged in a strategic, economic, and political alliance with the West, Iran was trapped in its image as a US surrogate. This impression served to thwart Iran’s championship of Third World goals and objectives. At the same time, there was growing criticism in the United States of the shah’s military build-up and human rights abuses. Overall:

by the time of the revolution, Iran’s foreign policy orientation and its over-activism were resented at home and created serious tensions in its relationship with both its allies and its enemies.

The Islamic revolution changed this situation. The spread of revolutionary Islam became the stated goal of Iran’s foreign policy. This entailed focusing on the interests of the Islamic community rather than nationalistic concerns. From the outset this led to disagreement.

Two groups emerged.

  • One group, influenced by a Third World variant of socialist ideas was intensely anti-Western, especially anti-American. it wanted better ties with the Soviet Union, the Eastern bloc, and Third World countries and favored the export of revolution.
  • A second group was more concerned about the Soviet/communist threat. This faction wanted to maintain some relationship with the West to preclude Soviet aggression. It favored the export of revolution by example rather than force.

Both factions believed that the export of revolution would ensure Iran’s security through a process of surrounding the territory by a cohort of like minded states.

These themes were played out in the transitional government of Prime Minister Bazargan when the competition was among three principal forces: Islamic nationalists, secular nationalists, and a variety of leftist groups.

After the consolidation of Islamic rule, these conflicts occurred within the Islamic leadership itself. While Bazargan, himself, pursued a nonaligned policy based on avoiding dependence on any one great power and maintaining good relations with neighboring states, after the occupation of the US embassy and the hostage taking, it became impossible to maintain reasonable relations with the United States.

From the November 4, 1979, hostage taking until the September 1980 outbreak of the war with Iraq, Iran’s foreign policy was dominated by three issues:

  • the hostage taking
  • the internal power struggle
  • and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

The hostage crisis dictated that

foreign policy consisted of extreme anti-Americanism and an all-out call for Islamic revolution on the Iranian model throughout the Muslim world.

While mainly driven by rhetoric and rarely by action, it was clear that Iran’s geopolitical position could no longer be useful to the United States.

The period of cliency had ended.

Photo by Orlygur Hnefill



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