The USSR’S Last Gamble – The Why and Wherefore

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By

Khalid Saleem[*]

Abstract

(History is written by the victors and – albeit very occasionally – by ones that got away. When the history of the last decades of the twentieth century is finally written, the crucial turning po,int is bound to be identified as the ill-fated Soviet foray into Afghanistan. The historic upheavals elsewhere – in East Europe and in Central Asia – will all have their origin traced to the way the erstwhile superpower’s last gamble was eclipsed by the indomitable will of the Afghan resistance.

What follows in the proceeding paragraphs is an attempt to identify some rationale in the fateful decision by the leadership of the erstwhile Soviet Union to march into the mire of Afghanistan – a country that has never been totally subjugated in recorded history. This quest for a rationale of the Soviet move becomes even more relevant today as one comes across stories of the resurgent Russian bear that is evidently causing some disquiet among the American think tanks. Author)

Introduction

Soviet ambitions in South Asia, let it be said, were nothing less than historic. Though the much talked about drive towards the warm waters had by them lost most of its urgency, South Asia was strategically well-placed for furthering Soviet interests in West Asia, Africa and the Indian Ocean. Quite apart from the military factors justifying the intervention, the move did – at least for a while – open up for the Soviet Union several new and interesting strategic options.

A superpower, as the USSR undoubtedly was, by its very nature cannot but be  considered as a ‘threat’ by the small states in its vicinity. By virtue of this status – and the over-riding compulsions to maintain it – the security considerations of a superpower perforce assume a certain measure of ‘extra-territoriality.’ Thus all the ‘small’ states falling within what the superpower perceives to be its exclusive ‘sphere of influence’ must consider themselves ‘threatened,’ though understandably to widely varying degrees.

The aforesaid notwithstanding, it is only when a superpower embarks upon an active forward policy, for whatever reasons, that the situation changes qualitatively. For one thing, the ‘possible’ is transformed into the ‘probable.’ At the same time what further complicates matters is that several countervailing forces come into play.

Political analysts differ widely on the question of the intentions and motivations of Soviet foreign policy. At one extreme there are the ‘cold-warriors,’ who perceived in Soviet foreign policy a combination of ideological expansion and traditional Russian imperialism in a relentless quest for world domination.

At the other extreme are the ‘apologists’ who saw the Soviet Union – ruled, as it was, by a group of ‘traditional, conservative superannuated’ men – as a victim of circumstances. They tried to rationalize virtually every act as a response to a largely hostile environment. The truth is to be found somewhere between these two extremes.

Perspective:

The experience of the Second World War was traumatic for the Soviet Union. The staggering cost in human lives – it is said that hardly a family remained unaffected – added to the economic near ruin convinced the Soviet leadership of the imperative need of achieving the objective of ensuring that this experience would never be repeated. Historically, Russia had had to face invasions from the West time and again. The Soviet leadership, understandably enough, emerged from the experience obsessed with the idea of strengthening its security, above all on the Western flank.

As the victors were redrawing the map of Europe, the Yalta Agreements (1945) provided the Soviet leadership with the basis of fulfilling its grand design in Eastern Europe to protect its vulnerable western flank. “In exchange for Soviet support for the United Nations, a promise to join the Far East war, non-intervention in Greece and an ambiguous undertaking from Stalin about the future character of ‘democracy’ in Eastern Europe, those countries (of East Europe) were left to the Soviet mercy.” [1]

Stalin then proceeded to systematically fashion the East European states, that were accepted at Yalta as lying within the Soviet sphere of influence, into a ‘security belt’ to safeguard its own western flank. Stalin’s preoccupations in the years following the Second World War were, to quote Louis Halle, “those of an illegitimate Czar,”[2] namely, “to fortify Soviet safety by the consolidation of a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, although the Marxist framework of reference made him justify this in universalist terms.”[3]

The analogous situation following the Second World War was not suited to the Soviet designs. Alastair Buchan sums up the situation as follows: “There were no superpowers, though the phrase itself had already been coined; there was one power of undiminished economic strength, the United States, with a monopoly of a new form of strategic weapon, the atom bomb, but which was engaged in the rapid reduction of its military forces; there was one strong military power on the Eurasian mainland, with universal pretensions, but whose economic disarray made its real interests regional only; one shattered and divided Asian power, China; one European power with a still worldwide Empire though with a weak domestic economic base, Britain; and three other European countries with overseas imperial interests.”[4]

The Soviet moves in Eastern Europe were obviously dictated more by concerns of security and less by ideology, the justification proffered by the Soviet Union notwithstanding. Instances of direct use of force by the Soviet Union in Europe in the period immediately before and after the War fall in this category.

“In all five cases (Finland, 1939; Poland 1944-45; Yugoslavia, 1948-50; Hungary, 1956; Czechoslovakia, 1968) the Soviet leaders felt that national security was threatened, either immediately or as a result of the continuation of the existing situation … It is important to stress that these Soviet concerns which were instrumental in the decision to use force in four of the cases and to consider seriously the possibility of using force in the fifth were seen to be of an extremely vital nature. Soviet objectives in these instances were seen by Moscow to be of the ‘eternal’ nature, i.e., involving concerns of survival and security, rather than involving more ephemeral objectives such as the conquering of territory, populations or men’s minds or the increasing of the State’s prestige.” [5]

The Soviet Union’s feeling of insecurity does not appear to have entirely disappeared with the consolidation of its position in East Europe or, indeed, enhancement of its military prowess crowned by the achievement of nuclear status. The fait accompli notwithstanding, the Soviet Union continued to nurse fears that the West would one day undo what had taken it years of persistent and ruthless effort to accomplish.

As late as 1959, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, still fearing such attempts, declared: “It is necessary that everybody should understand the irrevocable fact that the historic process is irreversible [†]… Real facts of life in the last ten years have shown convincingly that the policy of ‘rolling back’ Communism can only poison the international atmosphere, heighten the tension between states and work in favour of the Cold War. Neither its inspirers nor those who conduct it can turn back the course of history and restore capitalism in the socialist countries.”[6]

Soviet fears in respect of Eastern Europe were allayed to a considerable extent by the Helsinki Accord on European Security (1975) that had attempted to legitimize the then existing frontiers in Europe. The subsequent upsurge of the Soviet confidence in Asia owed a great deal to the Helsinki Accord.

The Soviet Union continued to justify its politically oriented actions as its ‘ideological responsibilities,’ until the attainment of world power status brought the two into clash. The Soviet Union’s compulsions as a superpower could hardly be justified within the ideological framework, especially after the break with the Peoples Republic of China. The Soviet Union’s ideological moorings tended to become less and less secure as it gained in stature as a superpower. For obvious reasons, the Soviet Union did not find itself in a position to drift loose from these moorings that provided the very raison d’etre of the Soviet state.

Several researchers have commented on this aspect. Geoffrey Stern opined as follows: “It may be that as the Communist Movement abandons the Soviet Union as its primary source of inspiration, the Soviet Union will finally abandon it. For already as a thermonuclear power with global responsibilities transcending ideological allegiances, it must at times be sorely tempted to forego its Communist mission. But, as we have seen, ideologies are not so easily jettisoned. For some time to come, therefore, we may expect the continuation of the ambivalence in Soviet foreign policy that stems from its awareness of its success as a World Power and its failure to attain all its ideological purposes.”[7]

After the Soviet Union’s foray into Afghanistan, its intentions in the long run were difficult to discern with accuracy. There were those who felt that the Czarist dreams were not quite forgotten. In some abstract way, probably the old Soviet leadership remained sufficiently insecure, proud and ethnocentric to dream of dominating the world. They justified their own rule in ideological terms and their ideology predicted that communism would inevitably replace capitalism. To quote Khrushchev, “we, communists, believe that the idea of communism will ultimately be victorious throughout the world, just as it has been victorious in our country, in China and in many other states.” [8]

To what extent did the old leadership expect this dream to become a reality? In the words of Robert Kaiser, “Like a religious Jew patiently anticipating his Messiah, the Soviet ruler dreaming of world domination is not structuring his life around this still unforeseeable occurrence …the Soviet leaders dream of world domination but do not expect to achieve it. By discounting the likelihood of success themselves, the Soviets can easily forgive the steps they take (subjugate Afghanistan, for instance) that arouse in Americans the fear that they are really bent on imminent world domination. In the minds of the old men who have risen to the top of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, any step that enhances Soviet security is easy to justify. Equally, moves that enhance Soviet prestige and power without endangering national security are difficult for them to resist.” [9]

Soviet Union and Asia.

With vast Asian estates and a rising Asian population, the Soviet Union could hardly be faulted for being an ambitious power in Asia. It was determined to establish such credentials as an Asian state, without the concurrence of which no major redrawing of Asian politics could be pursued. In the words of Alastair Buchan, “Soviet policy in Asia is affected by her general disillusionment with the prospect of promoting revolutionary change in the developing world as a whole, and her interest in the different parts of Asia varies considerably, being lowest in Pacific Asia and highest in the sub-continent.”[10]

Soviet policy in Asia was profoundly influenced by the Soviet-China conflict of interest. In the early years of the emergence of the Peoples Republic of China, the Soviet Union had, in effect, welcomed the advent of a sister communist state that it hoped would conveniently fall under its ideological wing. The rift, when it did come, coloured the whole orientation of the Soviet Union’s Asia policy.

Professor G. W. Choudhury writes: “One of the ironies of the feud with China is that it led the Soviets to the very ‘Dullesism’ – the propagation of military pacts – that it had damned for more than fifteen years. The proposed Soviet Collective Security System in Asia was introduced to the world by Brezhnev in his speech to the international meeting of Communist parties in Moscow on 7 June 1969. A few days before, IZVESTIA gave some details of the proposed Security Plan, which was described as a defensive measure to safeguard the independence of Asian countries against ‘imperialist aggression and neo-colonialism’. That its real aim was to restrict Chinese influence becomes clear from an analysis of the Soviet envoys’ and leaders’ diplomatic dialogues with the Pakistanis, the Indians and others.”[11]

Brezhnev’s enigmatic call was “in terms indicating that the containment of China had become the central item on the Soviet agenda and that Russia intended to play a major role in Asia.”[12] The reaction to the Brezhnev proposal was hardly one to inspire confidence in Moscow but the quest was not totally abandoned.

The emergence of China as a major power created particular anxieties and frustrations for the Soviet leadership. “For one thing, it …destroyed any hope that the Soviet Union could one day mobilize the whole ex-colonial world against the West as Khrushchev had at one stage hoped to do. If the presence of 45 Soviet divisions and 2,000 military aircraft in Eastern Russia is more a form of diplomatic pressure or deterrence on China than indicating fear of imminent war, China still possesses the ability to threaten certain key areas of the Soviet Union, Vladivostok for one, or to stir up unrest in the Asian minorities of the Soviet Union.”[13]

Beneath the obvious calculations of security lay a deeper concern, namely that if the structure of international power became more diffused – if the international system became more plural in character – the Soviet Union would be exposed to the permanent risk that a hostile coalition, say of Japan, China and the United States, could be created to pursue a policy of the containment of her pretensions as a world power.

The confluence of the strategic interests of the United States and China in parts of Asia was a development of extreme and far reaching importance. The Soviet Union, which was not a little uneasy since the beginning of the Sino-Soviet rift, at least had the consolation of a de facto détente with the West. With the virtual demise of détente, fears of encirclement in the east became very real in Moscow. As Malcolm Mackintosh said, “The Soviet Union already feels the odd man out in the East Asian quadrilateral.”[14]

Soviet Interest in South Asia:

“International politics,” said Hans Morgenthau, “like all politics is a struggle for power.”[15] While the universality of this declaration can be challenged, its applicability to international politics practiced by superpowers is hardly in doubt.

Czar Peter the Great said in 1720, “If Russia wants to be strong it must have access to the sea.” Ever since that time, Western strategists have had the tendency to link Russian ambitions to ‘a drive towards the warm waters.’ Undoubtedly successive Russian leaderships did feel that their ambitions were thwarted by the absence of direct access to a warm water port. Many a Russian strategic planner must have wished his country were linked to a port opening out towards the Indian Ocean.* These, it must needs be pointed out, are but ambitions and must not be confused with realistic objectives. International politics, even in the case of superpowers, is very much a science of the attainable.

Be that as it may, South Asia – as a strategically placed region – must have figured very prominently in the security concerns of the Soviet Union. In addition, it was important to view this region in the context of the Soviet Union’s strategic interests in three vital areas of the world, namely

–          Middle East/West Asia

–          Sub-Saharan Africa, and

–          The Indian Ocean

_______________________________________________________

*It may be pointed out here that given the technological developments in oceanography and the modernization of the Soviet Navy a warm water port could no longer be considered indispensable for furthering Soviet objectives.

The Soviet Union’s interest in West Asia was in no doubt. West Asia’s geophysical location, added to its valuable raw materials, would give the superpower that controlled it a definite edge. Though the Soviet Union was not in need of West Asia’s oil, the temptation of being in a position to deny it to the West must have been quite strong. “If the flow of (West Asia’s) oil to Europe and Japan were stopped, the industrial world as we know it would collapse.”[16]

Sub-Saharan Africa is the repository of the most coveted raw materials in the world. An extension of Soviet influence over this region could well transform the strategic picture of the globe.

A strong presence in the Indian Ocean could certainly help further Soviet designs in Africa in the west as well as its strategic interests vis-à-vis China in the east. It could also enable it to dominate the strategic sea-lanes from and to the Persian Gulf region. According to Ference Vali, “An unbiased observer cannot fail to recognize Soviet activities in the Indian Ocean region as reminiscent of classical Russian imperial policies in the pre-World War I period. Soviet endeavors do not pursue one particular objective, nor are they directed to control any one country or piece of territory. What Moscow pursues is the chance to exploit any weakness, any possibility that offers itself to increase its influence, to bring adversaries into disarray, and to create a clientele among the regional countries. Like Napoleon’s strategy, Moscow’s political strategy and much of its success are based on the mistakes and errors committed by others.”[17]

South Asia’s strategic location had been in the focus of Soviet policy makers. “For the Soviet Union, South Asia is connected with its deeper concern for the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. The sub-continent not only dominates the Indian Ocean from Indonesia to the eastern coast of Africa, it also could provide the Soviet Union with the needed leverage to offset the growth in Persian Gulf power.”[18]

The Soviet alliance with India was based on a confluence of interests. Alastair Buchan saw it as “the natural foundation of (the Soviet Union’s) Asian policy.”[19] On its part India viewed the alliance as the answer to her own strategic concerns in the region. Again, to quote Alastair Buchan, “if (India) cannot afford the luxury of non-alignment by reason of her size and her relations with her neighbors, the Soviet Union is her most natural ally, though Communism as an ideology is most unlikely to make serious headway in India as a whole. Not only has a position of influence in India been a Russian aspiration for generations, but there is now no other major power which shares India’s strategic concerns, has a motive for assisting India, that would be in a position to come to her aid in an emergency and has an interest in assisting India that transcends humanitarianism.”[20]

The events of 1971 had a profound bearing on the Soviet Union’s subsequent strategic plans. Since 1969 when Brezhnev proposed his Asian collective Security Arrangement, the Soviet Union had been trying hard to woo the countries of South Asia. The Soviet preoccupation with the containment of China dictated such a move.

With détente flourishing in the west, the USSR needed only to engineer a strategic cordon sanitaire around China to accomplish her grand design.

The situation changed drastically when the Kissinger visit to China was announced. The Soviet Union, which had been looking forward to an arrangement aimed at the containment of China, was suddenly confronted with the specter of ‘US-China collusion’ in the region. Pakistan, as the facilitator of the visit, was never forgiven by the Soviets. In the words of G. W. Choudhury, “Pakistan’s role in arranging the Sino-American dialogue was greatly resented in Moscow, which like New Delhi, engaged in what President Nixon termed ‘fanciful speculation of a US-China alignment.’ ”[21]

Pakistan allowed itself to become a helpless pawn to be sacrificed on the chessboard of big power politics. Exactly a month to the day (9 August) after Kissinger’s ‘secret’ flight to Beijing, the Indo-Soviet Treaty was signed. In the words of Bhabani Sen Gupta, “In signing the Treaty, New Delhi and Moscow entered into a coalition in which collaboration for the attainment of shared objectives did not preclude effort by each to influence the other for the pursuit of its own strategic interests.”[22]

Henry Kissinger was a tad more explicit. “There was … an ominous side to Soviet policy. In the growing India-Pakistan conflict, the Soviet Union discovered an opportunity to humiliate China and to punish Pakistan for having served as intermediary … The Soviet Union had seized a strategic opportunity to demonstrate Chinese impotence, and to humiliate a friend of both China and the United States proved too tempting.”[23]

Pakistan appears to have been totally oblivious of the terrible consequences of the forces that it had (inadvertently, perhaps) itself set into motion. On 1 October 1971, for instance, a senior official of the Soviet Foreign Office said to, a mystified, Ambassador of Pakistan: “You are the victims of what we call an objective situation. Just now a game is being played for very high stakes and it has not got so much to do with you … You should understand the situation as well as our position.”[24] The Ambassador duly reported it to the government, which apparently took it in its stride.

The United States was not oblivious of what effect this turn of events would have at the strategic level. To quote Kissinger again, “Nixon understood immediately that if the Soviet Union succeeded in humiliating China, all prospects for world equilibrium would disappear. He decided – and I fully agreed – that if the Soviet Union threatened China we would not stand idly by. A country which we did not recognize and with which we had had next to no contact for two decades would, at least in this circumstance, obtain some significant assistance.”[25] Thus began the confluence of the strategic interests of the US and China in the region.

The Superpower Game

“When two elephants fight, the grass gets trampled. The same happens when they make love.”

–  African saying

As there is honour among thieves, so is there a code among big powers. In a multi-polar world, when one superpower acts in pursuance of its strategic interest it is expected to do a considerable amount of side-stepping to ensure that it does not tread on the toes of another. Within its ‘sphere of influence’ there is very little that a superpower cannot, or will not, do. There is also an unwritten understanding that a superpower has the right to act where its security and/or vital interests are threatened.

The name of the game is to ensure that no step is taken that might be perceived by the other side to be detriment to its security or vital interests. “The most important rule to be followed by a nation that is intervening in its own sphere of influence is to act in such a way as to minimize the danger of a direct conflict with the other great power and to facilitate the other power’s acceptance of it.”[26]

A superpower will react effectively only when, in its own perception, either its security or its vital interests are at stake. To expect a superpower to use, or threaten the use of, military force to protect the sovereignty or territorial integrity of a state (in which its vital interests are not involved) would be naïve in the extreme. US President Kennedy was prepared to risk an all-out war over the Cuban missile issue because he felt that the security of the United States was at stake. The American decision to stoke a proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan is another example of the length a superpower will go to protect its interests.

Professor G. W. Choudhury quotes an interesting instance of duality of morality. “The Soviet Defense Minister, Marshal Andre Grechko, came to Pakistan in February (1969) and told Foreign Secretary S. M. Yusuf, ‘You cannot have simultaneous friendship with the Soviet Union and China.’ Yusuf noted that the Soviet Union had sought friendship with India and Pakistan, but Grechko ruled the point irrelevant, ‘What is permissible for a superpower,’ he said bluntly, ‘is not possible for a country like Pakistan.’”[27]

It may be relevant to quote here what Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Firyubin told the Ambassador of Pakistan on 29 May 1981. Firyubin counseled that “wise leaders base their foreign policy on principles of good neighbourliness peace and friendship with their neighbours,” and added the warning that “negative feelings in this regard could be extremely harmful.” [28]

Soviet Move into Afghanistan:

The Soviet move into Afghanistan could and should have been foreseen. The history of the Russian moves in Central Asia read with the subsequent developments in the region – confluence of Sino-American strategic aims, Iranian situation, faltering Marxist coup in Afghanistan – led to only one conclusion. Having satisfied itself that the response of the West (and China) would be strictly limited, the Soviet leadership needed only to decide the timing of the move.

One could stretch the point further and state that the Soviet intervention could perhaps also have been prevented. Regional countries, among them Iran, Pakistan and India – if they had agreed to cooperate, and it is a big if – the deterioration of conditions inside Afghanistan that made Soviet intervention possible could perhaps have been preempted.

Subsequent to the disintegration of the British Empire east of Suez, the status of Afghanistan as a ‘buffer state’ was no longer sustainable. ‘Buffer state’ status is contingent upon the presence of big powers on either side. Pakistan, as one of the successor states of British India, was hardly in a position to fill the latter’s role vis-à-vis Afghanistan.

It would have served the interests of Pakistan, India and Iran to take joint steps to win over Afghanistan and prevent it from falling into the Soviet web. They did no such thing. India and Pakistan, it must be pointed out, were in an uneasy relationship. In all fairness it must be stated to the credit of the late Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran that he did appreciate the situation in the 1970s and did lend his weight but by then it was already too late.

Reza Pahlavi was later to lament the West’s failure to appreciate the Soviet threat. He wrote, “The Western inability to see and understand clearly the grand designs of Soviet expansionism had never astonished me more than in the first months of my exile. I had lived as neighbour to the masters of the Kremlin my whole adult life. In forty years I had never seen any waning of Russia’s political objectives: a relentless striving towards world domination. Moscow had time. It could wait fifty years, accept a step or two backward, deal, accommodate, but never lose sight of its final aims.”[29] It is something of an irony that – given all the resources at their command and their vast intelligence networks – the West was taken by surprise when the Soviet move came. Robert Legvold wrote, “The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is momentous. Never have the Soviets done anything quite like it. It combines elements of their recent African interventions, their destruction of Czechoslovak liberalization in 1968, their war on Finland in 1939, and their repression of the Basmachi in Central Asia in the 1920s.”[30]

Robert Kaiser expressed similar sentiments, “The Soviet move into Afghanistan was without precedent. From 1948 till December 1979, a combination of self-restraint and respect for other powers had persuaded the Soviets never to use their own military forces to annex new territory outside their internationally recognized post-war sphere of influence. With the invasion of Afghanistan that system of restraints ceased to work. Yes, Afghanistan was a unique country; none other was in a comparable situation vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Yes, there was an argument to be made that the 1978 Marxist coup in Afghanistan had persuaded the Soviets that this mountain kingdom on their border now was part of their sphere of influence; perhaps, it had. Nevertheless, there was no avoiding that essential fact. The Soviets had broken a long standing rule.”[31]

Hurewitz, however, posed a pertinent question: “Indeed, the massing of Soviet troops in the direction of Afghanistan, from at least the start of December, must have been detected by US reconnaissance satellites, leaving unanswered questions about what messages may have been conveyed to Soviet leaders and what the administration did to alert its allies and others before the event.”[32]

The question that begs an answer is: Why did the Soviets do it and what were their long-term aims? It is not an easy question to answer and interpretations vary. Robert Kaiser attempts an answer: “Partly to show off their new military capabilities and the new self-confidence these capabilities have created … But there had to be a political justification for moving into Afghanistan. The most important one, probably, was the feeling in Moscow that the alternative to the invasion – the increasingly likely collapse of a new client regime on the Soviet border was politically unacceptable. ‘The armies of socialism march only in one direction,’ a Soviet official explained after it occurred. In other words, it was inadmissible that a self-described Marxist-Leninist state adjoining the USSR could be allowed to resort to feudalism or ‘capitalism.’ The source of this attitude is not mystical or ideological, but entirely practical. The Soviet leaders are determined to avoid precedents that might encourage any segment of their empire – either the non-Russian nationalities within the USSR or the peoples of East Europe – to hope that they might some day break away from Soviet domination.”[33]

Professor Michael Howard saw in it seeds of the extension of the Soviet ‘empire.’ He wrote: “ The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan … could be accorded the same kind of recognition as a ‘police action’ to hold this empire together as had been reluctantly granted to their invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Whereas the invasion of Czechoslovakia represented a consolidation of Soviet military power in an area where its presence constituted part of an acceptable military balance; that of Afghanistan was a blatant extension of it. Some saw it as a renewal of the historic Soviet quest for a warm water port; others as the acquisition of a springboard for intervention in the Gulf; and even those who … remained deeply skeptical of any such planned deliberation in Soviet policy were compelled to recognize that the military occupation of Afghanistan, whatever may have occasioned it, presented the Soviet Union with a number of new and very interesting strategic options.

“ For a British historian who can recall how the British Empire developed in India extending northward as the Russian Empire extended southward by pacifying unruly tribes beyond its frontiers, the most probable next step for the Soviet Union appeared to be Pakistan; not because the Soviets coveted its territory any more than the British coveted the same area a century and a half ago, but because their tenure in Afghanistan would remain uncertain as long as Pakistan provided sanctuary for Afghan rebels and refugees. It is often with the best and most defensive of intentions that empires extend their sway.”[34]

Another theory referred to the Soviet interest in Iran: “The size of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan is too massive to be interpreted in terms of the internal situation in a small landlocked territory. It could only have one purpose  – either to preempt the Americans, who are building bases in Oman, Kenya and Somalia in order to intervene in Iran, or to take advantage of disorder that might occur in the post-Khomeini period. The Soviet Union has encircled almost the entire eastern and southern borders of Iran rendering prospective U.S. intervention hazardous. There was little in the internal Afghan problems which made it necessary for the Soviet Union to invite worldwide odium by physically removing an unpopular regime and following it up by the induction of some 90,000 Soviet troops.”[35]

Giving a view from Moscow, Dev Murarka is of the opinion that the Soviet intervention was motivated by the following considerations:

–          In the Soviet perception the risk of Amin ‘doing a Sadat’ was increasing and this would have meant Afghanistan going under Sino-American influence.

–          Developments in Afghanistan coincided with a period when Moscow’s frustration and anger with American policy were growing on several counts. It was deemed necessary to show that the Soviet Union was still capable of defending its interests.

–          The Soviet move into Afghanistan came at a time when the Soviet perception of encirclement was very strong. It appeared to policy makers in Moscow that, in conjunction with China, the West was resuming the policy of encirclement.[36]

David Newsom wrote that “Moscow has signaled that it reserves the option to move forces into Iran to counter any intervention there by rejecting Iranian abrogation of the 1921 treaty between the two countries.”[37]

According to M. Kamlin, “There is every reason to suppose that the Soviet military intervention was motivated by an urgent, albeit limited, necessity to check Amin and to preserve and consolidate the Saur ‘revolution,’ rather than by any grand, expansionist and deliberate design to push towards the warm waters of the Arabian Sea and the Gulf, in fulfillment of some historical destiny. This may be a long-term ambition of Soviet leaders, especially if they succeed in consolidating their position in Afghanistan, but for the present their principal objective seems to be to salvage their hard – and expensively – won position in Afghanistan.” [38]

Last Word:

It is probable that all – or any – of the reasons for the Soviet move advanced by various commentators were true in some measure. All the relevant considerations must have been presented to, and evaluated by, the men in the Kremlin. When a superpower takes such a precipitate decision as to intervene militarily in a state, it is safe to assume that it has done its calculations and made certain that it arrives at a positive balance. When the Soviet leadership took its decision, it must have been aware of its magnitude and its ominous ramifications. Soviet leaders must have been aware that their move would complicate an already complex international situation and thereby ravage an already stressed East-West relationship.

But, the best laid plans of men and mice have the nasty habit of blowing up in the face. Granted that the aging Soviet leadership had perhaps underestimated the intensity of the world reaction, the price that the Soviet Union had to pay turned out to be way higher than they had anticipated. Nevertheless, it can be argued that at the time the men in the Kremlin were firmly convinced that by not acting they had more to lose.  

By intervening in Afghanistan, the Soviets had broken a long-standing ‘rule.’ When the Soviets and Cubans went into Angola in 1977, this sort of adventurism, though not contributing to détente, was not completely incompatible with it either. This was because the ‘rules’ were ambiguous. Such was not the case in Afghanistan.

While the western world prevaricated, the Afghan resistance fighters, in their own way and under extremely difficult conditions, did manage to make the going difficult for the Soviet occupation forces. Western interest at that juncture was confined to increasing the cost of Soviet occupation, without at the same time having to pay too high a price itself. Dev Murarka made the point that, “Moscow realizes perfectly well what is going on but does not consider the price too high.”[39]

This was borne out by the discussions of various Western leaders, including the then British Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, with their Pakistani counterparts in which they continued to advise Pakistan to “keep the pot boiling” in Afghanistan.[40] The advice proffered did not extend, however, to the related vital questions: (i) how long was the pot to be kept boiling? and (ii) what would happen if the pot were to boil over?

The implications of the Soviet gamble in Afghanistan and the consequences of what they did were crucial. The Western propaganda of presenting the Soviet invasion as a strategic offensive against Western interests in the Gulf was only partially sustainable. The “graver implication is that the Soviets invaded Afghanistan largely for the reasons they say – reasons usually couched in terms of national security – and are prepared to do it again in roughly comparable circumstances.”[41]

Despite Pakistan’s denial of any involvement in the crisis, except its desire to provide assistance to the refugees on humanitarian grounds, Moscow continued to believe that Pakistan had the key role in determining the time scale of the crisis. Pakistan had close relations with China. It had also reached an understanding with Washington. It was also a fact that Pakistan played a big role in mobilizing opinion against the Soviet Union, especially in the Muslim World.

As a consequence, the Soviet Union made no secret of her threats to Pakistan during bilateral exchanges between officials of the two countries. Soviet officials repeatedly reiterated that the change brought about by the Soviets was ‘irreversible,’ whatever the cost; also that if Pakistan was not pragmatic the Soviet Union would ensure that it is ‘punished’ once the situation in Afghanistan stabilized.[42]

Moscow also did not fight shy of making thinly veiled-threats at the political level. Foreign Minister Gromyko, speaking at a New Delhi banquet on 12 February 1980, warned that, “if Pakistan continues to serve as a puppet of imperialism in the future, it will jeopardize its existence and its integrity as an independent state.” [43]

The situation took a dramatic turn when the powers that be in the West recognized in the situation a God-sent opportunity to defeat the Soviet gambit. Murky agencies and outfits came into play and a call was given for Muslims worldwide to join in a ‘Jehad’ to defeat God-less communism. Pakistan was game. Dollars along with Muslim volunteers from far and wide started pouring in and the battle was joined.

And, it was around this time that the American agencies selected a young American-educated Saudi engineer to be the ‘minder’ of the Arab volunteers. The rest is history.


[*] Khalid Saleem is a former ambassador and former Assistant Secretary General of the OIC.  He is the author of a book titled “Half way Up the Tree.”

[†] Ironically, a similar argument was used by the Soviet leadership two decades later to justify its intervention in Afghanistan.


[1] Kaufman, Edy; The Superpowers and their Spheres of Influence; Croomwelm, London, 1976.

[2] Time, 1 January 1972.

[3] Buchan, Alastair; The End of the Postwar Era, Weidenfeld Nicholson, London, 1974.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Kinney, Kenneth, “The Use of Force by the Great Powers,” Ed. Northedge, F.S.; The Use of Force in International Relations; Faber and Faber, London, 1974.

[6] Foreign Affairs, October, 1959.

[7] Stern, Geoffrey, “The Foreign Policy of the Soviet Union,” Ed. Northedge, F.S.; The Foreign Policy of the Powers, Faber and Faber, London, 1968.

[8] Foreign Affairs, October, 1959.

[9] Kaiser, Robert, G.; “US-Soviet Relations,” Foreign Affairs, “America and the World,,” 1980.

[10] Buchan, Alastair; The End of the Postwar Era.

[11] Choudhury, G.W., India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Major Powers, The Free Press, New York, 1975.

[12] Scalapino, Robert, A., Asia and the Major Powers – American Enterprise, Institute of Policy Research, Washington, 1972.

[13] Buchan, Alastair; The End of the Postwar Era.

[14] Machintosh, Malcolm; “Moscow’s view of the Balance of Power,” The World Today, March, 1973.

[15] Morganthau, Hans, J., Politics Among Nations, Knopf, New York, 1967.

[16] US News and World Report, 20 May 1974.

[17] Vali, Ference, A.; Politics and the Indian Ocean Region, The Free Press, New York, 1976.

[18] Ziring, Lawrence, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Great Power, Strategic Studies, April-June 1977.

[19] Buchan, Alastair; The End of the Postwar Era, 1974.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Choudhury, G.W.; India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Major Power s, The Free Press, New York, 1975.

[22] Sen Gupta, Bhabani; “South Asia and the Great Powers,” Ed., Griffith Williams; The World and the Great Power Triangles;” MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London.

[23] Kissinger, Henry; The White House Years; Little Brown and Company; Boston, 1979.

[24] Based on personal research at the Foreign Office, Islamabad.

[25] Kissinger, Henry; The White House Years.

[26] Scott, Andrew; Military Intervention by the Great Powers – The Rules of the Game; University of London Press, London, 1970.

[27] Choudhury, G.W., India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Major Powers.

[28] Based on personal research at the Foreign Office, Islamabad.

[29] Pehlavi, Mohammad Reza; Answer to History; Stein and Day, New York, 1980.

[30] Legvold, Robert; “Containment without Confrontation,” Foreign Policy, No. 40, 1980.

[31] Kaiser, Robert, G., Foreign Affairs; “America and the World,” 1980.

[32] Hurewitz, J,C.; “The Middle East,” Foreign Affairs, “America and the World,” 1980.

[33] Kaiser, Robert, G.;  Foreign Affairs; 1980.

[34] Howard, Michael; “Return to the Cold War,” Foreign Affairs; “America and the World,” 1980.

[35] Third World Quarterly, Editorial, April 1980.

[36] Murarka, Dev; “The Russian Intervention,  A Moscow Analysis,” The Round Table, April 1981.

[37] Newson, David, D.; “America Engulfed,” Foreign Policy, No. 43, Summer,1981.

[38] Kamlin, Muhammad; “Russia in Afghanistan,” Asia Pacific Community, Spring 1980.

[39] Murarka, Dev; The Round Table; April 1981.

[40] Based on personal research at the Foreign Office,  Islamabad.

[41] Legvold, Robert; Foreign Policy, No. 40, 1980.

[42] Based on personal research at the Foreign Office, Islamabad.

[43] Harrison, Selig, S.; In Afghanistan’s Shadows; Carnegie Endowment, Washington.