The Cold War is often highlighted by the presence of proxy wars, conflict that breaks out in a smaller nation that is fueled by the world superpowers, and a race of arms.  When thinking of these conflicts one quickly jumps to the Korean or Vietnam Wars.  However, there are many other examples of proxy conflict that underscored years of failed policy.  It wasn’t just the West in Vietnam, there were plenty of failed Soviet missions as well.  All these conflicts had one thing in common: the failure to understand that the conflict being fought within these smaller nations was one of internal struggle that could not be fixed by overwhelming imposition of a foreign force.  In the Soviet’s case, the most notorious example of a failed mission is that of Afghanistan.

Despite Afghanistan being the center of American intervention for the larger part of the twenty-first century, conflict in the small country has been ongoing for much longer.  Afghanistan’s past shares similar disposition to conflict as many of her sister nations, such as India, China, Iran, and Iraq.  The descent into the most recent civil war in Afghanistan is not something that was spurred by the United States.  In fact, it wasn’t even truly spurred on by the Soviet Union.  However, just like with the Western intervention in Vietnam, Soviet intervention in Afghanistan is one that has put a small warring nation on the international stage.

The proxy conflict in Afghanistan is a bit of an unusual one that starts in the 1950s when Soviet aid begins.  At the time that the Soviets begin funneling aid into the nation, the United States and other Western powers had been providing additional aid to Pakistan.  Afghanistan, feeling disenchanted with the West due to this, thusly welcomed the Soviet aid with open arms.[1]  Pakistan had been (and continues to be) a major rival to Afghanistan.  However, at the time of the Soviet bloc, it was also a major ally in the region for the west due to its opposition of the Soviets.

The materiel support showed itself in a variety of ways ranging from armored personnel carriers (APCs) to rations to munitions.  Economic aid was also provided in a limited capacity which allowed the Afghan economy to briefly blossom.[2]  Afghanistan, feeling invigorated by the influx of aid, launched a series of small incursions into the neighboring and rival nation of Pakistan under the direction of Daoud Khan in the early 1960s.  Both times, however, the Afghan Army was routed by a better equipped and better trained Pakistan force.[3]  These failed expeditions put additional strain on an already fragile foundation within the Afghan government.

Within the thrashing vestige of Afghanistan were numerous smaller sects of resistance that ran counter to the presiding regime which, much like so many other civil war-torn nations before it, were causing civil unrest within the borders of the country.  Pakistan, and even the Western allies, were sympathetic to these resistance fighters.  But only insofar as to provide “moral support.”  The turmoil in the nation came to a head in 1973 when Khan stages a coup d’état to abolish the ruling monarchy in Afghanistan.  He is successful.  However, like many other instances of fractured nations in the clutches of uprisings, these other revolutionary sects also emerged in a show of violence.  Khan is eventually killed by Soviet backed forces in 1978.

By this time, Hafizullah Amin had seized control of the Afghani Government.  A tyrant of a man, Amin had essentially terrorized the nation into an uneasy submission.  However, that same tyrannical nature led to his undoing.  By early 1979, the KGB had determined that Amin had done more to destabilize Afghanistan rather than provide relief.[4]  In a double-edged plan, Amin worked with the Soviet Red Army to stage a limited self-invasion of the country.  However, the Soviet’s had already planned for Amin’s assassination in the invasion.  He was subsequently killed in the Taj Beg Palace during the invasion.[5]  Shortly after Amin was removed; the Soviets established their headquarters for the 40th Red Army at Taj Beg.  The justification for such a move was that Afghanistan shared a border with the Soviet Union, and that the Soviets were simply trying to ensure security on their border and their interests on the global stage.

With the nation now occupied by the Red Army, operations and posture for the Soviets changed to quashing guerrilla forces and forced unification.  The bulk of these operations began in 1980 in what has been called the Panjshir Offensives.  Chief among the resistance was the Afghan Mujahideen.  The small size of the opposition forces was problematic for the larger divisional size of the Red Army, and the harboring nature of neighboring Iran towards the Mujahideen led to particularly sensitive insurgency strikes against the guerrilla forces.[6]  By the mid-1980s, the Mujahideen and the newly established Maktab al-Khidamat had acquired a great amount of Western ally support.

The Afghan resistance groups enjoyed a large amount of war materiel that was provided by Western allies through Israel.  Britain and Switzerland provided quantities of Blowpipe Missiles and Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns, while the Americans provided seized Soviet materiel that was procured by the Israelis through the Yom Kippur War.[7]  The Soviets had integrated a federal military in addition to the 40th Red Army by this time.  Thus, the Afghanistan proxy war had begun right in the middle of their own civil war.  At this point, there was a wealth of available arms and materiel for forces to get their hands on.  Unfortunately, there were also plenty of individuals in the crossfire of these weapons and munitions.  Exacerbated worries and anger fueled more conflict, which caused it to spread throughout the nation and threatened to spill over into neighboring nations.

By 1988, the Soviets had largely been overextended in Afghanistan.  The Cold War was winding down, and the Soviets were exhausted and near collapse.  Guerrilla forces were still well established in Afghanistan, and the Western ally Operation CYCLONE was funneling in more materiel than the Soviets could keep up with.  The more tightly organized Maktab al-Khidamat had recently taken in large amounts of financial aid and leadership assistance at the time as well in Osama bin Laden, and subsequently had changed its operational name to al-Qaeda.[8]  With losses mounting, the Soviets withdrew by 1989.

Subsequent developments in the evolution of Afghanistan followed in the aftershocks of DESERT STORM and the total collapse of the Soviet Union.  In 1992, the Mujahideen had loosely organized a group of revolutionaries heavily influenced by Islamic teachings and “enlightened” thinking.  The new organization was known as the Taliban, and it the extremism it exerted would carry the Afghan Civil War into Phase III.  In 1996, Osama bin Laden called on jihad against the Americans due to their continued presence in Saudi Arabia following the Gulf War.[9]  The culmination of events here led to attacks on American soil in 1998 and finally in 2001, setting the stage for the American intervention from 2001 thru 2021.[10]

Today, the nation of Afghanistan is once again under the control of the Afghani Mujahideen in the incarnation of the Taliban.  Civil war in the small country has continued into its fifth phase and shows no immediate signs of stopping.  As of September 2021, no fewer than five sects were operating in Afghanistan.


[1] Rubin, Barnett R. The Fragmentation of Afghanistan. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut. 1995. p. 65.

[2] Mehrad, Ahmad T.; Zvolinski, V.p; Kapralova, D.O.; Niazmand, Milad Ahmad. "Assessment of Oil and Gas Resources of Northern Afghanistan and Their Impact on Energy Security in the Country." IOP Conference Series: Materials Science and Engineering. Bristol, United Kingdom. 12 DEC 2020. p976.

[3] Tomsen, Peter. The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflict, and the Failures of Great Powers. Public Affairs, Hachette, United Kingdom. 2013.

[4] Walker, Martin. The Cold War - A History. Stoddart, Toronto, Canada. 1994.

[5] Garthoff, Raymond L. Detente and Confrontation. The Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. 1994. pp. 1017-1018.

[6] Feifer, Gregory. The Great Gamble. Harper Perennial, New York, New York. 2010. pp. 169–170.

[7] Kinsella, Warren. Unholy Alliances. Lester Publishing, Winnepeg, Canada. 1992.

[8] Wright, Lawrence. The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Knopf, New York, New York. 2006.

[9] Bergen, Peter. "Al Qaeda, the Organization: A Five-Year Forecast." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 2008. p14.

[10] Eggen, Dan "Bin Laden, Most Wanted for Embassy Bombings?" The Washington Post. 28 AUG 2006.

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