The Bitter Soviet Experience in Afghanistan

The implications of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan could pose the most serious threat to the peace since the Second World War. The vast majority of nations on Earth have condemned this latest Soviet attempt to extend its colonial domination of others and have demanded the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops.

Jimmy Carter, US President
January 23 1980


This edition of the Aidan Project blog is a critical précis of Paul Dibb’s 2010 journal article, The Soviet Experience in Afghanistan: Lessons to be Learned, from the Australian Journal of International Affairs. Dibb, a former intelligence operative, now Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at The Australian National University, provided an insightful and reflective article, the conclusions of which remain prescient some six years later. Indeed, the future of the Middle East, with a new American President taking office in January of 2017, is as uncertain as ever. The article draws attention to lessons from history, which must not be easily dispensed with.

Whilst primarily examining the USSR’s war in Afghanistan, Dibb’s article further places the conflict in a broader context, also questioning the role the invasion had in the collapse of the USSR, and concludes in comparing the Soviet challenges in Afghanistan with those experienced by the Western allies. It should be noted that this article was published four years before the Western allies left Afghanistan, at a time when the exit strategy of the US-led coalition was a significant issue.

Dibb explains that the USSR became entangled in Afghanistan in April 1978 in an attempt to steady an unpopular coup d’état by Soviet-trained socialists. Enlightened as he is with information from Soviet archives and Australian intelligence reports, Dibb shines a light on the intentions, mistakes and legacy of what is represented within the article as a disastrous war.

The invasion, Dibb notes, was doomed from the beginning, detailing that a former Soviet ambassador had written in his diary that the invasion was a gross miscalculation. It is the theme of miscalculation that Dibb asserts was the reason for the invasion’s failure, inflicted as it was on a populace who did not support the communist mantra (including well-armed, resolute Mujahedeen), and a Politburo at home who were ignorant of the political situation on the ground. Dibb identifies that the Politburo read politics from the bible of Marx and Lenin, which offered little on navigating the tribal politics of a land they could in no way relate to.

Dibb reports that the primary motivation for the Soviets was its continuing desire to one-up its Cold War foe, the United States, during an era when Moscow was arguably the major power. A successful foray into Afghanistan, Dibb explains, could have secured the acquisition of ports in the Persian Gulf, and there were genuine concerns in Washington about Soviet ambitions.

As Dibb demonstrates, Moscow had a clear intention in committing to the invasion, and had achieved successful interventionist and expansive results in proceeding years. However, Afghanistan, as detailed by Dibb, was a step too far, because whilst the initial invasion itself was well organised, the ideology the Soviets were attempting to impose was akin to putting square pegs in round holes.

Indeed, as the war carried on, Dibb states that military leadership were calling for a withdrawal, but the concerns over the perception of doing so was anathema to the Politburo, regardless of the considerable loss of prestige they were already facing at home, where returning soldiers told their communities the reality of the conflict.

Dibb explains that the regime was experiencing a leadership crisis, with several changes at the top before Mikhail Gorbachev took the reigns in 1985. Gorbachev, asserts Dibb, was keen to end the disaster, but lacked an immediate plan, with the exit taking a further four years. However, Dibb elucidates that the USSR was on an economic deathbed, one from which it could not escape, regardless of the conflict in Afghanistan.

Dibb draws several parallels between the grim experience of the Soviets in Afghanistan and that of the US, and despite noting some differences, Dibb concludes that there is (was) a definite sense of history repeating itself; notably unconventional wars with little end in sight, causing a loss of face for the superpower involved. Dibb argues that comparing the US experience in Afghanistan to that of the USSR is far more appropriate than comparing it to the US war in Vietnam, noting a similar troop commitment. The irony of Dibb’s argument is that the Soviets followed the US debacle in Vietnam by its doomed gesture of invading Afghanistan.

In conclusion, Dibb’s article is a convincing account of the follies of an ill-conceived invasion in a forlorn attempt to mark one’s territory on the world stage. Dibb describes a disastrous overreach from a regime in crisis, especially one with such dire domestic problems, though Dibb explains that the war itself was not the direct cause of its demise, though it played its part. The essence of Dibb’s article is its culminating comparison of the Soviet experience to a later one by the US, for which it provides a cautionary tale on heeding the lessons of history.


Further reading

P. Dibb, ‘The Soviet experience in Afghanistan: lessons to be learned?’ Australian Journal of International Affairs, 64, 5 (2010), pp. 495-509.

Film recommendation

9th Company, dir. by F. Bondarchuk, (Art Pictures Group, 2005).


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