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May 7, 2024

Rare Photographs From the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, 1979–1989

Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, invasion of Afghanistan in late December 1979 by troops from the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union intervened in support of the Afghan communist government in its conflict with anti-communist Muslim guerrillas during the Afghan War (1978–92) and remained in Afghanistan until mid-February 1989.

In April 1978 Afghanistan’s centrist government, headed by Pres. Mohammad Daud Khan, was overthrown by left-wing military officers led by Nur Mohammad Taraki. Power was thereafter shared by two Marxist-Leninist political groups, the People’s (Khalq) Party and the Banner (Parcham) Party—which had earlier emerged from a single organization, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan—and had reunited in an uneasy coalition shortly before the coup. The new government, which had little popular support, forged close ties with the Soviet Union, launched ruthless purges of all domestic opposition, and began extensive land and social reforms that were bitterly resented by the devoutly Muslim and largely anti-communist population. Insurgencies arose against the government among both tribal and urban groups, and all of these—known collectively as the mujahideen (Arabic mujāhidūn, “those who engage in jihad”)—were Islamic in orientation.

These uprisings, along with internal fighting and coups within the government between the People’s and Banner factions, prompted the Soviets to invade the country on the night of December 24, 1979, sending in some 30,000 troops and toppling the short-lived presidency of People’s leader Hafizullah Amin. The aim of the Soviet operation was to prop up their new but faltering client state, now headed by Banner leader Babrak Karmal, but Karmal was unable to attain significant popular support. Backed by the United States, the mujahideen rebellion grew, spreading to all parts of the country. The Soviets initially left the suppression of the rebellion to the Afghan army, but the latter was beset by mass desertions and remained largely ineffective throughout the war.

The Afghan War quickly settled down into a stalemate, with more than 100,000 Soviet troops controlling the cities, larger towns, and major garrisons and the mujahideen moving with relative freedom throughout the countryside. Soviet troops tried to crush the insurgency by various tactics, but the guerrillas generally eluded their attacks. The Soviets then attempted to eliminate the mujahideen’s civilian support by bombing and depopulating the rural areas. These tactics sparked a massive flight from the countryside; by 1982 some 2.8 million Afghans had sought asylum in Pakistan, and another 1.5 million had fled to Iran. The mujahideen were eventually able to neutralize Soviet air power through the use of shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles supplied by the Soviet Union’s Cold War adversary, the United States.

The mujahideen were fragmented politically into a handful of independent groups, and their military efforts remained uncoordinated throughout the war. The quality of their arms and combat organization gradually improved, however, owing to experience and to the large quantity of arms and other war matériel shipped to the rebels, via Pakistan, by the United States and other countries and by sympathetic Muslims from throughout the world. In addition, an indeterminate number of Muslim volunteers—popularly termed “Afghan-Arabs,” regardless of their ethnicity—traveled from all parts of the world to join the opposition.

The war in Afghanistan became a quagmire for what by the late 1980s was a disintegrating Soviet Union. (The Soviets suffered some 15,000 dead and many more injured.) Despite having failed to implement a sympathetic regime in Afghanistan, in 1988 the Soviet Union signed an accord with the United States, Pakistan, and Afghanistan and agreed to withdraw its troops. The Soviet withdrawal was completed on February 15, 1989, and Afghanistan returned to nonaligned status.

These rare color photographs taken by U.S-trained Afghans bring the U.S.S.R’s “hidden war” to light.

A fighter watches a Soviet bombardment hammer an Afghan valley. A bloody communist coup in Afghanistan in 1978 was followed a year later by a full-scale invasion by the U.S.S.R.

A militant in training scrabbles through an obstacle course. The 1979 Soviet invasion was widely condemned at the United Nations and helped fuel one of the most expensive CIA operations in history.

Members of the anti-Soviet “mujahedin,” as the jihadist fighters opposing the Soviets became known, with stacks of weaponry. Reportedly beginning in 1979, the CIA began secretly funding the Muslim militant groups that would spend the next decade fighting against the Soviets.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan meeting with Afghan mujahedin leaders in 1983. Soon the United States, together with Saudi Arabia, was funneling hundreds of millions of dollars each year to anti-Soviet militants in Afghanistan in an effort to “bleed” the Soviet Union. (U.S. Government photo)

A mujahedin fighter scans the sky after an air strike. As conditions became increasingly risky for foreign journalists inside Afghanistan (in 1984 a Soviet diplomat vowed any journalist caught with mujahedin fighters would be killed), Washington also funded a controversial program to supply Afghan rebels with cameras.

A photographer snaps a portrait of mujahedin. Beginning in 1985, American journalists began training Afghans in visual reporting.

The Afghan Media Resource Center (AMRC) handed out some 50 cameras to teams embedded with mujahedin groups to document what had become a “hidden” war because of the obstacles to foreign reporting. The photographs in this gallery are some of the 94,000 images made during the project.

A Soviet field base. More than 20 of the photographers and journalists working for the AMRC project were injured, and two were killed.

Mujahedin during a meeting in Parwan Province.

A Soviet helicopter thunders low over a village.

A Soviet-made missile being fired by the mujahedin. Most of the CIA-funded weapons supplied to the Islamic militants were made in the U.S.S.R.

Mujahedin fighters firing a recoilless rifle. A U.S. official recalled that the CIA bought such weapons from various sources, including a corrupt unit of the Soviet Army in Afghanistan.

As well as their main task of chronicling the war, the teams of AMRC photographers shot everyday life, like these money changers in Peshawar.

Soviet weaponry depicted on a carpet woven by Afghan refugees.

An air strike shatters an Afghan village. Much of the fighting was a brutal back-and-forth with mujahedin ambushes on Soviet convoys followed by Soviet aircraft wiping out villages near the sites of the attacks.

A mujahedin fighter holds the remains of a parachute bomb. The design allows ground-attack jets to drop bombs at low altitude without being caught up by the explosion.

A guerrilla commander lies dying after being shot by a “Soviet spy” during a wedding party.

Dummies of Soviet soldiers. The sign reads, “The sisters of Shahr-e Naw” — a neighborhood in Kabul — “are crying, while the sisters of communists are prettying up their eyes.”

The corpse of a Soviet soldier. More than 14,000 Soviet troops were killed during the nine-year war.

The body of an Afghan man killed in a Soviet bombardment. At least 500,000 Afghan civilians were killed and 5 million more — or one-third of the population — displaced.

A rare picture of Soviet soldiers with Afghan men. One soldier bitterly recalled being told that “we were helping the Afghan people to end feudalism and build a wonderful socialist society.”

A defaced communist mural.

Alcohol seized by a mujahedin group, probably before being destroyed.

A fighter at a heavy machine gun. Some of the mujahedin groups financed by the CIA were radical Islamists that would later form groups designated as “terrorist organizations.” Although Osama bin Laden fought against the Soviets, it is disputed whether he ever received U.S. assistance.

A “butterfly mine” lying in wait for a victim. Millions of the cellphone-sized devices were dropped from Soviet aircraft across Afghanistan. The jungle-colored mines were easily spotted and avoided by fighters, but many injured curious children.

Soviet soldiers prod for land mines on a road in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Province. One troop recalled, “There was no such thing as a peaceful population, they were all guerrilla fighters.”

An Afghan man wielding an Italian-made antitank mine.

A captured identity card for a Soviet soldier named Ivan Zavarzin.

A soldier who had defected from the Soviet Army and converted to Islam. By the end of the war, some 200 Soviet troops who had deserted or been captured remained behind in Afghanistan, where several still live today.

Soviet soldiers on patrol. Accusations of atrocities during the war further tarnished the Soviet Union’s image. After catching Afghan children torturing wounded comrades, one soldier admitted rounding up several women and children, pouring kerosene on them, and burning them alive.

(via RFE/RL)


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