The Soviet-Afghan War at Forty: The “Shocks of ‘79” and the Coming of the Second Cold War

In the early morning hours of Christmas Day 1979, Soviet forces began invading Afghanistan. The international community was shocked by the intervention; even though Afghanistan had been unstable for some time, most assumed that the Soviet Union would stick to its usual policy of indirect aid. Soviet policymakers, however, had several reasons for taking action when they did, including the deterioration of détente with the United States, alarm at the Afghan regime’s behavior, the desire to replace President Hafizullah Amin with a more pliable ruler, fears of foreign interference in Afghanistan, and national security concerns.

For American President Jimmy Carter, the invasion was the latest and most troubling in a series of foreign policy crises. In January 1979, the Shah of Iran—previously the United States’ staunchest ally in the Middle East—had fled the country due to the Islamic Revolution led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

From late February to mid-March 1979, a border war between the Western-aligned Yemen Arab Republic (YAR, a.k.a. North Yemen) and the pro-Soviet People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY, a.k.a. South Yemen) had threatened to plunge the Arabian Peninsula into a major conflict threatening the security of Saudi Arabia, a key source of oil for the West. President Carter redeployed the USS Constellation from the Pacific Ocean into the Gulf of Aden and expedited arms shipments to the YAR. The conflict ended with a ceasefire in mid-March.

While Carter’s actions in the Yemen crisis were certainly a reaction to domestic pressures in the wake of the Shah of Iran’s fall, they were chiefly an assertion of American power in a region where that power had recently been tested, not least by the Soviets and their friends. This show of American resolve aimed to reassure U.S. allies and the American public that the United States would not watch while its friends were attacked.

On November 4, Iranian students stormed the American embassy in Tehran, taking U.S. diplomats and citizens hostage, beginning what ultimately became a 444-day diplomatic standoff that only ended once Carter left office in January 1981. Less than three weeks after the attack on the embassy in Tehran, the American embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan was stormed and burned to the ground by Pakistani nationals who had heard false radio reports that the ongoing “Siege of Mecca” in Saudi Arabia included American attacks against Muslim holy sites in that city. On December 2, just days after the top Libyan representative in the United States had guaranteed the protection of the American embassy in Tripoli, a mob sacked that embassy. Not only had the Libyan government failed to provide adequate security, but Libyan authorities failed to respond during the attack itself.

These successive attacks on American embassies in Muslim countries augured poorly for U.S. relations with the Islamic world. America’s image in the Muslim world had already been hurt by its role in the conclusion of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in March 1979 and moves to create a consultative security framework in the Middle East and Persian Gulf regions. This consultative security framework aimed to stabilize an increasingly volatile region against both internal subversion by indigenous radicals and external attack by the Soviet Union and its friends.

Amid the ongoing oil crisis, the Carter administration feared the possibility of the Soviets conquering Saudi Arabia and other key oil-producing states. Such an action would cut off the West’s primary source of oil and greatly help the Soviets and their allies.

Thus, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in late December, the White House was extremely alarmed.

Writing to Carter less than a week after the invasion, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski noted that, not only was Afghanistan the first country the Soviets had invaded since 1945, but “it is also the seventh state since 1975 in which communist parties have come to power with Soviet guns and tanks, with Soviet military advisors and assistance (Vietnam, Angola, Laos, South Yemen, Cambodia, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan).” To drive home the need for an American response, Brzezinski noted that “four of these takeovers have occurred since January 1977 [i.e. Carter’s inauguration]. We can expect the number to rise considerably above the present seven unless the U.S. can galvanize effective resistance.”

While Brzezinski’s memorandum was something of a “told-you-so” to his boss, since he had long urged Carter to stiffen his policy toward the Soviets, Carter could be forgiven for his surprise at the invasion, which caught most countries—and the American intelligence community—off-guard. As CIA historian Douglas MacEachin writes, “This was not because of an absence of intelligence information on Soviet preparations for the move. It was that the operation being prepared was contrary to what intelligence analysts had expected Moscow would be willing to do.”

Indeed, many top Soviet officials had opposed the invasion based on its negative geopolitical ramifications. When the chief of the Soviet general staff warned against the invasion on these grounds, KGB chief Yuri Andropov told him: “Stick to military affairs! We, the Party, and [Soviet leader] Leonid Il’ich [Brezhnev] will handle policy!”

Unfortunately for the Soviets, the invasion would mark the beginning of an almost 10-year-long quagmire in Afghanistan. It was also the last nail in the coffin of the Soviet-American détente that had dominated the 1970s, as President Carter drastically hardened his policy toward the Soviets. While partly in response to domestic political pressures, this hardening was best encapsulated in Carter’s 1980 State of the Union address, during which he propagated what came to be known as the “Carter Doctrine:” “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan prompted not only the collapse of détente and the return of Cold War tensions, but it also precipitated American sponsorship of the mujahidin fighters who fought the Soviets. Among the mujahidin was a young Saudi oil tycoon by the name of Osama bin Laden, who would lure the United States into its own Afghanistan quagmire in 2001, from which it has been unable to extract itself.

The events of 1979 remain with us today. Forty years later, we still deal with the results, especially in Iran and Afghanistan.

, The Soviet-Afghan War at Forty: The “Shocks of ‘79” and the Coming of the Second Cold War

About Benjamin V. Allison

Benjamin V. Allison is an incoming History PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin. He graduated from Grove City College with a BA in 2018, and from Kent State University with an MA in 2020. He specializes in the history of US foreign and national security policy, especially with regard to the Middle East and Russia. His master’s thesis and future dissertation examine US policy toward the radical Arab states during the Carter and Reagan administrations. Learn more at www.benjaminvallison.com.

View All Posts