Thirty years ago this month, Soviet airborne troops parachuted into Kabul and began a fateful occupation that became Mikhail Gorbachev’s Vietnam. Here’s the inside story of how it happened, as told by the KGB general who planned it.
I was the head of the KGB's foreign counterintelligence branch when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Dec. 24, 1979. The fateful order to send our military into such difficult terrain was by no means a foregone conclusion. Before Soviet leaders made the final call, we wrung our hands, considered our options, and argued among ourselves. Here is the inside story of how that wrenching decision was made.
At the time, I viewed Afghanistan as a country within the Soviet sphere of interest and thought we had to do whatever possible to prevent the Americans and the CIA from installing an anti-Soviet regime there. How wrong I would turn out to be.
My first and only trip to Afghanistan came in August 1978. Four months earlier, a pro-Communist coup headed by Noor Mohammad Taraki had overthrown the government of Mohammad Daoud, killing him and his family. Moscow had not been overjoyed by news of the coup, for in Daoud we had enjoyed a stable ally and relative peace along our southern border.
Reports soon began to filter back to KGB headquarters in Moscow of growing Islamic opposition in Afghanistan to the new Taraki regime. My KGB colleague Vladimir Kryuchkov and I were then sent to Kabul on a fact-finding mission. Our objectives included signing a cooperation agreement between the Soviet and Afghan intelligence services.
What we found on the ground was not encouraging. Kabul struck me as a big village, with worse poverty than I had seen on my prior visits to India. We had wanted to visit the southeastern city of Jalalabad, but Afghan officials said it was not safe -- a troubling signal that the situation was less rosy than our hosts portrayed it.
Kryuchkov and I proceeded to meet the Afghan leaders who had slaughtered their opponents to gain power, and who later would die by the sword themselves.
Taraki, who had co-founded Afghanistan's Communist party in 1965 and personally ordered the murder of Daoud, was by then a fragile, stooped old man. In his advancing age, he struck me as a fuss-budget given to general utterances, and I saw then that he didn't have the physical strength or the political backing to continue to lead the country for long.
The man who eventually would depose Taraki, Hafizullah Amin, was a far more physically impressive figure. Amin was a dark, handsome man with glittering eyes. He was the shrewdest and most literate of the officials I met in Afghanistan, and when we discovered that we had both studied in New York at Columbia University, we hit it off immediately. We spoke to each other in English and reminisced about old haunts and familiar landmarks in the Big Apple. When we parted he gave me a big hug and invited me back as his personal guest. (I would never get the chance. The following year, KGB special forces troops gunned down Amin at the presidential palace as Soviet troops took over the city.)
In several meetings during that 1978 visit, I spoke with top officers from the Afghan police and state security, instructing them on how to fight the growing CIA presence in Kabul and throughout the country. The Afghans had almost no experience with the Americans, and I told them, among other things, about how to follow and eavesdrop on American intelligence agents. We later provided them cameras and electronic listening equipment.
"You have lots of American agents here and good opportunities to work against them," I told the Afghan security officers. "We'll do everything we can to help you." Throughout the visit, we were treated as elder brothers, and I left feeling that, although opposition was growing, the situation was relatively well in hand.
After that trip, I returned to Moscow, where on the orders of KGB chief Yuri Andropov, I drew up a plan of active measures and general strategy for Afghanistan. My list included the following ideas:
- The Afghans should gather evidence on the training of Islamic guerrilla groups in Pakistan and then publicly accuse Pakistan of unleashing aggression against the Afghan people.
- The Afghan leadership should send a letter to the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini professing support for the Iranian revolution and expressing hope the two governments will work closely together.
- The rebels in the Herat area should be declared mercenaries of U.S. imperialism and world Zionism, as well as remnants of the overthrown Iranian monarchy.
- American citizens suspected of CIA affiliations should be expelled from Afghanistan.
- Pro-government clergy should address the people and rallies should be held among youth, workers, and peasants in support of the revolution.
- Popular militias and committees "In Defense of the Revolution" should be established.
- The rebels' rear should be raided to destroy their radio transmitters, bases, and munitions warehouses.
- More pro-Taraki radio stations must be created inside the country and the number of Afghan broadcasts from stations inside the Soviet Union should be increased.
- Soviet advisers should be sent into Afghanistan, reconnaissance flights over Afghanistan should be increased, and Soviet troops on the Afghan border should be reinforced and put on combat alert.
However, as would soon be evident, Afghanistan would not bend to our will. In the fall of 1979, after Amin murdered Taraki, the situation in Afghanistan was clearly deteriorating.
KGB officers on the ground argued that if Moscow did not intervene more aggressively, Amin would surely be overthrown and an Islamic government installed. I attended a meeting of KGB intelligence and Soviet military intelligence in which the GRU [Soviet military intelligence] chief, General Ivashutin, argued strenuously for an invasion. "There is no other alternative but to introduce our troops to support the Afghan government and crush the rebels," he said.
Still, Andropov remained against the introduction of troops. Only under pressure from Defense Minister Dimitri Ustinov did he reluctantly come around to the view that the Soviet military would have to invade.
From that moment on, the KGB played a pivotal role in the events in Afghanistan. Indeed, all intelligence information -- from the GRU, the KGB, and the foreign ministry -- had to be funneled through KGB intelligence before being presented to the Politburo in Moscow.
That was a serious mistake. My KGB colleagues began filtering out bad news, exaggerating our achievements, and telling then-general secretary of the Communist party Leonid Brezhnev and the Politburo what they wanted to hear. It only prolonged the war and the suffering.
Unfortunately, the pivotal decision to invade Afghanistan was one we could not take back.