35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, 1979: Not Trump’s Terrorists, Nor Zbig’s Warm Water Ports

Published: Jan 29, 2019
Briefing Book #657

Edited by Tom Blanton and Svetlana Savranskaya

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Declassified Documents Show Moscow’s Fear of an Afghan Flip,

U.S. Diplomat’s Meeting with Afghan Leader Helped Put Soviets Over the Edge

Washington D.C., January 28, 2019 – President Trump’s claim that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to get rid of terrorists who were coming over the border is false, according to declassified U.S. and Soviet documents posted today by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

Just as false, according to the documents, were the repeated U.S. media assertions at the time, driven by President Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, that the Soviet motivation was “the age-long dream of Moscow to have direct access to the Indian Ocean” (Document 8).

Soviet Politburo documents that first became available in the 1990s show the real Soviet fear was that the head of the Afghan Communist regime, Hafizullah Amin, was about to go over to the Americans.  (Egyptian president Anwar Sadat famously flipped in 1972, ejected thousands of Soviet advisers, and became the second largest recipient, after Israel, of U.S. foreign aid.) 

Earlier in 1979, the Kremlin leadership had refused repeated Afghan requests for expanded military support including troops, , as shown by the records of detailed Politburo debates in March 1979 and multiple subsequent demurrals.  According to the documents, a dramatic change in Soviet thinking finally occurred in October 1979.    Soviet leaders had been monitoring an array of disturbing developments in Afghanistan’s political scene, including extensive violent repression by their clients despite Soviet advice, a rising insurgency, and a shootout at the Kabul palace on September 14 that put Amin in power, replacing his party leader Nur Mohammed Taraki.  (The previous week, Taraki had visited Moscow and been embraced by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.)

Two October 1979 events in particular set off Moscow’s alarms, according to the documents and subsequent analyses by Afghan veteran Gen. Alexander Lyakhovsky[1] and senior Soviet diplomat Georgy Kornienko[2]: Amin’s murder of his predecessor Taraki on October 8, and Amin’s reception of acting American Chargé d’Affaires Archer Blood on October 27.

The documents directly contradict President Trump’s stream of consciousness claim in his January 2, 2019 Cabinet meeting:

“The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there. The problem is, it was a tough fight. And literally they went bankrupt; they went into being called Russia again, as opposed to the Soviet Union. You know, a lot of these places you’re reading about now are no longer part of Russia, because of Afghanistan.”

None of the Soviet documents list terrorists going into the USSR as a concern in 1979.  The Soviet worry was the incompetence and worse of their Afghan Communist clients, the declining Soviet influence (much less control) in the country, and the possibility of Afghanistan going over to the Americans.[3]

According to Soviet thinking, Afghanistan was a natural target for the U.S.  In January 1979, the Iranian revolution had forced the abdication of long-time American ally Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.  The advent of a hostile regime led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was a devastating blow for the United States in a vital region of the world.  The Kremlin worried that Washington would try to shore up some of its lost influence through Afghanistan (and, importantly, find a replacement location for the highly secretive monitoring sites it had maintained in Iran to track Soviet missile activities).

Amin reached out to the Americans in early October, as reported by the American chargé in Kabul, J. Bruce Amstutz, in a Confidential cable obtained by the National Security Archive through the Freedom of Information Act:  “The Afghan president made clear to me that he is open to see any designated USG mission chief” (Document 1). 

But Amstutz was about to embark on a six-week leave, he was wary of “raising expectations we cannot later meet,” and a garrison mutiny against Amin and a “deplorable series of executions” by Amin were underway, so he recommended postponing any call on Amin by him and chargé-designate Archer Blood. (Blood had been sent up from New Delhi to fill in for Amstutz, having previously served as DCM in Kabul in the 1960s.)

Amstutz had met Amin on several occasions in 1979, mostly ceremonial, and none involved extended conversation (after one such session, Amstutz assured Washington the total elapsed time was only 19 minutes with the first 4 minutes only photos).  Amstutz’s cables to Washington included quotes from observers of the Afghan Communists as “a bunch of scorpions biting each other to death” (September 18, 1979 cable) and Amin as having “a semi-psychopathic desire to humiliate and revenge himself against the United States” (August 25, 1979 cable).[4] 

Blood’s encounter with Amin on October 27, 1979 (Document 2) was much more friendly, concluding that Amin genuinely wanted better U.S.-Afghan relations.  Blood speculated whether that was because of Amin’s own hedging against too much Soviet dependence, his need for financial assistance, his just wanting to sow confusion among the Pakistanis, Iranians, Saudis and insurgents opposing him, or even Soviet coaching!

Blood remarked in his cable that his call on Amin (but not the substance) had been the lead item on both the English and Dari language news in Kabul on October 27, that Amin’s English was “very good” (he had studied at Columbia University in New York), and that the meeting was “forty minutes alone” with an “impressive” Amin.

The National Security Archive obtained through the Freedom of Information Act a copy of Blood’s cable reporting on his session with Amin, and the State Department has since published a transcription of the cable in the latest (December 2018) volume of the Foreign Relations of the U.S. series, along with several of the Amstutz cables except for the October 15 one published here.

Immediately after the Blood-Amin meeting on October 27, the Soviet documents show heightened suspicions of Amin as a potential traitor who might be planning “a change in the political line of Afghanistan in a direction which is pleasing to Washington” (Document 3), or worse:  “we have been receiving information about Amin’s behind-the-scenes activities which might mean his political reorientation to the West.  He keeps his contacts with the American chargé d’affaires secret from us.”  (Document 4).

Instead of the extensive debate and consultation with experts that characterized the March 1979 Politburo-level refusal to send Soviet troops to Afghanistan, decision-making in late 1979 centered in a small group of top officials headed by KGB chief Yuri Andropov, who increasingly sought intervention.  His representative in Kabul, KGB General Boris Ivanov, was the only senior Soviet there who was not replaced in the October-to-December period as the Soviets saw their influence declining, perhaps because Ivanov favored intervention and the others did not.[5] 

The Andropov December memo set off the rapid decision process to the military intervention that the Politburo had declined earlier in 1979.  According to Gen. Alexander Lyakhovsky’s detailed and documented account (Document 5), Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov agreed with Andropov in early December but insisted on sending 75,000 troops – over the objections of his top Army leaders – and not just depending on special forces or those already in Kabul. 

In a December 8 meeting, the core group of Andropov and Ustinov, with the compliant Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko (who had by then given up on U.S.-Soviet relations, according to his top aide Georgy Kornienko), convinced Brezhnev to agree to their plan.  Brezhnev’s own turning point, according to Kornienko as well as Gromyko’s own memoirs, had been the murder of Taraki in October. 

According to former Soviet Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Dobrynin (reading from his personal notes of documents he saw in the Presidential Archive in Moscow in 1995), the December 8, 1979 meeting with Brezhnev included the following alarm:  “In their argument for a military intervention in case Afghanistan is lost, Ustinov and Andropov cited dangers to the southern borders of the Soviet Union and a possibility of American short-range missiles being deployed in Afghanistan and aimed at strategic objectives in Kazakhstan, Siberia, and other places.”[6]  In addition to the U.S. missiles, Lyakhovsky’s account cited CIA activity threatening the southern USSR republics and possible Pakistani annexation of parts of Afghanistan, among other threats arising from Amin’s possible re-orientation to the West. (Document 5

On December 12, the core group (Andropov, Ustinov, Gromyko) took the decision memo “On the Situation in ‘A’” (personally handwritten by future party secretary Konstantin Chernenko – with Brezhnev’s assent – so that not even Kremlin typists would see it) to the Politburo for their complicity, and there was no debate:  those present simply signed diagonally across the page.  The format of the document suggests Chernenko drafted the memo as a “resolution of the Central Committee” and then added attendees’ names in smaller scribbling at the top.  Some signatures are missing, notably Alexei Kosygin, who had been the lead voice in March 1979 refusing intervention – by Kornienko’s account, Kosygin was sick in the hospital in December.  Other members signed the document as late as December 26.[7]

Many of these key details first emerged in 1995, when the Norwegian Nobel Institute (working with the Watson Institute at Brown University, and the National Security Archive) brought senior Soviet veterans of the Afghanistan decisions (including Anatoly Dobrynin, Gen. Valentin Varennikov, the KGB’s Leonid Shebarshin, the Central Committee’s Karen Brutents, the Foreign Ministry’s Sergei Tarasenko, and military historian Gen. Lyakhovsky) to Lysebu, Norway, for a critical oral history conference.  On the other side of the table were U.S. veterans including former CIA Director Stansfield Turner, NSC staffers Gen. William Odom and Gary Sick, and the State Department’s Marshall Shulman and Mark Garrison).  On the table was a thick briefing book of key documents compiled by the National Security Archive, with the help of the Freedom of Information Act.

Despite multiple lacunae, this documentary record from 1995 and from more recent Freedom of Information releases – as well as the new State Department history volume – is sufficiently robust to disprove President Trump’s version of Soviet motives, and to debunk Dr. Brzezinski’s advice to President Carter – long believed by many Western observers at the time – that the Afghan invasion was Soviet expansionism towards the Indian Ocean rather than Soviet defensiveness about possible U.S. bases on their southern flank. 


Read the documents:


[1] The single most useful documentary source in Russian continues to be the three editions of the invaluable study by Gen. Lyakhovsky, The Tragedy and Valor of the Afghani (1995, 2004, 2009).  A long-time partner and collaborator of the National Security Archive, Gen. Lyakhovsky saw his duty to history as including the publication in full as well as in excerpts of dozens of otherwise unavailable General Staff, Politburo, and Central Committee documents, many of which are no longer available to scholars, if they ever were.

[2] See Georgy M. Kornienko, The Cold War: Testimony of a Participant (Moscow, Mezhdunarodnye otnosheniya, 1994), and the excerpt published here as Document 7.

[3] The most useful recent reconstruction of the Soviet invasion decisions appears in the remarkable book Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-1989 (Profile, 2011) by the former British ambassador to Moscow, Rodric Braithwaite.  Drawing on the post-Amin trials of the killers of Taraki as well as the extensive Russian-language literature, Braithwaite concludes that the murder of Taraki was the turning point toward the Soviet invasion, that the core Moscow concern was the possible loss of the Soviet position in Afghanistan, that “Russians slithered towards a military intervention because they could not think of a better alternative” (p. 57), and that it was “probably inevitable that they should now plan for the worst case: a significant strengthening of their enemy’s position right on their southern border” (p. 79).

[4] The two cables are included in the State Department history volume, Foreign Relations of the United States: 1977-1980, Afghanistan, Volume XII, published in December 2018.  See p. 184 and p.175.

[5] Ivanov’s still cloudy role points to the difficulties in a valuable but problematic source for historians: the file of notes from KGB archives brought to the West in 1992 by former KGB officer Vasily Mitrokhin (1922-2004).  Mitrokhin produced an extensive working paper on the KGB in Afghanistan for the Cold War International History Project full of specific details like the exact ruble amounts spent by KGB agents on meals for the Prague-based Afghans whom the Soviets brought in to replace Amin.  But Mitrokhin did not cite to specific documents, leaving the reader to credit his notes; and his published working paper included quotes from items that he would not have had access to, such as Andropov’s memo to Brezhnev that existed in a single copy in the Kremlin archive (which Mitrokhin almost certainly copied from National Security Archive and CWIHP publications).  Yet the Mitrokhin materials are useful on the splits among the Afghan Communists, and the KGB’s closer association with the Babrak Karmal faction, brought in during the December invasion, while Soviet army advisers had been more inclined toward the Amin faction.

[6] Before coming to the conference in Norway in 1995, Dobrynin personally visited the Kremlin archive (officially the Archive of the President of the Russian Federation) and transcribed the Andropov memo and other documents.  See the Lysebu transcript, pp. 91-92, which is part of the National Security Archive’s extensive “Carter-Brezhnev Project” page. 

[7] Russian President Boris Yeltsin had ordered declassification of the “Situation in ‘A’” memo as part of the prosecution of the Communist Party in 1992, a file now known as “Fond 89” which includes many of the available Politburo records on Afghanistan.  The Cold War International History Project Bulletin published the “Situation in ‘A’” document in its Fall 1994 issue (p. 46), and published a large selection of the Lysebu briefing book documents in Bulletin 8-9 (Winter 1996/1997), pp. 128-184, together with an excellent overview essay by Odd Arne Westad of the Nobel Institute (now at Harvard University).

[8] The premier treatment of the full length of the Soviet war in Afghanistan is by Artemy Kalinovsky in his book, A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Harvard, 2011), which both provides lessons for today’s U.S. presence and gives an excellent summary of the evidence on the Soviet decision to invade in the first place.  For a specific debunking of the Brzezinski Nouvel Observateur interview, see Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (Penguin, 2004), p. 581.