Leonid Brezhnev was the Soviet Premier during the height of the cold war. His mind deteriorated in his golden years, and the Soviet Union drifted, rudderless. The occupation of Afghanistan, one of Brezhnev’s worst mistakes, embodies the failure of the Soviet dream. Determined to defeat his enemies, he lost sight of Soviet social ideals and ignored economic erosion. The Soviets ended up an ethically and financially bankrupt regime destined to die an unmourned death not more than a year after they withdrew from Afghanistan.
In 1978, a tiny group of Afghan communists seized power in Kabul. They launched well-meaning reforms of women’s rights and land distribution. Conservative Afghan tribes were outraged. Islamists organized resistance and called for holy war. This frightened the Soviets as they feared it might spread across the border into Muslim majority areas of the Soviet Union. Faced with a failing communist government right across the border, Brezhnev sent Russian advisers to help. But they only made the communists look like foreign puppets, the kiss of death in Afghanistan.
Mobs in the city of Herat lynched Soviet advisers and their families. The death toll was over 300 in all, many dismembered in the streets. Worse, an Afghan army captain named Ismail Khan, took over the garrison and distributed weapons to the mob. At this point Brezhnev should have realized Afghanistan was a trap and kept out of it. But he already had a no-concessions policy in eastern Europe, and he wasn’t willing to show weakness in Muslim Asia either. Brezhnev bombed Herat, killing 20,000 people and sent the Red Army across the border to secure the country.
While Brezhnev’s mind expired in advance of his body, his Afghan adventure turned nightmarish. The countryside refused to cooperate with the government and bands of mujahideen (holy warriors) hunted Soviet convoys along the supply routes. The United States, Pakistan, Iran, China, and the Saudis sent money and weapons to help the mujahideen kill Russians. Brutal Soviet tactics that murdered millions of ordinary Afghans obscured their traditional message of social justice, disillusioned Arab countries, and angered Muslim populations within the Soviet Union. We should not laugh at our enemy’s embarrassment though, we have not left intact yet.