Graveyard of Empires – The disastrous Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan: by Andrew Grant

Soviet Sniper in Afghanistan during Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan; Unknown year, potentially 1979.

Introduction: The Graveyard of Empires
Afghanistan has often been called the “graveyard of empires”, throughout its long history, many invaders have attempted to conquer the land, but been repelled and driven back. Even when they were conquered, they resisted and tossed out the invaders. Its mountainous terrain has been a great tool, which made it hard to conquer, much less pacify. The Brits, the Tsars, and many dreamed of adding Afghanistan to their empire but never saw that dream come to fruition. The Soviets were one of many invaders, and despite having gained control of the cities and population centers of the country, the resistance in the countryside, and the heavy loss of life, forcing them to draw back in humiliation. In 1979 the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, at the request of the local Communist government to help squash unrest, a bloody decade-long conflict would ensue, and would be seen by many as the “Afghan Quagmire.”

Brenzhnev’s Foreign Policy: Brotherhood in Socialism
Brenzhnev during the era pursued building socialism in the third world and in developing countries, particularly in recently decolonized nations in Africa and Asia. Brenzhnev pursued a policy of detente with the West. During the period of Brenzhnev many agreements were signed with the United States limiting nuclear arms building and decreasing their stockpiles. Eventually near the end of the decade, old animosities with the West would start to reemerge, particularly with regards to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The West did not react kindly to the invasion of Afghanistan and as such the United States would back Islamist dissidents in Afghanistan, arming and training them to fight back the “Bolsheviks Hordes” (Freeze 445-446).

Brenzhnev intervened in Afghanistan at the request of the socialist government in Kabul. He saw it as an opportunity to further Soviet influence in the region and to strengthen a potential partner in a strategically vital region. The Soviets had just a year before the invasion signed a friendship pact with the Afghan government in 1978. The Afghan government, dealing with massive dissent from religious Afghans and rural workers, asked the Soviets to help them. The Soviets justified their intervention in the name of “defending the gains of the revolution” (von Geldern). The Soviets were also worried about the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, which had taken hold in Iran, which could cause dissent and issues in their own Islamic lands.

The “Jihad” against Bolshevism, Islamic resistance to Invasion
Similar to how many in the German Reich in the Second World War framed their war against the Soviets as a “crusade” against Marxism, even going so far to name their invasion after Barbarossa the German Crusader King, Friedrich Barbarossa, many Islamic Fundamentalists, would portray their fight in a similar religious fashion. They would portray it as a “holy war”, against Marxist “atheism.” Many from across the Islamic world would join the Afghan fighters, in their fight against the Soviet Union. They saw it as a struggle for the survival of their faith in Afghanistan, which was under threat from the highly anti-religious policies of the Afghan regime. Pakistan and the US, fearing the implications of a successful Soviet invasion, backed Islamic “freedom fighters” in their struggle against the Soviet Union.

In January 1980, 35 Islamic countries met in Islamabad, Pakistan to join together in condemnation of the Soviet invasion that had started the previous month. They urged all Islamic countries to not recognize the Communist regime in Afghanistan. These condemnations did not deter the Soviet Union though and they largely faded in memory, until the US started organizing a “great Jihad against the Soviets.” In 1979, Jimmy Carter feared looking weak in the face of Soviet Aggression, and took to harsh measures, boycotting the Moscow Olympics, withdrawing from arms treaties, and funded Islamic partisans, the Mujaradeen (freedom fighters) against the Soviets. The Mujahadeen was armed with American arms, rocket launchers, assault rifles, etc., they would recruit from across the Muslim world, from Morocco to Pakistan, Islamists would volunteer to fight against the “Soviet Menace” (Hoodbhoy)

Soviet Sniper: Primary Source Image in Context
We can see in the first image, a Red Army sniper in Afganistan. Snipers used the terrain to their advantage, to pick off resistance from afar. He has the scope to his eye to search out his target and to pick off the enemy. The terrain and the guerrila-based fighting that the Red Army encountered in Afghanistan made pitched battles, next to impossible. Almost all of it was small scale, fights. We can see the sniper is not near anyone, he is by himself. Pitched battles and conventional styles of warfare were not possible in this environment.

The beginning of the end: Implications of the Afghan Quagmire for the Soviet Union
The Soviet Union had entered the war, with arrogance, believing it would be a quick campaign, but would be greatly disappointed and shocked at the amount of resistance they would face in the country. The Soviet press in 1980 had reported that “life in Afghanistan’s capital is proceeding normally. Radio Kabul reports that calm has been established everywhere and that the Afghan Army is in complete control of the situation in the country” (“Decisions of the Afghan Government”). The fight would grind into a bloody attritional war, that would cost 10’s of thousands of Soviet lives, drive the Soviet economy into the ground, and give way to domestic opposition, all factors that would lead to the eventual far of the Soviet Union a mere 12 years after the invasion began. The Afghan war was a complete disaster, the Taliban gained control in the country, destroy the Soviet Union’s international standing, and even lead to Islamic extremism within Russia itself (“The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, 1979”).


“Decisions of the Afghan Government” Current Digest of the Russian Press, 6 Feb. 1980,

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: a History. 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009. pg. 445-446

Hoodbhoy, Pervez. “Afghanistan and the Genesis of Global Jihad.” Peace Research, vol. 37, no. 1, 2005, pp. 15–30. JSTOR,

“The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, 1979.” Blinders, Blunders, and Wars: What America and China Can Learn, by David C. Gompert et al., RAND Corporation, 2014, pp. 129–138. JSTOR,

von Geldern, James. “Invasion of Afghanistan.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, Michigan State University, 18 June 2017,

4 Replies to “Graveyard of Empires – The disastrous Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan: by Andrew Grant”

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful discussion! Your approach is similar to Eric’s who also picked up on the “Graveyard of Empires” theme:
    I appreciate your analysis of the photo of the sniper — but one thing that always comes to mind with these kinds of shots, is “who is the photographer?” Do you think this was a staged shot for a newspaper or archive? It doesn’t look like a candid shot of “my buddy the sniper,” for example. I’m just curious.

    1. Andrew Grant – Thank you for your comment Dr. Nelson. I believe it was likely staged for propaganda or archival purposes. Newspapers could show images of “their heroes” away fighting for the “Motherland” away in the mountains of Afghanistan. From the source database I got the image from, they had a variety of images that dealt with the war in Afghanistan, primarily showing photos of snipers. They likely drew the photos from an archive. Photographers during wartime, often don’t take photos of the battles themselves (as they are bloody and full of carnage), they often get poses of the soldiers in “position”, or doing other tasks.

  2. Hey Andrew, great post! I wrote on this topic as well but I really enjoyed your approach. You dove into Brenzhnev’s Foreign Policy which laid a good foundation for the post. Also I really enjoyed the pictures in your blog, there are so many good pictures out there.

    1. Thank you very much for your comment. Yes I choose those pictures from a special Russian database for the Afghan war. Yes, Brenzhev’s foreign policy was not consistent with his actions during the Afghan War, he drove the Soviet Union from detente, to a renewed period of animosity with the West because of his actions in Afghanistan.

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