Omar Nessar: ‘The Afghans don’t consider Russia a reliable ally’

Expert in Afghanistan on forty-year-old events and their today’s echo

Omar Nessar: ‘The Afghans don’t consider Russia a reliable ally’

The Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union officially made a decision to send in Soviet troops to Afghanistan on 12 December 1979. The war lasted for almost 10 years, and its traces are still deeply rooted in the memory of both peoples. In an op-ed column for Realnoe Vremya, Omar Nessar, director of the Centre for Modern Afghanistan Studies (CMAS), says that what prerequisites led to the war and how it is echoed in Afghanistan today.

Lost friendship

To start with, the USSR and Afghanistan had excellent relationships before December 1979: the Soviet Union had been helping this country and was one of its best friends because it was the first in the world to recognise the Afghan independence. The assistance was rendered from a material point of view as well: the Soviet side built infrastructure facilities on the territory of Afghanistan, taught Afghan specialists in its universities. Instead, the USSR had a loyal neighbour in a very turbulent region: Kabul unchangeably refused rapprochement with Washington. In April 1978, a revolution took place in Kabul: Communists from National Revolutionary Party, NRPA, came to power by staging a military coup. The balance of power changed in Afghanistan since then, and political stability in the region was disrupted. And instead of establishing new mechanisms of cooperation with Kabul as careful as possible, the Soviet government made a fatal mistake having decided to send in the troops to Afghanistan.

In April 1978, a revolution took place in Kabul: Communists from National Revolutionary Party, NRPA, came to power by staging a military coup. Photo: Cleric77 /

The Soviet troops were to fight with Islamists who bothered the new socialistic government very much. However, not all was plain sailing inside NRPA: a split in the party in September 1979 led to that the party’s leader Nur Muhammad was arrested and killed by Hafizullah Amin’s order who became a new head of the country. He continued fighting against Islamists but launched large-scale repressions in the country.


There is plenty of conspiracy theories about this topic now: somebody says that the USSR itself staged the April coup, while somebody states that Washington provoked its invasion to Afghanistan by bringing about a semblance of interest in this territory. But all this hasn’t been proved yet, only one fact is obvious: the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union finally decided to invade on 12 December, while on 25 December 1979 the troops of the 40th Army of the Turkestan Military District crossed the state border of Afghanistan.

Their task was to enter Kabul and establish control over 20 strategic sites in the capital, change the regime and go back. First of all, it was necessary to seize the country’s governor Hafizullah Amin’s residency and kill him. Soviet internationalists, according to the official version, ditched the Afghans from the tyrant and dictator, but actually, this split the country into parts and provoked a lasting political crisis in it. The Soviet troops were expected to go back home after performing the task that had been set, however, it all went wrong.

Soviet soldiers and captive mujahedeen. Photo: E. Kuvakina /

9 years of war

According to official data, over more than 9 years of the Soviet military contingent’s presence in Afghanistan, the Soviet army lost 14,427 people, KGB did 576 people, the Ministry of Internal Affairs — 28. 53,000 people were injured or shell-shocked. It is hard to estimate how many Afghans died or escaped from the country to Pakistan, Iran, India and other countries during this time, there aren’t still final official statistics. Any challenge to the numbers (1,5-2 millions of casualties) given by the Soviet army’s yesterday’s enemies (mujahedeen) is comparable with an act of national betrayal.

It isn’t all so clear-cut: the Soviet army treated the friendly Afghan contingent well and encouraged it in different ways. The USSR supported Afghanistan, including materially: it continued building here infrastructure facilities, tried to arrange their everyday life according to the socialistic model, built schools and hospitals. But the country lived in a state of constant war during this time. Civilians died, a generation of new “Dushman” (as Soviet soldiers called them), the Soviet army suffered losses, the development was occasional, there was no political independence in Afghanistan.

At the same time, the Soviet Union lost its position in the Arab East: before the Afghan war, it had been considered a friend of Arab states, and then it was meant mainly as an aggressor.

Withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Photo: RIA Novosti archive, image #644461 / Yuriy Somov / CC-BY-SA 3.0 /

Withdrawal from Afghanistan and modern day

The Soviet military contingent was completely withdrawn from the country only in April 1988. But not only militaries left Afghanistan. Official Moscow also turned its back to its Afghan allies in 1992 having stopped supporting Najibullah’s government.

Today most of the modern Afghan elite considers the date of withdrawal of Soviet troops the date of the Soviet Union’s defeat. Ex-mujahedeen and technocrats suppose the Soviet army an aggressor with whom they had been fighting for 10 years. And those who fought on the Soviet side (the Afghan army has senior officers who fought with Soviet troops) aren’t consolidated political power. Many of them are still disappointed and don’t consider Russia — the successor of the USSR — a reliable ally. So if the invasion of Soviet troops to Afghanistan was a mistake, their withdrawal, in the way it was done, can be considered a bigger mistake from a geopolitical perspective. Nevertheless, time puts things back. Today, 30 years later, ordinary citizens of Afghanistan start to change their opinion about those years comparing their life then and now.

By Omar Nessar