DOCUMENTARY REVIEW: Afghanistan 1979: The War That Changed the World

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By Quentin Choy

May 22, 2021

Yesterday, I watched a documentary on the steaming service CuriosityStream called Afghanistan 1979: The War That Changed the World. I had been looking for a good documentary on this subject as it is a fascinating war, yet one that is overlooked in terms of its consequences for the modern 21st century. Some outcomes of this war included an increase in Islamic radicalization, the creation of the foundations of the Taliban, and the economic and political collapse of the Soviet Union.

This documentary did a fantastic job at thoroughly explaining the causes of Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by painting the big picture of the war and then analyzing the details and figures involved. The political ramifications, military strategy, and diplomatic and intelligence information were all synthesized in a way that made the war understandable for the casual viewer while providing many different angles.

In 1978, the Communist Party in Afghanistan staged a coup against President Mohammed Daoud Khan in what later became known as the Saur Revolution. Following the coup, Nur Muhammed Taraki became the president of Afghanistan with Hafizullah Amin as his prime minister. The two men sought to reform Afghanistan and transform what they viewed as a “feudal” nation into a socialist state. While Afghanistan and the USSR maintained a friendly relationship with one another since 1919, the year of 1978 would serve as the beginning of the end for this friendship.

Nur Muhammed Taraki. Courtesy of Alchetron.

Taraki and Amin attempted to implement agrarian reforms, mandated that girls be sent to school, and challenged the traditional religious leaders. Due to such quick reform to Afghan society by communists, many Afghans felt that the country was being changed too quickly.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Amin had Taraki assassinated by soldiers, and Amin became the new leader of the country. Back in the USSR, the communist Politburo was concerned about Amin’s rule and believed he was becoming out of control. An attempt was made to assassinate Amin with poisoned food, which failed. The Soviets approved a bloody coup to eliminate Amin, and the palace was raided by the KGB, killing Amin. The Soviets then installed a Soviet-friendly leader named Babrak Karmal. Fearing the rising Afghan resistance to Soviet government, the Soviets sent in 100,000 troops to support the new government.

The arrival of Soviet troops in Afghanistan marked the beginning of the Soviet-Afghan War. Traditional Muslims and conservatives in the country, known as the mujahideen viewed the Red Army as atheistic invaders who were trying to change Afghanistan and remove the country from its traditional roots and believed that their resistance was justified as jihad or “holy war,” bringing in Muslims from places like the Philippines, India, and from the Middle East and Europe.

The mujahideen engaging in jihad against the USSR. Courtesy of Arab News.

President Carter supported U.S. support of the mujahideen and allied with Pakistan who refused to allow any U.S. boots on the ground in Afghanistan itself. President Reagan wanted to use the Soviet-Afghan War to “bleed” the Soviet Union and to have the war serve as “Russia’s Vietnam War.” The U.S. viewed the mujahideen as freedom fighters resisting communism and provided funding and weapons to the mujahideen including Stinger missiles which the mujahideen used in the mountains to gun down Soviet planes and helicopters. Babrak Karmal, the Soviet-backed leader of Afghanistan was deposed by the USSR and was replaced by Mohammed Najibullah.

Receiving rebuke on the world stage and losing the war against the mujahideen, the Soviets negotiated a cease-fire with mujahideen leaders and prepared to withdraw. The Soviets were granted safe passage through the north of the country which was controlled by Ahmad Shah Massoud and his soldiers. Despite Massoud agreeing to let the Soviets pass through the north peacefully, top Soviet generals attacked Massoud and his forces on the way out, which many still view as dishonorable and unnecessary. The goal was supposedly to weaken the Afghans and to preserve Najibullah’s rule.

Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. Courtesy of Reddit.

The war weakened Soviet resolve and bankrupted the nation of wealth and of lives. In a short time, the USSR would dissolve, and Afghanistan would dissolve into civil war. The mujahideen would form into the Taliban which would rule the country, and one of the mujahideen’s fighters, Osama bin Laden would lead the September 11th attacks. He would be hidden in Afghanistan, and the U.S. would declare war against the Taliban government.

This documentary did a great job at analyzing the leadup to the war and its political and global ramifications. It also had key figures from the war including KGB and CIA officers, Red Army soldiers, Afghan rebels, political advisors, and Mikhail Gorbachev himself. To understand this critical event in 20th century history, I cannot recommend this documentary enough.

Image Courtesy of IMDB.

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