Christmas Eve 1979, Soviet special forces exploded into the Afghan presidential palace. Up through the gardens, swarming in through the windows, shooting the president’s bodyguard and then the president himself. 80,000 Soviet troops followed, flowing across the borders and the world looked on in horror. This was the start of a Russian Occupation.

President Jimmy Carter
President Jimmy Carter

US President Jimmy Carter “This is a callous violation of international law. It is a deliberate effort of a powerful atheistic government to subjugate an independent Islamic people.”

Why did the Soviet Union finally make the decision to send in their troops? The answer is that, like all empires, they didn’t want to look weak. This was a mini-Communist state, and ally on their borders, and they couldn’t let Afghanistan collapse. Something had to be done.

Rodric Braithwaite “We underestimate the sense of insecurity that all empires feel. We were terrified at the end of the 19th century, at the height of British imperialism that somebody, the Germans or somebody’s going to take it all away from us. And I think that, that affects policy-making in empires at the Imperial level. So you see a threat, you think, ‘Well, if we don’t deal with it now, it’ll come round and bite us from behind.’ And I think Afghanistan falls into that category.”

Russian Occupation

But for every wary and neurotic politician, there was a Soviet soldier confident of success with the Russian Occupation. And none more so than the vanguard, the Soviet parachute regiment, or “Blue Berets”, the cream of the Soviet military.

Leonid Brezhnev
Leonid Brezhnev

Among these veterans are many men who were involved in that invasion. This is the 25th anniversary concert of the Blue Beret Band. And almost everybody in the audience is somebody who has either been in the military or is related to someone in the military.

Like many American and British soldiers today, these troops felt they were part of a bigger mission to modernise and change Afghanistan for the better.

Russian veteran “For us when we arrived from the Soviet Union, Afghanistan was like a country from some fairytale because we truly believed we live in a completely different age. Afghanistan has remained in the middle ages. There was a very popular fairytale about Aladdin and his magic lamp. A genuine eastern tale, yes? When you arrive in Afghanistan you see all this for real you find yourself in Afghanistan, a country of contrasts.”

These invading soldiers were told their mission was to support the new Afghan Communist government and that the intervention would be over in a year. But they’d completely underestimated the Afghan reaction.

The Afghans turned against this Russian Occupation just as they had against the British in the 19th century. This was driven partly by nationalism but religion was also a key factor.


Tom Barfield “The Russians made this very easy because the Soviet Union was the declared atheist state so they… ‘We are atheists, we actually have a bureau of atheism.’ Wow, it’s easy. So we are fighting against these atheist Communists, so that was easy to talk about, it was placing the war in a jihad context.”

Mujahideen Men

When Afghans try to explain why they fought the Russians, they often talk about religion. Here I’ve come to meet a group of six Mujahideen from a poor village 90 miles from Kabul. they’re almost all that remains of a unit which was once nearly 50 men, most of whom were killed in the fight against the Russians. This is how they explain their war.


Mujahideen Man “Russians invaded our country and offended our dignity and honour. They had occupied our land and disrespected our religious beliefs, that is why we started doing jihad against them. Our leader was Ahmad Shah Massoud, a very talented man with military expertise. We were his followers, we would follow his commands. He said, ‘Wherever a Mujanid is martyred. Gods soil, God’s servant, just bury him right there. Whoever disobeys my orders, are themselves responsible for their death.’ Where the fighting would get intense, we would manage with minor things such as grass, or sometimes without eating for two or three days, we would have patience and fight with the Russians.”

Many in the Soviet capital had agonised over the decision to invade Afghanistan. Many in the Politburo itself warned it was a trap. So was the growing insurgency confirmation that the sceptics had been right?

In Moscow, I’ve come to meet a man who was on the frontline of the Soviet war. One of Russia’s most decorated and respected war heroes, General Ruslan Aushev.

General Aushev

General Aushev “The introduction of military forces was a mistake. We already had a lot of influence in Afghanistan, economically and politically. This massive weight of military forces was unnecessary. What was necessary was the sly use of special forces, and to take more care over political approaches. Why did we make so many mistakes? Because the Armed Forces are force. They destroy houses, they unfortunately kill unlucky people with bombs and mines, bullets, and shells. Completely peaceful innocent people die, and this always calls forth a reaction, a loss of sympathy as a rule for our side.”

In one of these attacks on this beautiful district of Panjshir, the Soviets entered with nearly 400 aircraft and helicopters, carpet bombing the valley floor and following up with 13,000 troops. But the Mujahideen had simply disappeared and when the Soviets left, they returned.

General Ruslan Aushev
General Ruslan Aushev

Mujahideen spokesman “Panjshir was full of Russians, their tanks and all other military equipment were in place, and were searching for Mujahideen. The killed local people, donkeys, cows, animals – everything was destroyed. He kept bombing their houses and moving forward all the way towards other end. And we had been ordered, that since pressure is higher from Russian side, whenever you see them even if in the two-metre distance, just hide yourself. If we were two or four people, we would hide ourselves in such a way, that if one person is caught hostage, he would not know where others are hiding.”

The resistance of the Mujahideen was about to become even more formidable for they had a new ally, the unlikeliest friend. Because the United States had spotted an opportunity to strike a blow to their enemy in the Cold War.

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