It happened today - December 24, 2015

On December 24 back in 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Merry Christmas Jimmy Carter.

Some doves said the invasion would prove to be the Soviets’ Vietnam. It seemed awfully feeble at the time, as did Carter’s response; among the results of this invasion was to doom Carter against Ronald Reagan in the 1980 U.S. presidential election. And yet in retrospect there was some truth to the “Soviet Vietnam” claim. Just not enough.

The invasion was the first open use of Soviet troops outside the areas conquered by the Red Army in the closing stages of World War II. In fact they had been in action in other theatres, including aerial combat against Israel over Suez in the “War of Attrition” from 1967-1970. But there had always been some pretense of serving as advisors, in purely defensive roles etc. Afghanistan was an invasion, and it helped persuade people the U.S.S.R. was aggressive.

Moreover, the Soviets were supposedly invited in by the radical government of Nur Mohammad Taraki, which had seized power in a 1978 coup. But when they reached Kabul Soviet troops staged another coup, executed Taraki and installed Babrak Karmal. Deposing and killing the guy whose invitation supposedly gave their invasion legitimacy pretty much showed their true colours.

The Soviets went on to wage a ruthless war in which large-scale civilian casualties were apparently regarded as operational goals rather than deplorable collateral damage, further undermining their reputation among people who had spent much of the previous decade and a half criticizing American foreign policy as brutal and hypocritical. So in all these ways the invasion did help stiffen Western resolve.

Even Carter’s apparently feeble response, accompanied by baffled and feeble rhetoric, had more sting in it than it seemed to. Boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics dealt a serious prestige blow to a regime that, while seeming to scorn the world’s good opinion, actually craved it. And the grain embargo, by upsetting the fragile and cynical bargain in which Russians got a gradually better standard of living in return for an ongoing seedy denial of freedom, helped undermine the Soviet regime.

So did its inability to pacify the Soviet countryside despite its willingness to engage in atrocities. The Soviets were respected for their strength more than anything else, indeed for little else. Including by cowed Western intellectuals who pretended their motivation was more elevated. So if they weren’t strong, they were nothing.

To be sure, the Afghan involvement wasn’t fatal in itself. The Soviet economy was also in terminal condition. And without Reagan, and Thatcher, and John Paul II, and Solidarity in Poland, the regime might have lurched on for another decade beyond its actual collapse in 1991. But it was already quite decrepit. And that undermines the “Soviet Vietnam” thesis because a more robust but equally evil regime might have rolled right over the Afghan resistance, depopulated the countryside and called it peace. Stalin, with the Soviet economy of 1952, might well have done so.

Finally, it is worth noting that the resistance the Soviet invasion aroused, and hardened in battle, and that Reagan helped arm especially with missiles capable of downing Soviet helicopter gunships, turned into the Taliban. So if Afghanistan was a critical defeat for the Soviets, it was not a victory for the world.

Thus the argument that cruel power was ultimately self-defeating, that the West didn’t really need to worry about the invasion because it would prove a quagmire, turned out to be fatuous in the short run, plausible in the medium run, and fatuous again in the long run.