Chapter 4

Fighting on the Streets of Berlin

This essay is a review of:

War in the Afghanistan

by Mark Urban

Behind the Rhetoric
by Christopher Liang

            In December 1979, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was complete: “this event is seen by many as the death of détente, the birth of a new Cold War.”1 While the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was commonly seen as an expansion of the Cold War, there was an underlying conflict of a smaller scale. The Afghan population underwent a reformation that was intended to advance Afghanistan from a backwards society; however, the conservative opposition to this movement evolved into the mujahadeen rebels. Then, Soviet media reports on the situation in Afghanistan escalated the conflict into an international affair. Soviet parallels to revolution urged the Kremlin to aid the new regime through invasion. Enraged, the White House escalated CIA covert operations and arms deliveries to aid the mujahadeen rebels. Now, with the actors on set, Mark Urban reveals the developments of these forces and the extent to which their goals were achieved in the War in Afghanistan.

            Desperate, the Afghan population sought to create a 20th century state after being ruled by ineffective forms of government until the April Revolution of 1978. Founded in 1965, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan overthrew the existing republic under Daoud and established the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan on April 30, 1978. The PDPA aimed to bring Afghanistan into the 20th century with “plans for the redistribution of land, equality for the ethnic minorities, emancipation of women, and education for all.”2 These promises were appealing, but rural Afghan conservatives were skeptical of the group despite its assurances that they weren’t anti-religious or pro-Moscow. In reality, the party’s programs and policies had embodied Marxist-Leninist principles, prompting skeptics to form guerrilla parties that threatened the new order. Facing rural unrest and mistrust from a collapsing army, Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, received military assistance from Moscow in the 1978 Soviet-Afghan Treaty of Friendship. From then on, the Afghan administration would endure a decade of conflict and turmoil to enforce its rule from internal divisions, the mujahadeen rebels, and American influence. However, improvements in Afghan life were achieved in the end: women enjoyed reasonable opportunities, female literacy improved, better terms were established with the Islamic clergy, and health care improved. Following Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the Afghan government survived as a result of PDPA and Soviet Union achievements during the war.

            When the PDPA was established in 1978, Afghan exile groups in north-west Pakistan received the news in astonishment. Even before the proclamation of Daoud’s republic in 1973, these guerrilla parties fought for different governments, posing a significant threat to the “godless” Soviets and their allies in Kabul. By the early 1980s, desertions to the mujahadeen amounted to thousands with growing resentment of Kabul’s dependence on a foreign power. Also dissatisfied with the Soviet takeover, General Zia of Pakistan fully utilized the situation to earn international support, establishing “a big US arms package for the Pakistanis and growing Sino-American agreement on security issues.”3 Even with international aid, the mujahadeen suffered from limitations during the conflict. Rivalries were accompanied by poor educational levels, lack of heavy weapons, and poor organization which hindered tactical operations. Still, the rebels were able to establish a power vacuum in the countryside by exploiting the PDPA in its early, weak state. However, when the Soviet-Afghan forces demonstrated their newfound strength in 1984-85, the rebels agreed to consolidate their resistance parties into the Islamic Unity of Afghan Mujahadeen, producing a genuine increase in cooperation in 1985 operations. In spite of that, Soviet aid enabled the Afghan government to re-capture ground and repel guerrilla attacks by the late 1980s. At this point, the rebels were in denial of their inability to continue fighting and the establishment of an independent Afghan government was complete.

            Following the PDPA’s establishment, the Soviet Union immediately recognized the new regime, expanding cooperation in the Soviet-Afghan treaty. Initially, the Kremlin assessed the consequences of deeper Soviet commitment in Afghanistan, but by the time the treaty was signed, the Soviet Union had developed a new commitment to the PDPA because of revolutionary sentiments duly noted by Brezhnev in his treaty ratification speech: “The aims of the Afghan revolution…are familiar and comprehensible to us.”4 With this new devotion, the Soviet Army seizes Afghanistan on December 27, 1979. International and national reaction was undoubtedly hostile and the 40th army was tasked to maintain the security of Kabul. However, obsolete equipment and vehicles in addition to organizational and tactical inflexibility prompted the Soviet forces to undergo major reorganization to become more apt in an anti-guerrilla war. The Soviet forces demonstrated significant improvement, but Brezhnev’s successor, Yuri Andropov, sought a negotiated withdrawal, limiting operations to only a necessary level. Thus, by 1986, the capability of the Afghan armed forces was deemed sufficient and Gorbachev had issued a reduction of the 40th army to additionally reduce casualties. Fulfilling its promise in the Geneva Accords, the Soviet Union completed its withdrawal by February 15, 1989 and their operation was deemed a success: the establishment of a self-sufficient and independent government in Afghanistan.

            By 1979, American relations with Afghan significantly deteriorated with a hostage crisis. When the Kabul government attempted to rescue U.S. Ambassador Adolph Dubs from guerrillas, they killed him in the effort. As a result, Peace Corps workers were withdrawn and the U.S. government slashed aid to Afghanistan. Then, in response to the Soviet occupation, the hostile Carter administration ordered the escalation of CIA covert operations. Besides supplying arms and engaging in covert operations, relief organizations from Washington provided for the 3.5 million Pakistani refugees living there by 1984. In the early months of 1985, America agreed to donate large sums to the mujahadeen when Representative Charles Wilson stated, “there were 58000 dead in Vietnam, and we owe the Russians one.”5 With this level of commitment, the U.S. boldly decided to send their latest Stinger missiles to the mujahadeen in 1986, significantly bolstering the rebels’ morale. In spite of this, the Soviet withdrawal was completed in 1989 and the Afghan government demonstrated a newfound strength that surpassed the rebels. By then, the prospects of easy victories and rapid collapse began to diminish. Upon realizing their growing role in the conflict, “policy makers in Washington began to look beyond the military option.”6

            With that said, it is evident that Mark Urban took considerable care in publishing War in Afghanistan to cover all perspectives of the Soviet-Afghan war: “this book [’s]…aim is to describe the war as objectively and in as much detail as possible.”7 He achieves this by addressing the limitations of these forces and by comparing the accounts of different events to discern between exaggeration and reality. Besides delivering a candid account of the entire war, Urban additionally stresses that Soviet victory depended on the survival of the PDPA regime after withdrawal. According to his analysis, “the Kremlin needed to maintain a friendly government in Kabul…, with a socialist program, and a pro-Soviet stance in international affairs.”8Urban’s assessment of the Soviet objective adds a tinge of originality to his work that supplements his thesis: the written recreation of the Soviet-Afghan war.

            British journalist, author, and former defense correspondent of the BBC news program, The Independent, Mark Urban has produced a number of non-fiction books that established his reputation. Among these works, the War in Afghanistan established Urban’s view of military effectiveness and flexibility to determine the extent to which the Soviet Army, Afghan forces, and the mujahadeen achieved their goals, reflecting his early career in the British Army. During his correspondent career, he was a field reporter which enabled him to experience and produce first-hand accounts of the most famous, foreign news stories in the closing years of the 20th century, ranging from the Gulf War to the U.S. conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Therefore, when Urban published War in Afghanistan in 1990, he intended to reproduce the Soviet-Afghan war as realistically as possible. By the end of the 1980s, it was commonly assumed that the Soviet Union lost the war after withdrawal. Addressing this in his own style, Urban concludes that it was a Soviet victory when they succeeded in establishing a self-sufficient, pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan. As the rebels’ fighting power diminished, the regime’s newfound stability “was the direct result of PDPA and Soviet achievements during the war.”9

            Anthony Hyman, a research associate of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, delivers concise reviews of the War in Afghanistan, highlighting the observations and professional background of Mark Urban. In his reviews, Hyman acknowledges Urban’s just observations of the guerrilla resistance, stating, “he casts a harsh light on the [guerrillas’] military and political abilities.”10 He additionally notes Urban’s background as a former British officer gives him credibility in his conclusions on the Soviet Army, claiming, “[he] understands very well the problems of the Soviet forces.”11 However, Hyman mentions that military experts in the conflict disagree with Urban’s appraisal of the rebuilt Afghan forces to be as reliable as the Soviet Army. In spite of that, he praises Urban’s overall conclusion in the book to be duly researched and logical: the idea that Soviet victory was determined by the survival of the PDPA regime after withdrawal.

            Knowing that, War in Afghanistan undoubtedly establishes itself as an excellent novel in terms of describing the military effectiveness of the belligerent forces and the extent to which their goals were achieved in the Soviet-Afghan war. In addition, the book possesses an uncanny level of detail. For example, Urban’s care in referencing the multiple ethnicities of Afghan forces throughout the novel deserves recognition: “there is no such thing as an Afghan national type.”12 Additionally, the chronological organization of the book enables it to deliver a thorough reproduction of the Soviet-Afghan war. However, the emphasis on Soviet, Afghan, and rebel military operations throughout the novel diverts much attention from political developments. In spite of that, the highlighting feature of the War in Afghanistan is Urban’s iconic interpretation of what was commonly believed to be a Soviet defeat to be a victory. Pooled together, a candid account of the Soviet-Afghan war is produced that offers superb insight on the war’s effects on 20th century society.

            Now, regarding the 1980’s, it is commonly believed to be a decade when America shifted from 1960s liberalism to conservatism. Considering the evidence supplied by Urban, this assessment is somewhat supported by the War in Afghanistan. When reports of the Soviet invasion reached the White House, the Carter administration did not receive the news lightly: “the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is the greatest threat to peace since the Second World War.”13 The Americans turned to international support; thus, on January 14, 1980, the United Nations General Assembly voted by 104 votes to 18 for the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Additionally, America launched a war of rhetoric against Moscow to earn support from Kabul, accusing the Soviets of using chemical weapons; however, by the end of the decade, no evidence of chemical weapons contamination was ever found. According to Peter Jouvenal, an ex-British army paratrooper with 25 clandestine trips into Afghanistan under his belt, these allegations were “complete lie[s]…a CIA fabrication.”14 Furthermore, the only effort close to landing ground troops was the supply of Stinger missiles to the mujahadeen rebels. From these measures, it is evident that America shifted to a more conservative policy during the 1980s.

            However, according to Mark Urban, the 1980s was also considered to be a decade of social progressivism for Afghanistan. As mentioned before, the PDPA led a coup against Daoud’s republic in 1978, launching the April Revolution. Promising land redistribution, equality, emancipation for women, and education for all, the new regime undoubtedly faced growing opposition from the highly conservative population. Therefore, the revolutionary government suffered from in-fighting, rural discontent, and security issues until Soviet military aid changed that. By the end of the decade, the newly formed government succeeded in partially establishing their reforms; however, “despite their limited successes…the PDPA remain[ed] social lepers for most Afghans.”15 With that said, Urban evidently views the 1980s as a decade of social progressivism in the context of the Soviet-Afghan war.

            Having established that, this particular work possesses insight unrivalled to that of a majority of other works on the Soviet-Afghan war. Overall, in War in Afghanistan, Mark Urban succeeds in delivering an account of the Soviet-Afghan conflict through all the sides involved, offering more with his analyses of the war’s effects on 20th century society in its closing years. [1]


1. Urban, Mark. War in Afghanistan. London: The Macmillan Press, 1990. 279.

2. Urban, Mark. 16.

3. Urban, Mark. 58.

4. Brezhnev, Leonid. 32.

5. Wilson, Charles. 162.

6. Urban, Mark. War in Afghanistan. London: The Macmillan Press, 1990. 276.

7. Urban, Mark. xiii.

8. Urban, Mark. 280.

9. Urban, Mark. 286.

10. Hyman, Anthony. “Third World Quarterly, Vol.

11, No. 2 (Apr., 1989), Pp. 199-202.” Taylor & Francis, Ltd.,
n.d. Web. 11. Hyman, Anthony. “International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-), Vol. 64, No. 3 (Summer, 1988), Pp. 527-529.” Wiley, n.d. Web.

12. Urban, Mark. War in Afghanistan. London: The Macmillan Press, 1990. 1.

13. Carter, Jimmy. 56.

14. Jouvenal, Peter. 57.

15. Urban, Mark. War in Afghanistan. London: The Macmillan Press, 1990. 285.