Declassified Documents Show Moscow’s Fear of an Afghan Flip, U.S. Diplomat’s Meeting with Afghan Leader Helped Put Soviets Over the Edge
President Trump’s claim that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to get rid of terrorists who were coming over the border is false, according to declassified U.S. and Soviet documents posted today by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.
Just as false, according to the documents, were the repeated U.S. media assertions at the time, driven by President Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, that the Soviet motivation was “the age-long dream of Moscow to have direct access to the Indian Ocean” (Document 8).
Soviet Politburo documents that first became available in the 1990s show the real Soviet fear was that the head of the Afghan Communist regime, Hafizullah Amin, was about to go over to the Americans. (Egyptian president Anwar Sadat famously flipped in 1972, ejected thousands of Soviet advisers, and became the second largest recipient, after Israel, of U.S. foreign aid.)
Earlier in 1979, the Kremlin leadership had refused repeated Afghan requests for expanded military support including troops, , as shown by the records of detailed Politburo debates in March 1979 and multiple subsequent demurrals. According to the documents, a dramatic change in Soviet thinking finally occurred in October 1979. Soviet leaders had been monitoring an array of disturbing developments in Afghanistan’s political scene, including extensive violent repression by their clients despite Soviet advice, a rising insurgency, and a shootout at the Kabul palace on September 14 that put Amin in power, replacing his party leader Nur Mohammed Taraki. (The previous week, Taraki had visited Moscow and been embraced by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.)
Two October 1979 events in particular set off Moscow’s alarms, according to the documents and subsequent analyses by Afghan veteran Gen. Alexander Lyakhovsky and senior Soviet diplomat Georgy Kornienko: Amin’s murder of his predecessor Taraki on October 8, and Amin’s reception of acting American Chargé d’Affaires Archer Blood on October 27.
The documents directly contradict President Trump’s stream of consciousness claim in his January 2, 2019 Cabinet meeting:
“The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there. The problem is, it was a tough fight. And literally they went bankrupt; they went into being called Russia again, as opposed to the Soviet Union. You know, a lot of these places you’re reading about now are no longer part of Russia, because of Afghanistan.”
None of the Soviet documents list terrorists going into the USSR as a concern in 1979. The Soviet worry was the incompetence and worse of their Afghan Communist clients, the declining Soviet influence (much less control) in the country, and the possibility of Afghanistan going over to the Americans.
According to Soviet thinking, Afghanistan was a natural target for the U.S. In January 1979, the Iranian revolution had forced the abdication of long-time American ally Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The advent of a hostile regime led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was a devastating blow for the United States in a vital region of the world. The Kremlin worried that Washington would try to shore up some of its lost influence through Afghanistan (and, importantly, find a replacement location for the highly secretive monitoring sites it had maintained in Iran to track Soviet missile activities).
Amin reached out to the Americans in early October, as reported by the American chargé in Kabul, J. Bruce Amstutz, in a Confidential cable obtained by the National Security Archive through the Freedom of Information Act: “The Afghan president made clear to me that he is open to see any designated USG mission chief” (Document 1).
But Amstutz was about to embark on a six-week leave, he was wary of “raising expectations we cannot later meet,” and a garrison mutiny against Amin and a “deplorable series of executions” by Amin were underway, so he recommended postponing any call on Amin by him and chargé-designate Archer Blood. (Blood had been sent up from New Delhi to fill in for Amstutz, having previously served as DCM in Kabul in the 1960s.)
Amstutz had met Amin on several occasions in 1979, mostly ceremonial, and none involved extended conversation (after one such session, Amstutz assured Washington the total elapsed time was only 19 minutes with the first 4 minutes only photos). Amstutz’s cables to Washington included quotes from observers of the Afghan Communists as “a bunch of scorpions biting each other to death” (September 18, 1979 cable) and Amin as having “a semi-psychopathic desire to humiliate and revenge himself against the United States” (August 25, 1979 cable).
Blood’s encounter with Amin on October 27, 1979 (Document 2) was much more friendly, concluding that Amin genuinely wanted better U.S.-Afghan relations. Blood speculated whether that was because of Amin’s own hedging against too much Soviet dependence, his need for financial assistance, his just wanting to sow confusion among the Pakistanis, Iranians, Saudis and insurgents opposing him, or even Soviet coaching!
Blood remarked in his cable that his call on Amin (but not the substance) had been the lead item on both the English and Dari language news in Kabul on October 27, that Amin’s English was “very good” (he had studied at Columbia University in New York), and that the meeting was “forty minutes alone” with an “impressive” Amin.
The National Security Archive obtained through the Freedom of Information Act a copy of Blood’s cable reporting on his session with Amin, and the State Department has since published a transcription of the cable in the latest (December 2018) volume of the Foreign Relations of the U.S. series, along with several of the Amstutz cables except for the October 15 one published here.
Immediately after the Blood-Amin meeting on October 27, the Soviet documents show heightened suspicions of Amin as a potential traitor who might be planning “a change in the political line of Afghanistan in a direction which is pleasing to Washington” (Document 3), or worse: “we have been receiving information about Amin’s behind-the-scenes activities which might mean his political reorientation to the West. He keeps his contacts with the American chargé d’affaires secret from us.” (Document 4).
Instead of the extensive debate and consultation with experts that characterized the March 1979 Politburo-level refusal to send Soviet troops to Afghanistan, decision-making in late 1979 centered in a small group of top officials headed by KGB chief Yuri Andropov, who increasingly sought intervention. His representative in Kabul, KGB General Boris Ivanov, was the only senior Soviet there who was not replaced in the October-to-December period as the Soviets saw their influence declining, perhaps because Ivanov favored intervention and the others did not.
The Andropov December memo set off the rapid decision process to the military intervention that the Politburo had declined earlier in 1979. According to Gen. Alexander Lyakhovsky’s detailed and documented account (Document 5), Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov agreed with Andropov in early December but insisted on sending 75,000 troops – over the objections of his top Army leaders – and not just depending on special forces or those already in Kabul.
In a December 8 meeting, the core group of Andropov and Ustinov, with the compliant Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko (who had by then given up on U.S.-Soviet relations, according to his top aide Georgy Kornienko), convinced Brezhnev to agree to their plan. Brezhnev’s own turning point, according to Kornienko as well as Gromyko’s own memoirs, had been the murder of Taraki in October.
According to former Soviet Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Dobrynin (reading from his personal notes of documents he saw in the Presidential Archive in Moscow in 1995), the December 8, 1979 meeting with Brezhnev included the following alarm: “In their argument for a military intervention in case Afghanistan is lost, Ustinov and Andropov cited dangers to the southern borders of the Soviet Union and a possibility of American short-range missiles being deployed in Afghanistan and aimed at strategic objectives in Kazakhstan, Siberia, and other places.” In addition to the U.S. missiles, Lyakhovsky’s account cited CIA activity threatening the southern USSR republics and possible Pakistani annexation of parts of Afghanistan, among other threats arising from Amin’s possible re-orientation to the West. (Document 5)
On December 12, the core group (Andropov, Ustinov, Gromyko) took the decision memo “On the Situation in ‘A’” (personally handwritten by future party secretary Konstantin Chernenko – with Brezhnev’s assent – so that not even Kremlin typists would see it) to the Politburo for their complicity, and there was no debate: those present simply signed diagonally across the page. The format of the document suggests Chernenko drafted the memo as a “resolution of the Central Committee” and then added attendees’ names in smaller scribbling at the top. Some signatures are missing, notably Alexei Kosygin, who had been the lead voice in March 1979 refusing intervention – by Kornienko’s account, Kosygin was sick in the hospital in December. Other members signed the document as late as December 26.
Many of these key details first emerged in 1995, when the Norwegian Nobel Institute (working with the Watson Institute at Brown University, and the National Security Archive) brought senior Soviet veterans of the Afghanistan decisions (including Anatoly Dobrynin, Gen. Valentin Varennikov, the KGB’s Leonid Shebarshin, the Central Committee’s Karen Brutents, the Foreign Ministry’s Sergei Tarasenko, and military historian Gen. Lyakhovsky) to Lysebu, Norway, for a critical oral history conference. On the other side of the table were U.S. veterans including former CIA Director Stansfield Turner, NSC staffers Gen. William Odom and Gary Sick, and the State Department’s Marshall Shulman and Mark Garrison). On the table was a thick briefing book of key documents compiled by the National Security Archive, with the help of the Freedom of Information Act.
Despite multiple lacunae, this documentary record from 1995 and from more recent Freedom of Information releases – as well as the new State Department history volume – is sufficiently robust to disprove President Trump’s version of Soviet motives, and to debunk Dr. Brzezinski’s advice to President Carter – long believed by many Western observers at the time – that the Afghan invasion was Soviet expansionism towards the Indian Ocean rather than Soviet defensiveness about possible U.S. bases on their southern flank.
Amin reached out to the Americans in early October 1979, as reported by the American chargé in Kabul, J. Bruce Amstutz, in a Confidential cable obtained by the National Security Archive through the Freedom of Information Act: “The Afghan president made clear to me that he is open to see any designated USG mission chief.” But Amstutz advised against any such meeting given his own imminent departure from Kabul on leave, and terrible conditions including a garrison mutiny against Amin and a series of deplorable executions being carried out by the Amin regime.
Source: Department of State FOIA release (also published in Foreign Relations of the U.S., 1977-80, Afghanistan, Volume XII, pp. 218-222)
This report on Archer Blood’s forty minutes alone with Amin on October 27, 1979 provides a missing link to Soviet paranoia in 1979. Whatever Amin was up to, the available Soviet record shows that this meeting set off alarm bells for the KGB chief Andropov. Earlier in the month, Amin had ordered the murder of his predecessor, Nur Mohammad Taraki (smothered in his bed and buried in a family plot immediately). That was the turning point for Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who famously had embraced Taraki in Moscow in September. Just by meeting alone with the American diplomat, talking in “very good” English, asking for better relations, Amin was playing with fire. Blood expected not much, and his report seems oblivious to how the meeting might have looked to Amin’s patrons in Moscow.
Source: Gen. Alexander Lyakhovsky, The Tragedy and Valor of the Afghani (Moscow: GPI “Iskon,” 1995), p. 102.
Gen. Lyakhovsky’s account of the Soviet Afghanistan war, written in the early 1990s with extraordinary access to the archives, published numerous key documents in full, such as this crucial report to the Central Committee at the end of October 1979. The Politburo had delegated Afghan assessment to a subcommittee of sorts, with three Politburo members (the KGB’s Andropov, Defense Minister Ustinov, Foreign Minister Gromyko) and the Central Committee’s head of the International Department Boris Ponamarev. The latter was apparently left out of most of the key meetings in December 1979, perhaps because his in-house experts (such as Karen Brutents) thought invading Afghanistan was stupid. This memo points in real time to the importance of Amin’s meeting with the Americans, and the suspicions it raised in Moscow: “starting from the necessity of doing everything possible not to allow the victory of counter-revolution in Afghanistan or the political re-orientation of H. Amin towards the West….”
Source: Anatoly Dobrynin from the Kremlin Archive (APRF)
This memo only exists in the historical record because former Soviet Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Dobrynin personally went to the Archive of the President of the Russian Federation when he was invited to the Norwegian Nobel Institute in 1995, and investigated the files on the invasion of Afghanistan. Dobrynin transcribed a number of documents, of which this is likely the most important – the direct recommendation from the head of the KGB, the likely number two in the Politburo, to his significantly incapacitated boss, Leonid Brezhnev, that the Soviets should replace Afghan Communist leader Amin because he might well go over to the Americans.
Source: Gen. Alexander Lyakhovsky, The Tragedy and Valor of the Afghani (Moscow, 1995), pp. 109-112.
This English translation of Gen. Lyakhovsky’s authoritative section on the Soviet decisions about Afghanistan in December 1979 rewards close reading. Lyakhovsky had no political axe to grind; his motive was to document and understand why he and his comrades were sent to Afghanistan and then withdrawn, and in the early 1990s he had almost complete access to the Defense Ministry’s records and to Central Committee files. Lyakhovsky attended and contributed significantly to the Lysebu discussion, subsequently published two more editions of his documentary analysis, and participated in multiple National Security Archive-sponsored discussions of the Soviet Afghan experience.
Source: Fond 89, Russian State Archive of Contemporary History (released in 1992 during the trial of the Communist Party, translation first published in the Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Fall 1994, p. 46)
This remarkable, hand-written one-pager was the precipitate for disaster for the Soviet Union. Scribbled by future Communist Party General Secretary Konstantin Chernenko at a small group meeting in Leonid Brezhnev’s office on December 12, 1979 (it included Andropov, Ustinov, Gromyko, ideology chief Mikhail Suslov, as well as Brezhnev), this document became the resolution that sent Soviet troops in force to Afghanistan. The document demonstrates the leading role of Andropov together with Ustinov and to some extent Gromyko, and the lack of any wider discussion or debate in the Politburo.
Source: Georgy M. Kornienko, The Cold War: Testimony of a Participant (Moscow, Mezhdunarodnye otnosheniya, 1994), pp. 193-195.
Georgy Kornienko was the top deputy to long time Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, and fully expected to succeed Gromyko, only to be bitterly disappointed with Gorbachev’s appointment of Eduard Shevardnadze in 1985. Kornienko’s memoirs published in 1992 give an extraordinary insider view of Gromyko’s thinking and of the Soviet decision making about Afghanistan in 1979, and point directly to October 1979 as the turning point in Gromyko’s thinking about Amin.
This analysis from Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, set the stage for the forceful U.S. response, including embargoes on grain sales and dramatically ramped up covert operations to support the Afghan guerrillas. The first paragraphs lay out the “arc of crisis” metaphor that came to dominate U.S. media coverage, along with the oft-repeated characterization of the Soviet invasion as reflecting “the age-long dream of Moscow to have direct access to the Indian Ocean.” The blacked-out portions when this document was declassified in 1993 all refer to Pakistan, as we now know from the recent FRUS volume on Afghanistan (pp. 265-267). In the second paragraph, the excised phrase is: “if Pakistan acquiesces”; on the second page it is that Pakistan “is likely to be intimidated, and it could eventually even acquiesce to some form of external Soviet domination.” The final redaction is: “and, alas, a decision that our security policy toward Pakistan cannot be dictated by our nonproliferation policy,” meaning that Pakistan’s nuclear bomb program now would have a get-out-of-jail-free card. Zbig’s caution – that we should not be too sanguine about a Soviet Vietnam happening because the guerrillas lacked most of North Vietnam’s advantages – is especially interesting in light of his subsequent claims in a Nouvel Observateur interview in 1998 that the U.S. had successfully lured the Soviets into the Afghan disaster. In 1979, he was not so sure.
Source: Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, Foreign Affairs Oral History Project, Interview by Henry Precht, June 27, 1989 (copyright 1998 ADST).
Archer Blood is best known to history as the principled Foreign Service Officer who encouraged his colleagues to file one of the earliest – and certainly most prominent – dissent messages in the history of the U.S. State Department. As consul in Dhaka in 1971, he reported on the mass murders being carried out by Pakistani troops against the secessionist Bangladeshis, and filed under his own byline the group cable calling this genocide. Unbeknownst to Blood and his colleagues, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon were using Pakistan’s dictator Yahya Khan as their main intermediary to set up what would become Nixon’s triumphant trip to China in 1972, ensuring his re-election. Thus Kissinger and Nixon sided with the Pakistanis and ordered Blood fired. The full tragic story is laid out in Gary J. Bass’s epic book, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide (New York: Knopf, 2013). The ADST has done an enormous service to historians by capturing oral histories from hundreds of premier diplomats. Here, Blood describes the situation in Afghanistan, and how he came to substitute for Amstutz. Perhaps most interesting of all is his subsequent explanation by way of the Indians of why the Afghans would never approve him coming back to Kabul as head of mission – because of his “secret meetings with Amin.” Archer Blood perhaps ranks as the only U.S. diplomat whose career was derailed by a combination of first Kissinger and then the Soviets.