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  • Writer's pictureAdriana Santamaria Duthon

Proxy Wars? The Afghan-Soviet War (1972-1989)

King's College London 2022

The cold war between the United States of America (U.S.) and the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) was the most important geopolitical issue in the 20th century. During this bipolar period, smaller conflicts erupted as a response to the porosity of global politics but also to the growing ideological and geopolitical interests in different regions. As a result, proxy wars engaging smaller and regional powers became essential strategies for the superpowers seeking to intervene without drawing direct attention to their actions.[1] The Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989) illustrates one of the most important regional Proxy Wars that occurred during the Cold War. However, after 30 years, questions still arise; which factors led the U.S.S.R., the U.S., and other states to become involved? And to which degree did they achieve their strategic objectives in the process? To answer this, we will first define the characteristics of Proxy Wars by observing the unique historical traits of the Soviet-Afghan War. This will illustrate the role of historical context in Proxy Wars. Second, we will examine the factors that led specific belligerent actors to become involved. This will allow us to understand the paradoxical differences between the main actors. And third, we will analyse the degree to which these actors achieved their strategic objectives. This will prove that a state's objective and desired effects cannot always guarantee a successful intervention. Together, these observations will illustrate how Proxy Wars are never risk-free[2].

Proxy warfare has strong historical precedents.[3] While there has been an extensive contemporary development in the study of the field, most academics agree that 'Proxy Wars remain a missing link in contemporary war and security studies as they are historically ubiquitous yet chronically under-analysed.'[4] However, at its core, Proxy Wars are defined by specific characteristics: first, they are built on a relationship between a benefactor (external state or non-state actor) and their chosen proxies (state or non-state actor directly linked to the dynamic of an existing conflict); second, the proxies indirectly receive weapons, training or funding from the benefactor; and, third, these interventions will generally be 'undertaken ostensibly for reasons of maximizing interests, while at the same time minimizing risks.'[5] Additionally, Proxy Warfare has a unique attribute that engages war in the local and international context and has the capacity to work in partnership while also shaping policy-making. As such, the strategic use of Proxy Wars offers bigger powers the chance for 'balancing the desire to influence affairs in a desired way while minimizing or obscuring participation.'[6] Overall, Proxy Wars are considered by states a logical way of pursuing their own strategic goals while avoiding engaging in costly and direct warfare. For the purpose of this paper, we will use the definition proposed by Mumford, which stipulates that Proxy Wars are defined as 'the indirect engagement in a conflict by third parties wishing to influence its strategic outcome.'[7] While other theorists postulate a vaster definition, Mumford's broad focus will allow us to consider the ubiquitous influence of the Cold War context by preventing confusion between direct interventions and covert actions of each belligerent actor.

During the first half of the 20th century, Afghanistan was mainly entangled in local conflicts that spurred several critical political changes. Throughout the 1960s-1970s, Afghanistan was the center of on-going internal and regional conflicts, which prompted political instability. These frictions culminated in a bloodless coup in 1973 and were supported by the Soviet-trained Afghan army. These internal conflicts concluded in the establishment of the first (soviet) Afghan republic. As a result, the pro-Soviet Afghans, and the U.S.S.R., were able to establish political influence over Kabul. However, on April 27th, 1978, after enjoying five years of growing pro-soviet presence, many Afghan people believed that the communist government did not reflect the maxims of Islam nor Afghanistan. The group that began to rebel against the government was called the Mujahideen, and their rebellion eventually prompted the Saur Revolution and the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. However, the leaders of the Soviet Union became increasingly concerned that the new leadership of Kabul was openly seeking new political cooperation with the U.S. Thus, on December 24th, 1979, the U.S.S.R. strategically invaded Afghanistan under covert Operation Storm 333 in an effort to install their own pro-Soviet leader. Over the next several years, the battle between the Mujahideen and the Soviet Army became the center of attention for the West while the U.S.S.R. came under increasing international pressure. From 1979 to 1988, the Soviet-Afghan War also caught the attention of new important players (the U.S., Pakistan, the United Kingdom, China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia), all actors whose degree of indirect involvement is still being questioned today. It was until 1988 that the war became increasingly complex as the human and material costs were fracturing an already fragile Soviet Union. After several attempts from the Soviets to take the region from the Mujahideen, the Soviet-Afghan War concluded on February 15th,1989. This conflict was characterized by a successful Afghan jihad against the invading Red Army, but it did not end in peace. 'Instead, the conflict morphed into more devastating Proxy Wars with unanticipated consequences for Afghanistan and its neighbors both near and far and evolved into a serious regional and global conflict.'[8]

Throughout the entire Soviet-Afghan War, the role of belligerent actors was decisive to the outcome of the conflict and the region’s stability. The Cold War accelerated state behaviors where 'defense was no longer limited to building adequate coercive means to withstand military threats but became an exercise of managing a range of risks of which the political risks of inaction.'[9] This was specifically true during this the Soviet-Afghan War as states sought to 'achieve a more perceived security with fewer resources at a lower cost.[10] The three main actors to consider in this conflict are; the U.S.S.R., the U.S., and other states that supported the Mujahideen. According to most authors, the involvement of each actor varied in scope, intention, and complexity, but they all shared three strategic purposes: coercion, disruption, and transformation. The most crucial belligerent actor is the U.S.S.R, and like many states of the 20th century, the Soviet Union was 'the product of complex social, political, economic, and geopolitical forces.' In fact, Soviet presence in Afghanistan dates back to 1919, when their relationship was built on mutual cooperation and economic aid.[11] Some leaders in the Kremlin may have seen this association as a possible way to establish Soviet interests in the region. However, after World War II, the continuous economic aid provided by the U.S.S.R. was considered 'an effective foreign policy tool, but by itself, it had not been enough to establish a dominant Soviet influence in Kabul.'[12] Other essential interests grew with the on-going economic and military cooperation with a specific interest in energy resources, especially oil and gas, which the U.S.S.R began to import in 1968.[13] While the economic and military aid linked the two states during the 1960s-1970s, the Kremlin mainly sought to pursue strategic covert interventions by manipulating internal political forces that would benefit the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War.

The Second belligerent actor was the U.S., and its involvement can also be understood under a historical context. While the U.S.S.R. was economically and militarily active in Afghanistan, the U.S. was openly engaged in improving a specific region, mainly Pakistan's defense. By 1954, it had already planned to secure a visible interest in the region.[14],[15] As such, two main visible factors can explain the U.S.' involvement in the conflict: 'the U.S. perception of Soviet goals in Afghanistan, and the balance of power in the region.'[16] However, according to published archives, Afghanistan by itself did not represent a direct interest, but the area around it —the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean—'was deemed critical, and U.S. policy toward Afghanistan consistently reflected a regional policy that sought solid and friendly ties with Iran and Pakistan.'[17] The breaking point came with the Shah's abdication in Iran in 1979, and an Islamic government took power severing ties with its western allies. This unpredictable move gave a reason for the U.S.S.R. to deploy over 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, shifting the balance of power in the region and thus, putting the U.S. under pressure to act.[18] These political instabilities can explain the U.S.'s growing interest against further Soviet power gain, even if that meant supporting the Mujahideen and their own strategic interests.

The third group of actors that became involved were either allied to the U.S. (U.K. and Pakistan), were defending the establishment of Islam in the region (Egypt) or had other frictions with the U.S.S.R (China). Under these circumstances, one can argue that 'transnational linkages and interstate rivalries are very important for support for rebel groups, and conflicts, where the government side has external support, are much more likely to also see support for the rebels.'[19] For example, Britain supported the Mujahedeen with Special Air Service operations while China prompted the strengthening of its border in Xinjiang, near Afghanistan, to counter any Soviet military activity. [20] [21] Overall, the need for both superpowers and their allies to control escalation and avoid large-scale conflict explains the covertness and reactive secrecy that took place in the Soviet-Afghan War.[22]

At a strategic level, the Soviet-Afghan conflict exhibited irregular behaviors. This means that 'bipolar order [and] Proxy War serves to manage escalation between the superpowers and this intense competition also suggests that domestic factors should play a smaller role in intervention decisions.'[23] Such behavior explains why the U.S. and U.S.S.R. decided to pursue strategic action, even at the cost of unknown long-term effects. This also supposes that in any Hybrid War, 'these forces become blurred into the same force in the same battlespace.'[24] As such, the degree of successful strategic objectives depended on three factors: the policy's coherence (ability to intervene in the conflict), the efficacity (the likelihood of producing a desirable outcome), and the unforeseen effects. As Groh noted, the most crucial element is that 'an intervening state recognizes which type of intervention matches its desired objectives with the conditions that will ultimately affect the outcome of the policy.'[25] In the case of the U.S.S.R, the Cold War created a unique and challenging environment that altered the utility and efficacity of indirect intervention. While the Kremlin's decision-making on foreign policy crisis had remained the same since the Bolshevik revolution, military patterns of covert-overt intervention were predictable.[26]In fact, the Soviets miscalculated both the military and political costs of their Brezhnev Doctrine, which could explain most of the Soviet’s failure in Afghanistan. As such, 'Moscow's lack of success led to changes in military tactics over the years, a trial-and-error search for approaches that might work.'[27] As for the U.S., their strategies were based on covert interventions, which reflected the abysmal political differences with the Soviets. During the 1980s, the CIA was entrusted with covert operations that sought to 'supply lethal weapons to the Mujahideen […] for the purpose of harassing the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan'[28] However, one of the most prominent controversial policies undertaken by the U.S. was the decision to provide de Mujahideen with the most powerful weapons and billions of dollars in aid. While these short-term strategies supported the covert mission at the time, the U.S. government did not consider the long-term effects of supplying such military power. In fact, 20 years later, the Taliban was founded due to the effects of previous U.S. policy in the region, becoming the most significant general threat to global peace, particularly for Afghanistan and Pakistan.[29] Finally, the future reliability of some allies was challenging to foresee and was caused by shifting political interests in the region. Overall, the actions, achievements, and downfalls of the Soviet-Afghan War prove that proxies – at least the longer-lasting ones – are always unpredictable.

Since the end of World War II, the way states use Proxy Wars has changed but the reason why they are used remains the same.[30] The case of the Soviet-Afghan War supports three important facts. First, Proxy Wars will remain relevant even in the most complex conflict. Second, the Cold War era was a determinant factor in how the Soviet-Afghan War played out. And third, covert strategic operations have unforeseeable effects which can hinder future policy coherence. Despite the exorbitant human, political, and economic cost of Proxy Wars, their use and misuse will continue to grow in the future. These conflicts will depend on the international theatre, the nature of state behavior and the development of new security environments, such as space and cyberspace. As the world sees a return to traditional power-politics in the 21st century, the future of Proxy Wars rests on great power rivalries but also on the ever-increasing strength and autonomy of non-state actors. Such uncertainty prompts a final question: will governments inevitably prefer the use of proxies to wage their wars?



Arnold, Anthony. Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion in Perspective. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1985.

Carson, Austin. Secret Wars: Covert Conflict in International Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Fenzel, Michael R. No Miracles: The Failure of Soviet Decision-Making in the Afghan War. Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2017.

Groh, Tyrone L. Proxy War: The Least Bad Option, Stanford University Press, 2019.

Mumford, Andrew. Proxy Warfare. Oxford: Polity Press, 2013.

Shahrani, Nazif, ed. Modern Afghanistan: The Impact of 40 Years of War. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018.

Starr, S. Frederick. Xinjiang: China's Muslim Borderland. Armonk: Taylor & Francis Group, 2004.

Journal Articles

Ali, Imran and Dong, Xiaochuan. "The Revenge Game: U.S Foreign Policy During Afghan-Soviet War and Afghan-Pakistan Falling Into Hell." Asian Social Science; Vol. 11, No. 27 (2015): 43-52.

Assifi, Abduk Tawab. "The Russian Rope: Soviet Economic Motives and the Subversion of Afghanistan." World Affairs 145, no. 3 (1982): 253–66.

Cogan, Charles G. "Partners in Time: The CIA and Afghanistan since 1979." World Policy Journal 10, no. 2 (1993): 73–82.

Krieg, Andreas. "Surrogate Warfare: The Art of War in the 21st Century?" Defense studies. 18, no. 2 (2018): 113–130.

Hoffman, Frank G. "Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars". Potomac Institute for Policy Studies (2007).

Khalilzad, Zalmay. "Afghanistan: Anatomy of a Soviet Failure." The National Interest, no. 12 (1988): 101–8.

Salehyan, Idean, Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, and David E. Cunningham. "Explaining External Support for Insurgent Groups." International Organization 65, no. 4 (2011): 703-44.

Väyrynen, Raimo. "Focus on Afghanistan." Journal of Peace Research 17, no. 2 (June 1980): 93–102.


Brunstedt, Johnathan. "Drawing Lessons from the Soviet-Afghan War." The Wilson Center.

Cold war History Project and Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "Documents of the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan."November 2001.

Galster, Steve. "Afghanistan: The Making Of U.S. Policy, 1973-1990". The National Security Archive. George Washington University. Accessed online on December 16th,2021.

Times of Islamabad. "Declassified files reveal Britain's secret support to Afghan Mujahideen."January 30th, 2018. Accessed online December 17th, 2021.


[1] Tyrone Groh, Proxy War: The Least Bad Option (Stanford University Press, 2019): 5. [2] Idem, 7. [3] Unit 1. “Proxy Wars: an introduction to terminology”. Proxy and Hybrid Warfare (King’s College London, UK, November 2021). [4] Andrew Mumford. Proxy Warfare (Oxford: Polity Press, 2013): 1. [5] Idem, 11. [6] Tyrone Groh, Proxy War: The Least Bad Option (Stanford University Press, 2019): 27. [7] Andrew Mumford. Proxy Warfare (Oxford: Polity Press, 2013) : 11. [8] Nazif Shahrani, ed. Modern Afghanistan: The Impact of 40 Years of War(Indiana University Press, 2018) : 2. [9] Andreas Krieg and Jean-Marc Rickli. Surrogate Warfare : The Transformation of War in the Twenty-First Century. (Georgetown University Press, 2019): 2. [10] Idem, 2. [11] Anthony Arnold. Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion in Perspective (Hoover Institution Press, 1985): 20. [12] Idem, 46. [13] Abduk Tawab Assifi. “The Russian Rope: Soviet Economic Motives and the Subversion of Afghanistan.” World Affairs 145, no. 3 (1982): 256. [14] Anthony Arnold. Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion in Perspective (Hoover Institution Press, 1985): 40. [15] Idem, 41. [16] Steve Galster. “Afghanistan: The Making Of U.S. Policy, 1973-1990”. The National Security Archive. George Washington University. Accessed online on December 16th, 2021. [17] Ibid. [18] Ibid. [19] Idean Salehyan et al. “Explaining External Support for Insurgent Groups.” International Organization 65, no. 4 (2011): 744. [20] Times of Islamabad. “Declassified files reveal Britain’s secret support to Afghan Mujahideen”. January 30th, 2018. Accessed December 17th, 2021. [21] Frederick S. Starr. Xinjiang: China's Muslim Borderland. (Taylor & Francis Group, 2004): 95. [22] Austin Carson. Secret Wars: Covert Conflict in International Politics. (Princeton University Press, 2018): 5. [23] Idem 50. [24] Frank G. Hoffman. “Conflict in the 21st Century: The Rise of Hybrid Wars”. Potomac Institute for Policy Studies (2007): 8. [25] Tyrone Groh, Proxy War: The Least Bad Option (Stanford University Press, 2019): 203. [26] Cold war History Project and Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Documents of the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan”: 128. [27] Zalmay Khalilzad. “Afghanistan: Anatomy of a Soviet Failure.” The National Interest, no. 12 (1988): 104. [28] Charles G Cogan. “Partners in Time: The CIA and Afghanistan since 1979.” World Policy Journal 10, no. 2 (1993): 76. [29] Imran Ali and Xiaochuan Dong, “The Revenge Game: U.S Foreign Policy During Afghan-Soviet War and Afghan-Pakistan Falling Into Hell.” Asian Social Science; Vol. 11, No. 27 (2015): 43. [30] Tyrone Groh, Proxy War: The Least Bad Option (Stanford University Press, 2019): 9.

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