At the same time that America’s strong friendship with its former client, Iran, was disintegrating, the Soviet Union was becoming mired in Afghanistan.
On December 27, 1979, the Soviets invaded, killing the Marxist head of state, installing a puppet regime, and eventually committing almost 100,000 troops to fight the Muslim “guerillas.” The US saw Moscow’s military intervention as a culmination of its 1970s expansionary course in the Third World.
The Soviets, on the other hand, felt that they were directly protecting their nation’s national security interests. It had become apparent to them that the Marxist government could not survive for long without direct Soviet armed forces support. Furthermore, it was apparent that the most effective and militant opponents of the regime were Islamic religiopolitical leaders, some of whom clearly fit the mold of Islamic political resurgence.
Because of Soviet concern that the instability in Afghanistan might spread across the 1,200 mile border that the Afghans shared with the Muslim Central Asian Republics of the Soviet Union, Moscow needed to ensure that Afghanistan would remain a buffer state. Thus, the Soviets saw their actions as defensive measures, designed to preserve — not upset — the existing geopolitical balance.
Conversely, the US saw the Soviet use of armed force as a serious violation of international law, posing a sharp challenge to US policy as well as to its oil interests and vital sea lanes.
As a result, in January 1980, the US along with Egypt and Pakistan — aided by financial support from Saudi Arabia — began to provide covert military and other assistance to the Afghan insurgents. In return, the Soviets became convinced that the US was opposing a reasonable Soviet policy stance in Afghanistan as a pretext to dismantle detente, gear up the arms race, build American positions of strength in the Persian Gulf, and mount a general anti – Soviet offensive.
Iran also became engaged in the struggle, supporting Shi’a mujahedin factions exclusively and demanding a Soviet evacuation.
In what many have called an overreaction, Carter withdrew the unratified SALT II treaty from the Senate, ordered embargoes on shipments of grain and technology to the USSR, endorsed a new program of draft registration, asked for an increase in American defense spending including the creation of a ‘rapid-deployment’ force capable of reacting quickly to Third World crises, and even demanded a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. He went on to denounce the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as the most serious threat to peace since World War II.
As the insurgency grew, there was a mass population exodus with approximately three million refugees fleeing to Iran and Pakistan.
The Afghan Army was plagued by desertions and defections, requiring that the Soviets assume an ever larger military effort.
The war lasted almost ten years before the withdrawal of all forces in 1988-1989, depleting and demoralizing the Soviets just as Vietnam had drained the United States.
American foreign policy in the 1980s focused above all on hostages — those held in Iran and, later, in Lebanon — and on mobilizing a counter reaction to Afghanistan.
In the wake of the Soviet occupation, negotiations with the Kremlin on the demilitarization of the Indian Ocean and on restraining conventional arms sales to the Third World were superseded by a massive buildup of American naval capability in the Indian Ocean-Persian Gulf region.
American defense manufacturers were eager to increase their supply of arms to the area when Pakistan and Saudi Arabia replaced Iran as American bastions. Meanwhile, the quest continued for naval and air bases, as well as for the use of existing facilities in Oman, Kenya, and Somalia.
Enunciation of the Carter Doctrine (1979) reversed the long-standing policy that countries, in the first instance, would be required to defend their own security. Accordingly, the Gulf was considered a zone of vital interest to the US in which no challenge to the West’s influence would be permitted.
Nonetheless, uncertainty surrounding the Americans held captive in Iran overshadowed all other aspects of international affairs. The problem was compounded when, with the hostage crisis in full swing, Saddam Hussein invaded Iran.