“The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia,” he added, before becoming the first transatlantic leader to endorse the Soviet invasion: “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.”
David Frum: Why is Trump spouting Russian propaganda?
In fact, terrorism had nothing to do with Moscow’s incursion. (Trump may have been confusing the rationale for another invasion—in Chechnya.) The war in Afghanistan was prompted more than anything by displeasure with the country’s then-president, Hafizullah Amin. Although he led Afghanistan’s Soviet-backed Communist party, he had angered the Kremlin by assassinating his predecessor, Mohammed Taraki, a rival Communist. Moscow blamed Amin’s ruthlessness for a wave of rebellion in the countryside that threatened the government. By eliminating him, the Kremlin reasoned, a coup d’état would save the Communist regime that kept the Soviet Union’s southern neighbor within Moscow’s sphere of influence.
So in December 1979, a cook who was a KGB agent working in one of Afghanistan’s presidential palaces administered poison to a meal he was preparing for Amin. But when he dissolved the poison in a glass of the president’s favorite drink, Coca-Cola, its bubbles rendered the concoction harmless. A second poisoning two weeks later would have succeeded if doctors sent by the Soviet embassy in Kabul—which was uninformed of the KGB’s plans—hadn’t resuscitated Amin. By then, Red Army troops were invading, and the president was killed soon after, when Soviet special-forces units stormed his palace.
The bungling would have been comical were the results not so tragic. The Kremlin’s surprise incursion turned into a grinding campaign against local insurgents made worse by dismal Soviet military discipline, vicious hazing, and miserable rations, which forced soldiers to raid local farms and stores—and which turned Afghan hearts and minds against Moscow.
Despite grievous mistakes in planning and execution, however, the Soviet war in Afghanistan was no unmitigated failure. Until Washington provided the rebel mujahideen with Stinger surface-to-air missiles in 1986, Moscow had the upper hand. The rub for the U.S.S.R. was that soon after the reforming Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985—but before the introduction of the Stinger missiles turned the conflict’s tide—he had already promised to withdraw Soviet troops. Nevertheless, they remained another four years, piling up the military and civilian casualties and helping generate growing numbers of extremist militants, to which the United States did much to contribute by arming and financing mujahideen groups that attracted foreign fighters.