Books Monographs

Predicting the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan

The Intelligence Community’s Record

By Douglas MacEachin (2007)


On Christmas Eve 1979, US intelligence began receiving reports that a massive Soviet military airlift was under way in and around Afghanistan. Initially the bulk of the flights were detected coming from the western USSR to air bases in the regions bordering on Afghanistan, with a smaller proportion also going into the main cities in Afghanistan. By the next morning, however, the number of flights into Afghanistan had begun to surge, reaching some 250 to 300 within the next 72 hours. These flights deployed what was believed to be five or six Soviet airborne battalions.

By the morning of 28 December, these Soviet military forces, along with additional troops who had already been infiltrated into Afghanistan in the preceding weeks, had taken control of the capital city of Kabul and other major cities and transportation nodes. They eliminated the existing government, killed its leader and installed a proxy regime that Moscow then used as a cover for sending in “requested assistance” in the  form of two ground force combat divisions with 25,000 troops. These troops were already entering Afghanistan when the “request” was made.

US policy officials, including President Jimmy Carter, almost unanimously expressed surprise over the Soviet move—especially its size and scope. Explicit finger pointing was kept to a relatively low profile, but many of them made it clear that they considered the surprise to have been a consequence of an intelligence warning failure. Some intelligence officials contested this, pointing out that the preparation of the Soviet forces employed in the invasion had been described by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in current intelligence publications in the preceding months, and that an interagency intelligence “Alert Memorandum” had been disseminated five days before the airlift began.

These arguments carried little sway. Earlier intelligence reports on activities by the Soviet military units had not been accompanied by warnings that this activity might indicate Moscow’s intent to launch a major military intervention. It was also evident that by the time the Alert Memorandum was issued on 19 December the military intervention had already begun.

One indication that this was seen as an intelligence failure was a National Security Council (NSC) request—issued a few months after the Soviet invasion—for a study of the implications of the Afghanistan experience; using that experience as an indication of the intelligence capability to warn of Soviet military actions elsewhere, including an attack on NATO. An even more explicit indication was the inclusion of Afghanistan in the cases listed in a study that the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) commissioned in 1983 “on the quality of intelligence judgments preceding significant historical failures over the last twenty years or so.”

This monograph seeks to examine in detail—in an unclassified form that can be used in diverse forums for study and assessment—what it was in the intelligence performance that led to the “failure.” The project was undertaken as a contribution to continuing efforts to improve future performance by confronting the root causes of past problems. It re-constructs, to the extent possible from declassified documents, the intelligence chronology at the time—what information was obtained from all sources, when it was obtained, how it was interpreted, and how it was presented to US policy officials. The fundamental objective is to illuminate how the intelligence came to be interpreted and described in a way that made the invasion come as a surprise.

This reconstruction of the intelligence picture as it was drawn at the time is then compared to information now available from Soviet archives on the military preparations actually undertaken—such as what units were chosen for the operations and when they were told to begin their preparations. This segment of the study also compares the US Intelligence Community’s interpretations of potential Soviet actions with at least the partial information now available on the deliberations and debates that took place in Moscow’s decision-making process.

As background for all this, the monograph begins by briefly describing the evolution of the political-military landscape in which Afghanistan existed at the time of the communist takeover in Afghanistan in April 1978.

—Douglas MacEachin


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