The Mujahideen of Afghanistan

March 5, 2009 - A Mujahideen Guard walks with U.S. Military members of the Afghanistan Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team during a site visit in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
A Mujahideen Guard walks with U.S. Military members. Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

In the 1970s, a new group of fighters arose in Afghanistan. They called themselves mujahideen, a word applied initially to Afghan fighters who opposed the push of the British Raj into Afghanistan in the 19th century. But who were these 20th-century mujahideen?

The word "mujahideen" comes from the same Arabic root as jihad, which means "struggle." Thus, a mujahid is someone who struggles or someone who fights. In the context of Afghanistan during the late 20th century, the mujahideen were Islamic warriors defending their country from the Soviet Union, which invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and fought a bloody war there for a decade.

Who Were the Mujahideen?

Afghanistan's mujahideen were an exceptionally diverse lot, including ethnic Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and others. Some were Shi'a Muslims, sponsored by Iran, while most factions were made up of Sunni Muslims. In addition to the Afghan fighters, Muslims from other countries volunteered to join the mujahideen ranks. Much smaller numbers of Arabs (including Osama bin Laden), fighters from Chechnya, and others rushed to the aid of Afghanistan. After all, the Soviet Union was officially an atheist nation, inimical to Islam, and the Chechens had their own anti-Soviet grievances.

The mujahideen arose out of local militias, led by regional warlords, who independently took up arms all across Afghanistan to fight the Soviet invasion. Coordination among the different mujahideen factions was severely limited by mountainous terrain, linguistic differences, and traditional rivalries among different ethnic groups.

As the Soviet occupation dragged on, the Afghan resistance became increasingly united in its opposition. By 1985, the majority of the mujahideen were fighting as part of a broad alliance known as the Islamic Unity of Afghanistan Mujahideen. This alliance was made up of troops from the armies of seven major warlords, so it was also known as the Seven Party Mujahideen Alliance or the Peshawar Seven.

The most famous (and likely most effective) of the mujahideen commanders was Ahmed Shah Massoud, known as the "Lion of the Panjshir." His troops fought under the banner of the Jamiat-i-Islami, one of the Peshawar Seven factions led by Burhanuddin Rabbani, who would later become the 10th President of Afghanistan. Massoud was a strategic and tactical genius, and his mujahideen were a crucial part of the Afghan resistance against the Soviet Union during the 1980s.

The Soviet-Afghan War

For a variety of reasons, foreign governments also supported the mujahideen in the war against the Soviets. The United States had been engaged in detente with the Soviets, but their expansionist move into Afghanistan angered President Jimmy Carter, and the U.S. would go on to supply money and arms to the mujahideen through intermediaries in Pakistan for the duration of the conflict. (The U.S. was still smarting from its loss in the Vietnam War, so the country did not send in any combat troops.) The People's Republic of China also supported the mujahideen, as did Saudi Arabia.

The Afghan mujahideen deserve the lion's share of the credit for their victory over the Red Army. Armed with their knowledge of the mountainous terrain, their tenacity, and their sheer unwillingness to allow a foreign army to overrun Afghanistan, small bands of often ill-equipped mujahideen fought one of the world's superpowers to a draw. In 1989, the Soviets were forced to withdraw in disgrace, having lost 15,000 troops.

For the Soviets, it was a very costly mistake. Some historians cite the expense and discontent over the Afghan War as a major factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union several years later. For Afghanistan, it was also a bittersweet victory; more than 1 million Afghans were killed, and the war threw the country into a state of political chaos that eventually allowed the fundamentalist Taliban to take power in Kabul.