The Mujahideen of Afghanistan

This young Afghan man has a Kalashnikov and an RPG-7 grenade launcher
Mujahideen fighters late in the Soviet War in Afghanistan, 1988. David Stewart-Smith, Hulton Archive

In the 1970s and 1980s, a new kind of fighter arose in Afghanistan. They called themselves mujahideen, a word originally applied to Afghan fighters who opposed the British Raj's push into Afghanistan in the 19th century. But who were these 20th-century mujahideen?

Literally, 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 twentieth century, the mujahideen were Islamic warriors defending their country from the Soviet Union, which invaded in 1979 and fought a bloody and pointless 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, 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 (like 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 against the Soviet invasion. Coordination among the different mujahideen factions was severely limited by the mountainous terrain, linguistic differences, and traditional rivalries among the different ethnic groups represented.

However, as the Soviet occupation dragged on, the Afghan resistance improved its internal cooperation.  By 1985, the majority of mujahideen fought under a broad network or alliance called the Islamic Unity of Afghanistan Mujahideen. This alliance was made up of the troops from seven major warlords' armies, 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 key to the Afghan resistance against the Soviet Union throughout the 1980s.

Foreign Views on the Mujahideen

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

The Afghani mujahideen deserve the lion's share of credit for their victory over the Red Army, however. 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 plus 500,000 injured.

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 bitter-sweet victory; more than 1 million Afghans were dead, 5 million were refugees, and in the wake of the war, political chaos would allow the fundamentalist Taliban to take power in Kabul.

Alternate Spellings: mujahedeen, mujahedin, mujaheddin, mujahidin, mudzahidin, mudzahedin

Examples: "The United States' CIA had no direct contact with the mujahideen, using covert ties with the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI) instead to funnel in weapons and money."