By 1973 Afghanistan had been unofficially partitioned, with the USSR running the show in every region except the eastern part of the nation. By 1978 Afghanistan had in essence two rival governments, and the USSR favored the side that spoke their Communist language. During February 1979, the US Ambassador to Afghanistan was kidnapped and then killed in the crossfire of a rescue attempt by the Afghan government backed by USSR advisors, which deteriorated US/USSR relations even further. It was at that time that Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet premier, warned Afghanistan to get their house in order to avoid civil war or the USSR might be drawn in even further.
By the Spring of 1979, Zbig had started to press Carter to provide financial assistance for the mujahideen (the self-described “Holy Warriors” of Islam, which soon enough included Osama bin Laden) and six months before the USSR’s invasion, the mujahideen had started to receive US money/aid. By September 1979 the USSR had become paranoid that the current Afghan government was seeking alliances with Pakistan, China, and even the US.
The USSR invasion of Afghanistan began on 25 December 1979, with Soviet propaganda falsely stating that the existing government had “invited” them. To President Carter, the invasion represented an actual threat to US national security, in that to Carter it looked like the USSR was moving on the
Persian Gulf. Carter, on the Red Phone, made it clear to Brezhnev that any move on the Persian Gulf would be considered an attack by the USSR on the US. Zbig drew a straight line from Afghanistan to the Strait of Hormuz, and Carter fully agreed.
Carter wanted punitive action(s) that would be broadly supported against the USSR, with the US in the lead but followed/supported by many other nations, and those proposed actions fell into political, economic, and military categories. Direct military intervention was out of the question, so the plan was to deny the USSR the Persian Gulf and Iran. Carter increased and expanded the US Navy’s presence in the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf while increasing military support to Pakistan.
Of all the actions taken by the Carter administration against the USSR, the most controversial and contentious were the grain embargo, the boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, and draft registration. The embargo on grain sales to the USSR proved to be very difficult to make a reality, in part because the American agricultural sector felt that it had been forced to unfairly sacrifice. It wasn’t politically helpful that during his campaign in 1976, Carter made clear his opposition to grain embargoes. As someone that had been part of the world of agriculture in Georgia, Carter knew that farmers would be hit very hard. America had been the #1 grain supplier to the USSR since the early-1970s, and with the Iowa caucus coming up very soon, Carter had to decide whether or not to allow currently approved shipments of grain to the USSR before playing hardball.
Carter wanted to stop shipments of grain immediately, but could he do so with a stroke of his pen? Could Carter void an agreement in place from the Ford administration which meant that grain still due to the USSR had to be shipped; so far only about half of that agreed-upon amount of grain had been transported. And who should make the decision concerning the ports where the grain was ready to be shipped: the President or the dockworkers union (e.g. in CA), and how would Brezhnev regard either group. And finally, what was the legal position of the White House in terms of canceling existing contracts with the USSR concerning grain.
Carter wanted an operational grain embargo by 3 January 1980, and was basically not interested in the finer details of making it work; arguments that the US was shooting itself in the foot did not register with the President. Carter acted quickly and decisively, but without vetting and coordinating with the necessary key government departments. Carter justified the embargo by stating that the US access to oil was potentially at risk. Carter went further, saying that unchecked Soviet aggression would become a contagious disease
Carter, in an election year, was trying to balance the legal limits of economic sanctions versus national security interests, and there were countervailing arguments to every option that was examined. But Argentina wouldn’t play ball with the US since the Argentine military government decided that it would be a good time to make more money by selling grain to the USSR and to pay back Carter for meddling in their nation’s internal affairs in promoting human rights. Argentina had nine million tons of grain and were ready to sell all of it to the USSR.
Carter saw American participation in the Moscow Olympics in the Summer of 1980 as immoral, and as early as January 1980 Carter publicly floated the possibility of a US boycott. In February 1980, Carter told staffers that the US would not go to Moscow if Soviet troops remained in Afghanistan. The American public was surprisingly in favor of the boycott, but a whole host of complicating factors arose. Should Coca-Cola still be a sponsor even if the US government had no authority to say the corporation could not. Should there be an alternative competition for American athletes; the Berlin Olympics in 1936 were on Carter’s mind, in that US participation helped Nazi Germany gain global credibility. 55% of Americans polled supported the boycott, but Carter knew the numbers would fall if the US stood alone, which would also make the US look pitiful; boycotting the Moscow Olympics with the US were China, Japan, and West Germany. While the US boycott was a blow to sports-mad America and the dedicated athletes who were denied the chance to compete, the blow to Soviet prestige was greater, and the
1980 Moscow Olympics turned out to be largely a Soviet Eastern Bloc event.
Already by January 1980, the USSR had started to figure out that Afghanistan was no cake-walk. On 23 January 1980, Carter delivered what turned out to be his last State of the Union Address, with the level of tension and attention in the House Chamber was high due to Afghanistan and the Iranian Hostage Crisis. In his address, Carter issued his “Carter Doctrine”, which focused on freedom of the seas in the Persian Gulf by military means if necessary. Carter was at his highest point in his Presidency, and it was impossible for for the President and his administration to know that his fall would be so sudden, and that Reagan’s attacks on Carter that he was weak on national security would resonate (a charge that is historically false).
It could be argued that Carter’s actions against the USSR after it invaded Afghanistan were a main reason why the Soviet Union didn’t send troops into Poland in 1981 when Lech Walesa
and Solidarity reached critical mass. Every President from Truman to Bush the Elder played a significant role in the defeat of the USSR in the Cold War, but Carter’s efforts have been the most underappreciated . . . part of the reason was that Brezhnev and the Politburo pushed too far-and-fast with the invasion of Afghanistan, and Carter was the President that drew the short straw and had to respond.