Afghan Mujahedeen fighters show off captured Russian troops and equipment.
Note: A version of this was first posted two years ago. Since then the U.S. is two years deeper into matching all of the Soviet mistakes, as the Soviets failed to learn from the British before them and every empire since Alexander. The only new wrinkle is the dependence on drone attacks. Memo to the President: That won’t work either.
On December 27, 1979 the Soviet Union began their futile nine year intervention in Afghanistan. Soviet troops entered an existing civil war at the request of the Communist government of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan which was beset by a rebellion of the Mujahedeen Resistance, a very loose amalgam of tribal, ethnic, and Islamist fighters.
On that first day 400 Soviet GRU special forces troops and KGB operatives in Afghan uniforms secured key positions in Kabul, including the Presidential Palace and airport. Soon the heavily mechanized 40th Army reinforced with other units was pouring into the country from bases in adjacent Uzbek SSR and Turkmen SSR. The Soviets advanced in two heavily armored land columns while additional troops and supplies were flown to Kabul.
The initial deployment entailed more than 80,000 troops, 1,800 tanks, and more than 2000 armored fighting vehicles (AFV.) Within months these forces were reinforced with two additional divisions bringing the total troop level above 100,000.
The Soviets were counting on the massive show of force to encourage the Afghan Army, and awe the resistance relying particularly on their armor. These kinds of shows of force had kept restless Eastern European Soviet Bloc nations in check with relatively little fighting.
But Afghanistan had a long tradition of resistance to foreign occupation and intervention. Far from strengthening the Afghan Army, some units mutinied and joined the Mujahedeen, others saw wide spread desertion. And rather than cowing the opposition, insurgent fighters rallied. As the Afghan Army proved unreliable or treacherous, Soviet troops were soon fighting urban guerilla warfare in additional to organized tribal lashkar armies.
The Soviets quickly deposed Afghan President Hafizullah Amin, an old school Stalinist who they blamed for encouraging the rebellion with heavy handed methods. He was shot and killed in the seizure of the Presidential Palace on the first day of a coup d’état. The Soviets accused him of being a CIA agent, which was surely not the case. Amin was replaced with a more moderate, pro-Soviet leader, Babrak Karmal. Karmal was never seen as legitimate by the Afghan people and could never even assert control over his own army. He was left to beg Moscow for ever increasing aid and allowed Soviet troops to become the main force fighting the rebellion.
Some of the difficulties the Soviets encountered were the result of their own successes. In support of insurgencies world wide against Colonial and pro-Western governments they had literally flooded the world with cheap but reliable AK-47 assault rifles (many of which were manufactured around the world under license) and other light infantry weapons, particularly the Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG). Islamic nations, neighboring Pakistan and Iran, and the United States through a rapidly growing CIA operation were soon supplying huge amounts of such arms and ammunition to the insurgents. Rebels also seized artillery and armored vehicles from the Afghan army—and often from the Soviets as well.
In Europe, civilians never had access to these kinds of arms, and local military forces were either neutralized or cooperative. And unlike Europe, Afghanistan had a culture of armed resistance and a tribal infrastructure in place perfect for a non-centralized resistance. Further, the rugged and mountainous nations provided plenty of almost impenetrable refuge from which to stage guerilla war.
Despite this, the Soviets largely quelled the urban uprisings—although it never completely controlled some major cities—and established relatively secure highway corridors between population centers and major military bases. The conflict settled into a period of low level guerilla harassment as Afghan factions gathered strength, arms, and training.
In the early 1980’s significant numbers of Islamic volunteers began to arrive to join the Mujahedeen, including many Saudis including a wealthy young Osama Bin Laden. Along with more bodies and arms, these forces came with a new Islamic fundamentalism that was extreme even in very traditional Afghan tribal culture. The CIA, however, viewed these as particularly reliable due to connections with the strongly pro-western Saudi royal family. It began pouring arms and training to the Arabs as well as tribal forces, including the Pashtun forces who would become the Taliban.
The Soviets intelligence agencies used, quite successfully, disinformation and propaganda campaigns that execrated tribal rivalries and fueled infighting among the insurgency, which had no central leadership. They also occasionally co-opted by bribery or coercion local commanders to switch sides. But such allies were unreliable and often switched back after securing infusions of arms.
By the early 1980s the various factions of the Mujahedeen were making increasingly bold raids against Soviet forces and installations as well as against Afghan government targets. The Soviets countered with a series of massive offensive sweeps. The enemy would put up scant resistance and usually melt into the mountains or into the civilian population, returning when Soviet forces withdrew.
Tanks and AFVs proved impractical in much of the rugged Afghan terrain. They could not maneuver on narrow, hardly improved roads and trails and often could not deploy outside of column formations, which made them vulnerable to attacks by RPGs and mortars.
The Soviets attempted to copy American helicopter based airmobile tactics in an effort to extend their control beyond the major highways. In the mid 1980’s this change of tactics seemed to be effective. Then the US began providing the rebels with cheap, easy to use shoulder mounted Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Not only did these neutralize the helicopter offensive, insurgents were soon brining down jet fighters deployed in close ground support and heavy transport planes bringing supplies to Bagrum and other major air bases.
The Mujahedeen also launched a campaign against Afghan and Soviet infrastructure, successfully blowing up bridges, power lines, oil and gas pipe lines, government offices, hospitals, and supply dumps. They also launched terrorist attacks at civilians in government controlled areas, to show the population that the Soviets could not protect them and had highly organized five person assassination squads which infiltrated villages and dispatched local leaders.
In 1985 many of the insurgents, at the urging of the CIA, came together for the first time in a loose common command, the Seven Party Mujahedeen Alliance.
The same year a new Soviet government under Mikhail Gorbachev was determined to wind down Soviet military involvement from Angola to Mongolia in an attempt to cool off the Cold War, win better relations with the West, and reduce disastrous Soviet military expenditures. The Soviet command was also faced by mounting casualties, extremely poor troop morale, and the beginning of a public anti-war movement at home led by the mothers of troops deployed in Afghanistan. Plans were announced to reduce reliance on Soviet forces for major combat and turn over the lead to the Afghan Army.
Predictably, this did not go well. Government troops faltered in key offensives, and were overwhelmed in regional attacks. Desertions and occasional mass defections continued to render the force unreliable. None the less, leadership was determined to withdraw if some graceful exit could be found.
In January of 1987 Soviet forces began a long, slow withdrawal. First, they limited their operations to defense against insurgent attacks. The one exception to this policy was Operation Magistral, an offensive launched in November of that year to open the highway between Gardez and Khost to relieve a month’s long siege of the latter city. Armored columns entered the city and established control of the road and parameter on December 30. But in keeping with the over-all withdrawal policy, the Soviets turned the city and route over to the Afghan Army in January and withdrew. The Mujahedeen quickly cut the city off again.
But the operation gave Soviet commanders at least a claim to a final battle field victory, taking the sting out of the ignominious retreat. The first half of Soviet forces were withdrawn from May 15 to August 16, 1988. The Soviets negotiated to get assurances of a peaceful withdrawal with local commanders before the second half of the retreat was begun. By in large these truces held except where the Soviets launched a meaningless last minute offensive against local war lord Ahmed Shah Masood in the Panjshir Valley which resulted in his forces harassing the retreating Soviets. The final withdrawal was completed November 15 to February 15, 1989.
In 9 years and 50 days the Soviets lost 14,453 troops to combat injuries, disease and accidents. 53,753 were injured and more than 300 listed as missing in action. The hapless Afghan Army lost more than 18,000 dead. Material losses included 147 tanks, 1,314 AFVs and armored personnel carriers, 433 artillery pieces including mortars, 11,369 trucks and fuel tankers, and 451 air craft including 333 helicopters.
Mujahedeen losses are unknown but estimated to have exceeded one million casualties. Civilian losses and displacements are incalculable.
The Afghan government under Mohammad Najibullah since 1986 did not immediately collapse. The Army even had some unexpected success. The civil war bogged down to a stalemate as Mujahedeen and Arab volunteer forces began to splinter again on tribal and religious lines. But after the defection of a key government supporter among the minority Uzbeks, the government finally fell in March of 1992 and a Mujahedeen governing council was installed in Kabul.
Not all rebels joined the council and fighting continued in the North and in a Taliban insurgency among the Pastuns. After a key CIA backed leader was killed, the Taliban was able to come to power in 1996, mostly on a promise to finally restore the country to peace.
Bin Laden, a key Taliban ally, believed that not only had the insurgency liberated Afghanistan, but that it was directly responsible for the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. Angered by Saudi government cooperation with the West, the continued Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and an abhorrence of secular western values and morality, Bin Laden began his plan to bring down the West, particularly the United States.
There were far more factors than the Afghan debacle in the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, but it was surely a contributing factor. CIA and American security experts believed that luring the Soviets into “Their own Vietnam” both weakened national resolve and contributed to the financial burden of a huge military establishment.
The lessons of the Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan are there for anyone with a whit of intelligence to read. Unfortunately, the geniuses in Washington magically expect different results by following essentially the same policy.