Key Point: Learn from history, or repeat it.
During the early days after the 9/11 attacks and the initiation of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, it was relatively common to reference the woeful Soviet experience in that country. Here was a clear paradigm of what not to do in order to avoid getting stuck in a quagmire. Surely, American leaders would be more adroit. By employing advanced U.S. technology along with a more sensitive effort to win “hearts and minds,” the Taliban—what was left of it—would be quickly vanquished.
So much for that theory.
But it might be worth exploring yet again some historical aspects of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, 1979–1989, in order to shed some light, not only on the present predicament of the American war in Afghanistan, now lamentably in its sixteenth year, but perhaps also to gain some insights into contemporary Russian foreign policy and society too. A detailed appraisal covering the military aspects of the Soviet war appeared in the mid-April 2018 issue of the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the agreement on 14 April 1988 to withdraw all Soviet forces from Afghanistan. The writer of this interesting piece is the rather conservative but quite independent-minded Russian defense analyst Alexander Chramshikin. The piece appears under the headline “The Afghan Lesson for Russia: A Collision with Islamic Extremists Was Inevitable [Афганский урок для России: Столкновение с исламским экстремизмом было неизбежно].”
The author explains that there was misperception back then on both sides concerning the origins of the war. He notes that the Soviet leadership was seriously convinced that “American forces would invade Afghanistan in the near future [в Афганистан в ближайшее время начнется вторжение американских войск],” while Washington thought that Soviet forces were determined to drive all the way to the Persian Gulf in order to interfere with the transfer of oil supplies to the West. These assumptions were both completely wrong, of course, but Chramshikin says the assessment that the Americans got right was to seize the opportunity to “arrange for the Soviets their own Vietnam [устроить Советам свой Вьетнам].”
It is observed that the Soviet Army was completely unprepared to fight a counter-insurgency war. “It was a war without fronts and without a corresponding rear area [это война без фронта и соответственно без тыла].” Contact with the enemy could occur at any time and in any place. Weapons and tactics had been designed for Central Europe or the Far East, but not for mountainous Central Asia, and “All this led to many failures [Все это приводило к множеству неудач].” Assaults against Ahmed Shah Massoud’s partisan forces in the Panjshir Valley proved costly to Soviet forces again and again, “because all of the operational plans were received by Massoud in advance [поскольку все планы операций Масуд получал заранее].” To be sure, the Soviet brass tried to rectify the situation by giving transport vehicles additional armor and making sure their swivel guns could fire “almost vertically into the air” [почти вертикально вверх] to cope with ambushes in Afghanistan’s innumerable narrow valleys. Yet, it seems to be an immutable fact of counter-insurgency warfare that the insurgents have superior intelligence and understand the ground better.
The Soviets sought to innovate by developing a doctrine that focused on the use of helicopters and particularly the employment of special forces. Moreover, the new “main task was to be finding and interdicting convoys of arms coming from Pakistan [главной задачей стал поиск и разгром идущих из Пакистана караванов с оружием].” These strategic responses all sound familiar? There were some successes for Soviet forces. Chramshikin relates, for example, an episode at the end of 1984 when 220 partisans were killed in such an interdiction operation without losing any Soviet soldiers. But just a few months later, twenty-nine Soviet special forces soldiers were killed in a single battle. During the year 1985, Soviet forces lost eighteen aircraft and fifty-three helicopters, according to this analysis, and that was before the introduction of the Stinger shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles into the war. And that development, beginning in September 1986, “caused a sharp increase in losses, especially with respect to helicopters [привело к резкому росту потерь, особенно в вертолетах].” Despite such significant setbacks, Chramshikin claims that many thought that due to hard fighting in 1987 that the “Soviet Army could still completely win the war [Советская армия вполне может выиграть войну].”
In the end, Chramshikin concludes that the Kremlin could not sustain the war due to the “economic catastrophe” at home, but he also blames the advent of glasnost, which he says caused the Soviet society to turn actively against the war effort. He asserts that in this sense, the end of the Soviet war in Afghanistan was very similar to the end of the war in Vietnam. He describes the April 1988 agreement that ended the war as a “complete and unconditional capitulation of the USSR [это была полная и безоговорочная капитуляция СССР],” since he says that Washington and Islamabad did not even go through the motions of complying with their promises to stop aiding the partisans.
While Chramshikin clearly seeks to absolve the Russian Army from culpability, saying they “fullfilled their duty,” he does admit that the underlying logic behind the Soviet war in Afghanistan was “obviously absurd [aбсурд очевиден].” He even goes a step further and asks the provocative question regarding whether indeed Al Qaeda and the Taliban would have come about had the Soviets never become involved in Afghanistan. He says, “The answer to this question is extremely complex, but it can be said with certainty that neither the (Soviet) Fourtieth Army, nor even the CIA created Islamic extremism. Its emergence is much more complex and it grew out of internal factors within the Islamic world itself.” [ответить на этот вопрос крайне сложно. Совершенно точно можно сказать только то, что исламский экстремизм породила не 40-я Армия и даже не ЦРУ. Это явление гораздо более сложное, рожденное внутри самого исламского мира.] Thus, while suggesting that the Soviet leaders relied on “erroneous logic [ошибочной логики],” he does actually reference briefly both the war in Chechnya and also Syria to arrive at the conclusion that the Soviet war in Afghanistan may seem more understandable (or even inevitable) as it recedes into the deeper past.
The piece is somewhat interesting as an example of contemporary Russian discourse on the subject of Soviet-era mistakes. Some may view it as yet another attempt to whitewash an inglorious past. But if this is the so-called “totalitarian system” at work, it hardly seems to conform to the imaginations of various virulent Western critics of the Russian press and politics. Indeed, Chramshikin’s rendering seems to be reasonably objective with an added and quite understandable sensitivity to the many veterans of the Soviet War in Afghanistan, who were after all quite likely to read his piece obviously. Nor is it strange that the author would try to find some kind of continuity between this most obvious strategic failure and more recent military engagements on Russia’s southern flank, whether Chechnya or Syria. There is little doubt, moreover, that this rather candid portrayal of the disastrous Soviet War in Afghanistan will trigger some Russian readers, even if that is not the author’s intention, to question anew Russia’s commitment to fight in Syria—a commitment that does already evince certain aspects of a quagmire with a variety of possibilities for strategic “blow-back.”
More fundamentally for the American readership of the National Interest, this article could be yet another wake-up call regarding the futility of “soldiering on” in Afghanistan. It’s, of course, true that U.S. casualties are significantly lower, so far at least in 2018. But one more American service member killed in Afghanistan is still too many. The U.S. military has adapted, demonstrated “grit,” bravery and competence in difficult circumstances. Yet, it’s easy to forget that the Soviet effort actually had numerous advantages over the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Sharing a border with Afghanistan, the Soviets were able to move heavy equipment and supplies into the country in a much easier and more economical way. Similarly, the Soviet Army had wide access to ethnic “cousins” of various Afghan groups from within its own Central Asian republics and these people could help smooth over cultural and linguistic differences. Most fundamentally, the Soviets could, with at least some plausibility, argue that security in Afghanistan mattered to the national security of the USSR. If it was not a “core interest” for the Kremlin, then it could be labeled in Moscow as a “significant interest” anyhow. The same can hardly be said of Washington’s expensive, misbegotten quest in that distant, blood-soaked land. It’s well past time to let Afghans decide Afghanistan’s future without foreign “assistance.”
Lyle J. Goldstein is Research Professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the United States Naval War College in Newport, RI. In addition to Chinese, he also speaks Russian and he is also an affiliate of the new Russia Maritime Studies Institute (RMSI) at Naval War College. You can reach him at [email protected]. The opinions in his columns are entirely his own and do not reflect the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. government. (This article first appeared in 2018).