During the early days after the 9/11 attacks and the initiation of the US intervention in Afghanistan, it was relatively common to reference the disastrous Soviet experience in that country.
After years of fighting, analysts conceded, the Soviets only could secure a few blocks of downtown Kabul — the rest was a no man’s land of death.
Nothing gained, despite the loss of human lives and military materiel.
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 US technology along with a more sensitive effort to win “hearts and minds,” the Taliban — what was left of it — would be quickly vanquished.
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.
Currently, US forces are protected in various military bases, only venturing out by Black Hawk helicopter and acting as advisers to Afghan military. Navy SEALs still do hit and run night raids with Afghan special forces, but largely, American troops are only there now in supportive roles.
A recent Taliban attack at Bagram Air Base killed at least two Afghan civilians and wounded more than 70 others. However, what the media did not report, is that someone discovered a nearby van jammed with weapons and suicide vests.
The plan was for unarmed Taliban operatives to gain access to the secured area, grab the weapons and vests, blow open the base gates, and launch a firefight. Armed with suicide vests, many could have been killed — a tragedy averted, only just in time, according to a confidential source.
According to Lyle J. Goldstein of The National Interest, 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.”
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,” 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.”
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.” 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.”
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.”
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” to cope with ambushes in Afghanistan’s innumerable narrow valleys, the report said.
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.”
Do 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.”
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.”
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,” since he says that Washington and Islamabad did not even go through the motions of complying with their promises to stop aiding the partisans, the report said.
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.” 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.”
Thus, while suggesting that the Soviet leaders relied on “erroneous logic,” 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. 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.”