AN Security

Strategic failures of the Soviet war in Afghanistan

In afghanistan war, afghanistan war history, obama afghanistan, soviet afghanistan war on December 2, 2009 at 12:03 am

Soviet perspective and the political option

As the first Soviet units deployed into Afghanistan on December 27 1979 the world waited to see how once more the emerging superpower conduct another operation, further cementing its grip in the region, including  and continuing on the path to expansion of its republics. The belief that Soviet military superiority would prevail in this theatre of operations was shared by the Soviets themselves, and for good reason. After conducting effective campaigns in the Ukraine (1945-1951), East Germany (1953), Hungary (1958), Czechoslovakia (1968) and occasionally exercising military pressure in Poland the Soviet Union felt confident that their methodology would be equally successful. Their rapid, brutal incursions, the elimination and replacement of local governments with a pre-assembled facsimile had been tested and considered the standard.

This standard had been so successful that to the elite members of the Politburo – perhaps under pressure to squelch the fast advancing revolt against Communist rule in Afghanistan – the decision to send troops into the region was justified and the end game a self-fulfilling prophecy. The motivation to regain control over the country and keep it from developing an alliance with the US and Iran was primarily the driving force however, many other conditions factored into the decision. In spite of an aggressive effort by the Central Committee’s insistence that the Soviet Union not be linked in any way with military action and that the thrust be directly attributed to the Afghans. Clearly, the controversial Taraki/Amin government was not only split by its own power struggles and breaking from Soviet control (not refusing Soviet economic aid) but those players exiled from Afghanistan, upon their return, had quickly begun to work against them and adding a complex set of dynamics to the problem.

 The offer to send military helicopter maintenance personnel, advisors, propaganda experts, train 50,000 Afghan officers in the Soviet Union and have their training expedited and delivery of wheat at no cost were measures designed to avoid military intervention but at the same time left the door open for that option. The negotiations between Taraki and the Politburo had taken off on an increasingly tense situation for Taraki in that he had lost positive control of his armed forces since defections to the rebel side were numerous and he had few people he could trust. Taraki made a strategic mistake in ridding his cabinet of advisors which was a dual-edged sword.

On the one hand by sending away Soviet personnel on the ground who could report to the Politburo accurate information of what he was up to and second the Soviets should have questioned and possibly stopped this action. The Soviets though knowledgeable that the political situation in Afghanistan was not advancing as desired, allowed Taraki to continue his anti-Soviet campaign. He also failed to illustrate to the Politburo that many an Afghan Army officer had deserted and joined the resistance movement, which meant that Taraki had few supporters in the military.

This would indeed be the catalyst for his frequent requests for Soviet military assistance and though there was some opposition to a military approach, the decision to send troops and to prepare for the operation was approved. Factors involving the potential conflicts Soviet forces could encounter in dealing with the Afghan people, their rejection of foreign customs and governance were known but not taken into account. After a very short delay, the elite issued the order to prepare a contingent of 50,000 troops two weeks before the actual invasion.

After the Taraki removal, Amin had become an even worst liability as the rebellion continued to escalate, making his removal just as imminent with the better-aligned Karmal who waited in the sidelines. Karmal had already begun to show signs of forming the opposition’s movement against the Amin government and Amin’s demise had been made even more on a quest to undermine Soviet influence, he orchestrated rumor campaigns to reach tribal elders assuring them of a hasty Soviet departure, purging government members and placing family and close friends in cabinet positions. The Soviets flooded the country with brigade-strength units in Kabul, the Bagram air base and the airbase at Shendan followed by the delivery of armored vehicles and artillery and a an additional troop surge of 5,000 within 48 hours.

To the outside world the calling of Soviet Army regulars from Hungary and East Germany was originally thought of as a concerted effort to help the Amin government deal with the Mujahideen fighters. However, once Amin and his family were executed and Karmal installed, the tone of the military incursion had changed completely. The impact of deficient political intelligence did not play a larger role in predicting and preventing the situation in Afghanistan from evolving into a full-blown war and would carry through the next ten years.

Soviet Intelligence in the battlefield

The first waves of the invasion were successful in shocking the Afghans back into the Soviet agenda but this success was quickly reversed. The Soviets had conducted the invasion in the same fashion as they had in previous operations in Eastern Europe. Their initial strategic and tactical mistakes during the Hungary campaign opened the door to improved fighting approaches, thus significantly reducing their casualty rates during the Czech offensive. The Soviets had first knowledge of the Afghan road structure since they had built most roads as well as airfields and were well aware of the scope of local politics. Even with the disparities in military capability between Soviet forces and Afghan fighters, they entered into the conflict with a clear objective, but did not realize the depth of their commitment.

The invasion was carried out first by sending Spestnaz elements to storm the presidential palace while regular forces blocked any possible coordinated Afghan counteroffensive (units on the ground moved across the country seizing major cities), and borders shut down. This was accomplished even more readily since Amin’s oppressive rule had forced many defections from the Afghan forces which Taraki had begged the Soviets to augment with Soviet forces earlier in the year. This meant that there would be a reduction of native forces that could assist in the operation. Massive air support, artillery and mechanized units ensured that any advancing forces would do so unopposed by clearing all possible rebel attacks. The fight was followed by mopping up as they advanced on Mujahideen fighters.

With all this firepower the Soviets believed the Afghans would be obliterated and pose no further threat. An operation designed to go for months ended up in a ten-year war. Simply, the enemy was much more qualified to fight in their own environment and in their traditional fashion. This fighting style afforded the Afghans time to regroup, study Soviet tactics in relative safety and made themselves a harder target to hit by retreating and ceding those areas to the Soviets then returning later on to conduct further attacks. This is a tactic that has transcended time and technological advancements and it is still practiced today. Conventional wisdom existed within Soviet military units at even the lowest level in the ranks and problems with decreasing morale and discipline spread out fast. Soviet forces trained for combat in a battle space defined by high-technology including nuclear weapons and in a European theatre of operations, not a guerilla war against a technologically undeveloped enemy.

Ground commanders failed to utilize their forces in their best capacity. Reconnaissance troops were used in regular combat, thus wasting intelligence gathering capability and many an insurgent attack on Soviet forces would be the direct result of poor or non-existent OPSEC. Units were frequently attacked my Afghan fighters after their routines being profiled while the Soviet intelligence did not enjoy the same scope of observation. The Soviets, though well-trained, had By contrast, the Mujahideen’s intelligence was frequently in revision and rebel fighters conducted successful sabotage missions as they possessed knowledge of the terrain, exploited local population for information and shelter and maintained Soviet artillery officers became frustrated that their enemy would not remain in strike zones, Once the shock wore off the intensity and determination of the Afghan fighters increased much to the surprise of Soviet forces. For many a Soviet soldier, the reality of combat was one of quick adaptation and hope of survival. Unfortunately Soviet tactics changed very slowly with many units developing a moving bunker mentality where tactical initiative was badly needed, though many of the elite forces fought bravely and were able to adapt to new fighting conditions but this happened in the last three years of the war.

Winning Hearts and Minds

The Afghanistan conflict was possibly one of the most politically and socially traumatic events as the citizens of the Soviet Union quickly discovered that the troops returning from their tours were undisciplined, demoralized and scores more also afflicted with disease. The tone of the war did not match Soviet idealism of previous conflicts in that soldiers were trained to fight anti-Marxist foes and were viewed by the public as heroes. Support of Soviet troops was scarce within Afghanistan and back in the Soviet Union. Soviet forces were drafted then rotated back home, carrying with them the struggles of an increasingly unpopular war. In addition to all of their troubles adapting to normal life in the Soviet Union upon their return from the war ensured that many generations developed psychological, social and economic ruin.

Casualty rates may have been muddled by the Soviets only 6 deaths and wounded resulted from the operation when in reality casualties amounted to close to 7,000 and over 9,000 wounded by 1983. The control of the media reports created a hostile environment for the troops upon their return home and in Afghanistan and further encouraged by an indecisive central government and shifting policies. Winning the trust and cooperation of the Afghan people was even more difficult. Troop levels were insufficient to cover increasing combat roles and field commanders were not keen on extending their security beyond their area of operations which protected 29 provincial centers, industrial and economic installations. The problem with the lack of troops was that it also affected their ability to protect the local population, creating the eventual death, abuse and displacement of scores of Afghan civilians.

Ultimately, the failure rested on a central governing power that restricted not only the oversight of the decision-making process but also the flow of intelligence, the suppression of the indications and warnings that a military option was ill-fated and that the Soviet people would be against it once media coverage was restored. This took place over a decade and several changes in leadership, further compounding the problem. In the meantime, the embattled Soviet forces faced such hardships. This kind of secrecy, rather than secure a victorious outcome, gave way to economic, social and military downfall of the Soviet state, as its citizenry caught on to the failures and difficulties Soviet troops had to endure. To give them some credit, the Soviets made many attempts to control the situation by encouraging political reforms from within Afghanistan long before the military option was put on the table. Their knowledge of a crucial state client, the constraints of religion, political landscape and geography were not sufficient to measure potential problems in securing stability. However that was the end of their insight.

The Soviets had either no idea or chose to deny how the influence of Islam would have on their military and political involvement. Their confidence that Communist principles would work in Afghan society were partly true, had there been a more decisive and consistent policy but even so in the end Afghans would have rejected the attack on their traditions and way of life. The split along ethnic and tribal lines caused little or no local support of Soviet troops even if there were some supporters of a communist regime. That and racial and ethnic rivalries posed an even more serious impediment in the reconciliation of all factions within Afghanistan, a detail completely lost to the Soviets in spite of having first-hand intelligence of the culture.


Grau, Lester and Nawroz, Mohammed, The Soviet War in Afghanistan: History and Harbinger or War?

Grau, Lester, The Bear went over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan,

Predicting the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, Central Intelligence Agency, 


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by M E Leclerc, M E Leclerc. M E Leclerc said: Someone questioned our role in Afghan on my facebook page. Here is my answer. […]

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