By looking at what the areas where the Soviets failed during their in Afghanistan, we can further develop our counterinsurgency tactics and doctrine and shape our forces. Mujahideen Defeats of the Red Army An important and remarkable event in history was the Soviet-Afghan War. The Afghans, like their ancestors, battled a hostile, invading force that wanted to dominate their homeland. “For the first time, Afghanistan would become the center of a modern pan-Arab Jihad (Holy War)” (Hill, 2008). The Afghans were fighting a war of attrition just as their ancestors did during the Anglo-Afghan Wars.
The Afghans would find themselves using modern weapons that had the potential of causing a high number casualties and emigration of greater proportions. The difference between the Afghans in the Soviet-Afghan War and the Afghans who fought in the Anglo-Afghan war would be the help and support from outside superpowers. By the end of the Soviet-Afghan War, the Soviet Union was at the point of falling; the Afghans and those who were assisting them were looking at a victory.
How could such a powerful country like the Soviet Union be defeated by the Afghans?
The Soviet Union lost the Soviet-Afghan War as a result of mistakes and failures that they made. The Soviets failure to seal the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, failure to stand up and effective Afghan Army and failure to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people contributed to the defeat of the Red Army. Failure to Disrupt Supply Lines During the initial five years of occupation, the Soviets never mounted a sustained effort to cut off the Mujahideen supply lines that ran from Pakistan’s tribal areas, across the Hindu Kush Mountains, and into Afghanistan (Roy, 1991).
Instead, the focus of the Soviets from 1980 to 1982 was to conduct large-scale armored operations in locations that were considered hotbeds of rebel activity. After 1982, the Soviets used aerial assaults to assist in their combat operations to eliminate the support base of the Mujahideen. It was not until 1985 that the Red Army starting making an effort to disrupt the Mujahideen supply lines. The Red Army began using Spetsnaz units, which were the Red army Special Forces units, behind Mujahideen frontlines, to organized surprise attacks against the rebel supply caravans.
Once the Spetsnaz had the location of the Mujahideen, they would load into Mi-24 helicopter gunships, sneak behind the Mujahideen positions, and launch attacks. The effectiveness of the raids the Spetsnaz used became apparent in 1986 where there was a decrease in the number of Mujahideen attacks against the Soviets. The attacks against the Soviets decreased because the Mujahideen was not able to get men and equipment that they needed to mount an effective guerrilla campaign.
The Soviets leadership was aware of the amount of men and a large amount of equipment that the Mujahideen was moving from Pakistan across into Afghanistan on regular bases, so it’s interesting why they did not make an effort earlier in the war to disrupt the supply lines. The Soviet leadership feared that if they conducted operations that might extend into Pakistan they would draw the United States into a large-scale war that the Soviets did not want. So, conducting operations on the Afghan side of the border against the rebels was an activity that the Soviets could justify without drawing the United States into the war.
According to Oliver Roy, the Soviet failure to seal the border with Pakistan was the most significant military mistake in the war against the Mujahideen (Roy, 1991). With an unsealed border, the United States with the help of the help of the Inter-Service Intelligence, ISI, began funneling in weapons to the Mujahideen in the 1980. At the start of 1980, the Central Intelligence Agency began to purchase weapons from several countries to include China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab nations. Once these weapons had been purchased they were shipped to the ISI headquarters located in Peshawar Pakistan.
The United States funded some $30 million dollars in 1982, but in 1984, the CIA spent some $250 million purchasing pistols, AK-47s, ammunition, surface to air missiles, and other supplies for the Mujahideen. By 1985, the CIA was spending $500 million dollars on the resistance in Afghanistan. 1985 was the same year the President Ronald Reagan signed the National Security Decision Directive 166. This directive stated that the CIA was to drive out the Soviets from Afghanistan ”by all means available” (Crile, 2003, p 363).
In 1986, the CIA approved the purchase of heat-seeking missiles and almost 1000 per purchased. The heat-seeking missiles were very effective in downing the Soviets helicopters, but the Mujahideen did not put these missions into use until 1987. Pakistan who was driven by Islamic identity had a vested interest in the outcome of the Soviet-Afghan War and made a great effort to ensure that the Mujahideen was victorious. To ensure victory for the Mujahideen, Pakistan established a network that would transport all of the weapons that had been purchased to the Mujahideen.
Once all of the weapons that had been purchased and arrived to the ISI headquarters the ISI would distribute the weapons to the Mujahideen, who would get the weapons and supplies to the soldier in the field. The Mujahideen would use tractors, trucks, camel, mules, and horses that could blend in with the rest of the cross border traffic or they would move on dirt roads that were only accessible by foot over the border into Afghanistan. It is evident that without the help of the Pakistanis, the Mujahideen would not have been able to fight because they could have not been able to supply their soldiers.
Throughout the war, the Soviets and the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, DRA attempted to pressure Pakistan’s President Zia to seal the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan with troops, but this came to no avail. President Zia responds to the request to seal the border was that Pakistan would not do it but that the Red Army and the DRA were more than welcome to do it. Regardless of who would attempt to seal the border it would be an impossible task when you consider the length and mountainous terrain that would have to be covered.
In 1985, the Red Army started to disrupt the Mujahideen supply lines by putting thousands of troops on the border with Pakistan. At the same time, The Red Army began a bombing campaign hitting border towns that were sympathetic to the rebels and placing Spetsnaz units along the borders to conduct search and destroy missions from behind Mujahideen front lines. The Red Army began using their gunships to move up and down the border looking for destroying Mujahideen supply caravans. The bombardment used by the Red Army turned a large portion of the border etween Afghanistan and Pakistan to land that no longer could be inhabited. This depopulation effort started to become effective as it made it almost impossible for the Mujahideen supply caravans to move freely. In 1986, the Mujahideen countered the Red Army by using the Stringer missiles to bring down the Red Army Helicopters. To avoid being hit by a Stringer missile the Red Army Pilots had to fly at a higher altitude but the higher altitude made it difficult for the Red Army to effectively attack the Mujahideen supply lines.
Although the terrain along the Afghan and Pakistan border made it difficult to totally seal the border, it would have been possible to disrupt the flow of men and supplies coming into Afghanistan. This was evident by the Red Army between 1985 and 1986. Had the Red Army been willing to take a higher loss of life before 1985, it would have been possible to slow down the Mujahideen’s ability to get weapons into Afghanistan. The inability by the Red Army to establish an effective way to disrupt the Mujahideen supply lines was not the only reason that the PDPA could not survive without the support of the Red Army.
The Red Army also failed to build an Afghan National Army that could protect the PDPA against the Mujahideen. Part of the reason why the Red Army could not stand up the Afghan Army was because there were Mujahideen sympathizers in the ranks. This is also part of the reason why the Soviets could not win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, they left the country without the means to protect its self. Failure to build an Afghan Army As early as 1980, Soviet leadership knew that it was going to be difficult to build up the Afghan Army.
This was partially due to the fact that the PDPA regime was unpopular with many Afghan people, and there was also a deep hatred for the Red Army troops. The unwillingness to fight for the Soviet Union and the DRA was reflected by the decrease in the Afghan Army’s ranks. The Afghan Army decreased from 90,000 to 30,000 men from 1980 to 1983 (Schofield, 2003). During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, it was common for Afghan soldiers to leave their units with their weapons and ammunition and join the Mujahideen.
There is an account in July 1987 where an entire 2,000-man unit defected to the Mujahideen in Kandahar (McMichael, 1991). In addition to the defecting that was happening there were reports of Afghan officers frequently sabotaging Soviet equipment and vehicles. For the Afghans who remained many only fought because of the Soviet troops presences on the frontlines who would not allow them to runaway. As a result of the Afghans people unwillingness to fight for the Soviets and the DRA, the PDPA could only build a small military force, the total that numbers 120,000 to 150,000 fighting men.
With its small size and the challenges they had recruiting the Afghans to fight for the PDPA regime, the Afghan Army was ineffective. The Afghan government was also only able to draft sixty-five percent of the personnel it needed to fight the insurgency they faced. Although the Afghan Army did have their share of success, these successes were limited. Mostly because the Mujahideen had sympathizers in the ranks that would provide the rebels with intelligence about upcoming operations that were planned.
Since Mujahideen supporters had infiltrated the Afghan Army, Red Army soldier do not care to work closely on operations or share the intelligence they had because of fear that the details on upcoming operations would be shared with the rebels. To make matter worse for both sides, commanding officers of Afghan units would only be informed of upcoming operations one day in advance. On 9 January 1981, a conscription law designed to increase the strength of the DRA Army, was adopted by the Supreme Military Council of Afghanistan. The Afghan Army was given tanks, aircraft, armored personnel carriers, and small arms by the Soviets.
Regardless of what had been given to the Afghan Army they were not going to be able to defend the PDPA regime from the rebels by the time the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. This is based on the fact that it was going to be hard to recruit soldiers to fight for a socialist an also because many of the soldiers that had been recruited were informant for the Mujahideen. “The ineffectiveness of the DRA Army was illustrated by two Soviet deserters when they said, “The Kabul army was not an army, just a mess, with half of the soldiers running away and the other half joining the rebels” (Amstutz, 1986, p. 80). The inability of the Soviets to win over the Afghan population showed to be a tremendous obstacle as the attempt was being made to stand up an effective Afghan military. Had the Soviets convince the Afghan population that the PDPA was worth fighting for; the Soviet’s counterinsurgency plan could have been more effective in getting rid of the Mujahideen. The Soviets inability to win over the hearts and minds of the Afghan people ended up being a big obstacle that led to the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan.
Failure to win the Hearts and Minds “The Soviets needed to convince the Afghan population that it had a stake in the survival of the socialist regime if they were to have a chance of preserving the PDPA government” (Delgado, 2006, p. 27). This would show to be impossible since the Afghan mullahs had declared jihad against the occupying Red Army. Knowing the jihad had been declared against the Red Army, they still launched a program with the intent on winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.
The Soviets attempt to Sovietize the Afghan people used measures that included revamping the education system and teaching the population a pro-Soviet ideology. Adults and children were taught Marxist terms by Soviet institutions that had been imported into Afghanistan. The Soviets reformed the education system, reinterpreting Afghan history, taking control of the media in order to reeducate adults, and sending children to the Soviet Union in order to be educated. The Soviets goal in all of this was to create a version of Islam that the new Afghanistan would be based off.
Building a strong Communist party was part of the Sovietization program. A strong Communist party would be the center of all legitimate political activity for the country. In order to monitor social organizations in Afghanistan, Soviet style government institution were established. A diligent effort had been made by the PDPA to indoctrinate its member, a majority of which joined the party so that they could obtain a job in the state. The task of trying to indoctrinate the member was difficult and many felt that it was irresponsible and corrupt.
The DRA was unpopular throughout a large portion of Afghanistan. With this unpopular view of the DRA, there was a need to rewrite history in order to paint the Soviet Union in a more favorable light. This change to history was going to be done in two parts, first was to depict Russia as the essential supporters of Afghan independence, and the second was to minimize the cultural ties the Afghan people had with India, Pakistan, and Iran while emphasizing the ties with the citizens of the Soviet Union.
The Soviets strategy in winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people was not to turn all Afghan into Marxist, but to teach the Afghans that they identified more with the Soviet way of life than with traditional Afghan society and customs (Roy, 1989). The Soviets took total control of the Afghan media and bombarded it with pro-Soviet propaganda. The Soviets desired in all of this was to have the Afghans forget what their history was and replace it with the identity that the Soviets were giving them.
The Soviets not only rewrote the history books and took over the media; the Soviets took control of the education system with the goal of molding a new generation of Afghans that would support the PDPA. To accomplish this, teachers who refused to do what was asked were arrested or exiled. “Fatherland Training Centers” were created around Afghanistan, where Afghan orphans were trained to be Soviet special agents, political organizations for children and teenagers in order to teach them to become faithful Soviet citizens.
The Soviets made Russian the official language of all students attending middle school up to college. The Russians were committed to indoctrinating Afghan children. Statics reflects that by 1989, 000 Afghan students were being educated in the Soviets, and another 15,000 students annual would travel to the Soviet Union see the Russian way of life and to take part in short courses and training programs (Roy, 1989). The Soviets used psychological operation to undermine not only the Mujahideen but also the civilian population to resist the Soviet occupation and the PDPA regime.
Some of the bigger programs used included massive leaflet drops, propagandistic radio programs, starting conflict between rival tribes that would undermine Mujahideen unity and bribing teachers to use their classroom in order to spread Soviet propaganda. KHAD Intelligence would insert special agents into Mujahideen units and prisons where Mujahideen members were held with the goal of getting information on operations that were being planned and to find out whom the leaders in the resistance were. Regardless of what the Soviets attempted to do in order to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people they failed.
The Afghans remained true to their Islamic identity, culture, and family traditions so it made it impossible for the Soviet Union to convince the Afghans that they were acting in the best interest of the country of Afghanistan by occupying and supporting the PDPA. With a call of jihad being declared against the occupying Red Army, it was going to be impossible for the Soviets to win the hearts and minds. The Afghans viewed the Soviets as an occupying force that were hostile to Islam so no program introduced by the Soviets to win the hearts and minds would be successful.
The Soviets made an admirable effort to win over the Afghan people but due to the fact that they were viewed as a foreign occupier took away any possibility that they could convince the Afghan people to support the PDPA government. Winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people were impossible from the beginning since the Afghan people had such a strong Islamic heritage and tribal culture and that the Soviets were viewed as a foreign occupier, but the Soviets also did not help themselves with their brutal campaign to drive Mujahideen supporters out of Afghanistan as refugees.
The effort to rid Afghanistan of Mujahideen supporters left one million Afghan civilians dead and five million displaced (Roy, 1989). The strategy used by the Red Army to rid Afghanistan of Mujahideen supported included artillery strike against Pashtun villages, bombing raids and, the burning of agricultural fields, the killing of livestock through the use mines and artillery, and the contamination of water and food supplies through the use of chemical weapons (McMichael, 1991).
The efforts made by the Red Army to deprive the Mujahideen from a portion of its civilian support network was successful, but with the brutal methods that the Soviets used in order to get the objectives done did very little for the chances of winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. Conclusion The Soviets lost the Soviet-Afghan War to the Mujahideen do to their own failures and any country could stand to earn a few lessons from the Soviets after their experience in Afghanistan.
The first lesson would be the importance of disrupting the Mujahideen supply lines. Although totally securing the border may have been impossible, the Red Army could have focus more of an effort prior to 1985 to slow down the amount of men and supplies that were moving into Afghanistan from Pakistan. Had the Soviets been willing to take more of rest with their Soldiers, the Mujahideen would have never been able to get the supplies they needed into Afghanistan.
The second lesson that could be taken from this is that before the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan they needed to ensure that the Afghan Army was ready to defeat the Mujahideen on their own. Since the Afghan Army was not able to defeat the Mujahideen on their own, everything that the Soviets attempted to achieve in Afghanistan was lost once the Red Army withdrew. The weak Army allowed Afghanistan to fall into a civil war where the Taliban came out victorious.
The Soviets should have taken into consideration what they thought the status Afghan Army would be once they withdrew before invading Afghanistan. The third and final lesson is that it was going to be impossible for the Soviets to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. Many Afghans viewed the Soviets as invaders, and a jihad had been declared against them. Along with the hatred that the Afghans had for the Soviets the Soviets also countered themselves with brutal military operations against Afghans that were thought to be loyal to the Mujahideen. The Afghan population will refuse to support a regime that is viewed as a foreign occupier, regardless of the sophistication of the occupying country’s effort to win the native hearts and minds”(Delgado, 2006, p. 35). References Crile, G. (2003). Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History. New York, NY: Delgado, J. A. (2006). Troubling Parallels: An analysis of America’s Inability to overcome the obstacles that led to the defeat of the Red Army in the Soviet-Afghan War.
Athens, OH: The University of Ohio. Hills, C. R. (2006). Beyond Charlie Wilson: The Soviet Afghan War. Atlanta, GA: Atlanta International School. McMichael, S. (1991). Stumbling Bear: Soviet Military Performance in Afghanistan. London, England: Brassey’s. Roy, O. (1989). “The Sovietization of Afghanistan. ” Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. Roy, O. (1991). The Lessons of the Soviet-Afghan War. London, England: Brassey’s. Schofield, V. (2003). Afghan Frontier. New York, NY: Tauris Parke Paperback.