Soviets nearly won in Afghanistan

Mark Kramer:

Twenty-five years ago, on Christmas Eve, Soviet troops marched into Afghanistan with the aim of restoring order in a few months. Nine years later they withdrew amid continued violence. In their wake, civil war erupted and the Taliban rose to power, providing a haven to Al Qaeda.

Critics of the U.S. military effort in Iraq often cite the Soviet experience in Afghanistan as evidence that using foreign troops to put down an insurgency is bound to fail. But that "lesson" is misleading because it depends on a depiction of the Soviet-Afghan war that is downright inaccurate.

When Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan, they initially failed to protect their logistical and communications lines. But Soviet commanders quickly corrected these mistakes and brought in better troops, including helicopter pilots trained for mountain warfare. From mid-1980 on, the Afghan guerrillas never seized any major Soviet facilities or prevented major troop deployments and movements.

When Soviet generals shifted, in mid-1983, to a counterinsurgency strategy of scorched-earth tactics and the use of heavily armed special operations forces, their progress against the guerrillas accelerated. Over the next few years, the Soviets increased their control of Afghanistan, inflicting many casualties — guerrilla and civilian. Had it not been for the immense support — weapons, training, materials — provided to the Afghan guerrillas by the United States, Saudi Arabia, China and Pakistan, Soviet troops would have achieved outright victory.

Even with all the outside military assistance, Afghan guerrillas were often helpless when facing the Soviet military machine. Raids conducted by Soviet airborne and helicopter forces were especially effective. In late 1985 and 1986, guerrilla units sustained heavy losses in the Kunar Valley and Paktia province and retreated from large swaths of strategic territory. The previously ineffective army of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul provided valuable support, launching fierce artillery barrages and huge armored assaults. In a long study of Soviet military progress as of mid-1987, a leading Westren military expert concluded that Soviet forces were proving "devastatingly effective against the Afghan resistance," were "presently winning in Afghanistan" and were "very close to crushing the resistance."


Most important, the Soviet war demonstrated that the Afghan guerrillas were not invincible and that well-designed counterinsurgency operations can inflict grave damage on, and spread turmoil among, the enemy.


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