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The Soviet Experience in Afghanistan

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The disappointing course of Operation Iraqi Freedom invariably, for an American, brings the Vietnam War to mind. The Vietnam analogy is of limited applicability to the current situation in Iraq. I mean “limited” in every sense of the word; it’s good for some things, not for others. Another useful comparison for the Iraq intervention is the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. There are some important parallels, and some important differences. The Soviet experience is worth a closer look. Unfortunately, there are few good English language accounts of the invasion and its aftermath. Nevertheless, we know enough to explore some of the similarities and differences.

The US invasion of Iraq and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan opened in a very similar manner. If anything, the Soviet invasion was accomplished more quickly and with less muss than the opening days of the Iraq campaign. The Soviets had significant ties to the Afghan army, and were essentially able to disarm it without a fight. The Russians very quickly came to control the urban areas of Afghanistan (which were larger in 1980 than they are today), although they never had very secure control of the hinterland.

Soviet forces in Afghanistan were slightly smaller, for the bulk of the campaign, than Coalition forces in Iraq. Red Army strength topped out at about 120000, but was as low as 50000 at the beginning of the campaign. The Soviet controlled what was left of the Afghani Army, but, even more so than the current Iraqi forces, its size was small and its reliability non-existent. The Soviet presence in Afghanistan steadily escalated from 1980 until 1986, when it plateaued and began to decrease.

The Soviet Afghan campaign is a much better analogue to Iraqi Freedom for casualty rates than the Vietnam War. Total Soviet dead, overly roughly eight years, amounted to 15000 or so. Current dead for Coalition forces is a little over 2000 in two and a half years. Taking into account superior medical techniques and superior body armor, vehicles, and other equipment, Coalition casualty rates look very similar to Red Army losses.

Like the US situation in Iraq, the Red Army faced a fractured and fragmented population. Indeed, the tribal conflicts that existed (and still exist) in Afghanistan make current difficulties with Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni factions look like child play in comparison. On the other hand, the opposition to the Red Army lacked even the mild degree of unity that the US occupation enjoys. This has benefits and drawbacks, but in a counter-insurgency struggle probably makes things harder, rather than easier. No unified opposition means no one to negotiate with, meaning that a political solution is difficult to reach.

There are also similarities and differences in doctrine. Like the current US Army, the Red Army was a conventional, continental military organization very, very good at fighting the kind of war it wanted to fight. When put into a counter-insurgency role it performed poorly, but in a much different way than the US Army. The Red Army had no compunctions whatsoever about the wholesale slaughter of Afghani civilians. Red Army units carried out collective retribution for guerilla attacks, destroyed villages, and in general held the local population in contempt. Instead of trying to give villagers a reason to support the regime, the Red Army gave them lots of reasons to support the guerillas. The Soviets attempted to kill the fish by draining the water, meaning that they killed civilians, burned crops, in general acted brutally in guerilla supported regions. While US forces have failed to adopt a genuine counter-insurgency doctrine, and while Americans have been brutal on occasion, their behavior doesn’t really come closely to matching Soviet brutality.

The Soviets offered no compelling political option for insurgents. The political appeal of the communists that the Russians were supporting was virtually nil. Coalition forces have been able to offer a much more compelling political vision for Iraq, even if it falls short in critical respects. A portion of the Iraqi populace seems willing to at least go along with the Coalition, which wasn’t really the case in Russian Afghanistan.

The most interesting comparison of the two campaigns involves the role played by foreign assistance. The Iraqi resistance has no equivalent to the support offered Afghan guerillas by the United States. This support included funding, small arms, and, critically, shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles. By all accounts, these missiles forced the Red Army to abandon its most effective anti-guerilla tactics and weapons, notably its use of attack helicopters. The shoulder fired SAMs didn’t kill all that many helicopters, but they did force the helicopters to use more caution, reducing their effectiveness. The Afghan guerillas also received a lot of support from the rest of the Arab world, support that hasn’t been as forthcoming in the Iraq case.

It’s hard to gauge the effect of the Afghan War on Soviet domestic politics during the 1980s. The Soviet system was nearing collapse for several different reasons, and the Afghan conflict certainly contributed to the general sense of political discontent. Whether the casualties themselves or the perceived futility of the ongoing war proved the cause for discontent isn’t clear, although I’d bet on the latter. The Soviet system certainly lacked outlets for healthy voicing of discontent, which probably made it easier to keep the troops in Afghanistan while making the eventual political reckoning more harrowing.

Upshot? The Russian job in Afghanistan was harder than the American task in Iraq. They had minimal domestic political or military support and faced a guerilla army that had friends around the world. In terms of tactics, the Soviet used fewer troops, but used them to more brutal effect that the Americans. Neither the Americans nor the Soviets adopted a genuine counter-insurgency doctrine, although it could be argued that Red Army tactics were more true to the kind of “direct” counter-insurgency approach (one that involves killing everyone and letting God sort them out) that occasionally works in such conflicts. US Army doctrine in Iraq doesn’t seem terribly coherent, even as an indirect approach.

In spite of this, the Russians managed to hang on for eight years, and didn’t suffer casualty rates terribly out of line with those suffered by the United States in Iraq. Especially after the mid-1980s, they failed completely to make any progress toward victory. The regime they established upon retreating didn’t last very long before Afghanistan disintegrated into civil war. The Soviet authorities enjoyed at least a temporary immunity from public criticism on Afghanistan, something that the Bush administration would no doubt envy.

There are lessons to be learned. The first is that casualty rates, in and of themselves, don’t say much about the political difficulty of a war. Russian losses in Afghanistan were trivial compared to American losses in Vietnam, yet the political devastation of the Afghan failure was probably greater than that of the Vietnam War. Second, conventional, continental armies have a lot of trouble fighting insurgencies, regardless of how good they are at their day job. Third, offering a compelling political option and having strong friends in-country is critical to success. If the Americans succeed where the Russians failed, it will probably be because of the attractiveness of the political system the Americans can offer, and because the Americans are at least tolerated by large segments of the Iraqi population.

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