On December 27, 1979, the world woke up to the news of the invasion of puny Afghanistan in Asia by the then super power of the Soviet Union.
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The news brought with it the surmise that this was a war that Afghanistan, a disunited country with limited military resources, would not stand up to the military might of the Soviet Union, leading to the foregone conclusion that in a short while of time, Afghanistan would become another satellite country of the Soviet Union, joining the many satellite countries like Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary that the Soviet Union had taken over, since the end of the Second World War.
Protests were naturally expected from the United States of America (U.S.A.), the NATO countries, and other nations friendly with the U.S.A. and the NATO powers. They would remain protests only, just as would be the noises that would emanate from the United Nations (U.N).
Gradually they were expected to die out. Afghanistan would have to virtually fight its own physical battles against the Soviet Union, and fait accompli the small nation of Afghanistan would be gobbled up by the mighty super power of the Soviet Union.
Initially, the course of events could find no fault with the surmise that Afghanistan was a lost country, as more and more parts of the country swiftly came under the control of the Soviet Union. However, gradually the speed of the advance of the Soviet Union slowed, and even though most of the country was in their hands, they were soon facing strong resistance from the resilient Afghans in their pockets of strength.
It was becoming clear that this was turning out to be a war of as attrition, and the more determined of the opponents would carry the day. The light at the end of the tunnel for the Afghans was glowing bright. The Soviets had not come prepared for a war of attrition, and the Afghans with ever growing support from the Americans in terms of military supplies were proving a hard nut to crack, in terms of total dominance.
The war between the Soviet Union dragged on for nearly a decade, and in the early months of 1989, a tired, disappointed, and disgraced Soviet Union started pulling out its battle weary troops, not wanting to lose any soldiers to what had become a lost cause.
Afghanistan had surprised the world by first withstanding total domination by the Soviet Union, and then driving the troops of the Soviet Union out of the country. Another super power had bitten the dust to a determined opponent, brining back memories of war between the U.S.A. and Vietnam.
Moves by the Soviet Union to control the country of Afghanistan started earlier than the attempted physical invasion of Afghanistan. This was the consequence to its desire to expand its influence in Asia, and get closer to the prized warm water ports of the Arabian Sea.
Through a bloody coup in April 27, 1978, a puppet communist government was established under President Nur M. Taraki. The government of Nur M. Taraki was not a popular government, and not surprisingly resistance to the government sprung up in different parts of the country that essentially consisted of several warrior tribes.
The first major outburst of this resistance took hardly a year to happen, when in March 1979 a bloody uprising took place in the city of Herat. The uprising was put down, but the casualties included 100 Soviet Union citizens, which was a foreboding of things to come, and the possible time when the Soviet Union realized that it may be forced to actually occupy the country, if it wanted to control it (Navroz & Grau, 1996).
In essence, the problems within the ruling Communist Party in Afghanistan stemmed from factionalism that existed in it, making it a divided house. There were two prominent factions, namely the Khalq, led by the Pathans and the Parchem consisting of the Uzbek, Tajik, and Hazara tribes.
Fighting between these factions often led to physical battles between them. There was no unity between President Nur, M. Taraki and his deputies, Hafizullah Amin, Babrak Kamal, and Najibullah. To try and establish peace Babrak Kamal and Najibullah were called to the Soviet Union, and retained there (Margolis, 2001, p.15)
However, in September 1979, Hafizullah Amin set up the murder of President Nur, M. Taraki and took over power. Under Hafizullah Amin conditions went from bad to worse, as he set about a radical modernization and bloody Sovietization of Afghanistan that was reminiscent of totalitarianism under Stalin.
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He did not even spare his opponents in the moderate Communist Khalq faction, leading to growing resistance from Afghans from all the tribes.
The growing turmoil arising from the cruel disposition of Hafizullah Amin, necessitated action from Soviet Union to retain its hold on Afghanistan, which came in the form of a unit of the Soviet Special Forces eliminating Hafizullah Amin, and the movement of Soviet troops into Afghanistan on December 27, 1979 to bolster Soviet control over Afghanistan.
Another puppet Afghan government was put in place by bringing back from the Soviet Union Babrak Kamal to head the regime and Najibullah as his deputy. The puppet regime would be supported by the Soviet forces in the country that were already taking control of most of Afghanistan. The presence of a foreign invading force, in the form of the troops of the Soviet Union, in Afghanistan had its consequences.
The various Afghan tribes that were feuding with one another united together to fend off the invader, and focused all its attention on this objective. This action of the Afghan Muslim tribes was reinforced by the Jihad call given by the Muslim religious leaders in Afghanistan. The Jihad call was against the invading non-believers from the Soviet Union and their Communist Afghan allies.
History of the subsequent decade shows how the several tribes of Afghanistan united under the Mujahedeen gradually forced the Soviet Union to withdraw its invading forces from the soils of Afghanistan (Margolis, 2001, p.15-17).
Factors in the Defeat of the Soviet Union in the War in Afghanistan
Soviet Union Tactics in Afghanistan
The Soviet tactics to gain control of Afghanistan were essentially based on the experiences in their earlier subjugation of the Hungarian revolution of 1956, and the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.
The Soviet Union began its assault on December 27, 1979 by the taking of the Bagram air base in Afghanistan by two airborne assault brigades, which was followed by the entry of the Soviet Army through the land passes of the Salang Pass and the Salang tunnel, after they were secured by Soviet Special Forces.
The Soviet objective to control the main cities of Heart, Shindand, Kabul, and Kandahar was quickly achieved. Within a span of one week, the Soviet Union moved 50,000 ground troops, 350 tanks, and 450 armored vehicles into Afghanistan, with which it aimed at controlling the key cities and the main communication lines (Clements, 2003, p.19).
Basically the Soviet tactics for the invasion of Afghanistan and its subsequent control of Afghanistan consisted of seven elements.
These seven elements consisted of the presence of its troops along the main routes, key cities, airbases, and logistically important sites brining about stability in the country; using the Afghan government troops to meet any counter insurgency threats, with particular emphasis on the country side; meeting the logistic, air, artillery, and intelligence support needs of the Afghan government troops in their counter insurgency operations; minimizing the need for interaction between the Soviet personnel and the local populace; reducing the casualty count of the Soviet troops to the minimal; and making the Afghan government troops strong enough to defeat the resistance and take over the country, to enable withdrawal of the Soviet.
Every element of this strategy of the Soviet Union was doomed for failure, as it was based on its successful experiences in the European theatre. Afghanistan was to present an experience that the Soviet Union had never experienced, and were hardly prepared for, when they entered Afghanistan, which was to be a critical factor in its losing the War in Afghanistan (Navroz & Grau, 1996).
The Soviet forces came to fight a conventional war, for which they were trained, experienced, and armed, including SA-4 anti-aircraft missiles and chemical weapons. The war they would have to fight however was not made up of conventional warfare, but rather the guerilla tactics of the Afghan resistance, which the Afghan government army was not capable of putting down.
The failure of this key ingredient in the recipe made out for winning the war in Afghanistan by the strategists of the Soviet Union, combined with the lack of training and experience of the Soviet forces in guerrilla warfare would unravel all the other elements in the tactics used by the Soviet forces (Clements, 2003, p.19).
The incapacity of the Afghan government forces to counter the resistance in the country side sucked in the Soviet forces into the country side in support of their Afghan allies, resulting in the need to increase the presence of Soviet forces in Afghanistan.
The Soviet Union within a short time of its invasion of Afghanistan was forced to increase its armed strength in Afghanistan to 85,000 ground troops, 25,000 support troops, 10,000 airborne troops, with the active additional support of 30,000 troops and air force pilots though located in the Soviet Union, seeing action in Afghanistan.
The increased number of troops and their active participation in anti-insurgency operations only increased their exposure to enemy activity, enhancing the casualties, and nullifying the strategy to minimize the casualties taken by the Soviet forces in Afghanistan (Clements, 2003, p.19).
In spite of this increase in strength of the Soviet forces in Afghanistan, at no time during the nearly decade long war was Soviet Union willing to commit the large strength of Soviet forces required to quell the insurgency. This aspect combined with the unwillingness to face large casualties dictated the tactics employed by the Soviet forces to combat the Afghan insurgency.
Their immense fire power and tactical mobility made up the key elements in their approach to fight insurgency (Borer, 1999, P.175-176). Typical engagements with the insurgents show that upon the reconnaissance patrol being fired upon, the battalion came to a halt, and artillery fire and helicopter support was called in.
Subsequently, feeble attempts were made to encircle the enemy, which stopped the moment enemy fire occurred. Since the Mujahedeen employed tactics that called for a withdrawal after extracting a heavy toll on the opposing force, enemy fire soon reduced, but even then the Soviet ground forces failed to go after the Mujahedeen and continue the action to destroy them.
This lack of commitment only encouraged more hit and run activity from the Mujahedeen, who struck at will, and withdrew when the heavy fire power of the Soviet forces was brought to bear on them (Grau, 1996, p.2-3).
In effect the Soviet armed forces maintained control over the major cities and their strategically located and protected garrisons, while control of the country side was essentially with the Mujahedeen resistance fighters. To reduce the control that was exerted by the Mujahedeen on the country side, the Soviet forces countered with the combined scorched earth policy and migratory-genocide policy.
In the scorched earth policy, the Soviet used its air force to conduct bombing raids on the country side to destroy the Mujahedeen, with no consideration for the innocent civilians in the area, which was similar to what was done by the U.S.A in Vietnam. The migratory-genocide policy was aimed at reducing the ranks of the Mujahedeen getting swelled from population bases that supported it.
Actions of this policy involved the destruction of agricultural crops to force the local population to flee to countries like Iran and Pakistan.
Both these policies became self-defeating, as the civilian deaths from the scorched earth policy and the humiliation that the local populace was forced to undergo in the migratory-genocide policy only increased the wrath of the local populace against the Soviet invaders that swelled the ranks of the Mujahedeen, and the commitment of the Mujahedeen to drive the invaders from their lands (Borer, 1999, p.176)
In the face of the determined Mujahedeen the plan of the Soviet Union to minimize its losses did not work. By the end of the war, the Soviet Union had suffered troop casualties of 30,000 either dead or wounded, the loss of 3,500 vehicles, and 600 aircraft, which were brought down by the clever use of the Stinger missiles by the Mujahedeen (Borer, 1999, p.176).
Summing up the failure of the Soviet tactics in Afghanistan starts from the wrong assumption that Afghanistan would be an easy pushover with the conventional warfare strength of the Soviet Union, and the failure to take into consideration, or have a plan for the guerilla warfare that they would really face in Afghanistan.
Consequently, the Soviet Union deployed heavily mechanized forces that were unsuited for the hit and run tactics of the Mujahedeen on rugged terrains.
The belief that the war in Afghanistan would be won using conventional war tactics against a force that was using guerrilla tactics meant that the Soviet Union never deployed the numerical strength in troops that were required to overcome the Mujahedeen in their country side strongholds. The Soviet Union went to war in Afghanistan using technology against peasantry.
The guerrilla war that developed in Afghanistan could not be won by the use of technology, but rather by endurance and a national will for victory, along with commitment and morale of the fighting force. None of these elements were present in the tactics used by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, which contributed to its losing the war in Afghanistan ((Navroz & Grau, 1996).
The Mujahedeen of Afghanistan
The warlike tribes of Afghanistan have been feared fighters starting from the time the Greeks came in contact with them right down to the height of the British colonial period.
Even the British made every attempt to avoid direct confrontation with the Afghan tribes and any attempt to make Afghanistan a British colony, because of the fighting spirit of the Afghan tribes and their adaptation to the rugged terrain they live on to take a maximum toll of any enemy.
The Afghan tribes live by their own laws, and fiercely love and defend their independence. They are also devout Muslims. This makes for a deadly concoction that any invader of Afghanistan should be wary of, for even though they easily fight amongst themselves, the threat of a non-Muslim denigrating their soil and threatening their independence unites all the tribes to take on the invader as an enemy (Margolis, 2001, p.15).
Fighting for a Muslim comes easily and it can be traced back to the time of the war on Mecca and the humiliation of the defeat and forced abandonment of Mecca, which gave rise to the cry “Fight in the cause of Allah who fight you”, Surah 2, verse 190. This is further reinforced by Surah 4 verse 75 “And why should one not fight in the cause of God and of those who, being weak, are ill-treated (and oppressed)?
Men, women, and children, whose cry is; Our Lord! Rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from thee one who will protect; and raise for us from thee one who will help! (Maitra, 2009, p.65).
The Soviet Union through its invasion of Afghanistan took upon a warrior nation that looked upon this trespass of their lands by a non-believer as a humiliation of their religion. This act was made worse by the scorched-earth policy and the migratory-genocide policy, through which the Soviet Union demonstrated lack of understanding of the blood of innocent civilians shed and the travails that women and children were put too.
The consequence was the determination of the Mujahedeen through Jihad to rid the land of the oppressor, no matter what sacrifices had to be made in this religious war. Thus, in the Mujahedeen the Soviet forces faced a fierce, committed and determined enemy, with no fear for their lives (Margolis, 2001, p.15-17).
The Mujahedeen were consisted of teenagers from the age of eighteen to battle hardened veterans over the age of sixty, and each fought with the same fervor as a Muslim did during the infancy if Islam. They demonstrated the enthusiasm, commitment, and the lack of fear of death that was a consequence of the blood of their ancestors that coursed in their veins.
They would ambush Soviet troop movements outside of their garrisons effectively using their knowledge of the terrain to their advantage, and then quietly withdraw from the scene of ambush, when the Soviet reinforcements and air power threatened to over run their positions. However, by then they would have extracted the toll they wanted on the ambushed Soviet armed forces (Margolis, 2001, p.3).
When the Soviet troops showed reluctance to come out of their garrisons, the Mujahedeen attempted to draw them out by firing rockets on to their positions and presenting themselves as targets for their response.
The response of the Soviet armed forces was a barrage of artillery and tank fire that the Mujahedeen hid from using the rocky land formation for cover. However, they withdrew, when they found that the intensity of the enemy response was becoming too heavy for them (Margolis, 2001, p.3).
These sorties against the enemy forces were carried out by the poor Mujahedeen fighters. They were so poor that they could not afford coats and shoes. In the icy cold mountains of Afghanistan, the Mujahedeen went to battle covered in thin shawls to protect them from the cold.
In bare feet and flimsy protection from the cold, the Mujahedeen would plod through snow for more than a day and night with a heavy load of mortars or rockets on their backs, in addition to their rifles to attack their enemies ensconced in garrisons or travelling in motorized vehicles, and then return in the same manner, with the added task of evading the helicopter gunships that would come hunting for them.
Such was the determination and commitment of the Mujahedeen in their fight against the Soviet armed forces in Afghanistan (Margolis, 2001, p.5).
In the early years of the war in Afghanistan, the Mujahedeen virtually took on the might of the Soviet army with outdated.303 rifles, rockets, mortars, and grenade launchers. In essence, these were light weapons that were no match for the fire power available with the Soviet armed forces, and no use at all against the helicopters and airplanes that were used to bomb them.
However, as realization that the Afghans were putting stiff resistance to the Soviet occupation, became clear to the world, assistance to take on the air attacks was made available to the Mujahedeen, which was to add a new dimension to the resistance being put up by the Mujahedeen to the discomfort of the Soviet forces in Afghanistan (Angstrom & Duvyestan, 2007, p.158).
For the early part of the Soviet war in Afghanistan the Mujahedeen ability to prevent air attacks was limited to the SA-7 shoulder-to-air missile (SAM), with which they attempted to inflict whatever damage they could to Soviet aircraft and helicopters. In 1985, however they received British-made Blowpipe SAMs, which enhanced their ability to shoot down Soviet aircraft and helicopters.
The clinching blow came in 1986, when the American made efficient SAM missiles became available to them. The SAM missile made it possible for the Mujahedeen to cause heavy damage during Soviet air attacks, with particular emphasis on Soviet helicopters. The Soviet strategy to reduce ground forces casualties was to use artillery fire, aircraft and helicopters to attack Mujahedeen positions.
The attrition rate on helicopters that the Mujahedeen were extracting during such attacks was making the use of helicopters against the Mujahedeen too costly.
The attack from a distance strategy of the Soviet Union was unraveling, and with unwillingness to enhance the force strength in Afghanistan to the required levels, and commit ground troops to destroy the Mujahedeen, meant that the only course left for the Soviet Union was to pull out of Afghanistan (Angstrom & Duvyestan, 2007, p.158).
The fighting abilities of the warrior Afghan nation, and the grit, determination, and religious fervor with which they took on the much mightier super power, and growing from strength to strength with support received from external sources, as the world realized the resistance that was being put up by them, was an important reason why the Soviet Union lost the war in Afghanistan.
Role of Foreign Support
During the Cold War, the U.S.A. essentially relied on Pakistan for its strategic purposes in South Asia. Afghanistan was simply kept out of the American ambit, as the U.S.A could not provide any guarantees on its protection from invasion by the Soviet Union. Consequently the Baghdad Pact an assembly of American allies in Asia found Pakistan as a member, but not Afghanistan.
Afghanistan thus maintained a neutral posture in the Cold War. American support to Afghanistan was limited to small monetary support. However, the neutral position of Afghanistan over time was eroded, and Afghanistan started leaning towards the Soviet Union due to economic largesse that the Soviet Union showed, and led to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to maintain its firm grip on it (Clements, 2003, p.257).
During the initial years of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, U.S.A was under the stewardship of President Carter, who maintained a strong policy of non-intervention in regional wars. This limited the reaction of the U.S.A. to verbal and diplomatic responses to the Soviet invasion.
When President Reagan replaced President Carter in 1980, the dove-like attitude of America to the Soviet presence in Afghanistan changed to a more hawk-like posture. The failure of the Soviet Union to gain absolute control of Afghanistan and the resistance put up by the Mujahedeen only enhanced this hawkish posture of the U.S.A (Hilali, 2005, p.147-159).
There is no doubt that the support and aid received as a result of Reagan Doctrine was instrumental in the Mujahedeen gaining in strength to increase the pressure on the Soviet armed forces in Afghanistan and the realization by the Soviet Union that they were involved in a war that they could not win.
Based on the Reagan Doctrine, American military support to the Mujahedeen rose to $120 million in 1984 and continued to rise to $ 630 million in 1987, totaling more than $2 billion in military supplies during these years. More American support was made available through the good offices of American allies like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Pakistan played a major role in acting as the funnel through which this massive American support reached the Mujahedeen, and also provided them training in using the military supplies and strategic advice on tactics to be used to defeat the Soviet armed forces. In addition, Pakistan became the home of more than 3.5 million Afghan refugees, who had fled the fighting in Afghanistan (Hastedt, 2004, p.5).
While the American response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan was initially weak, the response of Pakistan was swifter and of great assistance to the Mujahedeen in their early days of resistance against the Soviet Union invaders. The quick response of Pakistan was the result of the security threat that would be posed by an entrenched Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
Even prior to the arrival of the Soviet troops, Pakistan had set up guerrilla training camps in Afghanistan against the Afghan Communist government. The Pakistani President Zia ul Huq believed the war in Afghanistan was a military and economic profit opportunity for Pakistan.
President Zia activated the Guerrilla training camps for the Mujahedeen and based on strategic calculations decided that a course of action that provided overt political, diplomatic, and humanitarian support to the Afghan refugees on one side, while on the other hand providing covert assistance to the Mujahedeen, by becoming the funneling channel for American military and American aid to the Afghan resistance fighters.
Pakistan did extract its pound of flesh from the U.S.A. for its actions in support of the Afghan Mujahedeen, but it is agreed that Pakistan provided yeoman service by training them on how to use the military aid and knitting them into an effective fighting force (Hilali, 2005, p.147-159).
There were three major reasons that in combination worked towards the defeat of the Soviet Union in its war in Afghanistan.
The first major reason was the poor tactical strategy that was employed by the Soviet Union in believing that it was going to fight a conventional war and that it would it would be able to easily overcome any resistance on the basis of its conventional warfare might, without the required strength of the invasion force to quell resistance in the country side.
The second reason was the strong resistance put up by the Mujahedeen in the face of all the adversity faced, with the objective of repelling the invaders from Afghan soil.
The final nail in the coffin was the large and generous military and economic aid that was provided by the U.S.A. and its allies, and the role played by Pakistan in reaching this aid to the Mujahedeen and training it to use the military aid in its guerrilla tactics against the Soviet Union forces in Afghanistan.
1. Mohammad Yahya Navroz & Lester W. Grau. 1996. The Soviet War in Afghanistan: History and Harbinger of Future War. Web.
2. Eric, S. Margolis. 2001. War at the Top of the World: The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Tibet. New York: Routledge, p.15.
3. Ibid., 15-17
4. Frank Clements. 2003. Conflict in Afghanistan: A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, Inc., p.19.
5. Mohammad Yahya Navroz & Lester W. Grau. 1996. The Soviet War in Afghanistan: History and Harbinger of Future War. Web.
6. Frank Clements. 2003. Conflict in Afghanistan: A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, Inc., p.19.
7. Ibid., p.19
8. Douglas, A. Borer. 1999. Super Powers Defeated: Vietnam and Afghanistan Compared. Abingdon, Oxon: Frank Cass Publishers, p.175-176.
9. Lester, W. Grau. 1996. The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan. Washington D. C: National Defense University Press, p.2-3.
10. Douglas, A. Borer. 1999. Super Powers Defeated: Vietnam and Afghanistan Compared. Abingdon, Oxon: Frank Cass Publishers, p. 176.
11. Ibid., p.176.
12. Mohammad Yahya Navroz & Lester W. Grau. 1996. The Soviet War in Afghanistan: History and Harbinger of Future War. Web.
13. Eric, S. Margolis. 2001. War at the Top of the World: The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Tibet. New York: Routledge, p.15.
14. Gautam Maitra. 2009. For Whom the Bells Toll: America or the Jihadists? Victoria: Canada: Trafford Publishing, p.65.
15. Eric, S. Margolis. 2001. War at the Top of the World: The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Tibet. New York: Routledge, p.15-17.
16. Ibid., p.3
17. Ibid., p.3
18. Ibid., p.5
19. Jan Angstrom & Isabelle Duyvestan. 2007. Understanding Victory and Defeat in Contemporary War. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, p. 158.
20. Ibid., p.158
21. Frank Clements. 2003. Conflict in Afghanistan: A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, Inc., p.257
22. A. Z. Hilali. 2005. U.S. Pakistan Relationship: Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. Hants, U.K.: Ashgate Publishing Limited, p.147-159
23. Glenn, P. Hastedt. 2004. Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy. New York: Facts on File, Inc., p.5.
24. A. Z. Hilali. 2005. U.S. Pakistan Relationship: Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. Hants, U.K.: Ashgate Publishing Limited, p.111-115.
Angstrom, J. & Duyvestan, I. 2007. Understanding Victory and Defeat in Contemporary War. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Borer, A. D. 1999. Super Powers Defeated: Vietnam and Afghanistan Compared. Abingdon, Oxon: Frank Cass Publishers.
Clements, F. 2003. Conflict in Afghanistan: A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, Inc.
Grau, W. L. 1996. The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan. Washington D. C: National Defense University Press.
Hilali, A. Z. 2005. U.S. Pakistan Relationship: Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. Hants, U.K.: Ashgate Publishing Limited
Maitra, G. 2009. For Whom the Bells Toll: America or the Jihadists? Victoria: Canada: Trafford Publishing.
Margolis, E. S. 2001. War at the Top of the World: The Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Tibet. New York: Routledge.
Navroz, M. Y. & Grau, L. 1996. The Soviet War in Afghanistan: History and Harbinger of Future War. Web.