*By Lyle J. Goldstein
The echo of the Soviet War in Afghanistan remains sadly relevant.
During the early days after the 9/11 attacks and the initiation of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan it was relatively common to reference the woeful Soviet experience in that country. Here was a clear paradigm of what not to do in order to avoid getting stuck in a quagmire. Surely, American leaders would be more adroit. By employing advanced U.S. technology along with a more sensitive effort to win “hearts and minds,” the Taliban—what was left of it—would be quickly vanquished. So much for that theory.
But it might be worth exploring yet again some historical aspects of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, 1979–1989, in order to shed some light, not only on the present predicament of the American war in Afghanistan, now lamentably in its sixteenth year, but perhaps also to gain some insights into contemporary Russian foreign policy and society too.
The writer of this interesting piece is the rather conservative but quite independent-minded Russian defense analyst Alexander Chramshikin. The piece appears under the headline “The Afghan Lesson for Russia: A Collision with Islamic Extremists Was Inevitable.
The author explains that there was misperception back then on both sides concerning the origins of the war. He notes that the Soviet leadership was seriously convinced that “American forces would invade Afghanistan in the near while Washington thought that Soviet forces were determined to drive all the way to the Persian Gulf in order to interfere with the transfer of oil supplies to the West. These assumptions were both completely wrong, of course, but Chramshikin says the assessment that the Americans got right was to seize the opportunity to “arrange for the Soviets their own Vietnam
The Soviets sought to innovate by developing a doctrine that focused on the use of helicopters and particularly the employment of Special Forces. Moreover, the new “main task was to be finding and interdicting convoys of arms coming from Pakistan. These strategic responses all sound familiar? There were some successes for Soviet forces. Chramshikin relates, for example, an episode at the end of 1984 when 220 partisans were killed in such an interdiction operation without losing any Soviet soldiers. Just a few months later, twenty-nine Soviet Special Forces soldiers were killed in a single battle.
During the year 1985, Soviet forces lost eighteen aircraft and fifty-three helicopters, according to this analysis, and that was before the introduction of the Stinger shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles into the war. And that development, beginning in September 1986, “caused a sharp increase in losses, especially with respect to helicopters . Despite such significant setbacks, Chramshikin claims that many thought that due to hard fighting in 1987 that the “Soviet Army could still completely win the war.
More fundamentally for the American readership of the National Interest, this article could be yet another wake up call regarding the futility of “soldiering on” in Afghanistan. It’s, of course, true that U.S. casualties are significantly lower, so far at least in 2018. But one more American service member killed in Afghanistan is still too many.
The U.S. military has adapted, demonstrated “grit,” bravery and competence in difficult circumstances. Yet, it’s easy to forget that the Soviet effort actually had numerous advantages over the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Sharing a border with Afghanistan, the Soviet were able to move heavy equipment and supplies into the country in a much easier and more economical way. Similarly, the Soviet Army had wide access to ethnic “cousins” of various Afghan groups from within its own Central Asian republics and these people could help smooth over cultural and linguistic differences. Most fundamentally, the Soviets could, with at least some plausibility, argue that security in Afghanistan mattered to the national security of the USSR. If it was not a “core interest” for the Kremlin, then it could be labeled in Moscow as a “significant interest” anyhow. The same can hardly be said of Washington’s expensive, misbegotten quest in that distant, blood-soaked land. It’s well past time to let Afghans decide Afghanistan’s future without foreign “assistance.”
* Lyle J. Goldstein is Research Professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the United States Naval War College in Newport, RI. In addition to Chinese, he also speaks Russian and he is also an affiliate of the new Russia Maritime Studies Institute (RMSI) at Naval War College.
The article first appeared in The National Interest