Why did the Soviet Union’s armed forces fail to defeat the Mujahedin in Afghanistan?
By Stefan Vedder
Throughout the 1980s the war in Afghanistan, which started as a civil war, developed into a “bloody Cold War battlefield” (Jalali, 2001: 85) with Soviet troops fighting alongside Afghan government troops against resistance fighters supported by Pakistan and the USA. During this almost ten years lasting war, which ended with the withdrawal of the Red Army in February 1989, the Soviet Union failed to defeat the Mujahedin primarily due to an initially false strategic alignment and severe tactical deficiencies.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Afghanistan bordered on the Soviet’s south. It is entirely landlocked with Iran and Pakistan as its western and eastern neighbour, respectively. Afghanistan consists - besides plains in the north and the south-west - of highly mountainous terrain and shows severe extremes of weather and temperature. Furthermore, logistical infrastructure in Afghanistan was rather primitive with underdeveloped roads and railroads (McMichael, 1989: 22).
In April, 1978 a military coup brought a left-wing regime to power in Afghanistan making Nur Muhammad Taraki the new president. The country, however, was mostly governed by local tribal and ethnic warlords with the Kabul regime having little influence beyond the capital (Harrison, 1984: 34). The far reaching socialistic reforms introduced by the new government and promoted by hundreds of Soviet advisors were perceived as threatening ancient customs and the local authorities in the countryside of the Islamic country. The revolution made the Afghan people suffer cruel repression and led to uprisings throughout the country which eventually culminated in armed resistance. At the beginning the Soviet Union rejected any requests made by the Afghan government to send support troops as the Afghan forces themselves were unable to respond to resistance attacks. Later however, as the conduct of the revolution was becoming more and more radical - under the direction of Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin - and after dozens of Soviet advisors had gotten killed in the uprisings, Moscow eventually decided to invade Afghanistan - with the primary goal to overthrow Amin. On December 27, 1979 approximately 80.000 Soviet troops entered Afghanistan, replacing Amin with a more moderate successor and seizing major urban centres (Roy, 1986: 95-108 and Litwak, 1992: 70-75).
At the peak of the fighting in 1986, 115.000 Soviet troops faced an oppositional guerrilla force, the Mujahedin. Reports over the strength of these forces varied from 90.000 (Cordes- man and Wagner, 1990: 7) to numbers as high as 200.000 (Jalali, 2001: 86). The Mujahedin comprised Afghans, many of which were recruited in the refugee camps of Pakistan, as well as warriors from other Arab countries that were willing to fight a “Djihad”, a holy war, against those threatening the Islam (the Soviet and Afghan army). Thus, these fighters were far away from forming a unity and were divided on ethnic, tribal, and sectarian lines (Harrison, 1984: 36). In fact they were only united by a common enemy (Jalali, 2001: 85). They were equipped with sophisticated weapons such as Stinger anti-aircraft missiles (at the latter part of the war), the MILAN anti-tank system, and surface-to-surface rockets (Jalali, 2001: 86). The Mujahedin were fighting a classical guerrilla war and thus proved to be a highly mobile force (Derleth, 1988: 44). On the other hand, Soviet troops were basically fighting alone. They had the support of the Afghan government troops; however, these forces proved to be inefficient and unreliable. Indeed during the war the size of the Afghan army dropped from 90.000 to approximately 35.000 which was largely due to desertions and defections over to the guerrillas (Litwak, 1992: 80).
The first essential mistake the Soviets made was of strategic nature. According to Speller and Tuck the strategic level of war can be described as “the application of [...] resources to achieve [...] policy objectives” (2008: 10). Above all the Soviet Union fatally misinterpreted the nature of the war they were going to get engaged in. As Clausewitz pointed out in his „On War’:
„The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgement that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking, neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.’ (1989: 88-89)
The Soviet Forces were - besides] that - sent to Afghanistan on false assumptions. They thought the military intervention would be of the quick kind as exercised in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Initially, the Soviet troops did not intend to engage in an extensive armed struggle against the opposition forces and solely aimed at establishing garrisons and stabilising the country. Soon however, the Red Army found itself attacked by the resistance forces and got involved in a counter-insurgency war fighting against an enemy that was referring to guerrilla tactics (McMichael, 1991: 10). The Soviet armed forces were yet structured and trained for large scale conventional warfare (McMichael, 1989: 21 and Litwak, 1992: 79). The Red Army only deployed approximately 115.000 troops for a country three times the size of Great Britain. They only employed a limited contingent and were not interested in controlling the entire Afghan territory. Soviet troops focussed on controlling the major urban centres and the road network linking them. Soviet leaders apparently were convinced that the mere presence of their forces was sufficient to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan and restrict resistance movement. The Red Army did not expect to get engaged in a full-scale counterinsurgency war. Neither did the Soviet Union believe they would stay in Afghanistan for too long. According to former foreign Soviet minister Shevardnadze did “the people who made the decision [...] not plan to stay in Afghanistan for any length of time” (as quoted in Litwak, 1992: 77) The Soviets underestimated the resistance forces - with regard to their strength and resilience - while at the same time overestimating the feasibility of regenerating the Afghan Armed Forces (McMichael, 1991:10).
Moreover, the Soviet Union deployed forces that were inappropriate for the topographic conditions found in Afghanistan. In general terms, the conduct of war is significantly shaped by its geographical setting and military forces have to respond appropriately to natural constraints (Moran, 2007: 123). Soviet decision-makers had utterly violated this golden rule by employing heavy-tank mechanized formations that would be appropriate in Europe’s flat, rolling terrain. In mountainous Afghanistan, however, these troops were unsuitable and of limited effect (McMichael, 1989: 21). The first mistake was made before the actual fighting started. Doctrine and forces employed by the Soviet Union ran against the physical environment and the threat found in Afghanistan leading to inappropriate tactical arrangements. Not having considered the geographical conditions sufficiently then caused certain troubles in the theatre. Vehicles frequently broke down due to inferior maintenance, deficient repair and driver inexperience (McMichael, 1989: 22). Certain weapons, such as the standard Soviet machine gun and automatic grenade launcher proved too heavy for dismounted troops to transport across the mountainous country (House, 2001: 243). Furthermore, the Soviet Union deployed primarily young reservists that were poorly trained. The initial group of regular forces even had reportedly never seen mountains before they arrived in Afghanistan (House, 2001: 243; Derleth, 1988: 45-46). Another mistake made at the beginning of the invasion was that the Soviet Union deployed primarily soldiers - Uzbeks, Tajiks, etc. - that shared a cultural and religious background with the Afghans they were supposed to fight against. This was done for the sake of a favourable reaction on the part of the Afghan population towards co-ethnics. The Central Asian soldiers, however – when they realised they were fighting against Afghans rather than against Pakistanis or Americans (as they were told by their supervisors) – began to help the resistance troops by providing weapons and ammunition. As a consequence, these troops were replaced by Slav units by the end of 1980 (Derleth, 1988: 39- 40).