Compound War Case Study: The Soviets in Afghanistan

Dr. Robert F. Baumann

When on 24-25 December 1979 Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan, they intended to conduct a neat, surgical intervention to stabilize a client regime on which they had lavished years of attention and aid. The immediate military objectives were to secure the capital, Kabul, and the main lines of communication, especially those leading back to the Soviet border. According to the plan, the small intervention force would complete its mission and assume a low profile, while the Soviet client army of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan restored government authority in the outlying provinces.

At the time, most Western political and military observers believed that, sooner or later, the mighty Soviet Army would subdue any and all resistance in Afghanistan. It would succeed, most calculated, because it would prosecute the war unconstrained by those factors that fatally crippled America's efforts in Vietnam. To begin with, domestic public support of the war in the USSR would never fade because the Soviet regime enjoyed comprehensive control of the press, would ruthlessly stifle any manifestations of dissent, and would never be compelled to negotiate with the resistance.1 Moreover, many observers maintained, the USSR, its political course governed by a clear and ruthless sense of purpose, would remain steadfastly indifferent to international opinion. Thus, the unleashed firepower of a technologically advanced military would make short work of poorly organized, undisciplined third world guerrillas.

What followed, of course, belied predictions. After nearly a decade of futility in Afghanistan, Soviet forces withdrew. Their losses transcended the subsequent loss of a client state and the resultant international embarrassment. The anguish of the war in Afghanistan deepened emerging fissures in Soviet society and contributed to its eventual disintegration.

In its general contours, the Afghan War fits within the elastic theoretical model of compound war, although it exhibited many distinctive features of its own as well. In this light, this essay will establish the ways in which the Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan adhered to the definition of compound war as summarized in the introduction of this volume. At the same time, it will demonstrate that the advantageous effects of compound war can manifest themselves in various forms.

A principal strength of the compound war model is that it does not purport to explain everything or presume unerring predictive capability. The outcome in war, including compound war, is seldom if ever inevitable. The dynamism of the Clausewitzian trinity as summarized in On War-the interplay of reason, violent passion, and chance-cannot be overlooked. In particular, it would be dangerous (and all too easy) to dismiss the roles of chance and passion.

In any case, the analytical model of compound war facilitates a deeper understanding of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Much to their surprise, the Soviets confronted the classic dilemma posed by an elusive, intensely motivated, irregular enemy that enjoyed, as a consequence of the larger political context of the struggle, the support of a powerful ally possessing a formidable regular force. Although this ally never entered the war directly, the weight of its might nevertheless influenced the strategic situation in profound ways. In addition, due to the presence of lesser allies, the Mujahideen enjoyed vital sanctuaries that the Soviets felt compelled to respect for larger diplomatic reasons. Faced with these complications-which they might have anticipated but did not-the Soviets met with frustration and defeat.


The Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan aimed to reverse a deteriorating political situation as evidenced by emboldened and aggressive popular resistance to the DRA (Democratic Republic of Afghanistan) regime in Kabul. Having invested money and influence in Afghanistan for twenty-five years, the Soviet Union was not about to watch idly while a client state on its southern doorstep collapsed. Since a 1956 accord that provided for the reequipping of the Afghan Army by the USSR, Russia had steadily insinuated its influence into Afghan politics. Subsequent military collaboration included the education of Afghan cadets and officers in the Soviet Union and the arrival of Soviet officers as military advisers. Symbols of the Soviet presence included numerous economic programs and construction projects. However, the relationship reached a new and critical stage with Afghanistan's so-called 1978 "April Revolution" that consolidated the power of the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan, or PDPA. The proclamation of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and signing of a friendship pact with the Soviet Union marked an advanced stage of the assimilation of that country into Moscow's bloc of "socialist" states.

In reality, this apparent achievement in Soviet foreign policy was less than it seemed. In the first place, no regime in Kabul had ever effectively controlled the independent-minded clans and villages of rural Afghanistan. In one particularly trenchant assessment, Western scholar Anthony Arnold appropriately likened the country to 25,000 village states.2 Furthermore, the construction of Soviet-style socialism was antithetical to the cultural values most revered by the majority of Afghans, whose outlook was based on village traditions and social customs, accentuated by religion and a historic xenophobia. Moreover, the legendary warrior ethic of male Afghans, whatever their ethnicity, had been amply demonstrated by a history of ferocious resistance to foreign intrusion.

Somehow oblivious to these facts, the PDPA undertook an ambitious, Soviet-style modernization program that threatened the authority of the Islamic clergy, exhibited strong centralizing tendencies, and sought to reshape the educational system. Land reform proposals, redefinition of the societal role of women, and the conspicuous presence of foreign (Russian) experts and advisers particularly offended the clergy and other traditionalists. Popular discontent erupted in March 1979 when angry Afghan mobs in Herat openly defied Kabul's authority and murdered a group of Russian technicians. This event prompted the Kremlin to rush Mi-24 helicopters (which had proved effective against Eritrean rebels in Ethiopia) to the scene and to increase the contingent of military advisers to 3,000.3 At the same time, bitter political infighting between the Khalq and Parcham factions of the PDPA also troubled Soviet observers. In September 1979, a smoldering dispute at the top of the Afghan regime came to a head when Hafizullah Amin assumed the presidency following the assassination of his rival, Nur Mohammed Taraki. A peculiar political minuet followed in which Amin, on multiple occasions, apparently requested Soviet military assistance to quell domestic resistance, only to meet with polite but firm refusals.4 When Soviet troops finally did arrive on 24-25 December 1979, Amin, perceived in Moscow to be part of the problem, was targeted for removal and became one of the first casualties of the military intervention.

At first glance, the Soviets' skillfully executed, surprise incursion seemed to achieve its objectives: a change of regime, capture of Kabul, and control of the principal lines of communication. Forces inserted by air paralyzed the capital, while a conventional column of about 15,000 men approached the country along the main road from the Soviet frontier. The strike was complete within hours. In the view of the government of General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev, this lightning success ought to have stabilized the situation in Afghanistan. However, it was only a matter of days before a hostile reaction began, both within and outside of Afghanistan. Though at first lacking any sort of cohesion, popular guerrilla resistance mounted across the country with the benefit of international support-initially moral and diplomatic but before long material as well. By February 1980, Soviet forces left their garrisons to confront mushrooming opposition. Soviet calculations, shaped by a preoccupation with conventional war, failed to account for the possibility that the resistance might resort to the tactics and strategy of unconventional war.5 This seemingly inexplicable neglect occurred in spite of the extensive historical experience of Russian and Soviet forces in waging unconventional wars in the Caucasus and Central Asia against tribes similar to those in Afghanistan.

Later, in the aftermath of Soviet failure in Afghanistan, none of those still alive who played a prominent part in the war claimed responsibility for the decision to invade or the strategy that followed. Soviet Army General V. I. Varennikov, former chief of the Supreme Operations Administration, asserted that his office had advised that Soviet forces in Afghanistan remain in garrison. He attributed the decision to have Soviet forces take the lead in conducting the war to the insistence of newly appointed (by the Soviets) Afghan President, Babrak Karmal. Karmal subsequently noted that he was not even in office when the initial decisions were made and that later he asked to resign out of disagreement with Soviet prosecution of the war.6 Virtually by acclamation after the war, it was expedient to blame the dead-Communist party chief Brezhnev, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, KGB Chief Iurii Andropov (later general secretary), Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov, and so forth-who had been best positioned to make policy decisions. That the war in Afghanistan would end so miserably and be so widely disowned would not have been predicted at the beginning. In the wake of the seizure of Kabul, Soviet forces conducted their first major offensive operation of the war in the Kunar Valley in February-March 1980. The effort employed about 5,000 soldiers, liberally endowed with air support and modern armor. A pattern immediately emerged that would in large measure define the war in Afghanistan. The Soviet force swept aside the guerrilla resistance, superior firepower devastating villages controlled by the opposition. Again, however, the result was deceptive. The Afghan guerrillas, or Mujahideen as they were soon widely known, withdrew to avoid the heaviest blows and suffered only modest losses. Furthermore, thousands of villagers were abruptly transformed into refugees, now more steadfastly hostile than ever to the new regime. After a brief stay, Soviet forces, who were in no position logistically to occupy the Kanur Valley, withdrew. This foreshadowed what became a pervasive pattern: tactical successes that did not add up to tangible, strategic gains.

Still, it appeared that Soviet combat power would eventually bludgeon the Mujahideen and their supporters into submission. Undeterred by the limited success of initial operations, the Soviets pursued the persistent strategy of deep offensives into Mujahideen strongholds. Operations in 1981 focused heavily on the Panjshir Valley northeast of Kabul. About seventy miles in length, this fertile valley rests on a perch roughly 7,000 feet above sea level, with precipitous, rocky slopes along its flanks and slender defiles and valleys radiating out in all directions. At the start of the war, the valley's inhabitants numbered perhaps as many as 100,000.7 By May and August 1982, the Soviets were campaigning in the Panjshir Valley for the fifth and sixth times. Their aim was to crush the power of Ahmad Shah Masoud, a Tajik commander of about 3,000 resistance fighters, whose organizational talent, charisma, and resilience were rapidly making him a near-mythical figure. Meanwhile, Masoud's resistance front trained fighters from among the local population and assigned administrative and political responsibilities among the villages that sustained his movement. Masoud separated his combatants into mobile units, each about seventy-five men in strength, and local defense elements, dividing the Panjshir Valley into seven operational areas.8

The May operation, rather typical of the larger Soviet offensives in Afghanistan, employed about 15,000 Soviet and DRA Army troops equipped with armored personnel carriers and tanks and supported by artillery and Mi-24 helicopter gunships. Still, over six weeks of combat, the firepower-intensive attack lacked decisive effect, and the Soviets suffered up to 3,000 casualties. Even more disturbing was the pattern of defections, possibly as many as 1,000 in this operation alone, that plagued the official Afghan Army.9 Tactically, by this time, the rebels had become skilled at setting ambushes for Soviet armored columns. In addition, thanks in part to foreign assistance, the Mujahideen were increasingly well armed with mortars, RGP-7 rocket launchers, and an assortment of antiaircraft guns. They also became accomplished at laying mines along all major routes supporting vehicular movement, thus impeding Soviet communications.10 Above all, their superior mobility on foot in the rugged, often impassible terrain afforded the resistance the edge that enabled their survival.

In 1983, Masoud and the Soviets both utilized a new tactic, delay, and agreed to a six-month truce in the Panjshir Valley. Neither side even remotely anticipated an end to hostilities. Rather, each hoped to gain some near-term advantage. The Soviets, on their part, gained the opportunity to concentrate more of their effort in other locations, such as Herat and Kandahar. Masoud, in turn, found time to rest his forces and solicit additional outside support.

This episode highlighted another crucial aspect of the war-the fragmented character of the guerrilla resistance. Various ethnic groups, in particular Pushtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkomans, Hazara, and Baluchis, played significant roles. Still, the most important divisions corresponded to local and clan ties among the prewar population of 15 million. Political representation of the resistance to the international community embraced at one time or another no fewer than ten major factions. Oddly, this very lack of cohesion denied the Soviets a true focal point or center of gravity for political and military operations in Afghanistan.

In any case, it is doubtful that the Soviets ever possessed the combat doctrine, concentration of forces, or political will to meet the exorbitant price of success in Afghanistan. But having staked their prestige on their Afghan adventure, they could not comfortably withdraw. To be sure, they made many adjustments in their modus operandi once it became clear that no ready political or military solution was at hand. Still, their greatest error was already perhaps beyond remedy. By virtue of their obtrusive presence, heavy-handed methods, and belated diagnosis of real conditions in Afghanistan, Soviet decision makers placed the Soviet Army in a position, almost from the war's beginning, where it had to fight not only scattered bands of guerrillas but virtually the entire Afghan population.11 Or, as Karmal put it, "If sending in the troops was a mistake, it was caused by a failure to understand Afghanistan-by a poor knowledge of the country and the Afghan character."12

Nevertheless, the Soviet regime would not abandon its goal to establish control over Afghanistan. Thus, the key military-political problem from the Soviet point of view was to defeat or, at the very least, marginalize the Mujahideen soldiers in a holy war.

Both in terms of doctrine and training, the Soviets entered the war unprepared to wage unconventional war.13 Moreover, in their haste to act in the late fall of 1979, they neglected the opportunity to conduct a war game or staff exercise based on the anticipated Afghan scenario.14 To address their increasingly apparent tactical deficiencies, Soviet professional military publications, almost from the start of the war, reflected a new emphasis on physical conditioning for mountain warfare and stressed the importance of initiative among lower-level commanders in small-unit combat. Ambush tactics, reconnaissance, and communications in severe terrain at high altitudes also drew extensive comment.15 Soviet adaptations included increasing reliance on specially trained air assault and spetsnaz (or special operations) forces. Such belated wisdom could not, however, reverse the course of the war or compensate for the Soviet's flawed strategy.

Compound War

Analysis of the conflict in Afghanistan as a compound war necessarily begins with the Mujahideen, the irregular force, whose diffuse but nearly ubiquitous presence across the country left Soviet conventional forces without an appropriate target against which to mass their power. Reflecting the social and cultural makeup of Afghanistan, where village and clan ties were the primary bases of loyalty, the Mujahideen lacked strong, coherent political and military direction. In fact, local rivalries were so fierce that, even after the Soviet invasion, resistance factions often skirmished among themselves. For the most part, however, they temporarily put their animosities aside to focus on the outside intruder. This was necessary not only to fight the Soviets more effectively but in order to form a more or less united diplomatic front in search of assistance from foreign powers.

As guerrilla fighters, the Afghans possessed many virtues. Their formidable warrior tradition is legendary in Central Asia. Perhaps the best known illustration of this fact is the series of disastrous campaigns conducted by the British during the nineteenth century. Warrior status in Afghan society is a source of individual prestige for young men and spiritually affirmed by the Islamic concept of martyrdom. Superbly adapted to the rugged terrain and severe climate of their homeland, the Mujahideen could strike suddenly almost anywhere or stage ambushes and then melt away into the mountains or scattered villages. Above all, drawing enormous moral strength from the defense of their homes and way of life, they provided a supreme example of the power of motive force (Clausewitz' violent passion) in warfare.

Still, the Mujahideen were no less vulnerable to bullets and bombing than soldiers in any other army. The trick for the Soviet Army and its junior partner, the army of the DRA, was to reach them with their superior firepower. Unfortunately for the Soviets, the Mujahideen were remarkably well-schooled in the Soviet style of warfare. Many Afghan resistance fighters were former officers in the Afghan Army who had even received military schooling in the USSR. Their resultant knowledge of Soviet doctrine and equipment capabilities was invaluable, allowing the resistance on occasion to parry what otherwise might have been devastating thrusts.

Reduced to its essence, Soviet strategy for victory in Afghanistan rested on fulfillment of five crucial objectives, all of which focused in large part on overcoming the irregular opposition. First, they needed to control the principal population centers and lines of communication. In this respect, the Soviets achieved tenuous control of Kabul, the capital and largest population center at the outset of the war. With the installation of "their man," Babrak Karmal, as president, the Soviets were in a position to manipulate all essential government ministries and organs. Had Afghanistan been more cohesive as a state to begin with, the advantage derived might have been considerable. In most developed states, for example, occupation of the capital would carry great symbolic importance. Earlier Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 firmly established the effectiveness of this modus operandi. Such was not the case, however, in Afghanistan. Unlike Budapest or Prague, Kabul did not represent the psychological center of gravity of the country. At every step, government authority required the support of military force. Consequently, the domestic legitimacy of the regime was minimal.

To accomplish their first objective, Soviet forces quickly positioned themselves along the few major roads of Afghanistan. Almost in anticipation of future events, the Soviet Union had in the 1960s constructed Afghanistan's major highway, forming a ring linking the cities of Kabul, Kandahar, Heart, and Mazare Sharif. The road's principal spur connected it with the Soviet border to the north. In that the road was built to withstand tank traffic, it validated Soviet foresight. What the Russians had not foreseen was that the road would become an important staging area for ambushes against government convoys and military columns. The resistance acquired considerable skill in laying mines along frequently used lines of communication. Ultimately, the maintenance of some degree of security along the highway, around Kabul and near key Soviet bases, tied down one-third of the Soviet's manpower.

As critical as security was, what essentially exacted a high toll on the morale and efficiency of typical Soviet motor-rifle units was the passive, troop-intensive occupation mission. Living in miserable conditions amidst a hostile populace, many Soviet soldiers saw little purpose in their presence and grew disillusioned with the war. Indeed, defections from Soviet units, especially among the Central Asian contingent, reflected pervasive discouragement.16 Eventually, drug use and the illegal sale of weapons and other equipment became a problem. In general, numbing tedium, occasionally punctuated by skirmishes with an unseen enemy or the explosion of a mine, became the normal lot of the roughly 110,000 Soviet soldiers stationed in Afghanistan at any given time.17

Soviet forces initially included large numbers of reservists from the Central Asian Military District. Though probably employed due to the convenience of their proximity to the Afghan theater, their use also was intended, perhaps, to make the Soviet presence seem less invasive, less foreign. Although the evidence remains unclear on this point, some Soviet leaders apparently expected that Soviet Central Asians would exercise a beneficial or soothing influence on their cousins across the border. If anything, the influence ultimately seemed to flow in the other direction, as the Afghans swayed the attitudes of their linguistic and ethnic cousins in Soviet uniforms. Whatever the case, employment of large numbers of Soviet Central Asian reservists ceased not long after the invasion.18 In general, as Soviet soldiers discovered, the war was far different than advertised, and they discovered quickly that they were not helping the Afghan people defend their sacred revolution against American and Chinese mercenaries and their local, reactionary pawns. Learning this, Soviet soldiers rapidly lost enthusiasm for the war.

Meanwhile, a minority of Soviet forces were available to pursue the second Soviet operational objective: the conduct of large-scale (in the Afghan context) offensive operations to secure the countryside and wrest the initiative from the resistance. From 1980 through 1987, at least a few times per year, the Soviets conducted army-level operations employing up to two motor-rifle divisions complemented by engineers, air assault forces, and air support. Rarely were more than 10,000-15,000 men involved. More common were conventional division- or regiment-level operations that were always tethered to roads and supply bases. According to Gareev, Soviet forces during the war executed 416 planned operations against the most powerful resistance groups.19

Generally, the lavish use of Soviet firepower masked the relatively modest results of most operations. Although the Soviets repeatedly demonstrated their ability to obliterate villages and drive the resistance into remote recesses of the countryside, they never had any intention of occupying areas where logistical support was nearly impossible to obtain and the inhabitants had largely fled. Indeed, the exodus of the population from many areas subjected to ground and air attacks led one scholar to describe Soviet strategy as "migratory genocide."20 Although estimates of the migration varied, up to five million Afghans sought refuge in Pakistan or Iran.

In practical terms, the typical Soviet offensive, though spectacular in its immediate effect, was counterproductive. On the one hand, the Mujahideen often suffered many casualties, and the populace could hardly fail to be impressed by the might of the invader. On the other hand, these operations primed the pump of the Mujahideen replacement pool. For example, a general Soviet disregard for civilian casualties, not to mention the destruction of villages, prompted the displacement of many Afghans to refugee camps outside Afghanistan. There, Mujahideen recruiters and trainers harnessed the refugees' anger and incorporated them into the growing war effort.

Thus, the availability of sanctuaries to the resistance was not merely helpful, it was indispensable. Due to the fragile nature of the agricultural economy in many rural areas, villages were vulnerable targets for Soviet air power. Subsistence was entirely dependent on scarce water sources. As one knowledgeable observer put it, "Let one canal break or simply be poorly maintained, and a village dies."21 In other words, even if Soviet military might could not directly strike at small resistance bands away from the capital, it could render their sustainment difficult, if not impossible, by systematically depopulating whole areas. If the traditional formula for victory against guerrillas is to "drain the water" so as to defeat "the fish," the Soviets might well have succeeded in Afghanistan had they been able to envelop the country and seal the borders.

In the absence of such an envelopment, Afghanistan's frontiers remained porous and, amidst the vast refugee camps of Pakistan in particular Mujahideen organizers nurtured the hatred of the fugitives for the Soviets and their client government in Afghanistan. Trainers and weapons were liberally available courtesy of the government of Pakistan, which enjoyed the financial backing of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and China, among others states who brought their wealth to bear on the task of thwarting the Soviet Union. In sum, the very Soviet offensive actions aimed at neutralizing the resistance often had the effect of strengthening it.

Logically, therefore, the partially successful conduct of offensive operations generated the third military objective: closing the Afghan frontier with Pakistan. This posed a particularly thorny problem. To avoid further aggravating international opinion, which was broadly hostile to the Soviet adventure in Afghanistan anyway, as well as the possible political and military complications of widening the war, Soviet forces did not, as a rule, wantonly trespass onto Pakistani soil or violate its air space. They consequently endured a most frustrating situation, not at all unlike the dilemma posed by the Ho Chi Minh Trail to American forces in the Vietnam War. Although the Mujahideen could cross back and forth into Afghanistan with virtual impunity, Soviet forces could not reciprocate. Soviet columns and aircraft were denied the opportunity to strike at Mujahideen training camps or supply bases from which armed men and supplies trickled steadily into Afghanistan. Moreover, as the war dragged on, the Mujahideen acquired advanced weaponry, including stinger missiles whose impact on the conduct of Soviet tactical operations was unmistakable.

The arrival of antiaircraft systems is a significant case in point. At the start of the war, the Mujahideen possessed virtually nothing but small arms with which to combat Soviet aircraft. This weakness proved acute, as the Soviets began to exploit their air capabilities fully. Bombing assumed huge proportions and helicopters facilitated the rapid movement of troops and equipment, thereby compensating for the limited mobility of ground columns in mountainous defiles and valleys. Meanwhile, to prevent ambushes and to gain the initiative in combat, the Soviets learned to land troops along the commanding heights overlooking routes of movement. But by the midpoint of the war, if not sooner, reports from Afghanistan noted the employment not only of Swiss-made Oerlikon antiaircraft guns but British blowpipe and American Stinger antiaircraft missiles. The latter, especially, proved to be extremely lethal and forced the Soviets to operate with far more caution. Subsequently, Soviet Tu-16 intermediate-range bombers, as well as Su-24 and Su-25 attack aircraft, largely abandoned low-altitude bombing and had to release their ordnance from above 10,000 feet, with a significant corresponding loss of accuracy. In turn, Mi-24 and Mi-25 helicopter pilots could no longer linger over target areas but had to engage in quick runs and rely on nap-of-the-earth flying to avoid premature detection and destruction.22 The tactical consequences were no less dramatic for ground columns, which forfeited much of their air support and once again became more vulnerable to ambushes from the heights and ridges along the roads.

Thus, the limits of military success accentuated the importance of the fourth and fifth Soviet objectives (which did not directly involve combat missions): to rebuild the DRA government and army and to organize an effective propaganda campaign. If, as in Russia's own experience in the conquest of Central Asia in the 1920s, the Soviets could reach accommodation with a significant share of the population, the military stalemate might find resolution.

Fixing the government, however, required a Herculean effort as well as an intellectual exercise in wishful thinking. The Soviets could scarcely have done more at the beginning of the war to discredit the very regime upon whose legitimacy their mission would later depend. The installation of the relatively little known Babrak Karmal, following the assassination of President Amin by Soviet forces, left a void at the top that neither he nor any other Soviet-appointed leader could expect to fill. At first, the Soviets doubtless hoped that he would gain legitimacy as Soviet forces gained ever-increasing control of the country. However, no mutually reinforcing linkages between military and political efforts ever materialized, a result that Gareev later deemed the "main factor" in the failure of Soviet and DRA military operations to influence the popular mood in Afghanistan. He noted, for example, that twelve major operations over ten years more than once cleared the Panjshir Valley of rebel forces but achieved no strengthening of state authority.23

In the absence of either decisive military or political successes, Karmal not only appeared to be a stooge of the godless foreigners but effectively powerless as well. The installation of Dr. Ahmedzai Nadjibullah as president in 1986 indicated recognition of this dilemma but could do little to change it. In short, as long as the official regime lacked even a semblance of popularity, it could do little to neutralize the appeals of the Mujahideen for the loyalty of the populace.

Beneath the presidential level, neither the government apparatus nor the army could rely on the loyalty of its own members. Defections among both were rampant throughout the war, and ample numbers of those who remained operated as informants for the resistance. One estimate held that the numerical strength of the Afghan Army eroded from about 80,000 in 1978 to as low as 25,000 by the end of 1980. The manpower drain correlated closely with the loss of weapons that defectors took with them. The situation became so severe that the Soviet Army withheld antiaircraft and antitank weapons from most Afghan Army units and often concealed war plans until operations commenced. At the same time, the DRA regime compensated for defections by resorting to sweeps of neighborhoods in Kabul or of whole villages in the hinterland to impress eligible young men into military service.24 According to retired general Alexander Lebed, such recruits normally "turned out to be extremely unreliable."25 Or as one Western commentator put it, "The army grew on paper but shrank on the ground."26

Neither the government nor the army was able to demonstrate its effectiveness to the population. Moreover, in many regions, the Mujahideen operated a "parallel government" that executed such functions as tax collection and formed militias virtually without interference from Kabul. Under such circumstances, the DRA could hardly make a strong case for legitimacy.

To be sure, the Soviets employed a variety of means to change this situation. Even before the replacement of Karmal, the Afghan government enthusiastically announced the opening of its National Reconciliation Campaign, which was purported to broaden the popular base of the regime by including alienated populations in assemblies and other organizations. In addition, the regime sought to depict itself as a friend and sponsor of Islam through the funding of religious schools, radio programs, and so on. None of this made much difference, however. As one Soviet veteran of Afghanistan observed, "We didn't see any friendly Afghans anywhere . . . . When the propagandists would go out to solicit support for Soviet rule, so to speak, they would take along a company of men and tanks."27

In the meantime, the Soviets sought to promote the DRA Army by helping it prove itself in combat. Especially in the later years of the war, the Soviet Army made an effort to put the more reliable Afghan military units in a position to succeed during operations in disputed valleys and near besieged government outposts. This attempt, in some measure, resembled the efforts of the United States to facilitate the success of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam during the early 1970s. In each case, lavish official praise concealed a serious problem beneath the surface. Success in operations enjoying the full support of an outside superpower scarcely was a reliable indicator of what would happen when the client army had to depend on its own initiative and resources. To be fair, the Afghan Army improved (almost as much, perhaps, as its South Vietnamese counterpart), but it was never up to the challenges to come. In any event, no Afghan Army could be stronger than the popular base that supported it.

The final Soviet objective, the retrieval of at least a modest but stable level of support for the client regime, was virtually unachievable from the start. First, given the nature of Afghan culture, there necessarily existed an inverse relationship between the magnitude of the Soviet presence and the perceived legitimacy of the DRA. Second, the very population group upon whom the Soviets most depended for support was culturally estranged from the vast masses of Afghans, irrespective of region or ethnicity. Largely Soviet-educated, this small social stratum consisted principally of government bureaucrats, teachers, students, and technical specialists who, Marxist or not, aimed to modernize their country. Unfortunately, their world view, typically communicated in radical terminology about the working class, capitalism, revolution, and so forth, had almost nothing in common with the perceptions and convictions of their tradition-minded brethren. Scripted in such alien language, the message they carried had virtually no appeal for the average Afghan.28 In the words of Russian observer Gennady Bocharov, "To the peasants the revolutionary government was as remote and incomprehensible as a government on another planet."29

Accordingly, numerous Soviet-sponsored attempts to enlist popular support foundered. In 1981, the government announced formation of the National Fatherland Front, conceived as a coalition reaching out beyond the ranks of the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan to village and tribal leaders. Although official claims, by 1986, asserted a total membership of over a million, the support was entirely illusory and its impact minimal. Other visible attempts to mobilize support entailed land reform, construction projects, literacy campaigns, and the promotion of greater civil equality for women. None of these initiatives, not even land reform, achieved much progress. Failure to resuscitate the Afghan economy, an important component for improving popular perceptions of the regime, also hampered the Soviets. In fact, the war-as evidenced by the effects of massive bombing-crippled development prospects by exacerbating agricultural shortages and driving up prices.30 As asserted in a retrospective analysis by M. A. Gareev, deputy chief of the Main Operations Directorate of the Soviet Army and later the General Staff, reform imposed from above had little prospect of success. Rather, he argued, support should have been built from below, beginning with the Moslem clergy, who numbered perhaps 40,000 and wielded tremendous influence.31 Still other measures that produced meager results included proclamations of amnesty for deserting soldiers and well-publicized agreements of cooperation with Islamic institutions.

Ultimately, with no end to the war in sight, the Soviet Union began the systematic, phased withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan in 1988. This decision, which marked a major policy reversal, became both possible and necessary as a result of the selection of Mikhail Gorbachev as general secretary of the Communist Party in 1985. Because his own prestige was not tied to the former Afghan policy, Gorbachev was able to orchestrate a gradual shift of the official Soviet position with minimal loss of face. In addition, Gorbachev recognized that the war was increasingly unpopular as well as economically burdensome on the home front and was a serious impediment to pursuit of his new policy of accommodation with the United States. Meanwhile, the fact that the DRA did not collapse immediately thereafter marginally camouflaged the Soviet defeat.

In the end, the Soviets failed to accomplish all five of their principal objectives for defeating the irregular enemy in Afghanistan. This was due to the strength, motivation, and resilience of the resistance, as well as to the fact that the Soviets began the war without a coherent strategy and, even later, failed to link their assorted efforts in such a way as to establish a basic unity of effort. An example is the way in which highly destructive, firepower-intensive military operations undermined political campaigns aimed at winning the active support (or at least neutrality) of the population.

Had Soviet strategy been better conceived, there might have been at least some prospect for success. As Gareev wrote after the war, the Soviet General Staff had informed the Ministry of Defense in December 1979 that it would take from thirty to thirty-five divisions to stabilize Afghanistan.32 Given the actual course of events there, this estimate is reasonable. Thus, the inability or unwillingness of the Soviets to mass the forces necessary to succeed invites an examination of its causes.

The foremost factor limiting the concentration of Soviet forces in Afghanistan was apparently political and, to a degree, self-imposed. When the Afghan War is viewed within the context of the Cold War, of which it became an undeniable part, it is apparent that the vast majority of the Soviet Army was committed to other theaters, especially Europe, where it stood toe to toe with the armies of NATO. For example, by an official Pentagon estimate of 1989, the Soviets maintained sixty-eight divisions between their western territories and the NATO frontier.33 These forces represented not only the mass of the Soviet Army but its best-trained and best-equipped formations as well. Moreover, this commitment to Europe must be measured not only in terms of divisions but economic costs. As became apparent shortly after the Afghan War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union that followed, the Soviet economy was under increasing strain during the 1980s. To sustain large forces in Europe, the Kremlin had to abstain from making great commitments elsewhere.

The Soviet leadership gradually became cognizant of the diplomatic capital that might have to be spent to expand their effort in Afghanistan. Indeed, once the diplomatic costs to Soviet foreign policy were realistically assessed-and they were perhaps most severe in the Third World, where the Kremlin had made great strides in gaining influence during the preceding two decades-the Soviets sought to contain the damage. As a result, they not only limited their troop commitment to Afghanistan but were cured of any temptations they might otherwise have felt to launch a major assault against Mujahideen training camps and sanctuaries in Pakistan or Iran.

Yet another practical constraint was the undeveloped character of the Afghan theater. Afghanistan's minimal road network could scarcely accommodate the traffic necessary to sustain the 110,000-man force sent there in the first place. Furthermore, according to 40th Army commander Lieutenant General Boris Gromov, from 30 to 35 percent of that force was tied down defending those same lines of communication, guarding convoys, and carrying out other security missions.34 Even the relatively close proximity of Soviet air bases in Central Asia, which facilitated airlift, could not fundamentally alter the logistical equation. So dependent were the Soviets on the few available routes that the Mujahideen were afforded spectacular opportunities to ambush Soviet columns and keep the invaders off balance.35 Most vulnerable of all was the Salaang highway, which threaded its way through narrow mountain defiles and a lengthy tunnel to connect Kabul with Termez on the Soviet border. Concern over the security of the Salaang highway was a major reason for the conduct of repeated offensives into the nearby Panjshir Valley, the stronghold of guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah Masoud. Ultimately, Masoud, like most other resistance leaders, withstood Soviet pressure and remained to fight over the future direction of Afghanistan in the wake of the departure of Soviet forces in 1988.36

When examined in light of the analytical model of fortified compound war, four critical aspects of the war come into sharp relief. First, for the many reasons considered above, Soviet and DRA government forces were unable to defeat the irregular force in Afghanistan, the Mujahideen. Numerous, agile, and fiercely determined, the Mujahideen constituted a formidable opponent. Nevertheless, their success was not inevitable and might not have been achieved but for the influence of other critical, complementary factors.

The classic complementary relationship in compound war is the dual action of irregular and regular forces. However, the regular counterpart to the Mujahideen is not to be found in the Afghan theater. In this instance, it must be sought elsewhere. If one considers the impact of NATO conventional forces in Europe, the relevance of the compound war model is affirmed. Faced with a powerful regular adversary to its west, the Soviet Union could not assume the burden of an unlimited commitment to the war in Afghanistan. In practical terms, the Soviets could never mass the forces necessary to control the countryside and seal the Afghan frontiers.

This inability proved debilitating, in turn, because of the compound effect produced by safe havens in Iran and Pakistan. A consequence of diplomatic as well as military factors, the existence of a sanctuary freed the Mujahideen from the possibility of the relentless military pressure that might otherwise, in time, have broken their strength. It also provided recourse for the populace, in general, to escape the combat zone and wait out the struggle.

Support from major power allies manifested itself in other crucial ways as well. Access to foreign technology and training helped to diminish important Soviet combat advantages. In addition, allies provided the resistance significant economic, political, and moral support.

In sum, the analytical framework of fortified compound war facilitates a clearer understanding of the outcome in Afghanistan. Facing the classic dilemma posed by an elusive, motivated, irregular enemy that enjoyed indirect support from an ally possessing a powerful regular force, the Soviets were unable to concentrate their effort. Moreover, unable to close with an enemy that possessed the advantage of a nearby sanctuary- guaranteed by powerful and influential allies-Soviet forces faced a grim, demoralizing, and protracted conflict with little prospect of success.



1. Gerard Chaliand, Report from Afghanistan (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), 49-51. This general outlook was especially strong among those who believed that the United States would have prevailed in Vietnam had its military power not been constrained by political considerations and subsequently by dissent at home. The author was living in Moscow at the time and offers the personal observation that few natives other than Soviet dissidents were inclined to draw comparisons between Vietnam and Afghanistan.

2. Anthony Arnold, Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion in Perspective (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1986), 97.

3. Edward Girardet, Afghanistan: The Soviet War (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985), 23.

4. S. Kusherev, "After Afghanistan," Komsomol'skaia Pravda, 21 December 1989, as translated in JPRS-UMA-90-006, 20 March 1990, 21-22.

5. Makhmut Akhmetovich Gareev, Moia posledniaia voina (Afganistan bez sovetskikh voisk) (Moscow: INSAN, 1996), 58; Stephen J. Blank, Operational and Strategic Lessons of the War in Afghanistan, 1979-90 (Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 1991), 29. See also, Robert F. Baumann, Russian-Soviet Unconventional Wars in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Afghanistan, Leavenworth Paper No. 20 (Ft. Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1993).

6. Artyom Borovik, The Hidden War, a Russian Journalist's Account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990), 8-9.

7. Girardet, Afghanistan, 76.

8. Ibid., 79; Girardet, "How Stubborn Tribesmen Nibble Russians to Death," US News and World Report, 12 July 1982, 25-26.

9. Girardet, "How Stubborn Tribesmen," 25-26.

10. Graham Turbiville, "Ambush! The Road War in Afghanistan," Army (January 1988): 32-42.

11. Gareev, Moia posledniaia voina, 27.

12. Borovik, The Hidden War, 9.

13. Scott McMichael, "Soviet Counter-Insurgency Doctrine-An Ideological Blind Spot," Jane's Soviet Intelligence Review (October 1990): 23-25; McMichael, "Soviet Tactical Performance and Adaptation in Afghanistan," Journal of Soviet Military Studies 3, no. 1 (1990): 73-79.

14. Gareev, Moia posledniaia voina, 47.

15. Nasrulah Safi, "Soviet Military Tactics in Afghanistan," Central Asian Survey 5, no. 2 (1986): 103-10; Gennadii Bocharov, Byl I vide l . . . Afganistan 1986/87 god (Moscow: Politizdat, 1987), 23; V. Sosnitskii, "Desantniki v atake," Voennyi vestnik, 10 (1985): 29-30; Les Grau, The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University, 1996), 201-04; V. G. Safronov, "Kak eto bylo," Voenno-istoricheskii zhurnal, no. 5 (1990): 11-15.

16. Leo J. Daugherty III, "The Afghan War III: The Bear and the Scimitar: Soviet Central Asians and the War in Afghanistan," The Journal of Slavic Military Studies 8, no. 1 (March 1995): 87-88; Borovik, The Hidden War, 13-14, 175-77; Blank, Operational and Strategic Lessons, 46-47.

17. Gareev, Moia posledniaia voina, 53. The author puts the average Soviet strength in Afghanistan at 108,800, including 73,000 combat soldiers.

18. Safronov, "Kak eto bylo," 69; Borovik, Afganistan: Eshche raz pro voine (Moscow: Ogonek, 1990), 149.

19. Gareev, Moia posledniaia voina, 55-56; Aleksandr Maiorov, Pravda of afganskoi voine (Moscow: Izdatel'stvo Prava Cheloveka, 1996), 28-29.

20. Louis Dupree, "Afghanistan in 1982: Still No Solution," Central Asian Survey 23, no. 2 (1983): 135; "Afganistan in 1983: Still No Solution," Central Asian Survey 24, no. 2 (1984): 235-36.

21. Oliver Roy, "What Is Afghanistan Really Like?" Dissent (Winter 1981): 54.

22. Josef Bodansky, "SAMS in Afghanistan: Assessing the Impact," Jane's Defense Weekly, 25 July 1987, 150-54; Aaron Karp, "Blowpipes and Stingers in Afghanistan: One Year Later," Armed Forces Journal International (September 1987): 37-38; John Cushman, "Helping to Change the Course of a War," The New York Times, 17 January 1988; David Isby, "Afghanistan in 1982: the War Continues," International Defense Review (November 1982): 1524.

23. Gareev, Moia posledniaia voina, 57.

24. Maiorov, Pravda ob afganskoi voine, 61.

25. Aleksandr Lebed, Za derzhavu obidno . . . (Moscow: moskovskaia pravda, 1995), 91; Mark Urban, "A More Competent Afghan Army?" Jane's Defense Weekly, 23 November 1985, 1147-51; Girardet, Afghanistan: The Soviet War, 136-37.

26. Roy, "What Is Afghanistan Really Like?" 54.

27. Borovik, The Hidden War, 174.

28. Roy, "What Is Afghanistan Really Like?" 50-51.

29. Gennady Bocharov, Russian Roulette: Afghanistan Through Russian Eyes, Alyona Kojevnikov, trans. (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), 57.

30. Edward Girardet, "Occupational Hazards of a Soviet Occupation," The Christian Science Monitor, 2 July 1982.

31. Gareev, Moia posledniaia voina, 22; Maiorov, Pravda ob afganiskoi voine, 36.

32. Gareev, Moia posledniaia voina, 46.

33. Soviet Military Power: Prospects for Change 1989 (Washington D.C.: Department of Defense, 1989), 95.

34. Boris Gromov, "Zashchishchali, obuchali, stroili," Voenno-istoricheskii zhurnal, no. 3 (1989), 11-15.

35. Graham Turbiville, "Ambush! The Road War in Afghanistan," Army (January 1988): 38-42.

36. In September 2001, two days before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington DC, Masoud was the target of an assassination attempt. Severely wounded in the attack, he died of his wounds within days.


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