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We're Not the Soviets in Afghanistan

And 2009 isn't 1979.

2:58 PM, Aug 21, 2009 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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Comparisons between our current efforts in Afghanistan and the Soviet intervention that led to the collapse of the USSR are natural and can be helpful, but only with great care. Below are a number of key points to keep in mind when thinking about the Soviet operations, especially when considering the size of the U.S. or international military footprint.

War did not begin in 1979 when the Soviets invaded. It started in 1978 following the Saur Revolution in which Nur M. Taraki seized power from Mohammad Daoud. Taraki declared the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and set about bringing real socialism to the country.

Soviet advisors recommended that Taraki proceed slowly with social and economic reforms. They recognized that the socialist party (People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan or PDPA) had the support of a tiny minority. They feared that Taraki's plans for aggressive "modernization" would generate an awful backlash. They were right.

The PDPA instituted a number of critical reforms after its seizure of power, including eliminating the "brideprice" that a bride's family received from the groom's family and redistributing land on a large scale. These reforms struck at the heart of Afghan society by destroying key pillars in the social structure. Land redistribution upended rural tribal relations, and the elimination of "brideprice" payments destroyed an important traditional method for bonding families following a marriage. It also struck at the role of women in Afghan society, a broader theme the PDPA pushed that alienated wide sections of a very conservative country. In general, there is no faster way to antagonize a population than by attacking property rights and the status of women. Taraki did both.

By early 1979, the Afghan countryside was in revolt against the PDPA. Forces that would become the mujahideen were already mobilizing across the country to fight against the Taraki government even before the Soviets became involved. Afghan army units in Herat mutinied in March 1979, briefly seizing the city on behalf of Ismail Khan.

Factionalism within the PDPA weakened the government, leading in September 1979 to the assassination of Taraki and his replacement by the brutal and incompetent Hafizullah Amin. The insurgency continued to grow. Insurgents attacked government and military convoys on the roads, and interdicted movement from Kabul to the north along the Salang road. In October, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul cabled: "When government troops and their armor do occasionally venture forth out of their defensive positions to show the flag, the rebels repossess the real estate after they have passed, like the waters of the Red Sea closing in behind Moses and his followers."

By December 1979 the Soviets had reluctantly decided that the PDPA government would either fall or throw in its lot with the United States if they did not intervene decisively. Their intervention took the form of a brilliantly-executed regime take-down at the end of the year during which they killed Amin and installed Babrak Karmal as his successor. They intended to stay briefly and then hand responsibility to Karmal and the Afghan military.

But Karmal did not have the loyalty even of the socialist PDPA party. He had led a minority faction within that party that both Taraki and Amin had ruthlessly purged. His accession to power in the midst of a massive insurgency had no tinge of legitimacy in the eyes of the people as a whole and even in the eyes of many of Afghanistan's socialists. And he was clearly installed on the bayonets of the Soviet Union.

Resistance to the Soviet troops as occupiers thus overlaid a pre-existing civil conflict that centered on rejection of the social project launched by Taraki. If Soviet troops had not intervened, there is every reason to think that this civil war would have continued and expanded on its own, since its causes and critical drivers were internal to the country. The Soviet invasion helped to unify opponents of the regime (to some extent), but most importantly it brought massive foreign assistance to an insurgency that would otherwise have received relatively little attention.

One could not have designed a military less well-prepared to deal with such a conflict than the Red Army of 1979. The Soviet military had not fought a war since 1945. Soviet company, battalion, brigade, division, and even army commanders had no experience in combat. The Red Army was a conscript force whose soldiers served for two-year periods. It did not have an NCO corps--in keeping with long Russian tradition, the Red Army relied on junior officers to perform the roles that NCOs perform in Western armies. Soviet conscripts were notoriously brutal, drunk, and unprofessional. Their young officers were not accustomed to worrying about the problems such characteristics would cause in a counter-insurgency because the force was intended solely for conventional operations in Europe.

The Red Army was also an incredibly heavy force. Even its airborne units dropped with armored personnel carriers and light tanks, as did many of its SPETSNAZ (commando) units. Soviet infantry was trained to ride in the back of its vehicles, dismounting only for brief (couple of hundred yards) rushes against dug-in enemy positions. It did no training in dismounted operations and never planned to be separated from its vehicles for more than a couple of hours at a time.

But SPETSNAZ units were not equivalent to our Special Operations Forces. They were meant to be shock troops dropped in the rear of NATO defensive positions to disrupt and confuse. They were not meant to conduct Foreign Internal Defense missions at all, and certainly not in a counter-insurgency role.

The Soviet military was self-consciously a pro-revolutionary force because the Soviet Union was ideologically a revolutionary state. There was no Soviet doctrine for counter-insurgency because Soviet ideology could not foresee the USSR fighting against a revolution. To the extent that Soviet forces thought about intervention in internal conflicts, they thought about helping Marxist revolutionaries overthrow US-backed dictators. They knew virtually nothing about setting up indigenous armies or training indigenous forces. Apart from brief interventions in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and East Germany (all executed as massive and brief mechanized operations), the Red Army had not faced an insurgency since the Basmachi Rebellion of the 1920s.

Soviet doctrine called for moving from the inter-German border to the English Channel in 30 days. Artillery and air support were intended to destroy relatively large dug-in defensive positions in pre-planned strikes. The USSR had no precision munitions and no doctrine for conducting precision strikes. The conscript nature of the force, among other things, militated against any such efforts and the Soviet concept of military operations did not require them.

Even Soviet helicopters were ill-designed for operations in Afghanistan. The primary transport helicopter--NATO designation, Hip--was a massive troop transport highly vulnerable to SAFIRE and MANPADS. The main attack helicopter--NATO designation, Hind--was designed to blast NATO defensive positions with overwhelming fire, not to go after individual insurgents or small groups on the move.

The entire structure of the Soviet military rested on the assumption that superior planning and execution at the operational level of war (corps and above for the Soviets) would overcome known weaknesses at the tactical and sub-tactical level. The Red Army had recognized the limitations of its soldiers since the 1920s. It addressed them by requiring operational-level headquarters to design missions that would be relatively easy at the tactical and sub-tactical levels. The Red Army had no way to address its tactical deficiencies when it proved impossible to compensate for them at higher echelons.

By the mid-1980s it had become apparent that the Limited Contingent of Soviet Forces in Afghanistan, as it was called, would not be leaving any time soon. The Soviets thereupon tried a number of approaches to bring the war to a close. Increasing frustration led to increased brutality, including a deliberate campaign to de-house the rural population (forcing the people to concentrate in cities that the Soviets believed they could more easily secure) that ultimately produced 3-5 million refugees. The Soviets also used chemical weapons, mines, and devices intended to cripple and maim civilians. In other words, the Limited Contingent conducted a massive terror campaign against the Afghan populace.

Unsurprisingly, large sections of the Afghan people fought bitterly against the invaders who were fighting on behalf of a puppet government that they had installed and that had the support of virtually no one. The most bitter fights were in the north, especially in Tajik areas. The Soviets tried repeatedly to clear the Panjshir Valley but could never do so. They fought ferociously to maintain freedom of movement through the Salang Tunnel, which was the target of continuous insurgent interdiction attempts. In the south, Jalalluddin Haqqani's forces isolated the Afghan and Soviet garrison in Khowst, cutting the Khowst-Gardez road and requiring the Soviets to resupply the garrison by air. The Soviets fought the largest battle of the war to open the K-G road during Operation MAGISTRAL (MAINLINE) in 1987. The commander of the Limited Contingent, Colonel General Boris Gromov, personally oversaw the operation. The Soviets were able to resupply the garrison by road, but the insurgents cut the road again as soon as the Limited Contingent withdrew its forces from the area.

Urban legend has it that the introduction of American Stinger MANPADs led to Soviet defeat. In fact, Stingers did not show up until 1986, and the Soviets had already lost the war by then and, indeed, taken the decision to leave. The advent of Stingers did not defeat a Soviet strategy that was working; it accelerated the collapse of a strategy that was failing.

Soviet strategy failed because it is almost impossible to imagine it succeeding. The combination of the weakness of the puppet government with the total unsuitability of Soviet military forces for the mission at hand virtually doomed the effort from the start.

The war did not end with the withdrawal of Soviet forces. The socialist government--headed since 1986 by Najibullah--continued for three years after the departure of the Limited Contingent. It fell to the combined forces of the Northern Alliance, which could not establish its own legitimate government and fell, in turn, to the Taliban in 1996. Even then, conflict continued right up to the U.S. attack in 2001.

In sum, neither insurgency nor violence in Afghanistan results primarily from opposition to external forces. It results instead mainly from internal problems related to the collapse of Afghan society and governance following the Saur Revolution of 1978. The presence of foreign forces and external support to insurgents has raised or lowered the level of violence and its effectiveness, but it has not been the cause of that violence in the last three decades. Nor is the footprint of foreign forces at issue.

The Soviet invasion followed the collapse of security in a period when the USSR maintained only a few thousand advisors. The first months of the Soviet "occupation" saw deliberate and systematic attempts by the Red Army to put the Afghans out in front and support them from fixed bases. The Limited Contingent was drawn into direct combat operations only when that strategy had clearly failed.

The Limited Contingent maintained relatively little force among the rural population in Afghanistan at any time--most of its efforts were focused on securing the lines of communication and the major cities. Most Afghans encountered the Soviets only through the Limited Contingent's deliberate terrorist campaign, waged both from the air and from the ground.

For all of these reasons, there is absolutely no basis for assessing that an increased ISAF/US military presence along the lines being considered will result in some kind of "tipping point" at which local Afghans turn against us because they see us as a Soviet-style occupation force.

Frederick W. Kagan is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.