The Blog

We're Not the Soviets in Afghanistan

And 2009 isn't 1979.

2:58 PM, Aug 21, 2009 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.