Will We Ever Learn?

by Joshua Foust on 4/15/2008 · 2 comments

Ghosts of Alexander has posted some interesting photos of the Spetsnaz HQ building in Asadabad, which is in Kunar province of Afghanistan. He ends it with an interesting line:

“But apparently it takes more than inflicting casualties.”

Permit me to partially reprint my comment there. This is one of the tertiary points Les Grau makes in The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan. Despite their reputation in the West, the Soviet Army actually had a lot of experience fighting urban insurgencies and crushing them, and even in the Afghan war, despite several initial setbacks and abysmal management, they proved adaptable and highly capable on the battlefield. The failures of the war, as Grau and most scholars note, were political and not military:

Ideologically, the Soviet leadership was unable to come to grips with war in Afghanistan. Marxist-Leninist dogma did not allow for a “war of national liberation” where people would fight against a Marxist regime… Soviet solutions for Afghanistan were postponed, as one general secretary after another weakened and died and the military waited for a healthy general secretary who could make a decision…

The Soviet Army that marched into Afghanistan was trained to fight within the context of a theater war against a modern enemy who would obligingly occupy defensive positions stretching across the northern European plain [i.e., the Fulda Gap]… The mujahideen did not accommodate the Soviet Army by fighting a northern-European-plain war… [Thus] the Soviet Army never had enough forces in Afghanistan to win. From the entire book, it is apparent that Soviet forces were spread very thin… There was also an evident dislike of close combat and a preference to use massive amounts of fire power instead…

The Soviet policy seems to have been to terrorize the population, not to win them over to the government’s side. Despite all the press photos showing Soviet soldiers with Afghan adults and children, genuine fraternization between Soviets and Afghans was discouraged. During field operations, the Soviets called in artillery and air strikes on villages without warning the inhabitants.

All of which again makes me scratch my head at the American obsession with military victory. It is, in a word or two, missing the point—something GoA helpfully points out in his previous post on the 21st century war now raging there.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Jim April 15, 2008 at 11:26 pm

This might be nitpicking (especially because I agree with your overarching point) but I don’t know that it would be fair to say that the Soviet military had a lot of experience fighting urban insurgencies.

The experience that could be pointed to would largely revolve around their own civil war, as well as Hungary and Czechoslovakia. But these all provide problems, in my opinion, for comparison with Afghanistan.

Civil war is always going to be markedly different than invading another country and crushing an insurgency, I think that goes without saying. While the edges of the empire had to be brought to heel, these areas had prior experience submitting to Russian rule, so the need to break their will was not there (obviously a major facet of counter-insurgency).

Hungary and the Prague Spring incidents also suffered from the same pre-text, they had the immediate experience of being under the thumb of the Soviets, and as such it did not require as much to break the insurgency.

Afghanistan represented a different challenge because of two factors. One, as I touched on before, Afghanistan had no experience submitting to Russian rule, and this of course played an important role. The Afghans would have to be broken much in the way that the people of the North Caucasus had to be “broken” in the 19th century (long term success aside).

The second factor, of course, would be that the Afghans saw extensive support from outside actors.

I think your point about political failures is a great one. I’d add the examples of the Sumgait riots in Azerbaijan or the riots in Tbilisi as other examples of late-Soviet leadership being unable to exert the political will to use military force to achieve predetermined policy goals, or hell, even simple maintenance of the status quo within their traditional borders.

Joshua Foust April 15, 2008 at 11:34 pm

You’re absolutely right that the USSR’s previous experience with urban insurgencies didn’t help them much in Afghanistan. You could see how this experience informed their decision to think rapidly occupying and controlling the cities was the key to controlling the country. But the war in Afghanistan was a rural insurgency, and these are far more difficult to handle (i.e. they are extremely manpower intensive, which is the point Grau was driving at).

Your other two factors apply as well (freedom and outside help). There were many reasons the Soviets were unprepared for the war, and among them was strategic stagnation despite tactical flexibility.

But yeah, we’re both in agreement that simple military force is not an effective tool in affecting political change anymore, Clausewitz be damned.

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