Moscow Remembers the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 28

In late December 2009, the Russian press carried numerous articles reflecting on the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and its impact on the fate of the Soviet Union. On December 25, the State Duma adopted a statement on the intervention, which recalled the sacrifices of those who served in Afghanistan, and the Afghans that fought alongside Soviet forces. The statement referred to the lessons learned from that intervention. Yet, judging from the press accounts, there is no broad consensus on those lessons. The Duma statement spoke of heroism and sacrifices against the backdrop of Afghanistan’s losses and the continued present-day insurgency (Parliamentskaya Gazeta, January 1). The main focus of the press coverage on the thirtieth anniversary of the invasion was upon the reasons for the intervention.

A. O. Gokov places the decision to intervene in a complex setting of internal Afghan events associated with the Revolution in April 1978 and the ensuing power struggle among the clans and factions that supported it, regional instability linked to the Iranian Revolution, and the Cold War competition between Moscow and Washington. The Soviet political leadership viewed the revolution as bringing to power pro-Soviet elements, but was reluctant to intervene militarily as the first evidence of armed resistance appeared in Herat (Voenno-Istoricheskii Zhurnal, No. 12, December, 2009, pp. 43-44).

Gokov considers the final decision to intervene militarily as driven by the Kremlin’s distrust of Hafizullah Amin, who had emerged as the leader of the revolution following his own coup in September 1979 and begun what appeared to be a systematic program of removing pro-Soviet leaders from his government. Amin’s education in the United States made him appear to be a potential agent of US policy. Gokov suggests that the final decision to intervene was taken on the basis of a desire to bring about stability, at a time of increasing crisis internationally between the US and the USSR, regional instability resulting from the Iranian Revolution, and fear of Chinese and Pakistani collaboration in Afghanistan. The limited intervention to restore a pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan, while successful in terms of its immediate objective, set the Soviet Union on the path to becoming a direct combatant in the emerging civil war, which some in the Carter administration saw as a perfect ambush and a potential Soviet Vietnam. The Soviet leadership sprung that trap themselves, when in February 1980 they ordered Soviet forces into the fight in the countryside, turning a civil war into an anti-Soviet jihad. Gokov draws attention to a flawed intelligence system, which included too many reporters who were eager to tell Moscow what it wanted to hear, instead of unbiased analysis (Voenno-Istoricheskii Zhurnal, No. 12, December, 2009, pp. 43-44).

Major-General Leonid Shershnev, Russian army (retired), assessed the geopolitical logic of intervention and the profound failure to grasp the situation on the ground. Stereotypes drove decisions when they did not apply. Kabul was not Prague, and the Afghan people were hardly disposed to support a regime promoting socialism and atheism. Shershnev, who was part of the initial deployment, focuses on the misreading of the situation, which led to the decision to become directly involved in the civil war in the countryside. Shershnev cites officers among the planning group who knew Afghanistan and warned about the inapplicability of European metrics in what was “another world.” Shershnev was involved in propaganda among the troops of the 40th army, and points to a particularly fatal conjunction of events that contributed to the Soviet military’s difficulties in Afghanistan: withholding information about their military action from Soviet society, as the leadership was taking the decision to commit the troops to the struggle against the insurgents, turning Afghanistan into the unknown war to all but those who prosecuted it (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, December 25, 2009).

Finally, Viktor Litovkin noted that while Russian commentaries drew heavily upon the memories of veterans, Western commentators focused on the lessons that the Soviet experience might provide to help the current stabilization efforts in Afghanistan. He concentrated on articles by three well-known experts on international security: David Manker Abshire, the former US Ambassador to NATO under President Reagan; Sir Rodric Braithwaite, the British Ambassador to the Soviet Union and Russia, 1988-1992; and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the National Security Advisor to President Carter. He credits all three authors with objective analysis of the situation thirty years ago and notes the lack of anti-Soviet/Russophobic sentiment. They sought to identify lessons from the Soviet experience in Afghanistan that might be valuable to US and NATO forces operating under ISAF. Litovkin makes clear that there is one major difference between the present fight and that of thirty years ago: ISAF faces only an Afghan resistance and not a broad coalition of powers rendering them support. The real source of the Soviet policy failure in Afghanistan was the attempt to apply a communist ideological prism, which rendered the real sources of conflict opaque. The Soviet Army did master mountain warfare, but it never developed a strategy to turn tactical successes into operational and political victory. Braithwaite notes that the Soviet army had sufficient forces to seize ground, but not to hold it. They could inflict defeat upon the Mujahideen, but not destroy them. Braithwaite, however, credits Soviet forces with two key successes: keeping their logistical system running and in training an Afghan Army that would take up the fight after the Soviet withdrawal (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, 15 January).

Litovkin notes that the army and regime did not collapse until President Boris Yeltsin withdrew material support. In response to the US-led interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq a coalition of extremists formed across the Islamic world. The struggle in Afghanistan has strengthened insurgents and terrorists in western Pakistan, with the real risk that these might access that state’s nuclear arsenal. Litovkin mentions President Barack Obama’s decision to send additional forces to Afghanistan and understands why the Russian government agreed to support the US and NATO presence there. Moscow has an interest in ending the narcotics trade in Afghanistan, and promoting the emergence of a stable Afghan government. However, he suggests that the core Soviet lesson which the US and NATO will have to learn is to accept the modest goal of stability for Afghanistan and to manage a withdrawal of forces without losing face (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, 15 January).