Rarely has the world witnessed such ferocious turmoil as the one that took place in Afghanistan for nearly a decade. From December 1979 to February 1989, the land of the Khyber Pass and the tribal nation that decorated the works of Rudyard Kipling, endured the catastrophic consequences of a peculiar brand of warfare. The country that no one has conquered since Alexander the Great was the battleground where a handful of dedicated. brave and stubborn freedom- fighters stood their ground both against a much despised regime and a mighty superpower. It was the same brand of warrior that back in 1842 annihilated a 15.OOO-strong British force leaving only one man alive to tell of the horrors of the "Afghan ambushes" (1). One-hundred and forty seven years later another great power was retreating from that poor but proud nation. But this time for different reasons. For ten years the Red Army had been more than relentlessly harassed by the fighters of the faith. It was only harassment though. for contrary to public opinion the world's last imperial army was defeated more by the treacherous (in the eyes of the military on a worldwide basis) glare of politics rather than the guerrilla tactics of the Mujahideen. Truly. the conflict in Afghanistan bore much resemblance to the Vietnam experience; but behind the "David-Goliath" appearance also stood several factors that classify the Central Asian clash of arms into a class of its own. In this work we will attempt. through the examination of Soviet diplomatic but mainly military performance to explain the circumstances under which the Russian Bear never managed to subdue the Afghan Vulture.
For a great part of their history the Russians have been obsessed with the drive to the east and south. Deeply rooted in the thirteenth century experience of the Mongol conquest of Muscovy and the movement of the Slavs towards fertile lands. that drive into Asia became even more relentless over the last two hundred years (2). To the anti-Tatar crusade and the effort to fulfill the historic destiny of the Russian people (to expand over and at the expense of their eastern and southern neighbors. and thus ensure their own existence ) , the "Great Game" was added during the nineteenth century. The great players were no other than Great Britain and Russia. both struggling for the control of Southern Asia and the Persian Gulf. To the British naval superiority (naval bases and protecting fleet). Tsarist Russia responded with acquisition of masses of land connected by interior lines of communication (3). After three bloody wars with the Afghans (1839-42. 1878-80, 1919) and three Pyrrhic victories respectively. the British retreated to the borders of the country with Pakistan (they pulled out completely in 1947 when they left Pakistan and India) (4). Russia was left to call the shots in the area. Being reluctant to confront Europe directly, the Tsars had always sought to gain leverage over it through Central Asia. Thus. several contained and localized, low-risk operations were carried out with the assurance that Europe would not be provoked by "worthless" conflicts lying outside its geographical boundaries. Russia was free to pursue even through means of warfare. its global quest. while Western Europe would never risk a war with the Slavs over Central Asia.
Despite its pompous rhetoric, the Bolshevik Revolution served only in intensifying its efforts for domination in the area. Behind the communist masquerade lay the Tsarist imperialistic doctrine which with time and under marxist-leninist ideas reached new heights. Writing to the Central Committee in August 1919, Leon Trotsky claimed that " "the road to Paris and London lies via the towns of Afghanistan . the Punjab and Bengal." (5). Socialist "ethnography" by claiming that there exist only "socially developed" and "socially underdeveloped" populations urged the Soviets to rush to proselytize the "unfortunate" ones (6). In addition to that. the thousand-year Russo-Muslim hostility. forced the Bolsheviks (as the Tsarists before them) to engage in an all-or-nothing struggle with the populations of Central and Southern Asia. A struggle where compromise and passivity was out of the question; the slightest indication of a lack of resolve or dedication would automatically trigger unrest in the Muslim republics within the Soviet Union itself. Afghanistan offered a sound stepping stone for further expansion and a good show-case; it was the first neighboring country to recognize Lenin's regime, and treaties were signed in 1920 and 1926 (7).
As it was expected. the nature of the Soviet regional interests, while remaining constant. also entered new grounds in the later half of the twentieth century. The Soviet Union never ceased to declare its intentions concerning the area (even in the secret protocol to the 1939 pact with Nazi Germany 8) .In the modern world, the U.S.S.R. 's global strategy extended its traditional preference for the offensive 9 to a much wider context. Thus, during the bygone (hopefully) years of the Cold War, the Kremlin pursued its numerous objectives in both the Eastern and Western Hemispheres via the strategically indispensable Central Asian Southern TVD (Theater of Operations) (10).
Afghanistan was the first modern. decisive step in the Soviet quest for regional and global supremacy. The reasons for that were many more than one. Justly one wonders about the significance borne by one of the world's twenty poorest nations. Yet, that homeland of a tribal assortment is and has always been the most important buffer state in the region. Rich in radioactive elements as well as precious metals and stones (11), and strategically positioned, Afghanistan offers to the one who holds it. an absolutely exploitable asset. By seizing it the Russians dreamt of shortening the distance between the "Rodina" and the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. the abundant oil reserves of the Persian Gulf (and later on North Africa) and a number of traditional enemies. like Pakistan and Iran (both of which the Soviets harassed occasionally during the conflict in Afghanistan; Pakistan actively supported the Mujahideen while action against Iran would leave the West indifferent). By moving through Afghanistan and not through Turkey and the Arab states. the Soviet Union would provoke neither NATO not the Arab League. Furthermore. with batteries of SS-2Os (range over 5,000 Km) positioned at the air base of Shindand the Soviets could strike the invaluable US base on Diego Garcia; in addition, the Straits of Hormuz could be easy prey for strategic bombers operating from the air base in Khandahar (12).
Above all and beyond, for the Kremlin, Afghanistan was viewed as a long-term strategic investment. It was advocated that with time a Soviet-Afghan-Pakistani-Indian-Mongolian (traditional friendships; Pakistan would have been "befriended") axis would be formed. which along with an empowered Vietnam (after the invasion of Cambodia in 1978) would flank and pressure the People.s Republic of China (traditional Sino-Soviet animocity)(13). Further strategic aims included the control of Southeast Asia and the Strait of Malacca through which shipping to Japan and the Far East must pass, as well as the "influence" of matters in Southern Africa and on the African East Coast along the Indian Ocean (14). By controlling all the above major sea lanes. the USSR would easily control the economic lifelines of Europe and Japan. Gradually. the US would be edged out of the area (with the invasion in Afghanistan the Soviet Union demonstrated that the West would never risk an involvement for the sake of the Third World) .
As we have seen. Moscow had more than a few reasons to be interested in the fate of Afghanistan and has constantly attempted to shape it. Being in the Soviet sphere of influence since the 5O.s, the country received considerable aid from its "protectors" in Moscow. The Soviets built air bases and roads (according to Khruschev. for use in a future war with Iran or Pakistan (15)) , trained and equipped the army. penetrated all levels of government and society and awaited (and created) the ideal moment for intervention. In a country where "each man has his own god and his own gun" (16) that moment was not far away. Passing from monarchy to communism and then plagued by further intra-left wing turmoil. Afghanistan virtually invited foreign intervention.
Armed resistance had broken out in early 1979 as a reaction to the Soviet-backed President Taraki's Stalinist reforms after a coup brought him to power (17). Brutal suppression of all opposing elements was initiated. with the Soviets providing masses of hardware (much to their discontent) .With the aid of the KGB (assassination of Taraki; presidential chefs were always KGB agents supplied with undetectable poisons) a new president (Amin) took over. only to be assassinated later on during the Soviet invasion. by a raiding group of SPETSNAZ commandos 18. Anti-communism reached its peak at that time and was confronted with brutal massacres. The USSR was not in favor of instability within a "friendly" government and facing the reality of the endless mutinies in the Afghan army as well as the possibility of the spread of Iranian Islamic fundamentalism among the Mujahideen (who had already declared a " jihad" ) decided to intervene (19). Four-thousand Soviet 'advisors' were already in place in Kabul (due to the previous aid program) and numerous key military installations (20). Many Afghan units were disarmed by them (the Russians claimed that new soviet-made equipment would arrive; engines were removed from main battle tanks for "winterization" ) making in that way the Soviet invasion smoother (21). Indeed when the 1O5th Guards Airborne Division, the 357th. 66th. 360th and 2O1st Motorized Rifle Divisions, and the SPETSNAZ struck in December 27 they captured their objectives with relative ease and placed Babrak Karmal (a KGB agent) as the new quisling, head of state (22). The invasion was a swift two-pincer advance designed to throw the resistance off balance and deprive it of control of the population centers and the transportation and military infrastructure (23). Marshal Sergei L. Sokolov's 40th Army was the new reality for Afghanistan.
With three-hundred years of counter-Muslim experience behind them, the Soviets defined the preconditions for the successful occupation of such territories and the suppression of local resistance as a) the effective isolation of the region, b) the destruction of the local leadership and its ability to achieve unity c) the erosion of popular support for any resistance through the destruction of the local social and economic infrastructure. (24)
Blatant declarations indeed; yet until early 1980, the Soviets were committed only to minimal internal military involvement. Their only considerations were to secure the puppet Kabul regime and To prevent an escalation of resistance activities from Pakistan (25). Thus, the Red Army, unlike the Americans in Vietnam, sought not to control the entire Afghan territory and population but only to consolidate and deny to the enemy, control of militarily significant infrastructure (cities. airbases, roads) .Time was on the side of the Russians who could afford to wait for years (but were not willing initially to do so) until the resistive effort would wear itself out. For the Soviets it was a conflict with a "pre-determined outcome" ( ! ) since they viewed it (as they do with all conflicts) as a contest between their own unmatched Art of War and that of the Mujahideen (26). The aim was to keep Afghanistan at "an acceptable level of violence" (27) The very composition of the invading force (Category 3 units; reservists and Central Asian Moslems; the later eventually fraternized with their Afghan brothers (28)) was indicative of the relaxed attitude the Russians adopted as far as the kind of opposition they expected to encounter.
After Spring 1980 though the Soviet Union was forced to change its plans and prepare for a prolonged situation of warfare. The Karmal regime was unstable and crisis in Iran was unfolding. The first offensives saw the Soviets seeking direct engagements with the resistance in hope of crushing Mujahideen moral after a few decisive blows (29). Yet, that never happened due to the very nature of the resistance. Disunited and disorganized as it was, it was virtually undetectable and unpredictable. In other words, what would have been a liability for a tactical army was an asset (only in this case; rebel successes commenced only after a 7-group alliance was formed) for the guerrillas. The Red Army was reinforced with high standard troops from East Germany and by 1983 counterinsurgency combat operations were initiated while consolidation of a permanent strategic deployment (major air basest missile sites) was pursued (30). The Soviet built-up in Afghanistan occurred mainly around major air bases and the active combat units were reorganized into highly efficient Combined-Arms Reinforced Battalions (operational flexibility was achieved through the use of such outflanking and enveloping forces during deep offensives in mountainous terrain) (31). Also by that time. the Soviets along with the.KHAD (Khidamate Aetilaati Daulati: Afghan secret police; nowdays WAD) had realized that the key to interdicting flexible elusive forces was the establishment of comprehensive intelligence networks. Again. the decentralized Mujahideen forces as well as their non-real time nature of communications (no radios; messages were transmitted verbally) proved to be an impediment to such efforts; yet. numerous Afghan militiamen and agents managed to infiltrate the rebels (32).
As far as the Soviet troops were concerned. their combat effectiveness was vastly improved after the first years of the Afghanistan conflict while the officer corps received a great number of lessons while "practicing" in the ultimate military school: actual combat. Innovations of the Afghan battlefield have been adopted by the whole Red Army. The two-year tour of duty system had spared the Russians many a problem of those the Americans had faced in Vietnam with the one year tour. Despite the length of service though troop commitment in Afghanistan was considerably smaller than the one in Vietnam. since the Soviets never sought to occupy the countryside (they controlled only 25% of the country; commitment of only 6% of Soviet divisions and 2% of total defense spending (33)). Moral within the 40th Army was relatively sound with only members of the non-combative units resorting to drug abuse; in addition the only soldiers who claimed to be defectors were the ones captured by the Mujahideen (if Russians did not respect the Geneva Convention. then the rebels had never heard of it; captured troops were executed with stabbing weapons since ammunition was precious and Islam rules out mutilation) .
As far as tactics in combination with weapons are concerned the Soviets had more or less managed to overcome relatively quickly the problem of fighting a guerrilla war in rough terrain by employing procedures designed for a war in Western Europe or Manchuria (34). Yet. even then combined arms forces could not move rapidly enough to surprise the guerrillas. In any case though. the tactics the Soviets used to accomplish their goals were large scale depopulation and destruction of agriculture (burning of fields -by use of special incendiary weapons-, slaughter of flock and destruction of irrigation systems; had led to severe food shortages) maximum use of firepower (air & artillery) to accomplish that, emphasis on intelligence (aircraft, ground patrol. informers and agents) to target firepower effectively and finally use of both large scale combined- arms mechanized forces and smaller light forces often heliborne (35). In general. what was emphasized was massive firepower in conjunction with maneuver. The real war though was to be fought by means of Special Operations.
In Spring 1984 the Soviets adopted special operations as tactic number one in countering the Mujahideen. Such operations involved the ruthless use of deep-raiding special forces and airpower (helicopters and combat aircraft) and were based on complete and accurate intelligence 36. The goal was to put the insurgents constantly on the defensive through devastating surprise strikes on their very deep sanctuaries (night operations involving very small forces against very specific objectives). Either violently or covertly, specially trained teams and detachments conducted deep reconnaissance patrols, operating in isolation, and executed numerous .'wet jobs'. (mine laying , sabotage , assassinations etc. ) .VDV (Airborne Troops) and SPETSNAZ (voiska spetsialnogo naznacheniya; special operations force; known to the rebels as "the black soldiers" due to their camouflage makeup) detachments were used to interdict resistance caravans at night leaving behind scores of dead Mujahideen and pack animals (37). The most significant and devastating special operations were those conducted at night in the deep rear of the enemy by three-man SPETSNAZ teams which included at least one member of a local ethnic group. For the conduct of deep surgical strikes the Soviets relied heavily on helicopters, both as transports (of raiding parties and weapons) and gunships (accurate and lethal firepower against point targets from extremely short range) .
By all means, the major aspect of the conflict in Afghanistan was no other than the deployment of the KDB (Punitive Desant Battalion) , a practise which became the trade mark of that war. The Soviets had never attempted to pacify resisting areas; instead they cleared the area of civilians by creating collateral terror and producing massive flights of refugees 38. Reprisals were constantly taken against civilians for Mujahideen actions. Veterans of that war have claimed that where atrocities were concerned the Nazis had a lot to learn from the KDB 39. Villages were encircled, their whole population was terminated stealthily (with bayonets and knifes) , animals were slaughtered down to even the last cat, special chemicals were applied to cause rapid decomposition of the corpses, women were raped and thrown from helicopters, and finally the whole site was bombed beyond recovery (40). In many cases though, the Soviets would sweep through a village and then booby trap everything in sight; mosques, furniture, fruit trees, fields, food storage bins. Apart from that, helicopters would drop small, surface antipersonnel mines throughout roads and vast expanses of land. Such were the notorious air-dispensed PFM- 1 "Butterfly" mines which were colored drab green or sand for concealment, and which would remain active for months before exploding themselves (41). Lack of mine-clearing equipment forced the guerrillas to explode them by throwing stones on them; that is if they could ever detect them in time. The PFM-l charge was designed to maim so as to force upon the Mujahideen the burden of injured comrades (no medical facilities existed and even when the Red Cross was allowed to operate in the country in late 1986, it was limited in the area of Kabul alone (42)) .Several other types of mines were also deployed in the form of watches, toys, books and ball-point pens which the Afghan people prize as a sign of literacy (43). All the population had to do (and it happened frequently) was to pick such items from the ground.
As far as weapons were concerned. Afghanistan saw the deployment and usage (and testing) of a vast array of small arms and fighting machines. The Soviets had the chance to massively utilize and test a great number of chemical weapons (phosgene. CS and CN incapacitants, super nerve agents like the "Flash". lethal chemicals. mycotoxins like "Yellow Rain") against live populations (44). Troops had learned to enjoy the numerous operational benefits of the usage of such weapons. What they prized even more though was the immense firepower (12.7rnrn machine gun and a dazzling variety and amount of ordnance) delivered by the monstrous Mi-24 Hind attack helicopter. the fighting machine that was the living nightmare of the resistance (45). Until the introduction of the extremely successful Stinger missiles to them. the Mujahideen only moved at night. attempted to down Hinds by using RPG-7 anti-tank weapons and whenever confronted by a Mi-24 they rushed under their "pukhoor" sand-colored blankets 46. Even the captured 12.7 mm M-1938 DShKM heavy machine guns (the "Dashika") could not penetrate the heavy titanium armor of the Mi-24 which remained master of the skies (along with the SU-25 Frog-foot attack aircraft the Hind reached new levels of operational deployment (47)) for the better part of the war. Main Battle Tanks (T-54, T- 55, T-62, T-72) were limited to fire support roles; an impediment was the fact that the angle of elevation of the MBT guns was not enough for delivery of fire from valleys to mountainous terrain 48. Armored Personnel Carrier deployment was spearheaded by the heliborne amphibious BMD combat vehicle of the Soviet Air Assault Divisions (49).
In the area of small arms. the main innovation of the war (took place before it. but was appreciated only in combat) was the introduction of firearms operating in the 5.45mm x 39.5 caliber and namely the AK-74 assault rifle (sometimes fitted with the BG-15 grenade launcher), the AKR sub-machine gun and their variables. The bullet fired by those weapons is unusual in having a steel core that is so arranged that the bullet nose will bend even if it strikes a soft target. thus enabling the bullet to tumble and so inflict wounds much larger than this small caliber could otherwise inflict 50. The good old AK-47s and their variables were also issued. RPG-7D. RPG-16 and RPG-18 portable anti-tank rocket launchers were used in leveling stone houses in afghan villages or in obliterating sniper hideouts 51. Soviet "desantniki.' (paratroopers) snipers had extensively benefited from the services of the SVD sniper rifle. The 30mm AGS-17 "Plamya" (flame) multiple (30-round) grenade launcher literally wrought havoc in Afghanistan. in its vehicle- or helicopter mounted versions (52).
As far as the Mujahideen arsenal was concerned. that was largely comprised by vintage weapons such as the legendary 303 Lee Enfield (a robust. dependable rifle used by the rebels for sniping), the single-shot 455 Martini-Henry (a proven manstopper) and the 7.62SKS and M-1891 Moisin-Nagant. Afghans are expert gun-makers since they are still able to produce detailed and operating replicas of combat proven weapons. with minimum technical support 53. Other weapons included captured Soviet and Afghan Army arms (from deserters) , such as a few of the ones we have described above. as well as G-3 from Iran and other weapons from Pakistan. 7.62mm RPD. RPK. PKM and ZB-36 light machine guns were also used. In addition to the anti-aircraft "Dashika" and "Ziqriat" ( 14 .5mm KPV) heavy machine guns man-portable. heat-seeking SA-7 Grail surface-to-air missiles offered at times only a slight advantage to the guerrillas (the Egyptians and Syrians had fired 5,000 of those missiles in 1973 only to destroy 4 and damage 28 Israeli aircraft.) (54). The "party" begun with the arrival of the Stingers who have claimed as many as 200 successful hits (55). Foreign aid had also equipped the "fighters of the faith.' with Milan anti-tank missiles. Chinese BM-12 multiple-rocket launchers (the Mujahideen are still blitzing Kabul with them and the 82mm M-1937 mortar in the role of indirect-fire weapon (56)) as well as several other weapons specially suited to guerrilla warfare.
Up to this point we have described the urge of the Soviets for the acquisition of Afghanistan and the might of the Soviet forces (operational approach. tactics and weapons) while we have pointed out the puny potential of the Afghan rebels. Naturally one wonders about the reasons that forced the Soviets to withdraw after almost ten years of bloodshed (the USSR lost 20.000 men; the number is much lower than the 75.000 of the Americans for a similar time- period in Vietnam (57)) .The guerrillas went on with their tactics (pitched battles, hit & run. urban sabotage ambushes to interdict Soviet supply routes. attack on small Afghan Army outposts) , but while such performance could win even battles (by the end of the conflict numerous successful large-scale operations were carried out by the Mujahideen groups and especially by the almost legendary Ahmad Shah Massoud and his men who had managed to repel ten Soviet offensives to their base in Panjsher Valley (58)) it could never win the war. In that way several elements of resistance were crushed in the 1986 offensives shifting the balance considerably in favor of the Soviets. Yet. that was also the time for a shift in tactics back home. On the helm of the Soviet Union now stood M. Gorbachev. In a speech of his in Vladivostok. in July 28, 1986, the Secretary General had stated that Afghanistan was an "open wound" and that it was a war that he had not started but intended to end (59).
With American. Pakistani and even Chinese aid flowing into the rebel strongholds. but mainly with the numerous reforms in the Soviet Union itself. the scene of battle underwent a dramatic change with the Mujahideen taking the initiative of operations and the Soviets leaving the Afghan Army to deal with the resistance. For the Soviets it was the dawning of the time of the confrontation with their communist past. Opinions were voiced with relative freedom. mistakes were revealed and accusations were made. Afghanistan begun to emerge as the conspiratory blunder of a team of politicians who trashed the views of the military establishment. It was also the time of the East-West approach with the superpower leaders developing an intimate relationship. By 1988 it was by all means the time to treat and cover old wounds. Furthermore. the Soviets realized that no matter the effort. the Kabul regime was not salvageable (internal strife undermined its effectiveness; the replacement of Karmal with Dr. Najibullah (head of KHAD) in May 1986, served no purpose (60)) .Eventually. on April 14. 1988. an agreement was signed in Geneva and according to it the Soviets finally withdrew their forces from Afghanistan by February 15. 1989 (61). On 10 a.m. that day. Lieut. General Boris Gromov. the commander of Soviet Forces in Afghanistan. walked alone over the Amu Darya bridge to head with his troops for the "Rodina"; he was the last Soviet soldier to leave Afghanistan.NOTES
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