In a recent interview with the BBC, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev — an icon of liberal democracy for his introduction of glasnost and perestroika policies in the 1980s — asserted that the United States could not win its current counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. Mr Gorbachev was evidently drawing from his own experiences as leader of a state fighting an insurgency there, a campaign that had lasting impacts on Afghanistan, its region, and the Soviet Union itself. But such comparisons between the Soviet and American experiences in Afghanistan, which unfortunately continue to inform US policy-making, draw lessons that are misleading, if not dangerous.
Many in Washington have concluded that Afghanistan, as the purported ‘Graveyard of Empires’, is simply unconquerable as a result of its physical and human terrain, and always will be. However, this conclusion is informed only by the Soviet experience and that of the British in the first Anglo-Afghan War. That the British returned, and that their objective was a buffer zone, are often conveniently forgotten.
Why exactly did the Soviets lose in Afghanistan? Beyond the ‘Graveyard of Empires,’ at least three explanations stand out, each with its own distinct implications. First, many argue that Soviet military failures were largely to blame and if only they had better adapted themselves to fight an insurgency, the outcome would have been in their favour. A second view is that external support — Pakistani sanctuary and training, Saudi funding, and US military support (including, specifically, Stinger missiles) — was the primary cause of the Soviets’ defeat. And finally, some argue based on the archival record that the Soviet withdrawal was the result of a conscious decision by Gorbachev to extract the Soviet army, making it a matter of political will. Taken together, these explanations suggest that the Soviet Union lost primarily for another reason: it was an autocracy.
Conventional wisdom suggests that democracies are at a disadvantage against insurgencies. Democracies prefer the use of firepower over manpower-intensive small wars. The costs of fighting insurgencies, as ascertained by an electorate, outweigh the benefits. Democracies may also be hampered — if justifiably — by human rights concerns and public opinion, which is often against war of any kind. Nevertheless, there is enough about the Soviet experience in Afghanistan to suggest that democracies actually hold the advantage.
To begin with, the Soviet Union suffered from a centralised decision-making system and dysfunctional civil-military dialogue, resulting in a fatal disjuncture between its means and goals in Afghanistan. At a December 9, 1979 meeting, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and his senior advisors decided to intercede in Afghanistan with the narrow objectives of effecting regime change and supporting the Afghan army against rebels. In the lead up to the invasion, Nikolai Ogarkov, the chief of the Soviet general staff and KGB officials in Moscow and Kabul questioned some of the Politburo’s assessments, but their concerns were systematically ignored.
Things only went bad from Moscow’s standpoint in late February 1980. With the Afghan public, even in Kabul, in open revolt of the Soviet occupying force, and the Afghan military performing terribly against rebels, Moscow directed the 40th Army to perform offensive operations against insurgents in the countryside. Yet the Kremlin did not sanction an increase in troop numbers or develop a new strategy to correspond to the shift in goals. Moscow consistently wanted Afghanistan to be a limited war involving a light footprint. Troop levels never exceeded 120,000, and the name used to describe the force in Afghanistan — “Limited Contingent” — was more appropriate than most such euphemisms.
Second, Soviet Marxist ideology was fundamentally incompatible with Afghan culture and values, in a manner that democracy is not. The rebellion that resulted in Moscow’s intervention in Afghanistan erupted in Herat in March 1979, following the zealous introduction of secular reform programmes by the communist government in Kabul. These included the banning of Islamic lending systems and dowries, and the forcible conscription of soldiers. Also, it was the Soviet disdain for ethnic and religious differences that made them underestimate the motivations of the Afghan mujahideen and also fail to take advantage of the natural cleavages in what proved to be a fractured Afghan resistance movement.
Third, the Soviet approach to dealing with the Afghan insurgency was one-dimensionally militarily focused, reflecting little regard for public welfare. To keep their own casualties low, they relied on air assault operations, which resulted not just in wanton death and displacement, but also destroyed the resource base they were supposed to protect and develop. The Soviets also used chemical weapons, including nerve and blood agents. The results of these strategies were predictably devastating: the standard of living in Afghanistan plummeted, 75 percent of communication lines were destroyed in four years, and the country went from being a net exporter of food to a net importer. In all, 1.3 million Afghans were killed, 5.5 million were made refugees, and another 2 million were displaced internally. While in no way justifiable, the civilian suffering inflicted by US and NATO forces today offers no comparison.
Finally, it was not so much that the Soviets made operational errors but that their system of governance lacked the benefits of self-correction that liberal, democratic states possess. Soviet military doctrines were inflexible, and easily predictable to insurgents, but they failed to improvise because they were reluctant to disperse authority. The bulk of Soviet soldiers, draftees with no training in mountain warfare, were provided with heavy equipment and inappropriate field gear, but there were few attempts by Moscow to remedy any of this. The Soviet Union’s emphasis on programmatic operational procedures and its armed forces’ poor tradition of delegating responsibility could serve it well in conventional wars or invasions, but not in prolonged counterinsurgencies. Furthermore, over 60 percent of Soviet troops became seriously ill during their tours in Afghanistan, often from hepatitis or typhoid, due to inadequate sanitation and medical facilities. This was avoidable, worsened morale and only made a manpower-intensive task more difficult.
In large part, the absence of self-correcting mechanisms was due to the lack of public accountability. Four years after the invasion, the official Soviet press had reported only six dead and wounded; in fact, by then, over 6000 Soviet soldiers had died. Contrast all this to the fundamental reorientation of the American military over the last five years, resulting in no small part from public criticism and intense media scrutiny following failures and casualties in Iraq.
The Soviet Union lost in Afghanistan not despite the fact that it was a military superpower, but because it espoused a set of ideologies and principles — inherent in its social and economic policies and structures at home and abroad — that were ultimately self-defeating.
There are lessons for India here, some of which are obvious: insurgencies cannot be defeated by bullets alone and there are inherent benefits to showing respect for local social and cultural norms. Beyond that, the media and public criticism need not always be considered an inhibiting factor, but rather part of a valuable and necessary feedback loop. Finally, fidelity must be maintained between means and goals, even if the latter shifts over the course of a campaign. This, in turn, requires a healthy civil-military dialogue and appropriate checks and balances within the policy-making structure. All of that may sound simple, but if there is one overall lesson to take from the Soviet experience in Afghanistan it is how easily such seemingly self-evident factors are overlooked.