The Soviet-Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost. (Book Reviews)

By Jalali, Ali A. | Parameters, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

The Soviet-Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost. (Book Reviews)


Jalali, Ali A., Parameters


The Soviet-Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost. By the Russian General Staff, translated and edited by Lester W. Grau and Michael A. Gress. University Press of Kansas, 2002. 364 pages. $45.00 ($17.95 paper). Reviewed by Ali A. Jalali, former Afghan colonel, author of several books on Afghan military history, and currently Director of the Afghan Radio Network Project at the Voice of America, Washington, D.C.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the ensuing decade-long unsuccessful military action to control the country became Moscow's longest foreign war of the 20th century. Its impact has been far-reaching. It not only contributed to major geopolitical shifts in the region and beyond but also put to the test the validity of certain military concepts underpinning the tenets of Soviet operational art and combined arms tactics. Yet few published works on the war look at the conflict from a critical military perspective.

The Soviet-Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost is a professional study of the drawn-out conflict. It reviews the Soviet military experience recounting the struggle of a modern army trying to cope with the harsh conditions of guerrilla warfare in a mountainous environment. Written by a group of 16 military analysts from the Russian General Staff, the volume draws on studies done by several Russian institutions compiled in a single work. Eyewitness accounts are laced with theoretical discussions similar to standard lectures given in Russian military schools. The book divides the war into four phases: the invasion (December 1979 to February 1980), military operations to pacify the country (March 1980 to April 1985), "Afghanization" of the war (April 1985 to January 1987), and the withdrawal (January 1987 to February 1989). The nature of the combat action, the structure of the forces, and the level of cooperation with Afghan government forces are outlined in each phase.

The book stands out for dealing with all aspects of military action--including the force structure, command and control, training, operational art, combined arms tactics, combat support issues, and logistics. It offers a comprehensive and yet succinct analysis of the war. The translators and editors have done a superb job, adding useful comments to put the passages in perspective. The editorial comments also help clarify the authors' confusing assertions and incomplete statements.

The most striking issue that recurs throughout the analysis is the lack of Soviet political and military preparedness for the Afghan war despite Moscow's close ties with the country for a quarter of a century. This drawback, coupled with risky miscalculations about the "correlation of forces and means," haunted the Soviet campaign all the way to the end. According to the authors, Soviet leaders had little comprehension of the "historic, religious, and national particularities of Afghanistan" when they sent their troops into the mountainous country. Nor was the Soviet military machine able to meet the requirements of fighting a counter-guerrilla war on rugged terrain. The troops had no practical skills in the conduct of counter-guerrilla warfare, nor specific guidelines and theoretical manuals for fighting such a war. The army, they say, lacked sufficient combat readiness to fight in mountainous terrain.

These statements invalidate the pre-war notion that the Soviet military methodology was characterized by a legendary resourcefulness. An army reputed to have developed creative methods for tactical and operational employment of armed forces under various conditions in different theaters of military action had hardly digested the lessons from the Basmachi war in Central Asia (1919-33) or the counterinsurgency war in Vietnam.

An army structured for large-scale, high-tempo engagements failed to deal effectively with decentralized guerrilla fighters who were too elusive to be destroyed or softened-up by the weight of massive air and artillery "preparation" or finished off by the swift and bold maneuvers of armored and mechanized columns.

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