The Soviet-Afghan War: Breaking the Hammer & Sickle

By Grau, Lester W.; Jalali, Ali Ahmad | VFW Magazine, March 2002 | Go to article overview

The Soviet-Afghan War: Breaking the Hammer & Sickle


Grau, Lester W., Jalali, Ali Ahmad, VFW Magazine


From 1980 to early 1989, the once-invincible Red Army became entrapped in Afghanistan. To avoid the same pitfalls, the U.S. need only keep from straying from its original military objectives.

"One does not want to commit mistakes that have been committed by other people in the past," Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the Afghan campaign, recently remarked in a thinly veiled reference to the Kremlin's military venture there. Indeed, there is much to learn from Moscow's mistakes.

In 1979, the prestige of the Soviet Union was never higher. Countries were voluntarily joining the Communist camp while the United States suffered one setback after another.

Yet in late December, the Soviet Union slipped badly when it sent troops into Afghanistan to prop up its failing Communist regime. This ignited a bloody guerrilla war and started the Soviet Union in a tailspin that finally ended with its collapse.

WALKING INTO THE AFGHAN BEAR PIT

The Soviet Union borders on northern Afghanistan. Moreover, Soviet political, agricultural and industrial advisers lived and worked with the Afghans. Soviet military advisers served with the military of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA).

A Soviet Special Forces (Spetsnaz) battalion wearing Afghan uniforms was part of the presidential palace guard. And a Soviet aviation squadron flew aircraft with Afghan tail markings from Afghanistan's Bagram airfield.

Not satisfied with these ties, the Soviets tried to direct Afghanistan's politics. This was not easy since the Afghan Communist Party was split between two brawling factions. Those factions fought while Communist reforms were ignored.

Consequently, the Afghan president requested that a threedivision Soviet force enter his country and help defeat Mujahideen [holy warrior] resistance forces in the countryside. The Kremlin agreed. The chief planning officer from the Afghan General Staff met with Soviet commanders to assist their entry.

Soviet forces invaded the country, occupied the key cities and airfields, killed the president, overthrew his government and put their own president and regime in place.They then claimed that the overthrow was an internal Afghan affair.

The plan: prop up the new government and garrison the cities and airfields, while the DRA fought the rural guerrillas. The Soviets hoped to stabilize the country and to withdraw most of their troops within two to three years.

Within two months, however, it was clear that Soviet forces would have to do most of the fighting. It also was obvious that three divisions were not enough.

So the Kremlin quickly sent another Soviet division into Afghanistan. Soon, the Soviet force was the size of five and twothirds divisions. This was the largest force that Soviet logistics could support over Afghanistan's vulnerable road system.

Yet it was never able to control more than 15% of Texas-sized Afghanistan. In fact, 85%io of the Soviet force was tied down in security missions-guarding cities, garrisons, airfields and lines of communication or providing convoy escort. The Red Army was locked into someone else's civil war on some of the most rugged terrain on the planet.

USING A 'GRIZZLY BEAR TO FIGHT MOSQUITOES`

Despite modern equipment, air dominance and overwhelming firepower, the Soviet superpower did not defeat the guerrilla resistance. The Soviets had trained and equipped for the wrong war. Afghanistan was not Europe nor China. Large, sweeping operations covered a lot of territory but found few of the enemy.

This was "like using a grizzly bear to fight mosquitoes," Yevgeny Khrushchev, deputy chairman for international affairs at Russia's Afghan Veterans Union, told Newsweek.

Guerrillas were elusive, and tanks, artillery and aircraft found few targets. Infantry tactics were tied to armored personnel carriers that could not climb Afghanistan's mountains. …

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