Was the Soviet Union “defeated” in Afghanistan?

Gen. Mohammad Yousaf, who as an ISI officer coordinated the Afghan resistance campaign from 1983 to 1987, concludes his lively [and utterly parochial] memoir with the following comment:

Although I am reluctant to admit it, I feel the only winners in the war in Afghanistan are the Americans. They have their revenge for Vietnam, they have seen the Soviets beaten on the battlefield by a guerrilla force that they helped to finance, and they have prevented an Islamic government replacing a Communist one in Kabul. For the Soviet Union even their military retreat has been turned into a huge political success, with Gorbachev becoming a hero in the West, and still his hand-picked puppet, Najibullah, remains unseated, dependent on Soviet aid for his survival.

The losers are most certainly the people of Afghanistan. It is their homes that are heaps of rubble, their land and fields that have been burnt and sown with millions of mines, it is their husbands, fathers and sons who have died in a war that was almost, and should have been, won.

Yousaf defined “victory” in terms of establishing an Islamist regime in Kabul, which was the best case scenario for both Pakistan’s national interests and Yousaf’s own fundamentalist ideology, which was shared by Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, President of Pakistan. By this measure, the hazy conclusion of the Soviet-Afghan war was an obvious disappointment, though only a few years later they did get their victory when the Taliban seized power.

Yousaf’s comment reflected the dominant narrative of events in the U.S. at the time of the Soviet withdrawal. For obvious reasons, the intervening decades have cast serious doubt on the notion of an American “victory” in Afghanistan. Instead of rehashing that ongoing debate, a more interesting question is to what extent the Soviets were truly “defeated.”

One of the more fascinating aspects of Yousaf’s memoir is his sheer bemusement at the zeal with which the CIA pursued its quest for vengeance, which seemed to match his own jihadist piety:

I could see they were deeply resentful of their failure to win in Vietnam, which had been a major military defeat for the world’s leading superpower. To me, getting their own back seemed to be the primary reason for the US backing the war with so much money. I have no doubt that the State Department had many valid strategic and political reasons for US support, but I am merely emphasizing that many American officials appeared to regard it as a God-given opportunity to kill Soviets, without any US lives being endangered. General Akhtar [the ISI chief] agreed with them that the war could be turned into a Soviet Vietnam. (p. 63)

This attitude was shared by the Director himself, William Casey:

He had a quick brain, with a bold and ruthless approach to the war against the Soviets. He hated communism. In fact, like many CIA officers, he regarded Afghanistan as the place where America could be avenged for its defeat in Vietnam. The Soviets must pay a high price in blood for their support of the North Vietnamese was his oft-repeated view. “Those bastards must pay,” summed up his philosophy on the war, and he appeared none too squeamish about the methods to be used. Probably his years making millions as a New York businessman had added that callous, combative streak to his character. (p.79)

So did America succeed in giving the Soviet Union its own Vietnam? Or did it subsidize Soviet live-fire training with U.S. taxpayer dollars?

Vietnam represented a major commitment of American resources, involving every dimension of state power. At the height of the war, around 750,000 military personnel were either in Vietnam or supporting operations in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. Furthermore, the apocalyptic rhetoric used by Washington to mobilize domestic support for the war became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and as a result America suffered all the consequences – social, economic, political and military – of a great defeat.

By contrast, the Soviet Union was a closed totalitarian police state that considered Afghanistan to be a limited contingency operation to maintain a friendly government on the communist frontier. At no point were there more than about 115,000 troops deployed in-country, most of which were second-tier units manned by mobilized reserve personnel, constituting only about 4% of Soviet military power. The conflict was never escalated into neighboring states, with the exception of an occasional air strike or cross-border shelling into Pakistan.

At the beginning of the war Soviet military performance at the tactical and operational levels was abysmal, their main objective being the defense of cities and key lines of communication. Soviet troops demonstrated a peculiar aversion to casualties, hiding behind their mechanized armor and bombarding suspected enemy positions from stand-off distances.

But as the war continued Soviet military performance improved dramatically, and by the mid-1980s, the DRA Army, which had disintegrated in the weeks immediately following the Soviet invasion, was leading division-sized offensives against hitherto secure Mujahideen bases along the eastern frontier.

The introduction of the Stinger in September 1986 raised the costs for the Soviets and altered tactical operating patterns, but the notion that the Stinger was a silver bullet that guaranteed Mujahideen victory is a gross misunderstanding of warfare. Given enough time, the Soviets would have adapted by deemphasizing heliborne operations and relying more on artillery and fixed-wing aircraft to provide fire support.

But the Soviet leadership devised an even cheaper solution: neutralize the United States, thereby cutting off the flow of arms to the Afghans. How could they accomplish this? By simply quitting the conflict. The 1988 Geneva accords permitted both the Soviets and the Americans to continue supporting their proxies, but the Kremlin was fully aware that Washington desired only vengeance, and would soon lose interest once Soviet combat formations had withdrawn. So they gave America its hollow “victory,” confident that in a couple years, the spigot sustaining the Mujahideen resistance would be closed as the U.S. faced the unsavory possibility of an Islamist government in Kabul.

On the other hand, Soviet aid to the DRA increased exponentially, with thousands of advisors remaining in the country and over $1 billion worth of military support arriving monthly by 1989. The eventual calamity awaiting the Mujahideen was foreshadowed by the defeat of their incompetent attack on Jalalabad in early 1989. Had the Soviet Union survived a few years longer, there can be little doubt that their military support to the DRA would have permitted the latter to retain the initiative and reduce the Mujahideen to roving banditry, confined mostly to sparsely populated mountain areas.

But of course, that’s not what happened. The Soviet Union collapsed, and America was left with the impression that it exacted revenge for Vietnam and inflicted a grievous blow on the communist empire. Obviously, the U.S. imposed a cost on Soviet expansionism, but just how great was that cost? Fifteen thousand dead Soviet conscripts is hardly equal to the 58,000 KIA in Vietnam, the bulk of which were sustained over a much shorter period than the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. Similarly, the loss of arms and equipment was trifling compared to the production capabilities of the Soviet military-industrial complex.

Finally, it is important to note that democracies and authoritarian regimes have fundamentally different perspectives on long-term irregular wars. As Edward Luttwak pointed out:

Perhaps it is true, as many claim, that the experience of Afghanistan will suffice to discourage the Kremlin from any further assumption of duties in the governance of Muslims. But one cannot be certain of the true meaning of that example. Where an impatient democracy might see a disastrous outcome and endless rebellion, an empire might view the same evidence differently, as a normal progression from initial conquest to a gradual pacification which will mature in due course.

Surprisingly, this perspective trickled down to the level of the individual soldier, as evinced by the comments of a Russian sergeant to the British author Mark Urban: “Give us twenty years and we’ll finish them.” That the Politburo did not give him twenty years is indicative of the extremely low priority they gave the war; hardly “the Soviet Union’s Vietnam.”

In the succinct words of John Ellis:

In short, then, appallingly and cynically though the Soviets behaved in Afghanistan, being largely responsible for 1 million deaths and the exodus of 5 million refugees, most of them in exile, it is misleading to equate their eventual withdrawal with that of the Americans from Vietnam. This is not to say that they fared any better militarily – indeed, their effort was largely lamentable whereas the Americans did at least fight the Viet Cong almost to a standstill – but rather that they came into Afghanistan only to shore up the incumbent regime, ‘blood’ some of their vast military manpower and test some vital new military technology. All this they succeeded in doing.


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