Monday, April 14, 2008

Lessons from the First Afghan War

Given the United States then-recent retreat from Vietnam, scholars have questioned why the Soviet Union would have invaded a small country on the periphery of its empire thereby risking getting bogged down in an foreign adventure. Michael MccGwire saw the Soviet Union’s invasion as a reasonable response to concerns about its own security on its southern frontier. “The Soviets saw Afghanistan as part of their national security zone, and their intervention was directly comparable to those in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 and not some new departure.” 1 Raymond Garthoff argued that the Politburo believed the security situation in Afghanstan was so dire and such a threat to their interests that they had no choice but to intervene. Garthoff analogized that Afghanistan is to Russia as Mexico is to the United States. “…No one in the American leadership sought to understand the Soviet position by imagining a comparable parallel situation on the southern border of the United States (moreover with a hostile China and an adversarial alliance in place of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans). In such a case, it would not have been difficult to imagine an American intervention to save American lives and strategic assets and to preemptively preclude hostile presence.” 2 An Afghani observer rejected the rational geopolitical calculus as an explanation for the Soviet intervention, and instead identified the cause as the Soviet Communists’ lust for power and empire. “The concern that the Soviet leaders showed about their ‘insecurity’ of their southern borders was a mere rationalization for their drive for expansion, a drive reminiscent of nineteenth-century colonialism.” 3

The fact that Afghanistan actually bordered the Soviet Union supports Garthoff’s argument that political instability and other nations’ mischief in Afghanistan were strategic justifications for Soviet intervention. The Soviet Union had never let political challenges go unanswered on its frontiers, as MccGwire pointed out, so it was no surprise that the Soviet Union would intervene aggressively and in force as it had previously. The Soviet Union would use proxies like the Cubans or Nicaraguans in more remote insurgent battles like Angola or Latin America without injecting their own forces in those places in anything more than limited “advisor” role. Proxy wars were expensive drains on the Politburo’s treasury, but less so than would be an actual overseas deployment of an expeditionary army. Overseas proxy battles were certainly less likely than an actual Red Army deployment of provoking a response by the United States Army, and thereby actually destroying d├ętente. 4 The proof of Afghanistan’s strategic importance can be seen in the fact that a few years after the Soviet Union’s defeat there, the Soviet Union empire had broken up. While the withdrawal from Afghanistan can not be seen as a direct causal link to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the psychological damage done by the defeat there, coupled with the drain on capital that the anemic Soviet economy could not sustain, doomed the empire.

By contrast, Vietnam’s strategic importance to the United States was a more tenuous case. Many American leaders in that era ascribed to the “domino theory” when countering Communist expansionism. The domino theory explained the fear that allowing one small country on the periphery to fall to the communists would discourage neighboring states and embolden expansionist communists. According to the theory, many states would fall if one fell. Eventually, the falling states would imperil the United States. “Domino theorists held that the capture of one Third World state would allow the capture of the next, and the next. In other words, they believed Third World states were highly cumulative assets. 5 President Kennedy was a believer in this theory and made an impassioned argument in support of the theory on the Huntley Brinkley Show: “I believe it. I believe it. I think that the struggle is close enough. China is so large, looms so high just beyond the frontiers, that if South Viet-Nam went, it would not only give them an improved geographic position for a guerrilla assault on Malaya but would also give the impression that the wave of the future in Southeast Asia was China and the Communists. So I believe it.” 6

While it is clear that there was a deep belief in the wisdom of intervention in Vietnam, history has shown that America’s defeat there did not result in “dominoes” falling in Asia in any way that could be considered a threat to American power. The United States emerged in the years following defeat in Vietnam as the world’s superpower. The lack of repercussions for America’s geopolitical position following the defeat is evidence of the lack of strategic importance of the war there.

Operationally, both the US and the Soviet Union ran out of time in prosecuting their particular operational approaches to the counter-insurgency. The US eventually adopted a Philippine War -style approach that attempted to protect villagers and destroy insurgents in an attempt to allow civilian rule to take hold. The Soviets attempted to ethnically cleanse recalcitrant populations and relocate those more amenable populations into recently cleansed areas to forestall disturbances. Both of these counter-insurgency strategies, the benign and the repugnant, require time to in order to achieve the goals. As noted by Sarah Sewall, the key to a successful counter-insurgency is time. “Since a national COIN strategy is a long-term proposition, building a unified and bipartisan approach is critical for the Nation.” 7 Both the United States and the Soviet Union ran out of time and as a consequence, had to leave the battlefield in defeat.

Tactically, US forces remained effective throughout the war. Colonel Summers argued that American forces performed superbly throughout the war. American forces never lost a major engagement on the ground or in the air. 8 On the contrary, the Soviet forces performed in a desultory fashion, often committing atrocities against civilians. Observers noted that many Red Army units and their Afghani counter-parts had no interest in performing basic patrolling or rudimentary attacks that could have been devastating to the Afghan insurgency. The Red Army was poorly trained, poorly led, rife with alcoholism and engaged in systematic, sadistic hazing of conscripts. Morale was very bad. 9 The Afghan Mujahadeen were not note to have any particular tactical skill, but the Soviet Army was unable or unwilling to exploit the obvious weaknesses of the insurgency. 10

Afghanistan held more strategic significance for the Soviets than was Vietnam for the United States. Afghanistan was a restive province on the southern periphery of the Soviet empire, and to the Russian autocrats in the Politburo, Afghanistan appeared indistinguishable from neighboring countries already in the Soviet orbit. The Soviet leadership could not afford to have such a country on its southern frontier as an example of liberty and to provide manpower and materiel for insurgencies inside the Soviet Union proper. Even though the political leadership defined Afghanistan as strategically vital, the Red Army did not perform well enough to prevail in its counter-insurgency fight. In contrast, Vietnam did not represent a real strategic concern for the US, but the US military nonetheless performed admirably against the insurgency. What was common in the two counter-insurgencies, that of the US and the Soviet Union, was a lack of time to follow through to victory. Consequently, both were defeated.


1 MccGwire , Michael. Perestroika and Soviet National Security (Washington: Brookings Institution Press) 1991. Pg 94.

2 Garthoff, Raymond L. Detente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan (Washington: Brookings Institution Press) 1994. Pg 1074, Notes

3. Kakar, M. Hassan. Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion and the Afghan Response, 1979-1982 (Berkeley: University of California Press) 1995. Pg 49.

4. Bialer, Seweryn. The Soviet Paradox: External Expansion, Internal Decline (New York: Knopf) 1986 . Pg 312.

5. Van Evera, Stephen. Causes of War: Power and the Roots of Conflict (Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press) 1999. Pg 113.

6. US General Services Administration. Public Papers of the President: John F. Kennedy, 1963 (Washington: Government Printing Office) 1964 in James N. Giglio Debating the Kennedy Presidency (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield) 2002. Pg 88.

7. Sewall, Sarah. “Modernizing U.S. counterinsurgency practice: rethinking risk and developing a national strategy” Military Review, Sept-Oct, 2006 at accessed 17 March 2008.

8. Summers Jr, Harry. On Strategy II: A Critical Analysis of the Gulf War (New York: Dell Books) 1992. Pg 47.

9. Reese, Roger R. The Soviet Military Experience: A History of the Soviet Army, 1917-1991 (London: Routledge) 2000. Pg 172.

10. Jalali, Ali Ahmad and Lester W. Grau. The Other Side of the Mountain: Mujahideen Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War (Quantico: Marine Corps Studies and Analysis Division) 1995. Pg 404.