Afghan war spelt disaster for the USSR and now NATO is making the same mistakes

West ignoring lessons of Soviet humiliation in Afghanistan
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IGNORING THE LESSONS OF

SOVIET HUMILIATION

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by Victor Sebestyen

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“There is barely an important piece of land in Afghanistan that has not been occupied by one of our soldiers at some time or another,” the commander said. “Nevertheless, much of the territory stays in the hands of the terrorists. We control the provincial centres, but we cannot maintain political control over the territory that we seize.”

He added: “Our soldiers are not to blame. They’ve fought incredibly bravely in adverse conditions. But to occupy towns and villages temporarily has little value in such a vast land, where the insurgents can just disappear into the hills.”

[Left: Marshal Sergey Fyodorovich Akhromeyev. As a junior officer during the Great Patriotic War, he served with distinction on the Leningrad front. . In 1984-1988, Akhromeyev was Chief of the General Staff of the Soviet Armed Forces. In that capacity he was heavily involved in the talks which brought an end to the Cold War.]

They could have been the words of a Nato general in the past few days. In fact they were spoken by Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, commander of Soviet armed forces, to the USSR’s politburo in the Kremlin on November 13, 1986The Soviet forces were in the seventh year of their nine-year war in Afghanistan and had lost about 12,000 men. Akhromeyev, a hero of the siege of Leningrad in the second world war, had been summoned to explain why a force of 109,000 troops from the world’s second superpower appeared to be humiliated, year after year, by a band of terrorists.

Akhromeyev explained about the rough terrain, insisted the army needed more resources – including additional helicopters – and warned that without more men and equipment “this war will continue for a very long time”.

He concluded with words that sound uncannily resonant today, in the ninth year of Nato’s war: “About 99% of the battles and skirmishes that we fought in Afghanistan were won by our side. The problem is that the next morning there is the same situation as if there had been no battle. The terrorists are again in the village where they were – or we thought they were – destroyed a day or so before.”

The Soviet campaign in Afghanistan is a largely forgotten war. Few strategists from Russia or the West seem to think anything can be learnt from it. But study Soviet archives and many lessons become clear.

As the world was not watching, the Soviet troops could be brutal, yet massive air raids and the destruction of villages, which killed 800,000 Afghans, did not work. Tactics changed over the years, each time accompanied by a “surge” of new troops that temporarily improved security for the Russian-backed communist government in Kabul.

Much of the fighting was in places that have become familiar to us. Soviet troops were sent on sweeps in the most troublesome areas on the border with Pakistan, through which most of the guerrillas’ weapons flowed, and the southern provinces of the country, such as Helmand. As soon as they left their fortified bases, the troops were in danger of ambush from bands of Mujahideen – the army of God.

That war, like today’s, was characterised by disputes between soldiers and politicians. As newly revealed Russian documents show, the Communist party bosses ordered the invasion against the advice of senior commanders. This caused continual friction in Moscow for many years.

Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, the chief of the Soviet defence staff, and Akhromeyev, his number two, raised doubts shortly before Soviet forces were dispatched on Christmas Day 1979. They suggested to Dmitri Ustinov, the defence minister, that the experiences of the British and tsarist armies in the 19th century should encourage caution.

Ustinov told them to “shut up and obey orders”, according to politburo minutes.

Ogarkov went further up the chain of command to Leonid Brezhnev, the party boss. He warned that an invasion “could mire us in unfamiliar, difficult conditions and would align the entire Islamic East against us”. He was cut off in mid-sentence.

“Focus on military matters,” he was told. “Leave the policy making to us and to the party.” Not long afterwards the marshal was fired.

The Soviet troops realised soon after they entered Afghanistan that they had blundered, but Kremlin officials felt trapped. When Mikhail Gorbachev became leader in March 1985 he declared privately that ending the war – “our bleeding wound” – was his priority. But he could not do so for fear of losing too much face. Withdrawing the troops took a further four years as they searched for that difficult prize for armies on the run: peace with honour.

It was an agonising process that marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire and eventually the USSR itself. “How to get out of this racks one’s brains,” Gorbachev despaired to his fellow Soviet magnates in the spring of 1986. He told his generals later that year: “After all this time we have not learnt how to wage war there.”

When the last troops left on February 15, 1989, about 15,000 of their comrades had been killed. It was the only war the USSR lost. To Gorbachev, one vital issue was how to “spin” it correctly. As he wrote to his key aides during the last phase of the retreat, presentation was key: “We must say that our people have not given their lives in vain,” he said.

– Victor Sebestyen is the author of Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire.

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11 replies to “Afghan war spelt disaster for the USSR and now NATO is making the same mistakes

  1. ere is no comparison between present war and the war against the demolished USSR. It can’t be compared to the US engagement in Vietnam as those wars divided the world on ideological grounds. In contrast the present war has united the world against terrorism, even some Muslim nations are also facilitating these war efforts .It’s a war in which UN also can’t remain a mere silent spectator, therefore, history is not going to repeat itself there .Those who think they can defeat the international force are actually preparing a ground for more loss of life and property in the war torn countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

  2. Afghanistan has essentially been in war since the 19th century. Talking of Afghanistan as a nation is also, wrong. It never has been a united nation until the arrival of the Taliban soon after the Soviet system fell, when the Mujahideen and other warring tribes and warlords started to have ”disagreements” with each other. Resultantly a Full blown civil war erupted there, in Afghanistan, as there was no longer a common enemy. Until the Taliban, a generation who grew up in Pakistan arrived and swept the country clean uniting it and its tribes.
    2001 marked the end of that united peace in Afghanistan, when the American invasion of the country was begun. U.S.A. is still using all its possible influence in order to seize Afghanistan, using every inch of its influence. Bush and Obama have both tried hard to get more input from other NATO countries for the ISAF forces. Many European nations have now started to say no. The people of Europe have always said NO to this war.
    What does this now mean for U.S.A? If the Afghan war becomes a failure, they will have consumed all their influence ending in a disaster. I believe NATO itself could dissolve as a result. This war is killing the US economy, in much of the same manner as it did in case of the Soviets. With 150 military bases around the world; in around 30 different countries, the retreat could end up as dramatic as the retreat of the Soviets when the Soviet Union dissolved in the aftermath of their defeat in Afghanistan.
    Ironically, Afghanistan delivered a killing blow to the Soviets in 1989. Now we’ll see how the American ”capitalism” will survive or not. I don’t believe U.S.A. as we know it today, will survive. Perhaps we’ll even see another Confederation, he he.
    The trouble with fighting Afghans is that, they fight a traditional Middle Eastern war. The Romans and the Mongols both got obliterated in the Middle East. Christian crusades, and the British, Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Every invader has failed.

    1. So Afghanistan is the reason for the Soviet Union’s economic collapse in the 1980s? Do you have sources, figures, etc. to back up your point?

  3. Since it is a war of survival for America and the NATO, therefore, I believe, a respectful exit of foreign forces from the Afghan soil is a must. In this regard Pakistan’s role appears to be very crucial. Pakistan’s friendship with India also is deemed necessary for that country to move ahead in creating an environment so that an honorable exit of the western forces becomes possible. So before its too late, a clear understanding between the Govts. of Pakistan, Afghanistan and India is highly desirable to stop the war in Afghanistan…..

  4. Did Gorbachev really refer to Afghanistan as “our bleeding wound?”
    Or did Gorbachev call it “a bleeding wound?”
    Did Gorbachev mean that the USSR was wounded, crippled, and losing a war?
    Or did Gorbachev mean that Afghanistan itself was a “bleeding wound” because of the terrible civilian loss of life inflicted by the Soviet army? There is a big difference in meaning here; what did Gorbachev really say?
    Sebestyan’s thesis is that the war was a WW1 type of military defeat resulting in a Brest-Litovsk type destruction of the Soviet/Russian Empire. Might his argument be far fetched? Let’s start with the Gorbachev quote: Mr. Sebestyan, please clarify.

  5. The main point behind the Soviet Army’s retreat was that the Communist Politburo ignored the voice of both the chief and his second in command and the other thing is the history of Afghanistan which is full of examples that no empire was able to control the country. The Soviet did this too by sending their army with new weapons but as with others, failed there. The other thing is that Pakistan will not allow any of the force to stabilize Afghanistan. If anyone has to solve this problem, then Pakistan has to be handled firmly.

    1. Pakistan will have to cooperate with NATO forces at any cost. Most of its mineral rich areas are mortgaged with international financial institutions under control of the western powers particularly the USA [for want of money]. It requires Dollars and it wants to get Kashmir from India through its covert operations. Now Pakistan is showing an inclination towards China and for this purpose it has allowed the entry of Chinese Peoples Army to establish base in Azad Kashmir. China is also organizing an international conference in which India is also going to participate. It seems this conference is merely an opportunity for better economic possibilities, no strategic goals as generally presumed. I say so because China too did not veto the resolution on no fly zone at the UNSC.

  6. So far efforts have been made not to turn the war against terrorism as a war against civilization .The international community at UN the forum has maintained the declared image of the on going war and got success in securing even the support of some Muslim countries particularly Pakistan but with the eruption of revolt in the Middle East the scenario is changing at a very rapid pace. The forces which supported the Jihadis in the Muslim World behind the scene are now seeking an opportunity to turn the on going war as a war between civilizations and if they succeeded in their mission then there will be more possibilities of death and destruction in the years to come.

  7. It appears to me that Pakistan has been caught in the dilemma .Therefore it will continue its policy i.e. On one hand it will remain allied to the NATO efforts in Afghanistan and on the other it will continue to support the anti US forces in Afghanistan. In such circumstances, Afghanistan will continue to remain a HOT BED for the U.S. and NATO forces for many more years in future.

  8. The victory against the Jihadi forces by the U.S and the NATO is a must this time. The movers and shakers in the Afghan war theatre with their behind the scene motivations and entrapments will have to keep this in mind. World community is closely watching the events in Afghanistan and the Middle East and every one should come forward to contribute in his own way to give a desired direction to the on going events. This war is not being fought for Oil or territorial gain as being propagated but to wipe out the Jihadis in the AfPak war theatre.

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