Warfare in Afghanistan: The Soviet-Afghan Conflict Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The war in Afghanistan was the last major conflict of the twentieth century involving a superpower, the Soviet Union, and a regional actor, Afghanistan.

Political Considerations

The war in Afghanistan was the last major conflict of the twentieth century involving a superpower, the Soviet Soviet Union;AfghanistanUnion, and a regional actor, Afghanistan. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was precipitated by a premeditated series of events that took place in Kabul and were rooted in the milieu of domestic Afghan politics. In the preceding years, following the coup d’état that had toppled President Mohammed Khan Daoud, Mohammed KhanDaoud, Mohammed KhanDaoud, the Khalq Khalq factionfaction within the People’s Democratic Party of People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan[Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan]Afghanistan (PDPA) seized power and began implementing sweeping reforms that included eradicating illiteracy, eliminating women’s dowries, and changing the land tenure system, which alienated the traditional, conservative rural society where 90 percent of the population resided. The PDPA’s reform program was hugely unpopular in the countryside.Afghanistan;Soviet war (1979-1989)Insurgencies;AfghanistanAfghanistan;Soviet war (1979-1989)Insurgencies;AfghanistanSoviet-Afghan War (1979-1989)[Soviet Afghan War]

A spontaneous rural insurgency followed, which the government was unable to control. Between July, 1978, and the autumn of 1979, the Afghan government lost two-thirds of Afghanistan. Complicating the situation was the murder of Soviet citizens in February, 1979, by angry mobs in Herāt. Then in March, 1979, the accession of Hafizullah Amin, HafizullahAmin, HafizullahAmin, also of the Khalq faction, to the post of prime minister marked a steady disintegration in the countryside that culminated in the September assassination of President Nur Mohammed Taraki, Nur MohammedTaraki, Nur MohammedTaraki by bodyguards of Amin, who then assumed the presidency. Amin was killed three months later, shortly after the invasion of the Soviet forces in December, and replaced by Barbak Karmal, BarbakKarmal, BarbakKarmal.

Two patterns emerged from the 1979 Soviet invasion. The first was the Soviets’ lack of preparedness to fight, and the second was that their decision to invade was improvised and poorly conceived. Instead of gaining support for the moderate regime, the Soviets encountered a mounting backlash, as thousands of government soldiers and their officers defected to the Islamic guerrillas, or the MujahideenMujahideen, as they called themselves, seizing government outposts and their arsenals of weapons and ammunition.

The turning point in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan came in 1986, when the Mujahideen began to receive large amounts of weapons and technical support through covert programs conducted by the U.S. Central Intelligence Central Intelligence Agency;in Afghanistan[Afghanistan]Agency (CIA). Mujahideen acquired Stinger surface-to-air missiles, 120-millimeter mortars, and communications equipment that allowed for the coordination of attacks on a broad scale.

Military Achievement

The military conflict in Afghanistan can be characterized as static, with the Soviets retaining control of the cities and towns and the transportation infrastructure, while the Mujahideen retained control of the countryside.

The Soviets established garrisons at strategic points, such as cities, villages, and valleys, from which the army could carry out offensives. Spetsnaz (special forces) units were dispatched into the Mujahideen-controlled countryside to gather intelligence, ambush Mujahideen guerrilla units, and create confusion and chaos among the populace. This tactic effectively divided the Afghan resistance and rendered the Mujahideen incapable of challenging the Soviet army. Even with the introduction of covert military aid from the CIA, the Mujahideen were incapable of sustaining prolonged attacks on Soviet positions.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

The Soviet army was ill-equipped for combat in Afghanistan. Although the Soviets had overwhelming military superiority, they were ill-suited for anti-insurgent warfare. In the air, the Soviets used MiG fighter planesMiG-23’s and SU-24 fighter-bombers for carpet Carpet bombingbombing and refined the use of the MI-24 helicopter gunship to support motorized rifle units. Troops were issuedAK-47 rifle[AK forty seven rifle]AK-47’s and AK-74’s, which were of little use against an invisible enemy.

Uniforms were bulky, clumsy, camouflage overalls. Soldiers were issued crudely made uniforms and greatcoats of khaki, grey, or brown. They carried no body armor but wore vintage 1940’s-style steel helmets.

At the onset of the war in Afghanistan the Mujahideen used whatever weapons were available: AK-47’s looted from police posts, British-style .303 Enfield riflesEnfields, FN-FALS supplied by Pakistan, and leftovers from the colonial wars. Soon thereafter frontline units began to carry DShK machine guns, 82-millimeter mortars, grenade launchers, AK-47’s, and AK-74’s either looted or bought from government soldiers and garrisons. Then in 1985, the United States began to funnel SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles to the Mujahideen units. Unlike their Soviet counterparts, the Mujahideen boasted no uniform. They wore their traditional tunics and blended into the civilian population.

Military Organization

The Soviet military was a modern, centralized military structure, but in order to counter the resistance they encountered, the Soviets continually introduced changes in the size, equipment, and organizational structure of their forces. The occupational forces consisted of three motorized rifle divisions, two independent rifle brigades, one airborne division, one independent air brigade, and three Spetsnaz brigades. These Soviet units were deployed carrying their full equipment, including antitank weaponry and antiaircraft batteries, both of which were poorly geared toward anti-insurgency warfare.

Mujahideen units were organized along ethnic or tribal lines, which dictated the composition of the guerrilla unit. Often theGuerrilla warfare;AfghanistanMujahideen operated in small mobile units of ten to twenty men that lacked an overall command structure. Overall, the Mujahideen were a conglomeration of some three hundred guerrilla units operating in all twenty-eight provinces of Afghanistan.

Although some of the units were affiliated with political parties, the majority were led by autonomous local commanders. The guerrilla units themselves were composed of untrained, disorganized local recruits who were organized by qawm, or tribe, and thus limited to hit-and-run operations.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

The Cold War (1945-1991);Afghanistanso-called Brezhnev Brezhnev DoctrineDoctrine undergirded the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, during which aiding “democratic” forces consolidated revolutionary gains threatened by“foreign supported subversion.” The Soviets had developed the Brezhnev Doctrine as a means of maintaining and defending the Communist bloc countries against internal and external threats, thus reinforcing Soviet dominance over Warsaw Pact nations. The first test of the Brezhnev Doctrine had been the 1968 Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia;Soviet invasionCzechoslovakia, where the Soviets had ruthlessly crushed the Prague Prague Spring (1968)Spring liberalization movement. Although Afghanistan was not a member of the Communist bloc, the Soviets justified their use of the Brezhnev Doctrine with a friendship agreement they had made with Afghanistan.

Mounted Afghan guerrillas ready for combat with Soviet and government forces in western Afghanistan, January, 1980.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Unlike their Soviet counterparts, the Afghan Mujahideen did not have an overarching military doctrine on which to base their resistance. Historically, warfare was used to improve one’s social standing vis-à-vis the other qawm.

Initial Soviet military strategy in Afghanistan was in line with traditional operational strategy: the rapid deployment of large numbers of armor and troops was intended to strengthen Afghanistan’s faltering government. Once the Soviets had become ensconced in the capital of Kabul, little thought was given to strategic and security concerns. Soviet strategy evolved to consolidate control over the country without long-term commitment. Soviet aircraft and heavy artillery would first lay down heavy bombardment, while helicopter transports ferried troops to nearby ridges where they would lay down covering fire. Tanks and combat vehicles could then plough through what was left of the villages.

Initial Soviet tactics, using ground forces supported by tanks, were similar to those used in the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. Following initial consolidation in and around Kabul, the Soviets deployed motorized rifle units to support the Afghan army waging classic large-scale armored warfare.

The well-planned Soviet offensives deployed motorized rifle divisions that used tactics based on warfare in the European theater. These motorized rifle units suffered heavy casualties owing to their lack of training in mountain and counterinsurgency warfare.

Beginning in June, 1980, the Soviets changed their strategy from the centrally controlled high-intensity mechanized operations to antiguerrilla Antiguerrilla warfarewarfare. As Soviet tacticians realized they had to adapt to the geographic and topological conditions of Afghanistan, they reorganized the Red Army itself, sending home antiaircraft missile brigades and artillery brigades and combining army ground forces and supporting them with MI-24 helicopter gunships. They also realized the importance of airborne assaults and covering air support in mountain warfare.

Initially lacking a central command, the Mujahideen never had an overall anti-Soviet strategy, instead adopting localized hit-and-run tactics such as bombings, assassinations, and attacks on supply convoys and military barracks. Over time, the Mujahideen began developing a strategy to counter the Soviets’ anti-insurgency measures, attacking isolated military garrisons. Mujahideen tactics were localized and hindered by the lack of communications, properly organized command structures, and clear orders.

Contemporary Sources

By all accounts the Soviet-Afghan War was particularly vicious in nature. Atrocities were committed by both sides. Alex Alexiev, in Inside the Soviet Army in Afghanistan (1988), chronicled the individual experiences of individual Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan. Svetlana Aleksievich wrote Tsinkovye malchiki (1991; Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War, 1992), a harrowing account of the lives of men and women who lived and served in Afghanistan, many of whom carry deep psychological scars from the devastation they witnessed there. Artyom Borovik’s The Hidden War: A Russian Journalist’s Account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan (1990) is a journalistic account of the Soviet-Afghan War. Each book chronicles Afghanistan’s deadly descent into near-anarchy, as each battle brought vicious reprisals against the enemy. The Soviets used the terror of carpet bombing and forced migration to depopulate entire villages in hopes of depriving the Mujahideen of their support. The Mujahideen were also guilty of wartime atrocities, as they often shot their Soviet prisoners.

Mujahideen also terrorized Soviet-controlled towns and villages, bombing and killing civilians. In the Soviet-Afghan conflict, the use of terror became the norm. Little has been written about the real victims of the war, the people of Afghanistan, who endured ten years of civil war and forced migration, as the Soviets depopulated huge areas of the countryside. Although, as in Rasul Bakhsh Rais’s War Without Winners: Afghanistan’s Uncertain Transition After the Cold War (1994), attempts have been made to examine the factors that account for the Afghan tragedy and the fragmentation of the country, until the people of Afghanistan can tell their own stories, the full scope and nature of the Soviet-Afghan War will not be known.Afghanistan;Soviet war (1979-1989)Insurgencies;AfghanistanSoviet-Afghan War (1979-1989)[Soviet Afghan War]

Films and Other Media
  • The Beast of War. Feature film. Columbia Pictures, 1988.
  • Charlie Wilson’s War. Feature film. Universal Pictures, 2007.
  • Guns of Afghanistan. Documentary. History Channel, 2002.
  • Inside Afghanistan. Documentary. Multi-Media, 1988.
  • The Kite Runner. Feature film. DreamWorks, 2007.
  • Shadow Warriors. Documentary. History Channel, 2005.
  • The Taliban. Documentary. History Channel, 2007.

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