Where the Wild Things Are The Soviet-Afghani War (1979–1989)

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We
promised the world we'd tame it,
What
were we hoping for?
~
Bloc Party

In
1220 A.D. Genghis Khan paid the Afghani city of Bokhara a visit.
After sending his army in to slaughter at will (he was always doing
things like that) he forced the surviving residents to stand disarmed
outside the city walls. Letting his troops rape and murder a few
more in the open – to help everybody refocus – he accused the
terrified remainder of great sins, and he was certain of their guilt.
"If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent
a punishment like me upon you," he thought out loud.

In
December 1979 God punished Afghanistan again, for reasons nobody
knows or understands (as is His pleasure) in the form of 85,000
invading Soviet troops. Why they were ordered into Afghanistan is
anybody's guess, history gives only hints concerning motives.

Twenty
years ago this month the Soviet Army, in its last and most rational
operation of the entire Soviet-Afghani War, simply packed up and
left, leaving behind 15,000 of their dead, many more wounded, and
a bundle of warlords armed to the teeth and honed by years of relentless
war, ready to grind into dust what was left of Afghanistan.

The
Accidental Tourist

Foolish
men called Afghanistan "a school of courage" and were
wise enough not to send their sons there.
~
Artyom Borovik

Since
ideas precede action, it's always important to ask why but
in this case, like in most wars, we'll never know. Why Russia
invaded Afghanistan is an impossible question to answer. First off,
it would be more accurate to ask why Leonid Brezhnev (the
Russian Communist party boss) invaded Afghanistan, because like
in all dictatorships the guy at the top is the sole decider about
war. But he's dead so he's not telling.

In
addition, everyone who was in the room with him when the decision
was made is dead, too. And rounding it out is the fact that they
were all politicians, so even if they were still alive they wouldn't
tell the truth anyway.

Historians
throw about a smattering of reasons, the more plausible being that
the Russian elite feared America's politicians – having recently
lost one of their kept dictators, the Shah of Iran, to popular revolt
— would be looking about elsewhere in the region for a place to
stick their weapons and soldiers into, and the thought of American
missile silos in Afghanistan's Hindu Kush mountains was enough to
make a Politburo member lose sleep.

Also,
in April 1978, what would turn out to be an utter tragedy for the
Russian people was at first greeted by them as a blessing. The Afghan
Army officer corps, birthed and trained in Soviet military academies,
staged a coup and immediately turned over power to the Afghan communist
party, the PDPA. Russian military and economic aid, strong since
the days of Lenin, increased dramatically.

Soon
enough things began to get dicey, especially after the Afghani communists,
in one of history's more dim-bulb moments, issued a decree that
Afghani women would now be treated as equal to men before the law.
Afghanistan exploded into rebellion, entire Afghani military units
going over to the tribal leaders.

The
PDPA was itself divided into two warring sects (the Khalq and the
Parcham) that went after each other with the same bloodthirsty fanaticism
they displayed towards the Afghani people. Led by party boss Nur
Mohammed Taraki, a vicious thug who was murdered and succeeded by
Columbia University alum Hafizullah Amin (who enjoyed burying people
alive with bulldozers), the PDPA was constantly begging Moscow for
direct Soviet intervention to help put down all the uprisings, but
they found the Russian Politburo extremely reluctant to provide
troops.

This
intelligent inaction on the part of the Soviet political elite began
to crumble in March 1979, when the entire 17th Afghani
Army division — sent to put down a rebellion in the western city
of He-rat – instead mutinied. Hunting down their Soviet advisors
and their families, they paraded the severed body parts of their
Soviet "allies" through the streets on pikes. The Soviet
Air Force, accompanied by a rising flood of weapons, supplies, and
more advisors, began to fly combat missions in support of the Afghan
communists. Still things got worse, and just before Christmas 1979
the final escalation came.

Acting
against the advice of both the Party's high priests (who pronounced
the Afghanis – overwhelmingly illiterate, agrarian, and religiously
devout – to be utterly incapable of a Communist lifestyle) as well
as Soviet military leaders (who had read history books) Brezhnev,
proclaiming it an "internationalist duty" to help out
a fellow communist regime, started the war "with a mere wave
of (his) elderly hand." (Borovik, p.15)

In
a well-orchestrated and fast moving invasion that would have done
Marshal Zhukov proud, the Soviet Army stormed into Afghanistan in
a classic blitzkrieg operation, occupying all the major population
centers and airfields which encircled the central Hindu Kush mountains.

As
always throughout history, the invader found Afghanistan easy to
physically occupy. The initial battle was a resounding Soviet military
victory. Doubtless, back among the dimmer set of Russia's people
vodka toasts were drank to the victory, mission accomplished banners
unfurled. Meanwhile back at ground zero, "very quickly the
jihad was declared." (Tanner, p.238)

For
the invading (and now occupying) Soviet 40th Army, everything
began to go wrong almost immediately.

The
Downward Spiral

"Did
you think you could help, captain?" said Marta.

"Before
I came here — yes, I did. Now I know I'm not what's needed, and
I don't know what is."

~
The Commandant's Desk by Kurt Vonnegut

It
is highly likely that the Russian military command desperately wanted
this to be a fast, clean affair, in and out. Russian troops were
barracked away from population centers, to avoid antagonizing the
locals. Immediately conferences and talks were begun under Russian
supervision, hoping to get the various warring Afghani cliques to
agree to a "national reconciliation" (i.e. be Communist)
so that the Soviet Army could declare everything well and go home.
Ten years later, as the 1989 Soviet withdrawal was completed, the
negotiations were still ongoing.

Fooling
themselves that their soldiers would be greeted by flower bearing,
smiling natives, the Politburo was shocked that within weeks convoys
were being ambushed, the urban population displayed quiet hostility
at best, and the Soviet Army was "engaging the Afghan Army
– the one they were supposedly propping up — in open combat."
(Tanner, p.241)

Massive
desertions melted the Afghani Army to a shell of its pre-invasion
size, entire units going over en masse to the jihad. The
remaining troops "dullards or those still waiting for their
chance to desert" (Tanner, p.244) were all that was left. The
people who inhabit that part of the world were simply doing what
they always have done when invaded – heading to mountain redoubts
unseen and unknown to any but them, they hunkered down for a long
guerrilla war.

Afghanistan
holds two problems; both insurmountable for any would be conqueror.
First, it is not a "country" in the manner that a Western
mind understands the term, it is more wishful thinking to describe
thousands of little village states and tribal warlords, all of which
switch allegiance with endless rapidity, as a country. This tribal,
village based structure is decentralized to a national extinction;
there is no one place — or collection of places — whose occupation
will make the tribes surrender.

Second,
the main ethnic groups in the region, from the dominant Pashtuns
in the south, the Hazaras deep in the Hindu Kush, and the Turkic
to the north, are all extremely xenophobic and honed to a martial
pitch by endless war against each other, fought out amidst some
of the world's most difficult terrain. They only stop fighting each
other, sort of, for one reason – to take on any outside invader
who violates their territory, and the Russians foolishly had done
just that.

The
fighting intensified quickly and within six months disaster struck
the Soviet Army — they lost an entire battalion from the 201st
Motorized Rifle, wiped out by a mujahideen ambush on the
road between Gardez and Ghost.

Both sides
adjusted as they learned each other, the Afghani mujahideen
dropping large combat formations, too easily crushed by Soviet combined
arms, instead reverting to the national pastime at which they excelled
— small unit guerrilla tactics relying on the ambush and raid.

The
Soviets, with ample experience in guerrilla warfare, quickly reorganized
the 40th Army from a ground focused, heavily mechanized
force to one backed by massive airpower — especially transport and
attack helicopter, the latter consisting mostly of the war's most
feared weapon, the Mi-24 Hind. From exterminating entire
areas of people with chemical attacks and scorched earth policies,
to internal passports, to bribing tribes to cease attacking Soviet
forces, to dropping cluster bombs shaped like toys to maul children,
the Russian Army pulled out all the stops, killing a million or
so Afghanis.

Backed
by every weapon her military-industrial complex could provide, the
Russians could set foot in any part of Afghanistan they chose to
and they continuously bloodied any Afghani unit brave enough to
stand and fight. With complete mastery of the air, Mi-24 Hind
attack units flew leisurely up and down the fertile valleys,
turning them into utter wastelands. The land was devastated, the
surviving Afghanis reduced to subsistence living — yet still they
fought on.

The
Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul and astride the main Soviet supply
line across the Hindu Kush mountains, was strategically vital enough
to see the Russians assault and occupy it on nine different occasions
in nine massive operations, each time only to lose it as soon as
they left, the mujahideen simply moving in behind them. Military
supplies, provided by a coalition of British, American, Saudi, Pakistani,
and Chinese weapons makers, kept the Afghani tribes in the game.

Then
in September 1986, after the Russians had already given up any hope
of "victory," the end game for their venture was announced
when the mujahideen shot down three Mi-24 Hind helicopters
with American provided Stinger surface to air missiles. With
their air superiority severely compromised, the Soviet 40th
Army was more dependent then ever before on the road network, highly
vulnerable to ambush. Kabul was frequently short of supplies as
the famous Afghani warlord Massoud — who controlled the Panjshir
Valley — repeatedly cut the road leading across the mountains.

The
decrepit nature of the Soviet Union was on blatant display through
the army she fielded in Afghanistan. The Hidden War abounds
with casual references to broken down tanks, armored cars, and airplanes,
knocked out of action not by enemy fire but shoddy construction
and poor maintenance. From the absence of a runway sweeper at Bagram
— the Soviet Air Force's main base north of Kabul — to the lack
of medical facilities for the wounded to the lack of rations, as
the war drew to an end the Soviet Army in Afghanistan, though fearsome,
was an increasingly impoverished, jerry-rigged affair.

In
early 1985, the new Russian Communist party boss Mikhail Gorbachev
put the Soviet Army on alert. They had one year to bring the Afghani
War, now a longer running show than their experience in World War
Two, to a successful conclusion. A little over a year later at the
February 1986 Communist Party Congress, he announced their failure
to do so by calling the Afghani War "a bleeding wound."
He had good reason. The cost in men, resources, and reputation was
quickly bankrupting what little was left of the Soviet Union.

Closing
Time

We
were obsessed with our messianic mission and blinded by arrogance.

~
The
Hidden War
by Artyom Borovik

The
Soviet Army's withdrawal from Afghanistan came about not due to
any change of heart in her leaders' appetite to meddle in their
neighbors' affairs. The recent excursion into Georgia and the Chechen
wars of the 1990s show that her political elite remains just as
aggressive on her borders. The Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan
for the same reason that everyone has always withdrawn from there
— they got their head handed to them.

One
Russian officer summed it all up as not "a victory or a defeat,
but just our withdrawal" (Borovik, p.161) yet as things go
when invading Afghanistan getting out alive is the best you can
hope for. The greatest defeat the British empire suffered was in
Afghanistan, her invading army wiped out to the man but one, a wounded
doctor allowed to live as a message to his buddies back in India
to stay on their side of the fence.

Echoing
Thomas Jefferson's warning that war does as much damage to the victor
as the vanquished, Borovik's The Hidden War laments, "we
rarely stopped to think how Afghanistan would influence us."
The damage the lies did to what remained of the Communist Party's
legitimacy, the burden in resources the war placed onto an economic
base crushed to weakness by years of political control, and, most
importantly, the hordes of Russian soldiers who came home from the
war to tell the truth – all played a large part in the Soviet Union's
collapse.

The
Russians, like so many before and after, were infected by the colonialist
delusion that makes people believe they're a god-like race of sunshine
supermen, and the chosen, inferior natives will thank their lucky
stars for the "help" magnanimously provided. Instead,
what happened to the Russians is what has always happened to anyone
foolish enough to stick their neck into Afghanistan — the natives
scrimped and bowed and stained their fingers purple, bided their
time, then massacred them at every opportunity.

The
necessity for Russia to send her troops into Afghanistan was presented
to the public at large as an "internationalist duty" that
would be inconceivable for a Great Power to not perform. It was
a nice little puff of a catchphrase and worked as well as could
be hoped because it meant nothing, and nothing is exactly what the
Russians were fighting over in Afghanistan.


Realizing the uselessness of the endless negotiations with the Afghani
tribes and smart enough to see the writing on the wall, Mikhail
Gorbachev, a man who absolutely deserved the Nobel Peace Prize he
was awarded in 1990, shocked everyone by simply stating that all
Soviet troops would be gone by February 1989, they were, and the
Soviet-Afghani War thus was ended.


Recently my local paper ran a sad picture of an elderly Russian
woman standing in a snow-covered cemetery, leaning unhappily against
her son's cold gravestone. When he was killed in Afghanistan in
1983 he was nineteen years old. Her grief for what she lost is etched
on her face as deeply as her son's name is etched on the slab of
marble. Her loss — and that of all the others who lost loved ones
in that conflict — is all that Russia earned herself by invading
Afghanistan.

There
is a lesson to be learned in that picture, summed up in the late
1800s by a Russian Army colonel named Glukhovsky who wrote "No
amount of persuasion, advice, or threats is capable of re-arranging
the age-long mechanism of Muslim states" (Borovik, p.12) The
Russian people who lived during the 1979–1989 period, and all
their Afghani victims, would have been far happier had Brezhnev
been humble enough to listen to the advice of that long dead army
colonel.

Had
he done so that old woman, and so many like her, wouldn't have to
stand in cold February cemeteries, their grief made all the more
tragic because it was bought about for no reason at all.

SOURCES

Feifer,
Gregory. 2009. The
Great Gamble — The Soviet War in Afghanistan
. New York,
NY: HarperCollins Publishing

Borovik,
Artyom. 1990. The
Hidden War — A Russian Journalist's Account of the Soviet War in
Afghanistan
. New York, NY: Grove Press

Tanner,
Stephen. 2002. Afghanistan:
A Military History From Alexander the Great to the Fall of the Taliban
.
New York, NY: DaCapo Press

Arnold,
Anthony. 1985. Afghanistan:
The Soviet Invasion in Perspective
. Stanford, CA: Hoover
Institution Press

February
18, 2009

C.J. Maloney
[send him mail] lives and
works in New York City.

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