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

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.


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