The Soviet army’s fixation with large-scale military operations during the war proved completely unproductive and did little to further Soviet war aims. Rarely did the 40th [Soviet] Army or the Afghan army hold terrain after clear­ing it of anti-government forces. In 1986, the commander of the Soviet armed forces told the Politburo that, “There is no single piece of land in this country which has not been occupied by a Soviet soldier. Nevertheless, the majority of the territory remains in the hands of the rebels . . . There is no single military problem that has arisen and that has not been solved, and yet there is still no result. The whole problem is in the fact that the military results are not followed up by political [actions]. We control Kabul and the provincial centers, but on occupied territory we cannot establish au­thority. We have lost the battle for the Afghan people.” This observation clearly shows the major defect in Soviet COIN operations. For the Soviet military there was “no single military problem” they could not work out. There was no political follow-through because the Soviet Army was not in the business of nation-building. Added to this, was the ruthless, relent­less campaign to drive the Afghan population from the countryside. It is therefore not surprising that the 40th Army lost its “battle for the Afghan people.”

While the Soviets and their Afghan allies could successfully attack Mujahideen fighters and inflicted serious losses on them, once they left the captured area anti-government forces would quickly reoccupy their previ­ous base of operations. Due to a lack of soldiers, the Soviets could clear, but they could not hold key terrain outside the cities and their lines of com­munications. While the problems associated with Soviet large-scale op­erations were recorded by military historians, the US Army and coalition forces in Afghanistan launched operations that were in some ways similar in approach. Especially in the first six years of the coalition campaign in Afghanistan (2001-2007) military forces conducted missions not designed to clear, hold and build, but rather to dislocate and defeat the Taliban and then move on. As with the Soviet experience, once soldiers relinquished the ground anti-government forces quickly returned.

Large Soviet offensive operations also hindered COIN and nation-building efforts….Soviet combat forces terrorized the Afghan population, and, as the editors of the Russian General Staff history concluded, “did little to win them over to the government’s side.” Soviet combat officers were unwilling or unable to support nation-building programs such as national reconciliation. In 1987 when a Soviet political officer tried to explain to a colonel-general that combat assaults in one of the provinces were not conducive to the new program, the commander responded, “To hell with national reconciliation.” The lack of military support for what they deemed “political work” almost certainly played a role in the rejection of the nation-building approach by the Soviets in 1987.

In the end, the Soviets were not defeated in Afghanistan. Their decision to extricate themselves was a political decision and the withdrawal was accomplished in good order. The Soviets left behind a viable Afghan government and army supported by advisers in addition to massive amounts of economic aid. Inasmuch as the Soviets were unwilling to commit their full resources to the conflict and the 40th Army was unwilling to fully support nation-building efforts, this arrangement was perhaps the best solution after the decade long conflict. The Soviet experience demonstrated that a purely military solution to counter-insurgency in Afghanistan did not work. “One has to admit,” affirmed a communiqué from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on 10 May 1988, “that essentially we put our bets on the military solution, on suppressing the counterrevolution with force. We did not even fully use the existing opportunities for neutralization of the hostile attitudes of the local population towards us.”  Clearly, it was the wrong approach.

 

Source:  Matt M. Matthews, “We Have Not Learned How to Wage War There”:  The Soviet Approach in Afghanistan 1979–1989, Combat Studies Institute Press, U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, Ft. Leavenworth, KS, 2011, pp. 65-67.

stevenhardestyMore war storiesafghanistan,sovietsThe Soviet army’s fixation with large-scale military operations during the war proved completely unproductive and did little to further Soviet war aims. Rarely did the 40th Army or the Afghan army hold terrain after clear­ing it of anti-government forces. In 1986, the commander of the Soviet armed forces...Recovering forgotten and overlooked military history