By Edward Girardet
The Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan led to the collapse of the USSR. There are lessons to be learned from the Kremlin’s nearly decade-long failure trying to combat the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Given Russia’s incompetent but brutal war in Ukraine, now being directed primarily at hapless civilians, plus an already collapsing economy caused by international sanctions, it could also mean the end of Putin’s ambitions for a new empire.
When the Soviet 40th Army invaded Afghanistan on 27 December 1979, the Kremlin was “responding” to a call for assistance by its new Afghan puppet, Babrak Karmal, who had been conveniently flown in from Czechoslovak exile only hours before. While Soviet military advisors had been on the ground ever since the communist April, 1978 ‘Saur’ revolution, the objective was to make it seem that Moscow had been invited in.
The Russians specifically wished to get rid of Hafizullah Amin, the increasingly uncontrollable head of the country’s ruling Khalqi faction, but they also wanted to take charge of the regime’s failing efforts to put down rapidly spreading armed revolt.
Not unlike Hitler’s staged attack on August 31, 1939 by Germans dressed as Polish soldiers against the German transmitter at Gleiwitz to justify his Blitzkrieg, Moscow felt obliged to justify its takeover of Afghanistan, whose Islamist influences, it feared, threatened to undermine its own Central Asian Republics. By quickly occupying Afghanistan, the Russians believed, they could contain the problem. Little did they imagine that their failure to subdue this mountainous and desert country would ultimately lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union, a factor that appears to have influenced President Vladimir Putin’s current reasoning for re-asserting Russia’s position in the world.
Putin, who was already in charge in 1999, used similar language to justify his brutal military invasion of Chechnya to prevent the majority Muslim region from breaking away. His war resulted in the razing of Grozny, the Chechen capital. The Russian dictator has replicated similar justifications for his February 24 assault against Ukraine. Describing its population as ‘vassals’ and ‘neo-Nazis’ manipulated by NATO and the European Union, the Russian dictator not only perceives democratic Ukraine as a “security risk”, but a threat to his own ambitions for a new Russian empire. (See William Dowell article on Ukraine as Russia’s Vietnam)
Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan failed in the long run
So how does Afghanistan fit into all this? While many of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, notably the deliberate bombing of towns and fleeing civilians, reek of Chechnya-revisited, there are some lessons worth exploring.
Not unlike Moscow’s 41st Army push with an estimated 150,000 troops deployed from Russia and Belorussia in the north, but also annexed Crimea and the Black Sea in the south, the Red Army invaded Afghanistan with a 115,000-strong force. While the bulk of its troops crossed over from bordering Soviet Central Asia, airborne units within days took major airfields, such as Bagram, Kandahar and Shindand. As this writer can ascertain based on first-hand reporting, the Kremlin figured that such military might alone would suffice to intimidate the country’s largely illiterate population and poorly armed rebels.
The shock and awe invasion initially worked. Resistance was light and over five million Afghans fled the country, many of them during the first few months. Supported by Afghan government forces, including paid and often ruthless communist militia, the Red Army quickly established its control in the cities. Throughout Russia’s nearly decade-long control, Kabul suffered only limited damage. Only a few specialized guerrilla fronts focused on urban assaults and assassinations.
It was a different story in the countryside, where the mujahideen, or holy warriors as Afghan guerrillas were known, took their war. Operating from amongst the high mountains and rugged deserts, they fought an increasingly successful campaign of attrition by ambushing Red Army convoys and attacking forward bases. Outside military assistance in the form of weapons and funds provided by the CIA, Saudis, Pakistanis and others steadily strengthened their ability to fight, particularly with the arrival of US-supplied Stinger missiles – a gamechanger for the Afghan resistance – which forced Soviet MIGs and helicopter gunships to fly high and less effectively.
The mujahideen basically made it impossible for the Soviets to assert themselves despite repeated major land and air offensives involving 12,000 troops or more against guerrilla strongholds. Frustrated, the Soviets destroyed over 22,000 villages forcing out civilians and turning farms into parched moonscapes by rupturing irrigation canals and killing off fruit orchards as a means of denying the resistance local support. They also laced the mountain passes, roads and farmlands with anti-personnel and other mines inflicting a devastating problem that has taken years to clear.
Russian propaganda also perpetuated the myth of “brotherly friendship” between the Soviet and Afghan peoples. While the East-bloc trained KHAD, the Afghan version of the KGB, stifled urban opposition, including demonstrations, through arrests, beatings and summary executions, Moscow sought to ensure the appearance of stability and progress – at least in the cities. It did this by subsidizing wheat and other food prices to the detriment of the Soviet economy. It also inaugurated ‘modern’ or refurbished apartment blocks, factories and hospitals, sometimes several times for television and PR purposes. As Red Army soldiers found to their astonishment, you could eat better in Kabul than back in the USSR.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: a poorly planned operation now resorting to killing civilians
Similar developments have emerged in Ukraine. Nearly three million Ukrainians – mainly women, children and the elderly – have already fled as the Russians increasingly – and deliberately – bomb populated areas. “It’s like déjà vu,” recalled a former International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegate who was in Peshawar, Pakistan, when the first waves of Afghan refugees crossed the border. The Russians are also preventing humanitarian supplies from reaching besieged populations.
While Afghanistan had a functioning communist regime largely willing to accept Russian backing, it seems unlikely that many Ukrainians except perhaps well-rewarded Quislings will collaborate openly with the invaders. Moscow-inserted officials in the now Russian-occupied city of Melitopol, for example, which is witnessing daily anti-Moscow demonstrations, have been seeking to interact with the local population only to find themselves ostracized. Even ethnic Russian-Ukranians have been criticizing the Putin regime. The invading Russians are now resorting to kidnapping or otherwise eliminating mayors and other municipal officials in captured towns and villages.
According to the Melitopol’s Ukrainian mayor, Ivan Federov, the Russians have been staging fake humanitarian food distributions for propaganda purposes using actors to portray concerned aid workers, but nothing is actually handed out. “We are not co-operating with the Russians in any way,” he told the BBC. “They have not tried to help us…and we do not want their help.”
Unlike the Afghans, whether the mujahideen fighting the Soviets or the Taliban against NATO, the Ukrainians have a different and less advantageous terrain to operate in. Their war will be fought more in and around the towns with bitter street and trench fighting using shelled buildings for cover not unlike, ironically, the manner with which the Germans and Soviets fought in Stalingrad. “Russia’s invasion has been incredibly badly organized and is now running into real trouble,” noted a senior NATO officer. “Their desperation has become clear by their efforts now to make the lives of civilians hell.”
Kremlin disinformation: preventing the truth from reaching Russians
At the same time, while costly, Ukraine’s war against the invaders has already proven highly effective, something that the Kremlin was not expecting. Russian forces have only been able to advance slowly against significant resistance, which has been blocking road access for fuel supplies given the number of destroyed tankers and trucks. For this reason, the Russians will probably persist with their air and long-range artillery assaults resulting in the steady destruction of Ukraine’s towns leaving a massively devastated land in their wake.
The Ukrainians, who already have been receiving western military assistance in the form of anti-aircraft missiles, including Stingers, and anti-tank weapons, have been taking a toll on Russian planes and helicopters. (The mujahideen, in contrast, had to wait several years for such weaponry). According to the Royal United Services Institute in London, at least 20 Russian aircraft have been visually confirmed as shot down, an indication that the Russians are struggling for air supremacy. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, which has admitted to suffering its own aircraft losses, claims it has downed nearly 60 Russian aircraft plus more than 80 helicopters.
While such claims cannot be verified, the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) has noted that if western intelligence is to be believed, the Russians are suffering considerable casualties, “possibly in their thousands, including at least two generals.” The Pentagon is putting the figure at between 5,000-6,000, while the Ukrainians claim more than 12,000.
The Kremlin, however, is not making the mistake as in Afghanistan by sending back dead soldiers in caskets and leaving it up to Soviet mothers to spread the word. This proved a crucial factor for building popular resentment to the war during the 1980s. As one BBC journalist noted, the Russians are also leaving their dead behind without bothering to remove them. Ukranians have been removing their weapons, videoing their remains and collecting their IDs to eventually inform Russians back home as to what is happening to their boys.
With this conflict, however, Putin’s troops are operating mobile incinerators. The last thing the Kremlin wants is to have closed coffins lined up on airport tarmacs appearing in social media. It is also keeping the official number of deaths low, 500 or so to date, and declaring them ‘heroes’, precisely what Moscow did throughout the Soviet-Afghan war.
Unlike Afghanistan, where the bulk of Red Army soldiers were poorly trained conscripts, Russia’s Ukrainian war is relying more on so-called ‘contractors’, soldiers who have signed up for longer than the one-year draft in return for better pay. Many, too, are Chechen mercenaries. Last week, the Kremlin announced that it was engaging Syrian ‘volunteers’ to help with its war.
Nevertheless, as recently captured Russian POWs have indicated in video testimony, many are still conscripts, while contractors are pointing out that their pay is too paltry to make joining the army attractive. Morale appears low. As occurred in Afghanistan, Russian soldiers, who have access only to official information sources, are saying that they did not know they would be invading Ukraine but had been told they would be on maneuvers in Belorussia.
Afghanistan resulted in the collapse of the USSR. Is Ukraine the end of Putin’s expansionism?
As during the Soviet-Afghan war, the Kremlin has sought to control credible information. Given Putin’s repressive crackdown of social media and outside news sources, such as the now banned BBC, but also its repression of Russia’s own remaining outspoken press where the words ‘war’ and ‘invasion’ are banned, Ukrainian cyberhackers encouraged by the Kyiv government are ensuring that harsh realities from the front constantly interrupt official state media. As one source with the Cyber Security Forum in Geneva maintained, “the ultimate success of Ukrainian resistance may lie in its ability to completely hack the Russian system.” Many Russians still have little idea about the realities of the Kremlin’s ruthless war in Ukraine.
Initially, the Soviets in Afghanistan at least had the benefit of an Afghan army to work with. But as the occupation became more futile, thousands of Afghans deserted. Even senior Afghan officers within the high command collaborated with the resistance. The only ones the Russians could rely on were the paid militia, but even these readily changed sides the moment funds ran out. Red Army troops, too, soon realized how pointless the war was resulting in high alcoholism, drug addiction and depression. Not only that, but the war was proving financially draining, something that international sanctions against Putin’s Russia and inner circles may be achieving.
The whole purpose now of an effective resistance strategy by the Ukranians is to ensure that occupation simply becomes too costly – and pointless – to continue. The Soviet Union lost up to 25,000 dead during the Afghan war. Russia could face similar casualties in Ukraine. They will have achieved nothing, except, perhaps the demise of both Putin and his dream of a new, expansionist Russia.
Edward Girardet is a foreign correspondent, author and editor of the Geneva-based Global Insights Magazine. He has covered wars and humanitarian crises worldwide for The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report and the PBS Newshour. His books include: “Afghanistan: The Soviet War”; “Killing the Cranes – A reporter’s journey through three decades of war in Afghanistan”; “The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan”. (4 fully-revised editions) and “Somalia, Rwanda and Beyond.”
This article was first published on Global Geneva.