Afghanistan: October 3, 2001


What the Russians Really Learned in Afghanistan- Russias experience in Afghanistan, like Americas in Vietnam, was not one of defeat, but more one of exasperation. Consider the similarities;

@ In both cases, the larger nation was never defeated on the battlefield. While Russian troops lost 15,000 dead, this was mostly the result of ambushes and defending against constant small scale attacks on their supply lines. When the Russians wanted to, they could roll over just about any Afghan force and cause the Afghans to flee. But the Afghans promptly came back, Same situation in Vietnam.

@ Both the Afghans and the North Vietnamese had secure bases to operate from. The threat of Russian nuclear weapons prevented America from invading North Vietnam and destroying the supply lines going into China. The threat of American nuclear weapons prevented Russia from taking out the Afghan bases in Pakistan and Iran. These bases were crucial in both cases, for without the bases, resistance in Afghanistan and South Vietnam would have been crushed. In all the other similar situations during the 20th century, this is what happened when a larger nation supported a faction in a civil war. Without outside help, especially a nearby base area, the side without a superpower ally will lose.

@ After Russia left Afghanistan and the US left South Vietnam, the governments they supported held out for another three years. This shows that in both situations, the larger nation was taking sides in a civil war, and in both cases it was the losing side.

Then there are the differences. While the United States built ports, roads and railroads to provide enormous amounts of supplies, the Russians were unable to do so in landlocked Afghanistan. America was able to support over a million and a half US, South Vietnamese and allied troops. The lack of railroads, and not many roads, prevented the Russians from putting more than about 300,000 of their own troops into Afghanistan, or supplying more than the same number of Afghan troops fighting for them. The Afghan resistance constantly attacked the Russian truck convoys, and much of the Russian forces was devoted to defending these convoys.

Russia did develop some very effective tactics to deal with the small groups of Afghans they were fighting. The Afghans preferred to fight in units of a dozen to a few dozen men. Off the road, the lightly equipped Afghans could move faster than Russian infantry. So the Russians brought in more commandoes and air mobile (via helicopter) troops. These were much feared by the Afghans and only defeated when the US shipped in Stinger portable anti-aircraft missiles. The logistical problems of operating in Afghanistan restricted the number of helicopters the Russians could keep running inside the country, so the helicopter losses were more acute. Moreover, the shot down choppers hurt Russian morale and made pilots less daring. The loss of their air mobile commando advantage was one of the main reasons the Russians decided to withdraw from Afghanistan. 

But the Russians had other successes in Afghanistan. They benefited from over a century of experience fighting in Central Asia. In this part of the world, loyalty was mainly to tribe or clan. There was some national consciousness, but a bribe could temporarily change the political views of a tribe or tribal chief. What the Russians were buying was neutrality, so they could concentrate their forces on the tribes that insisted on fighting back. Once the Russians lost their air mobile assault advantage, many of the bribed tribes realized they were taking money from a loser and did not stay bought. Again, this was a practical decision. The Russians were now weaker and less able to retaliate. And besides, the Russians were foreigners, so screw them. But if you come into Afghanistan appearing powerful, well spoken and rich, many tribes can be bought off, at least for a while. 

It's often forgotten that before the CIA and Arab world military support arrived in the refugee camps, the Afghan resistance was ineffectual. Russian air power, firepower and ruthlessness quickly stamped out resistance. Russia had conquered most of Central Asia twice in the previous century and did not see the Afghan tribes as being any more difficult that the many others the Red Army had stomped into submission. But those earlier conquests were against tribes lacking powerful supporters nearby. And the Russians often had the use of railroads (which make a huge difference.)

America cannot use all of Russia's experience. The Russian use of terror (wiping out villages that harbor resistance) is not available to American troops. Bribing tribes might be difficult back home politically. But America does have a better reputation for bringing disaster aid and wanting to make peace, not war. Still, Afghanistan is not the kind of place you want to fight a war in. Logistics are a nightmare and you have to kill a lot of the locals before resistance slacks off. These are the reasons why Russians, and many others, have long stayed out of Afghanistan.


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