Afghanistan war: lessons from the Soviet war
In the Marjah offensive of the Afghanistan war, a reporter hears echoes of the Soviet war.
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With two journalist colleagues, I climbed to a 7,000-foot vantage over the valley. Dozens of front-line guerrillas, looking like Cuban revolutionaries with their long hair and beards, lounged among the rocks in the bright sun watching the spectacle. Grinning, they handed us glasses of tea, oblivious of helicopters roaring barely 500 meters overhead. Massoud's strategy was to empty the valley, let the Soviets in, and have fighters hit the occupation forces in their own time.Skip to next paragraph
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It was reminiscent of a 19th-century painting of picnickers casually watching a distant battle. We counted no fewer than 200 helicopter sorties that morning, while scores of tanks and armored personnel carriers ground their way up the riverbed, the only way to penetrate the valley because guerrillas had mined the road. Unlike the current anti-NATO insurgency, however, the use of improvised explosive devices was limited; while suicide bombers, a relatively recent tactic introduced by Al Qaeda, were never used by the mujahideen.
There seemed to be many simultaneous operations: Across the valley, M-24 gunships circled like sharks to attack guerrilla positions. Farther on, trucks mounted with rockets fired into mountainsides. Just below, a Soviet machine gun leveled off bursts against guerrillas among the boulders above. Nearby, shirtless Red Army soldiers took breaks sunning on looted carpets spread on the flat roofs of houses, while others redeployed, jogging single file through shrapnel-torn mulberry trees.
The Soviet/Afghan force quickly took the valley, proclaiming victory. The reality was far different. Massoud's experienced guerrillas suffered few casualties and, within days, launched assaults against the entrenched Red Army troops. Afghan government soldiers, too, poorly paid and disheartened, slipped out at night with their weapons to join the resistance.
Massoud eventually made a truce with the Soviets. This enabled the Red Army a "take and hold" policy with several garrisons in the Panjshir. Some civilians returned, while the guerrillas established their own concealed bases in mountains beyond. The truce was much criticized by rival groups of mujahideen, but it was part of a long-term strategy: Massoud had no intention of collaborating with the regime. Occupation troops first had to leave before any unity government could be formed. It's the same refrain today by the Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, and other opposition groups.
For years, Massoud kept the Soviets tied down while focusing on other areas and building a highly proficient regional force denying the communists swaths of countryside. The mujahideen – like the Taliban now – always felt they had time on their side. All they needed to do was wear down the Red Army. At the height of the occupation, the Soviets commanded 120,000 troops in Afghanistan, compared with the 150,000 coalition high expected by next fall with completion of the US troop surge. When the Soviets, who suffered at least 15,000 deaths and thousands of injured, pulled out in February 1989, they had little to show but widespread destruction of much of the country. Three years later, the Moscow-backed regime in Kabul crumbled. Today, it's as if the Soviets had never been there.
Unlike NATO forces, who now make pointed efforts to protect civilians, the Soviets and their Afghan cohorts often deliberately targeted local populations. Throughout its war, however, the Red Army held little more than the main towns. The countryside remained largely in the hands of the mujahideen. Similarly, today, 70 percent of the country is ranked as "insecure" by the United Nations.
THE parallels of the panjshir with today just keep rolling. Today's insurgents fight much like the mujahideen; and, in fact, many now call themselves mujahideen. Many commanders earned their battle spurs during the Soviet war. Their fighters hide among the locals and, often, are the locals. If things get tough, they deploy elsewhere.
Like Marjah, a deliberate joint NATO-Afghan operation, the Soviets made a point of involving Afghan partners and constantly extolled the effectiveness of the Kabul regime in the hope that Afghan security forces would assume the brunt of the war. In reality, the Soviets were running the show just as US, British, and other forces are today.