Moscow’s Fatal Military Adventure

Dec. 1, 2004

On Sept. 12, 1979, the president of Afghanistan, Nur Mohammad Taraki, was deposed and then murdered. Hafizullah Amin, a communist and a Soviet puppet who led the coup, replaced Taraki and set about trying to quell an anti-Soviet Muslim revolt.

In this, Amin was no more successful than Taraki, and Moscow before long was seeking a more radical solution.

Within months, a worried Kremlin had launched an outright invasion of Afghanistan. It marked the first direct use of Soviet military power outside of Eastern Europe since World War II.

The attack, set in motion 25 years ago this month, led to what some call “the Soviet Vietnam,” but that does not convey the magnitude of the disaster that befell the USSR. Vietnam, after all, did not destroy America, but Afghanistan did cause the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 1979, Soviet power seemed to be at its peak. With a huge force of multiwarhead ICBMs, Moscow matched or exceeded the US in overall strategic nuclear might. The 3.6 million-strong Soviet forces enjoyed numerical superiority in conventional forces.

Politically, the Soviet Union seemed stable. Moreover, America’s exit from Vietnam seemed to mark the start of a long-term retrenchment of US power around the world.

Soviet leaders, in short, saw little risk in its Afghanistan adventure.

The Red Army invasion force secretly began mobilizing in October 1979. Airborne battalions arrived at Bagram Air Base that December. These units moved to cover the vital Salang Pass, the invasion route of the Soviet Red Army’s 360th and 375th Motor Rifle Divisions.

In mid-December, a well-timed and well-executed military airlift, using some 280 aircraft, transported crack, combat-ready Soviet troops to Kabul. Once in Kabul, Soviet forces moved out swiftly, seizing key targets, and on Dec. 25, the city was declared secure.

The Kremlin, however, had not played its final card. On Dec. 27, an elite Soviet Spetsnaz unit raided the president’s Darulaman Palace with orders to kill Amin and every living soul with him. The unit, commanded by Lt. Gen. Viktor Paputin, did just that.

In Amin’s place, the Soviets installed another puppet, Babrak Karmal, as the new head of government. Other units crossed the border and fanned out to occupy air bases and cities.

The new regime immediately launched a pro-Muslim charm offensive and moved to blame all previous problems on the former rulers. Russia’s leaders hoped that these measures and a potent Soviet occupation force would guarantee peace on the USSR’s highly sensitive southern border.

It was, of course, a miscalculation of historic proportion.

Over the next 10 years, a curious, three-sided conflict unfolded in Afghanistan. One side comprised Soviet conventional forces, which were strong, well-equipped, and well-trained—but for a war in Europe, not Afghanistan. A second side centered on the armed forces of the Soviet-backed Kabul regime. The Afghan Army suffered from internal divisions and dislike of the invaders, who were also their main patrons. On the third side was the fractious Afghan resistance, united only in its allegiance to Islam and its hatred of any imposed outside influence.

Estimates of the strength of the Afghan resistance ranged from 90,000 up to 700,000 in the 10 years of the war, but of these only a small portion was effective in modern guerrilla war or was even in the field at any time.

The war ebbed and flowed through the years, but it was increased Western support of the Afghans—including introduction of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons such as the SA-7 and the Stinger—that forced the Red Army to pack up and leave.

Early Advances, 1980-82

At the onset of the conflict, the Soviets expected the army of the Kabul regime to make large-scale sweeps against resistance forces, with the Soviets supplementing the domestic efforts. This did not work out, for desertions seriously weakened the ill-trained and ill-motivated Afghan Army. When asked to fire on demonstrators, its soldiers often declined and defected to the resistance.

This lack of loyalty was shown at every level of the Kabul regime’s forces, including even the supposedly elite Afghan pilots flying Soviet-built MiG-21s. On one occasion, an entire squadron of MiG-21s was destroyed when their pilots blew them up and fled to fight on the ground with the mujahedeen.

The first shock to Soviet sensibilities came when it was discovered that the men of their motorized rifle divisions were poorly trained. Ominously, 70 percent of divisional strength was composed of reservists with Muslim backgrounds.

Soviet troop strength grew from an initial 40,000 to about 120,000 at its peak and, to its immense misfortune, was made up largely of conscripts.

Initially, the Soviet Union responded to a series of strikes and demonstrations in Afghan cities with a display of military power, conducting ground sweeps using mechanized forces backed up by airpower.

Unfortunately for Moscow, it lacked light infantry to accompany the armor, placing it at an extreme disadvantage in the rugged terrain in which the guerillas operated.

In another echo of Vietnam, the native Afghan opposition studied Soviet tactics and learned how to isolate, attack, and destroy individual units. Moscow’s reaction was to employ more airpower, particularly the effective Hind attack helicopter, which ultimately became the symbol both of Soviet oppression and defeat.

Some conventional weapons, such as surface-to-air missiles and heavy artillery, were found not to be useful for fighting counterinsurgency warfare and were withdrawn. In their place, additional heliborne ground forces were brought in.

Soviet casualties were unacceptably high. By time the Soviets withdrew in 1989, they admitted to up to 15,000 killed. This figure has been questioned by a number of sources, including the Russian military. Other observers contend that the number was actually between 40,000 and 50,000, of the some 550,000 personnel who served in the country.

The Soviets discovered that big ground offensives were largely exercises in futility, bringing heavy casualties and no perceptible long-term gain. The other side of the coin was that despite the large number of casualties being inflicted on the enemy, this had relatively little effect on the resistance.

Trying to Adapt, 1983-85

The Soviets were continually adding variations to their theme of combined-arms warfare and the use of political means. In the Panjshir Valley, some 70 miles northeast of Kabul, a year-long truce was struck with the local Tajik leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud. The truce proved of more value to Massoud than to the Soviets, for he continued to conduct operations in other areas, gathering greater influence.

New Soviet offensive tactics included the depopulation of areas where the resistance was most effective and the concurrent destruction of the agricultural basis for their existence. Depopulation featured mass killings and the flight of inhabitants to cities or across the border to Pakistan or Iran. Some five million Afghans were driven out of the country.

The Red Army employed brutal “hammer and anvil” tactics. Soviet tank columns were the hammer, and armed outposts were the anvil. Typically, Soviet troops would move along major roads, with heavy support by aircraft and helicopter gunships.

The Red Army suffered from the typical soldier’s apparent inability—or reluctance—to scout effectively. The high ground was often occupied by mujahedeen, who watched for chances to launch successful ambushes. They would let major armed Soviet forces pass unmolested and then concentrate their attacks on the inevitable follow-up resupply columns.

Over time, Soviet tactics improved, and mechanized forces would make a quick rush from base to base after a heavy artillery bombardment had prepared the way, with support from helicopter gunships and fighters. Yet the one unalterable fact was that the Soviets could control only a small part of the countryside.

Soviet forces attempted to hold their position by establishing garrisons in key areas and then sustaining them with supplies, reinforcements, and rescue columns.

By 1984, the Soviet military had greatly increased its reliance on airpower. Air bases were either built or improved at principal cities. In total, there were seven bases with all-weather capability and runways suitable for jet aircraft. All of the basics of airpower—radar, command systems, surface-to-air missile defense systems—were brought in.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the new Soviet leader, replacing a long line of increasingly decrepit party bosses. The new man, for at least his first months in office, evidently believed victory still could be achieved. By 1986, however, Gorbachev had reversed course, concluding that victory was not possible and that Soviet forces should withdraw.

The Cookie Crumbles, 1986-87

The Kremlin gave the weak Kabul government a new master in May 1986. President Karmal was abruptly replaced with Maj. Gen. Mohammad Najibullah. Najibullah was an adept statesman, able to be moderate in his demands and in his offers of cooperation, despite his background as head of the Afghan secret service, but his regime was never considered legitimate.

Resistance forces loyal to Massoud now began to demonstrate a flexibility and tenacity previously lacking. For its part, the Soviet Union, particularly its special forces, performed more effectively, but a new era was at hand.

In August 1986, resistance forces around Kabul began to make extensive use of the SA-7 surface-to-air missile, which had been fired in limited numbers since 1980. Then, on Sept. 26, 1986, in Nangarhar Province, the Soviets received reports that the Afghan guerrillas, using heat-seeking, man-portable Stinger SAMs, had shot down three of four Soviet helicopters flying in formation.

From this point on, Soviet aircraft losses increased sharply, resulting in a change in Soviet helicopter and fighter-bomber tactics that diminished their effectiveness. These events bolstered Soviet desires to get out of Afghanistan.

Moscow increased its effort to end the conflict by increasing economic, political, and military pressure on Pakistan to stop the flow of supplies to the resistance forces. Najibullah effected the adoption of a new constitution in December 1986, and local elections were held.

The decisive factor, however, was the performance of the American Stinger missile, which racked up a stunning 68 percent success rate. Some claimed they accounted for the shootdown of more than 150 Soviet aircraft of all types. That number likely was exaggerated, but there is no doubt that the Stinger forced Soviet pilots to use new tactics and extensive countermeasures, which reduced the effectiveness of Soviet airpower.

Without the air weapon, neither Soviet forces nor their Afghan allies could conduct successful operations. Several severe communist defeats caused the Soviets to consolidate their forces into larger garrisons, placing the increasingly restive Kabul regime forces more at risk.

Belly Up, 1988-89

It didn’t take long for Gorbachev to launch the effort to get the Red Army out of the quagmire of tremendous expense and horrendous casualties. A key enabling factor was the Geneva Accords in Afghanistan agreed upon in 1985. The premise was that, once the foreign (that is, American) threat to Afghanistan came to an end, Soviet forces could leave.

By early 1988, relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan had changed to the point that Moscow could claim Pakistan was no longer supporting the Afghan resistance. Gorbachev could claim that original Soviet goals had been fulfilled and that Moscow could begin withdrawing its forces. That withdrawal was completed on Feb. 15, 1989.

Soviet withdrawal did not mean the end of Soviet support for the communist regime in Kabul. Nor did it mean peace. Soviet supplies continued to flood into the country, allowing the now isolated Kabul regime to survive another three bitter years of fighting. Pakistan and the US continued to arm the Afghan mujahedeen, but new postwar political situations took priority.

Soviet airpower featured technically advanced systems and brave, well-trained pilots. The Kremlin’s ground forces were also well-equipped, though they lacked experience and leadership and could not adapt to the terrain and weather of Afghanistan. In the end, they could not overcome the fanatical resistance equipped with the Stinger.

Soviet forces surely learned many lessons while at war in Afghanistan. All, however, were overwhelmed in the early months of 1991 by the demonstration of awesome American military power in Operation Desert Storm.

The consecutive shocks of defeat in Afghanistan and the startling display of US technological superiority in the Gulf War were probably the two key factors that pushed the Soviet Union over the political cliff.

On Dec. 26, 1991, some 12 years after the invasion, the Soviet Union expired. It went out not with a bang, as many had expected, but with a whimper.

Soviet Airpower in Afghanistan

The Soviet Air Force, unlike the Army, followed a policy of rotating air units through Afghanistan on a six- to nine-month tour basis. Often only part of the unit would deploy, with the remainder of the regiment staying at its permanent base.

The Soviet Union used helicopters as its primary air weapon. As many as 650 were fielded. They were lavishly employed, sometimes in massed formations reminiscent of the Sturmovik attacks of World War II.

The Mi-24 Hind gunship was effective, and the versatile Mi-17 Hip was used to bring troops in and out of the combat zones. A heavily armed and armored version of the Hip was used as an attack helicopter. Official Soviet sources indicate that 333 helicopters were lost.

When the war began, the MiG-21 Fishbed was the most important fighter-bomber, a role for which it was not particularly effective in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan. The Sukhoi Su-17 Fitter was more successful at close air support. Smaller numbers of the Su-25 Frogfoot—the Soviet equivalent of the A-10 Warthog—Su-24 Fencer, and MiG-23 Flogger served after 1984.

Beyond providing close air support, fighter-bombers were used in new roles by the Soviets in their attempts to depopulate areas of Afghanistan and destroy its agricultural base. Farmhouses, outbuildings, livestock, and even crops were attacked.

When the fighter-bombers were used as reprisal weapons for terrorist attacks, they would level a village. Ground troops would follow up to kill any survivors of the air attack and also demolish anything of value the fighter-bombers missed.

About 118 fighter-bombers were lost during the war.

Heavy strike aircraft—mostly Tu-16 Badgers and Tu-22M Backfires—carpet bombed villages and strongholds, especially in the Panjshir Valley dominated by tribal leader Ahmed Shah Massoud.

In 1984, a force of 36 Badgers mounted up to 40 strikes per day, indicating that the aircraft enjoyed a relatively high in-commission rate and good turnaround capability, despite several fatal crashes.

The air war in Afghanistan had some unusual aspects. Ten aircraft of the Afghan Air Force defected to Pakistan. There was combat between Pakistani F-16s and both Afghan and Soviet jet aircraft, with the Pakistanis scoring 10 victories but losing one F-16 to fratricide.

Walter J. Boyne, former director of the National Air and Space Museum, is a retired Air Force colonel and author. He has written more than 600 articles about aviation topics and published 40 books. The most recent of these is The Influence of Air Power on History. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The Rocket Men,” appeared in the September issue.