How the USSR Lost the Afghan War

Friday, September 24, 2021

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The Soviet-Afghan War was one of the deadliest conflicts of the late Cold War era. But even beyond its immediate casualties and the instability, it brought to the wider region,  the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is one of the most important wars of our times,  as it holds an outsized influence on world politics today. In this episode,  we will see how this war started and how the USSR lost it and was forced to retreat. We live in an ever-changing world,  but one thing remains unchanged in any historical era – knowledge and applied skills are crucial both for a single person and for humanity in general.

We covered the operation  Storm-333 of December 1979, during which the  Soviet special forces eliminated the president of the newly-established Democratic Republic of Afghanistan Hafizullah Amin, in hopes that his successor Babrak Karmal would be able to stabilize the country.

In reality, the presence of the Red  Army, instead of being a stabilizing presence,  triggered the creation of a deadly insurgency. The  Soviet Politburo expected that the invasion would be a quick and simple affair, but they were warned by the military that it would not be the case.  The leadership still decided on invasion, as  Brezhnev sought to use the 1968 invasion of  Czechoslovakia as a template: He wanted the troops to return by the end of January 1980,  though it would become apparent quite soon that retreat was no longer an option.

The USSR’s intervention garnered massive international condemnation,  especially from Western, Muslim, and Non-Aligned countries, and this event would bring back the  Cold War to a level not seen in many years. The UN adopted a resolution deploring the Soviet invasion – a resolution for which an overwhelming majority in the UN voted. The Soviets were also opposed by the Islamic resistance movements, collectively known as the mujahideen.

They consisted of many smaller factions, divided along tribal and ideological lines. Meeting in the Pakistani city of Peshawar in late January, six Sunni mujahideen resistance groups banded together and announced the formation of a united Islamic Alliance for the Liberation of  Afghanistan. The most notable of these groups was Burhanuddin Rabbani’s Jamiat-e Islami,  whose members included Ismail Khan of  Herat, Naqib Alikozai, and Ahmad Shah Massoud of Panjshir.

The most powerful and most fundamentalists of the mujahideen leaders,  Gulbuddin Hekmatyar boycotted the meeting, not wanting his power to be disputed by the others. In the following years, millions of dollars in financial aid and weaponry flooded into Pakistan from the USA, China, Saudi Arabia, and other donors. It was there that the mujahideen received training from the Pakistani Armed Forces and the  Inter-Services Intelligence.

Later on, Abdullah  Yusuf Azzam, the so-called father of modern jihad,  and Osama bin Laden established their own funding channels and training schools. Although financial aid came from the aforementioned countries,  it is reported that even more was received from the various religious organizations within the Muslim world. Azam and bin Laden were also responsible for the recruitment of the majority of foreign volunteers. Their organization, Maktab al-Khidamat, the de facto predecessor of al Qaeda,  played a significant role during the war.

Karmal felt that the situation could not be completely entrusted to the notoriously unreliable Afghan army and demanded that the Soviet military provide aid to the DRA’s army in order to stabilize the country. It was envisioned to last for only a  short period of time, however, the Red Army ended up bearing the brunt of the fighting. Indeed,  only several days after Operation Storm-333,  on New Year’s Day, they had to put down a mutiny by Afghan soldiers in Kandahar. Simultaneously,  violence started breaking out in Kabul, Ghazni, and Herat.

On January 5th, as Soviet forces were taking control of Jalalabad, three battalions of the DRA deserted during the operation. Initially, the Soviet forces were mainly focused on securing the major cities, infrastructure,  and civil and military installations. Therefore,  they did not seek combat with the insurgents,  fighting only in self-defense.

It was during this initial phase of the conflict that Soviet troops engaged in looting, which drew the ire of the  already uncooperative Afghan rural population. Merely a few weeks after the Kremlin hailed the entire operation as a resounding success, stiff resistance by local Afghans began hounding  Soviet troops. The initial resistance was intense, however, the Soviet forces decisively defeated the mujahideen in open battle.  It was then that they realized that their best chance for survival would be guerilla warfare. For the rest of the war, the insurgents mostly engaged in sabotage missions, cutting power lines,  blowing up radio stations, and attacking critical communication and supply lines.

Considering the fact that going over all of the smaller offensives,  raids and ambushes would be impossible, we will cover the most notable encounters from the war. One of the most crucial points of interest during the war was the Panjshir river valley,  to the north of Kabul.

The valley offered easy access to the Bagram military base, Kabul, and more importantly, the Salang Pass in the Hindu Kush,  through which much of the Soviet reinforcements and supplies passed. From the earliest moments of the war, the Salang pass was targeted by the mujahideen, causing significant casualties and logistical difficulties to the Soviets.

Moreover,  the valley was under the control of Ahmad Shah  Massoud, the “Lion of Panjshir”, a skilled commander who turned out to be one of the most renowned guerilla leaders of the 20th century. Realizing the strategic significance of the Panjshir valley, the Red Army launched an operation to capture it in April 1980.  Three Soviet battalions, under the command of General Pechevoy, were chosen for the task,  together with a battalion from the Afghan army.

Besides these units, the 9th Company of the  345th Airborne Regiment, a unit previously involved in Operation Storm-333, had the role of securing the mountain passes at Sayat, east of  Bagram. They rode in armored BTR vehicles and were accompanied by Mi-8 transports and Mi-24 gunships.  Massoud’s forces did not number more than 1000 men and they were scattered throughout the valley. Unlike the Soviets, the mujahideen were mostly armed with outdated rifles and whatever equipment they managed to capture in previous raids.

Almost as soon as the Soviet forces had entered the valley, they came under fire from the mujahideen. They left their exposed vehicles immediately and took cover behind some boulders. This was of little help,  as they were unable to see their enemies and were being picked off one by one. In an effort to take the fight to the insurgents, they climbed the mountains,  only to find nobody there. The mujahideen did not wish to engage in a direct confrontation, so they moved further into the valley.

Once at the nearby village of Ruha, Soviet forces came under fire once again. Unable to discern which houses the fire is coming from, the tanks started destroying them indiscriminately. After securing the village, they further advanced to the provincial capital of Bazarak. The insurgents suffered some casualties during this operation,  but they ultimately retreated to the mountains and waited for the Soviets to leave.

Before the end of the operation, a garrison of DRA  soldiers was left behind in Ruha, with the goal of hindering further mujahideen raids and providing a haven for offensives into the Panjshir valley. However, the garrison in Ruha proved to be more of a nuisance for the Soviets than for the Massoud.  The Afghan army, suffering from high desertion rates, low morale, and little combat training,  was besieged shortly following the departure of  Soviet forces.

The two subsequent campaigns into the Panjshir valley had the goal of alleviating the pressure on the Afghan army. Soviet aircraft provided very little assistance, as they could not fire on an enemy that they could not see.  In December of 1980, Ruha was finally abandoned,  leaving Ahmad Shah Massoud in control of most of the valley. The Soviets made an unsuccessful foray into the valley in 1981, however,  their fiercest offensive took place in May 1982.

Before the Panjshir Valley offensive would start,  the Soviets prepared with a thorough reconnaissance of the enemy.  What the reconnaissance found were 95 detachments with up to 3000 men, 100 anti-air systems, several supply points, and strong fortifications.  Reconnaissance data, as a rule, never disclose more than half of the actual situation, which led the Soviet commanders to the conclusion that they were dealing with an extremely powerful foe.

For this operation, the Soviets used one regiment each from the 108th and 201st Motorized Rifle Divisions and the 103rd Airborne Division, the 66th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade, and subunits from the  860th and 191st Separate Motorized Rifle Regiments and the 345th Airborne Regiment. Together with several units from the DRA’s forces,  the total amount of troops numbered around 12000. The operation was envisioned to have two thrusts,  the main one in the Panjshir river valley from  Bagram to Evim and a diversionary attack along the Gorband river valley.

The Soviets also employed a disinformation campaign – they told the Afghan army command that the diversionary attack was the main focus of the campaign,  knowing that the information would inevitably be leaked to the mujahideen. The first phase of the offensive started on the  15th of May, with the diversionary attack.

This plan achieved positive results, as the mujahideen sent a large number of troops towards Gorban.  On the 16th, Soviet units captured the area around the entrance to the Panjshir valley and placed artillery in firing positions. On the morning of the 17th, the main offensive started.  Aerial and artillery bombardments were undertaken across the length of the river valley, while the main Soviet and Afghan forces began advancing.

Meanwhile, a Soviet Motorized Rifle Batallion and Afghan battalion landed near Ruha and Bazarak.  A few more landings took place over the first day,  bringing the total amount of troops near the two settlements to 1200. Aerial assault units,  using the element of surprise, captured landing zones, high points, and enemy strongholds. The first day’s success allowed the main body of the attackers to advance along with three approaches.

During a confrontation with the enemy in a canyon,  Soviet troops would hit the enemy with helicopter gunship fire, artillery fire, and mortar fire.  After this, they would use a subunit to bypass the ridge on the height to create a fire sack  and complete the destruction of the mujahideen. Simultaneously, they would employ remotely  delivered mines on paths and mountain passes leading out of the valley to the north and  south.

This served to isolate the battle  area from the influx of fresh reserves from  the neighboring regions around the Panjshir  and to prevent the withdrawal of remaining,  defeated groups into other provinces. On the 20th, Soviet forces landed at the final  point of the operation, Evim. In spite of Soviet  and Afghan success, the mujahideen continued their  stubborn defense by adopting a mobile defensive  strategy. By the end of the battle, the Soviets  had successfully removed enemy fighters from the  valley, destroyed their anti-aircraft systems,  and disrupted supply routes from Pakistan.

From  the 22nd to the 24th, the attacking forces had  retreated to Bagram. Although the operation was,  by all means, a success, the insurgents did not  suffer significant casualties, thereby leaving the  tenacious Massoud with his most powerful asset,  his men, relatively intact. Massoud continued  his insurgency, forcing the Soviets to ask for a  truce in January 1983.

This truce allowed him to  further strengthen his position, at the cost of  being berated by the other mujahideen leaders. As the war continued, Soviet forces progressively  delegated more responsibility to the Afghan army.  This became especially true after Mikhail  Gorbachev took power in the USSR in 1985.  He saw the Afghan conflict as a  “bleeding wound” for the Soviet Union  and deeming Karmal a weak and unpopular ruler,  replaced him with Mohammad Najibullah in 1986.

With Soviet assistance, the DRA’s army grew  significantly, however, it was still plagued  by the same issues as before. In 1987,  Soviet troops started leaving Afghanistan. In November of 1987, the Soviets launched one of  their last great operations in the war – Operation  Magistral. The aim of this operation was to secure  the road between Gardez and the besieged city of  Khost.

For the conduct of this operation, the 40th  Army assembled the 108th Motorized Rifle Division,  103rd Airborne Division, 56th Separate Air  Assault Brigade, 345th Airborne Regiment,  and the 191st Separate Motorized Rifle Regiment.  The Afghan government provided the 8th, 11th,  12th, 14th, and 25th Infantry Divisions, the  15th Tank Brigade, and the Commando regiment. The area around the road was heavily defended  by the mujahideen.

General Boris Gromov ordered  dummy paratroopers to be dropped near the area  so as to reveal the positions of the enemies.  Soviet artillery barrages and airstrikes  were precise and the Afghan commandos started  advancing on the Satukandav pass by the beginning  of December. Soviet paratroopers started joining  them for the assault by December 19th.

Paratrooper  units were flown to strategic heights to cover the  armored columns making their way up the road.  One of the most important of such places was a  cliff at the top of Hill 3234. The already famous  9th Company of the 345th Airborne Regiment was  chosen for the capture and defense of this hill. Shortly after landing, the paratroopers came  under fire from the insurgents and Pakistani  commandos from two sides. In spite of being  heavily outnumbered, they defended their position  stalwartly.

The 9th company was assisted by  artillery strikes that were extremely risky,  due to the proximity of the Soviet troops to  the mujahideen. Just as they were running out of  ammunition, reinforcements arrived via helicopter.  The fighting continued until morning when the  insurgents ceased their attacks. The mujahideen  and Pakistani lost over 200 men, while the  paratroopers lost 6. It was through this  battle that the 9th Company achieved its legendary  status.

The operation was a success and Khost was  relieved. As with all Soviet successes during  the war, this one was also short-lived. Their  inability to capitalize on hard-fought victories  simply meant that a stalemate was inevitable. On the 14th of April 1988, the USSR signed the  Geneva Accords, thus committing to the withdrawal  of troops from Afghanistan.

The withdrawal  began on the 15th of May and the last of the  Soviet troops left on the 15th of February 1989.  The Soviet Union lost over 14000 men to the war,  mostly in the numerous raids and ambushes  by the mujahideen. The mujahideen themselves  lost more than 200000 men, while  civilian casualties were in the millions. Although not one of the main factors, it  is undeniable that the Soviet-Afghan war  played a substantial role in the fall of  the Soviet Union.

The war, together with  the 1986 Chernobyl Disaster damaged the Soviet  Union’s reputation and its aura of strength.  The conflict left an even more complicated legacy  for the country where it was fought. The war did  not end for Afghanistan with the departure of the  Red Army or even after the 1992 fall of the DRA.  With no end in sight to the conflict to this  very day, it is impossible to know the full  ramifications of the conflict, but it still  exerts an outsized influence on global affairs.

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