Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Remembering Soviet Afghanistan 

One day recently a commenter snarked that I did not know what I was writing about (can't even remember the subject) because I had not read Steve Coll's book Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From The Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. True at the time, but since the book was in my vacation book bag I quickly got work remedying that shortcoming. I am roughly half way through, and it is certainly well worth reading.

Among other things, it includes a tremendous amount of detail on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the resistance to that invasion, including particularly the American and Pakistani influence on that resistance. Last night I was struck by this passage, which desribes the damage inflicted on the Soviets in Afghanistan by January 1984, just four years into their nine-year occupation.
In January 1984, CIA director William Casey briefed President Reagan and his national security cabinet about the progress of their covert Afghan war. It had been four years since the first Lee Enfield rigles arrived at Karachi. Mujahedin warriors had killed or wounded about seventeen thousand Soviet soldiers to date, by the CIA's classified estimate. They controlled 62 percent of the countryside and had become so effective that the Soviets would have to triple or quadruple their deployments in Afghanistan to put the rebellion down. Soviet forces had so far los about 350 to 400 aircraft in combat, the CIA estimated. The mujahedin had also destroyed about 2,750 Soviet tanks and armoed carriers and just under 8,000 trucks, jeeps, and other vehicles.

Note that the Afghanis had done this without the use of suicide terror.

Assuming these data are true, the rate of human casualties does not seem any greater than that suffered by Americans in Iraq, although it is obviously traumatically worse than American casualties in Afghanistan. However, the destruction of war material is astonishing. I was unable to uncover (in about two minutes of trying) useful estimates of American aircraft and vehicle losses in Operation Iraqi Freedom, but I believe they are far less than Soviet losses in Afghanistan over a comparable period. If one of our loyal readers knows where such data may be found and can dump a link into the comments, it would be much appreciated.

I have absolutely no idea whether any useful conclusions can be drawn from the Soviet experience in Afghanistan (other than that we do not want to duplicate it). There are vast differences between Afghanistan of twenty years ago and Iraq of today, including that the entire nation was united in its opposition to the Soviets, and that the Americans and Saudis were pumping hundreds of millions of dollars of weapons into the hands of the insurgents. However, it is the most recent comparable case of a modern military fighting a jihadi resistance, and certainly worth remembering.


By Blogger MrSurly, at Thu Sep 01, 12:33:00 AM:

You might also want to check out "Charlie Wilson's War," another facinating history of the America's covert war in Afghanistan.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Thu Sep 01, 09:51:00 PM:

I actually did read Charlie Wilson's War back a couple of years ago. Also very interesting, but much more narrowly focused on Afghanistan qua Afghanistan than Ghost Wars, which is about the broader effort before September 11.  

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By Anonymous Patricia Schwarz, at Fri Oct 07, 04:03:00 PM:

Nice article. However, I think it is more than well established that the entire Afghan nation was NOT united in opposition to the Soviets. The Soviet invasion was meant to shore up a government that was led by the pro-Communist Afghan groups Parcham and Khalk. The Afghan people were strongly divided on the question of modernization. Many young educated people were disgusted by the systematic violent abuse of women in the feudal tribal system in the rural areas. Those young people thought the only way to modernize Afghanistan was through mandated socialism, instituted from the top down from Kabul. They overreached. They wanted to boost the rate of female literacy so they made laws mandating the education of women -- something the tribal leaders in the provinces were determined to resist through violence. Afghanistan was a violently polarized society when the Soviets invaded. Many Afghans switched sides several times during the war as one side or the other exhibited brutal behavior towards civilians. By the way -- there were no human rights in Afghan prisons, no matter which group was in charge -- the jehadis or the Afghan Communists. The atrocities committed by Afghans on Afghan POWs on both sides made both the CIA and KGB sick to their stomachs, and made Saddam Hussein look like a lightweight in the sadistic torturer department.  

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