Learning to Apply the Principles of Counterinsurgency Part One: Introduction to the Soviet-Afghan War

Soviets Enter Afghanistan

Note: This is the First Part of a Series which I will be writing on Afghanistan and Counterinsurgency strategy in that country. Part of this will be a review of various historical materials especially from Russian sources as well as analysis of the Afghan insurgency and its foreign supporters including Al Qaeda. I have written a number of other articles on the Afghan War and associated topics.  Links are provided at the end of this article.

Counterinsurgency is not just thinking man’s warfare—it is the graduate level of war. Special Forces Officer in Iraq, 2005

“Protracted conflicts favor insurgents, and no approach makes better use of that asymmetry than the protracted popular war. The Chinese Communists used this approach to conquer China after World War II. The North Vietnamese and Algerians adapted it to fit their respective situations. And some Al Qaeda leaders suggest it in their writings today. This approach is complex; few contemporary insurgent movements apply its full program, although many apply parts of it. It is, therefore, of more than just historical interest. Knowledge of it can be a powerful aid to understanding some insurgent movements.”[i]


US Training Team Base

The United States has entered its 9th year of military involvement in Afghanistan following the October 2001 invasion that came as a response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon of September 11th 2001.  In that time the United States, its NATO allies and the United Nations have endeavored to bring stability as well as a more democratic and accountable government to the country in the face of resistance from various political, religious and tribal groups with a diverse and sometimes conflicting agendas.  The foremost of these resistance groups was and is the Taliban which arose during the Soviet occupation of the country and eventually took power after winning a civil war against a number of other Mujahidin groups.   As the United States diverted force and focused its efforts on Iraq’s insurgency the Taliban using bases in remote areas along the Pakistani border and monetary and political support from Moslem groups with similar goals rehabilitated and reorganized its forces and began the process of regaining influence in Afghanistan.  By 2008 it was apparent that the situation had reached a crisis point.  The vast majority of Afghans as well as many in the international community came to view the Karzai government as corrupt, weak and unpopular.  The Taliban and other groups began to work more closely together despite differing agendas and the political and military situation deteriorated to the point that the incoming Obama administration appointed a new commander, General Stanley McChrystal to evaluate the situation and based on his recommendations and those of General David Petreus, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and others announced a “surge” to try to regain the initiative in the country.  That troop buildup is currently underway. By the time it reaches its maximum the United States will have approximately 100, 000 troops in Afghanistan and the NATO and ISAF allies approximately another 38,000.  These are supporting and training the Afghan National Army and Police which number approximately 97,000 in the Army and another 98,000 in the National Police.  The Afghan forces have not proven to be reliable and have been infiltrated by Taliban and Al Qaeda members and the NATO and ISAF allies are often limited in the scope of their mission and have restrictive rules of engagement.  Thus the bulk of the fight rests on the United States and some allies with more robust rules of engagement such as Canada, Britain and France.  The lack of internal credibility of the Afghan Government, the weakness of its army and security forces coupled with the numerical weakness of US and ISAF forces has given the various indigenous insurgent groups, especially the Taliban to make a comeback that threatens the mission.  General McChrystal noted:

“The situation in Afghanistan is serious; neither success nor failure can be taken for granted. Although considerable effort and sacrifice have resulted in some progress, many indicators suggest the overall situation is deteriorating. We face not only a resilient and growing insurgency; there is also a crisis of confidence among Afghans—in both their government and the international community—that undermines our credibility and emboldens the insurgents. Further, a perception that our resolve is uncertain makes Afghans reluctant to align with us against the insurgents.”[ii]

Taliban Insurgents

The situation is such in Afghanistan that many Americans are struggling how the “good war” could go “bad.”  Many armchair strategists, many political and media figures and even some in the military fail to understand the nature of Counterinsurgency and its complexity as opposed to conventional warfare. In fact many of these assume that the simple application of combat force using conventional tactics is the cure for the situation, however history shows that such is not the case especially in Afghanistan.

This introduction to this study will focus on some commonalities of the Soviet and American experiences in Afghanistan.

Soviet Mi-24s

The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 they used their 40th Army which initially was composed of “two motorized rifle divisions, an airborne division, an air assault brigade and separate motorized rifle regiments.”[iii] These forces totaled about 52,000 troops and were “considered sufficient to guarantee the viability of Afghanistan.”[iv] The 40th Army was a standard Cold War Soviet Combined Arms Army designed for high tempo conventional operations.  It was not designed for nor trained in counterinsurgency operations or what the Soviets and Russians class as “anti-guerilla operations.” It was poorly suited to mountain and dessert combat and at the beginning “not only had no practical skills in the conduct of counter-guerilla warfare, they also did not have a single well-developed theoretical manual, regulation or tactical guideline for fighting such a war.”[v]

Soviet Tank Guarding Convoy

The Soviets did not expect to be involved in combat operations and the Afghan population reacted to their presence with resistance which spread across the country both against their own government which they viewed as a puppet of the Soviets but also against the Soviet Forces.  As time went on the Soviets attempted to use raids and large scale operations to attempt to bring Mujahidin forces to battle, however the insurgents were very skillful and the Soviets attempted to increase the training of their forces as well as their numbers.  By 1986 the numbers on the ground had increased to 108,000 personnel in four divisions, five separate brigades, four separate regiments and six separate battalions.[vi] In the nearly 10 years of operations over a half million Soviet soldiers and support personnel served in Afghanistan. Tours for enlisted personnel who were primarily conscripts served 12-18 months in country and officers 2 years.  Few returned for subsequent tours meaning that the 40th Army had few personnel very familiar with the country, its people and the challenges faced by Soviet forces.  According to official sources the 40th Army suffered 13,833 killed in action or died of wounds, 49,985 wounded and 311 missing in action a figured of 1 in 8 Soviet Soldiers being casualties.  14.3 percent of the casualties were officers.[vii] Of course the official figure is doubted many believing the number killed in action or died of wounds to be closer to 26,000.[viii]

Soviet Troops Preparing to Leave Afghanistan 1989

The Soviet Forces supported the Army of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan which numbered at their peak on average between 120,000-150,000 soldiers.[ix] The Afghan forces, then as now were at the mercy of tribal, familial and communist party affiliations. Over 70 percent of the DRA was conscripted, desertions averaged 1,500 to 2,000 soldiers a month and units were usually optimistically 25-40 percent under their TO&E strength.[x] Limitations on training and leadership meant that typically DRA units could not conduct large scale missions without Soviet help. As such most of the fighting was done by Soviet formations.

Many of these problems have plagued the United States and ISAF throughout the first 8 years of the current Afghan War.  As General McChrystal has noted in his assessment “ISAF is a conventional force that is poorly configured for COIN, inexperienced in local languages and culture, and struggling with the challenges inherent to coalition warfare. These intrinsic disadvantages are exacerbated by our current culture and how we operate.”[xi]

End of part one to be continued…


Lessons on Coalition Warfare: The Dysfunctional Coalition German and the Axis Partners on the Eastern Front

The Afghan War 2009-2012: Lessons from Algeria 1954-1960 A Review of “A Savage War of Peace

Unequal Allies: Lessons from The German’s and Their Allies on the Eastern Front for Today

The Effects of Counter-Insurgency Operations on U.S. and French Forces in Vietnam and Algeria and Implications for Afghanistan

Brothers to the End…the Bond between those Who Serve Together in Unpopular Wars

[i] ______________ “The Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual FM 3-24 MCWP 3-33.5,” HQ Department of the Army and HQ Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Washington DC 2006.  p. 1-6

[ii] MCChrystal, Stanley. “Commander’s Initial Assessment Commander International Security Assistance Force Afghanistan” dated 30 August 2009 p. 1-1

[iii] The Russian General Staff. The Soviet Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost” translated and edited by Lester A. Grau and Michael A. Gress, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence KS 2002 p.17.

[iv] Ibid. p.18

[v] Ibid. p.43

[vi] Ibid. p.28

[vii] Ibid. p.309

[viii] Ibid. p.xix

[ix] Ibid. p.48

[x] Ibid. pp.48-51

[xi] McChrystal. p.1-2

1 Comment

Filed under counterinsurency in afghanistan, History, iraq,afghanistan, Military

One response to “Learning to Apply the Principles of Counterinsurgency Part One: Introduction to the Soviet-Afghan War

  1. Pingback: Padre Steve’s World Top 12 of 2011: A Big Thank you to my Readers | Padresteve's World…Musings of a Passionate Moderate

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