7 lessons Russian strategists learned from Soviet intervention in Afghanistan


This month 40 years ago, the Soviet Union launched its military intervention in Afghanistan

By Simon

This month
40 years ago, the military phase of the Soviet Union’s military intervention in
Afghanistan commenced with units of the 40th Soviet army crossing en masse into
this Central Asian country to support a coup that would replace Hafizullah Amin
with Babrak Karmal at the helm of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA).
This intervention lasted for nearly a decade.

However, it
did not only fail to firmly anchor Afghanistan to the so-called socialist camp,
as Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had hoped, but contributed to the demise of
the U.S.S.R. by imposing formidable human, financial, economic, political and
reputational costs on the already declining empire; needless to say, it caused
numerous casualties and widespread grievances among Afghans as well.

More than
15,000 Soviet servicemen were killed in Afghanistan, according to a 2001 study
edited by Col. Gen. Grigory Krivosheyev. As for the Afghans, some
800,000-1,500,000 of them died during the intervention, according to one
scholarly estimate. Russian strategists have inferred a number of important
lessons from the experiences of the so-called Limited Contingent of Soviet
Troops in Afghanistan (OKSVA) and I have reviewed them in a recent paper on the

Of these
lessons, seven stand out for the U.S and its allies to consider applying as
they look for ways to end their own military campaign in this Central Asian

Lesson 1: Do not try to mold your local
allies in your own image. Empower them instead

The Soviet
Union spent an estimated total of $50 billion on OKSVA operations and training
the forces of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) in 1979-1989. Yet
DRA troops proved unable either to hold on to territorial gains made by the
Soviet 40th Army  which made up the bulk
of OKSVA  or to withstand rebel
offensives after Moscow withdrew the army and then discontinued aid.

did it happen that 2,000 advisers, including colonels and generals, failed to
create a single fully combat-capable and reliable unit in the Afghan army?” KGB
general Leonid Shebarshin asked in a 1992 memoir written after more than 20
tours of duty in Afghanistan.

“How did it
happen that the structure of the Afghan armed forces was created exactly
according to our model and the experience of a nine-year war did not yield any
changes in that structure?” In Shebarshin’s view, one reason the training of
Afghan troops proved ineffective was that the Soviet commanders never learned
how to delegate powers to their trainees:

“We did
teach something to Afghans, no doubt. But mainly we ordered them around and
commanded them, ‘stitching them on’ to our operations, imposing our decisions,
while loudly shouting about the weak fighting capacity of the ally.”

Lesson 2: You cannot succeed in a
military intervention unless the side on whose behalf you intervene is willing
to fight for your joint cause

No amount
of training and empowering your local allies will help an intervention succeed
unless those allies are actually willing to fight for your joint cause. The
Soviets’ goal was to empower a particular faction of the People’s Democratic
Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), but that group did not command enough local
support to sustain the fight.

Legions of
DRA soldiers simply deserted:  34,000 did
so in 1983 alone, according to one Russian account.  As suggested above, Soviet commanders
complained repeatedly about the Afghan authorities’ failure to hold on to
territory captured by Soviet forces.

“There is
not a single piece of land left in this country that a Soviet soldier has not
taken, yet most of the territory is in the hands of the rebels,” Sergei Akhromeyev,
first deputy chief of the General Staff, told a Politburo meeting in 1986.
Indeed, as of that year, only 8,000 of some 31,000-35,000 villages were under
DRA government control, according to then head of the PDPA, Mohammad

Commander of
the 40th Soviet Army Gen. Boris Gromov in his book offered the following
explanation of some DRA forces’ reluctance to fight: “Obviously, they
understood that sooner or later the war would end and there would be no one to
face the music but them.”

Lesson 3: When leaving, leave…

how he engineered the withdrawal of the 40th Army in his book, Gromov does not
cite the popular Russian adage “when leaving, leave” (sometimes attributed to
Cicero). However, the description itself proves that he persistently tried to
do just that despite pressure from Najibullah, who had become the DRA’s
pro-Moscow leader. In 1988, “the government of Afghanistan made truly ‘heroic’
efforts to stop the 40th Army from leaving at any cost,” Gromov wrote.

instance, the Afghan Defense Ministry made repeated attempts to draw Soviet
troops into “large-scale combat.” Reacting to pressure from Najibullah, the
Soviet leadership considered several options for leaving part of its military
contingent in Afghanistan, but eventually rightly concluded that regular troops
should not stay and withdrew all personnel except for some advisors.

Had Gromov
not been so persistent, Najibullah may have succeeded in persuading Moscow to
keep the troops in-country. The result would have been a continued stalemate in
which DRA forces controlled less than 20 percent of the country’s territory
while Soviet troops kept killing and getting killed.

Lesson 4: …but before you leave, take
time to secure firm and enforceable agreements that would not only meet your
own minimum requirements for a negotiated settlement, but also those of your
local allies

The Soviet
leadership was so keen to withdraw from Afghanistan in the late 1980s that they
failed to add a POW/MIA clause to the Geneva Accords of 1988, which ended the
war with three Afghan-Pakistan bilateral agreements and a declaration on
international guarantees, signed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

While the
latter obliged Washington and Moscow to cut aid to the warring factions in
Afghanistan, other states  including
Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other sponsors of the Afghan mujahedeen  either were not bound by the accords or
ignored them, continuing to supply aid. The Soviets should have tried harder to
obtain enforceable guarantees from such external stakeholders as well as to
ensure the return of POWs to the USSR, according to Gen.

Gromov and
deputy chief of the Soviet General Staff Gen. Valentin Varennikov. At the time,
however, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze,
“who concluded these treaties, seemed to be concerned only about convincing the
public that they were not personally involved in the deployment of Soviet
troops to Afghanistan and to disclaim responsibility for it.

soldiers and officers who were in captivity … were of little interest to
them,” according to a book by Gen. Alexander Lyakhovsky, who served in
Afghanistan in 1987-1989. The Soviet leaders could also have done more to press
their own client into reconciliation when they were still providing the DRA
with substantial aid, using this aid as leverage.

to General of the Army Makhmut Gareyev, the chief Soviet military advisor to
the Afghan army after the withdrawal, “there were no tangible results in the
implementation of the policy of national reconciliation. The concept of
political settlement in Afghanistan put forward by the Afghan leadership was
perceived by many (PDPA) party leaders as a loss of its current leading role in
governing the country and, for many members of the leadership, as having to
leave the government positions they held.”

Lesson 5: Prevent mission creep even
after you leave

Even after
regular Soviet troops were withdrawn, costly mission creep remained a danger
one that was narrowly avoided, according to Gareyev. With only 30 Soviet
advisors and some guards left in Afghanistan, Gareyev recalled in his book how
Dmitry Yazov, the-then defense minister, told him when dispatching him to
Afghanistan in 1989 as chief military advisor that his task was to make sure
Najibullah’s regime survives for at least three or four months; if it did,
Yazov argued, then maybe a political resolution of the conflict could be
attained in that time.

But, seeing
Najibullah’s regime last for a year after the OKSVA withdrawal, some top
officials in the KGB and foreign ministry began to assert that Najibullah’s
troops and their Soviet advisors had been on the defensive long enough and
should now initiate “decisive, offensive actions in all directions,” Gareyev

He claimed
to have had a hard time convincing some leaders in Moscow to refrain from such
“adventurist aspirations” that “could only lead to the most negative

Lesson 6: Take care of your soldiers even
after the war is officially over

how the last battalion of the 40th Army crossed the Friendship Bridge from
Afghanistan into Uzbekistan under his command on Feb. 15, 1989, Gen. Gromov
wrote how ordinary people embraced the returning soldiers heartily, but that
“not a single commander in Moscow even thought about how to organize greeting”

He also
wrote that some of the Soviet citizens welcoming home his last battalion were
relatives of Soviet soldiers who had been killed in Afghanistan. “Some of them,
having received official notices and even having buried their loved ones, still
hoped: What if he was alive, what if he would come out now?” Gromov wrote.

Of those
who did return, many suffered from post-traumatic disorders that often went
untreated, while also encountering public disapproval from those with anti-war
sentiments, much as Vietnam veterans initially did in the U.S. According to a
book by KGB officer Vladimir Garkavy, who completed multiple tours of duty in
Afghanistan, “despondency, apathy and despair have become the companions of many
veterans.” Garkavy wrote that some 500 veterans of the Soviet war in
Afghanistan committed suicide in 2007 alone.

Lesson 7: Last but not least be willing
to learn the lessons

In the
summer of 1981, the Soviet Defense Ministry decided to send military district
commanders from the USSR to Afghanistan for several days to learn the lessons
gleaned there by OKSVA. Many of these senior officers showed no real interest;
however, thinking the lessons would be of little use to them as they were more
focused on a possible large-scale confrontation with NATO, according to Gromov.

His book
came out in 1994 as Russian troops were fighting an anti-insurgency campaign in
the mountains of Chechnya, which was in some ways similar to Afghanistan, but
did not seem to have benefitted much from possible past lessons; Gromov
himself, ironically, did not draw a parallel between the two wars.

The last
Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, also faulted the Soviet top brass for failing
to infer and learn some lessons from the Afghan war. “I must … tell our
military that they are learning poorly from this war,” he told a Nov. 13, 1986,
meeting of the Politburo.

The Soviet
intervention in Afghanistan was not what bankrupted the Soviet Union or led to
its collapse, contrary to U.S. President Donald Trump’s take on Soviet Russia’s
experiences there. Rather, as Yegor Gaidar convincingly demonstrated, a
combination of structural, economic and other factors played the lead role in
the demise of the Soviet empire. However, that intervention, which caused
horrendous hardship for many Afghans, did contribute to the collapse of an

The Soviet
leaders did eventually realize some of the mistakes they had made in
Afghanistan and sought to correct them. But not all erroneous decisions, once
made, can be reversed. Therefore, the U.S. and its allies would do well to
learn from those mistakes, rather than rely only on their own, even if some
Russian legislators have recently tried convince their compatriots that the
Soviet intervention was the right thing to do.

Saradzhyan is the director of Russia Matters.

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