essays

Sep 1, 1980

Afghanistan: The Limits of Soviet Power

“The Afghan people are waging a proud and heroic battle to bring down the Russian invaders.”

Since their brutal invasion of Afghanistan last Christmas, the Soviets have found themselves increasingly bogged down in a quagmire. After an initial series of surprising victories, roughly six Soviet divisions slashed through the small nation, gained control over most of the major population centers and seemed to be in complete control of the situation. But as the weeks and months rolled on, the Russian troops have faced mounting difficulties in subduing the people of Afghanistan.

The early Afghan casualties were heavy, as Soviet tanks, MIG jet fighters and helicopters dominated Kabul and other Afghan cities and villages. But native Afghan soldiers then began to defect en masse to the rebel cause, taking Russian weapons and killing Soviet troops as they left. The Afghan army has shrunk from more than 80,000 to fewer than 30,000 in the past few months alone. A host of stories about the fighting have been published in the West, mostly from sources ranging from defecting Afghan soldiers, rebel fighters and refugees in Pakistan to reports of journalists from countries such as India, France and the United States. A few highlights will summarize the Soviet dilemma.

February 23: A huge protest erupted in the capital city of Kabul, the first of its kind since Soviet troops entered the country last December. “It began when several thousand demonstrators, ranging from boys to elderly men, began milling around a pole with a huge green Islamic flag…. Among the slogans the throng chanted were ‘Death to the Russians’ and ‘Death to the socialist imperialists….’ A helicopter gunship clattered over, and the protesters… shook their fists and continued chanting.” [New York Times] Fighting broke out, and many on both sides were killed.

March 2: “Officials in Washington said that the latest intelligence reports showed that nothing had gone right for the Russians since they moved into Afghanistan on December 24. The State Department also noted that with Russian troops so bogged down in Afghanistan, the risk of an invasion of Pakistan or Iran … was receding rapidly.” [Manchester Guardian]

March 7: Reports were received that the Soviets were to increase their military presence of 85,000 troops with a supplementary force of 30,000 new troops. American officials “said Soviet military leaders ‘underestimated’ the level of resistance Russian troops would encounter, particularly in urban areas…. The analysts estimated that Soviet forces were suffering 400 to 600 casualties a week…. The officials reported numerous instances in which Soviet troops were ambushed in urban areas as they traveled alone or in small groups at night, fifty-two soldiers were recently killed when they attended a sporting event in a provincial city….” [New York Times]

April 28: “Western intelligence experts estimated [that] the Soviets have suffered at least 8000 dead and wounded since last December’s invasion…. In the capital city of Kabul, there were rumors that insurgents had caused a landslide, killing 600 Soviet soldiers in a mountain encampment and destroying 40 tanks. A band of rebels reportedly crossed the border between Afghanistan and the U.S.S.R. and managed to kill 200 Soviet troops. The rebels also claimed to have exploded a newly completed copper mine in the Logar Valley and coal mines in Badakhshan.” [Time]

May 15: “Two months after launching their first major military offensive in Afghanistan, Soviet forces appear to be bogged down by mounting rebel resistance. Interviews with political and military analysts [in Pakistan] together with accounts of those recently arrived from Afghanistan strongly indicate that the Afghan government, with Soviet help, controls less of the countryside today than the Afghan army alone did before the massive Soviet invasion last December.” [Los Angeles Times]

May 15: “The Soviet Union has found that its objective of bringing Afghanistan under political and military control has proved more elusive than it expected at the time of its military intervention in December…. [T]he Soviet Union has so far been unable to establish a staging area in Afghanistan from which to threaten or subvert the region around the Persian Gulf. To the contrary, Afghanistan has become a drain on Soviet resources…. Urban unrest continues to spread…. Many of the recent demonstrations have been reportedly led by university students, and, among them, young women have been in the forefront. The young women were said to have taunted Afghan soldiers with allegations that they lacked masculinity while the women were the defenders of the nation….. The Soviet army … is said to have taken 10 percent casualties” [New York Times]

May 16: “Clandestine leaflets extolling the resistance of school children in Afghanistan and urging new defiance of Soviet forces and the Moscow-installed Afghan Government are once again being distributed nightly in Kabul despite a curfew and armed patrols.” One leaflet, a letter which addressed President Babrak Karmal as “obedient slave of the Russians,” said, “You should be cursed for using heavy guns, tanks and machine guns against our daughters and sons who had no weapons other than kerchiefs, books and pens. You fired upon them from the air with helicopters and spilled blood of hundreds of innocent girls and boys”—this after a massacre of protesting schoolchildren. “A number of travelers said that the spirit of defiance … had become visibly heightened…” [New York Times]

June 4: “…Muslim insurgents have started receiving significant quantities of modern weapons. The new arms may include armor-piercing weapons able to bring down Soviet helicopter gunships…. Some rebel-held areas of Afghanistan now are considered invulnerable to helicopter attack.” [Los Angeles Times]

June 11: “Reports of heavy fighting between Afghan guerillas and Soviet troops in the mountains around Kabul signal a new phase in the resistance to the Marxist regime of Babrak Karmal and the Soviet troops that keep it in power. The very location and intensity of the insurgents’ new activity indicates the degree to which the resistance has mounted since the Soviet invasion late last December.” [Los Angeles Times]

July 11: “Informed sources said the rebel groups are fighting more effectively now than at any time since the Soviet intervention … because thousands of soldiers who have defected from the regular Afghan army are giving the rebels the latest model Soviet-made small arms and badly needed military training.”[Associated Press]

July 15: “In whispered conversations in the dusty bazaars and crowded teahouses of Kabul, middle-class businessmen and students are talking about giving up their jobs and studies and taking up arms against the Soviet troops.” [New York Times]

Finally, a report from The Economist dated June 14 and entitled “Stuck in Afghanistan” sums up the Soviet quagmire: “The Russians are in widening and deepening trouble in Afghanistan. Widening, as the rebels take their hit-and-run war against the invaders from the Iranian border to the Pakistani one, and into the capital, Kabul. Deepening, as the resistance is joined by schoolgirls, shopkeepers and estranged members of [the] government…. The Soviet force is increasingly overstretched … [and] the 100,000-strong Soviet army is further today from imposing a Pax Sovietica on Afghanistan than it was at the turn of the year…. So the Russians are left with two choices. One is to continue reinforcing their troops in Afghanistan until they can crush the insurgency— which may be feasible, but could take half a million men—and then settle down to permanent occupation. The other is to negotiate a political settlement that would allow them to withdraw.”

In short, without any foreign interference, and with only a trickle of weapons being smuggled in from outside their country, the Afghan people are waging a proud and heroic battle to bring down the Russian invaders. The Russians are reportedly having second thoughts, and there is no indication that the Soviet government will commit the more than half-million troops which would probably be needed to firmly establish control in a tiny country of fewer than eighteen million inhabitants. Afghanistan may well be the watershed of Soviet influence in the Third World. The Russians may be learning, as the U.S. did in Indochina, the limits of power.