Experience in Afghanistan: Lessons Learned
by Major James T. McGhee
On 24 September 1979, lead elements of the Soviet 40th Army were ordered to
cross the border into Afghanistan. Three days later, Soviet Airborne forces had
seized the airfields in Kabul and Bagram, and the Afghan President H. Amin had
been executed. This was the beginning of a political and military disaster for
the Soviet Union that lasted for nine years with a cost of almost 15,000 troops
reported killed or missing in action. Thousands of additional Russian
soldiers were wounded or died of disease, and millions of Afghanis were either
killed, wounded or became refugees. The most important lesson that the Soviets
learned from their experience in Afghanistan was, according to Cordesman and
Wagner, "that it never should have been fought". There are however, a number
of other political, strategic and tactical lessons that may be learned from the
Author Milan Hauner stated, "The immediate political aim of Soviet policy after
the invasion was to salvage the Saur Revolution of April 1978 by installing a
dependable leadership in Kabul." The political justification may be also be
placed within the responsibility of the Soviet leadership to uphold the
"Brezhnev Doctrine", described as, "the Soviet view that if any of its client
communist regimes is threatened, it has the right to intervene."' The
Soviets had successfully confronted this type of threat before, 1956 in Hungary
and 1968 in Czechoslovakia. There was no reason to believe that the operation
would cost them a great deal or not end with a swift Soviet victory. While they
were correct in their assumption that the United States was unwilling to
prevent the Soviet incursion, they made miscalculations at both the political
and strategic levels regarding the responses of the United States, Pakistan,
and the Afghan people.
A significant political mistake was the Soviet misperception of the Carter
administration and the belief that there would be only token objections to
action in an area of traditional Soviet influence. The United States President
Jimmy Carter took "serious" measures against the Soviets, canceling grain
deliveries to the Soviets, prohibiting the sale of high-technology and
boycotting the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. He declared, "The Soviet
invasion of Afghanistan is the greatest threat to peace since the Second World
War. It's a sharp escalation in the aggressive history of the Soviet Union."
The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) received presidential approval to
begin a covert weapons program to the Afghan resistance. This later included in
1986, under great pressure from members of the Departments of State and
Defense, the delivery of the first 150 U.S. made Stinger Missiles to the
Mujahideen. These new weapons in the hands of Mujahideen fighters with only
limited training proved to be a most effective weapon against Soviet
U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who defeated Carter in the 1980 presidential
election, was a committed anticommunist who believed that Soviet gains in the
third world had to be rolled back. His "Reagan Doctrine was an aggressive
initiative designed to increase the cost of Soviet support for Third World
socialist governments." He reversed U.S. policy towards Afghanistan's
neighbor Pakistan. The United States began shipping large quantities of
supplies, weapons and munitions through Pakistan to the different Mujahideen
factions fighting the Soviets. A huge six-year economic and military aid
package to Pakistan elevated the country to the third largest recipient of U.S.
foreign aid. This was a major change in U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. was
now openly supporting a dictatorial Islamic regime that was aggressively
pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
Pakistan, like Cambodia during the U.S. war in Vietnam, was a Mujahideen
sanctuary from Soviet forces that were unwilling to cross the international
border into the country. These sanctuaries provided the Afghan resistance with
a safe area to train recruits, plan combat operations, and build a logistics
support structure. Arguably the most important factor in the overall failure of
the Soviets to achieve a strategic victory in Afghanistan, Pakistan, according
author and scholar Milan Hauner, "was vital for the continuation of the
Mujahideen resistance." Military supplies and weapons were supplied from
Egypt, China and the United States with additional funding coming from Islamic
countries such as Saudi Arabia. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
coordinated with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) to
distribute aid to the resistance. Soviet style weapons such as AK-47 rifles and
SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles were delivered, as these "Soviet" weapons were
similar to those captured from the Russians and could not be directly traced
back to the United States. Eventually, more sophisticated weaponry and
equipment such as Stinger missiles, advanced communications equipment, and
heavy weapons were funneled through Pakistan to the Afghan resistance.
Brutal Soviet "scorched earth" tactics drove thousands and eventually an
estimated three million Afghans into makeshift tent villages in the Northwest
Frontier Province and Baluchistan in Pakistan. Pakistan "hosted" these large
numbers of refugees, although this area was only moderately controlled by the
Islamabad government. These refuges provided what Mark Urban called, "the vital
human reservoir for the resistance." Located among these camps, the
Mujahideen were able to recruit, arm and train new "holy warriors" to fight the
Soviets. One firm, possibly funded by the CIA, even employed former British
army soldiers who trained Mujahideen in Pakistan.
The refugee camps also provided the United States and other pro-Afghan
resistance organizations with an opportunity to provide humanitarian
assistance. The U.S funneled significant amounts of aid through
Non-governmental organizations (NGO) to help the refugees in Pakistan. Much of
this also went to aid and support the resistance groups. By sending large
quantities of humanitarian assistance, the U.S. gained favorable press and
alleviated some political and economic pressure on Islamabad.
In addition to the political miscalculations towards the United States and
Pakistan, the Soviet leadership equally miscalculated the strength,
motivations, and will of the Afghan resistance organizations. The Mujahideen
were never a united force fighting for a common goal or centrally led. The
resistance in Afghanistan consisted of a variety of ethnic groups who often had
very different and conflicting political and military objectives. They were
however united against a common enemy, the "Godless Communists". The greatest
strength of the Mujahideen and the Afghan people was their remarkable
resilience. The resistance fighters and the Afghan people who supported them
carried on the conflict despite heavy civilian casualties, millions of
refugees, poor communications, weapons, and equipment, and the overwhelming
technical superiority of the Soviet Army. Despite all their efforts, the
Soviets, according to Lester Grau, "did not understand who they were
The main forces of the Soviet 40th Army were positioned in Afghanistan by
January 1980. They were completely unprepared for the kind of guerrilla war
waged by the Mujahideen. "It was felt that the mere presence of Soviet forces
would serve to 'sober up' the Mujahideen." The 40th Army was organized to
fight using the traditional Soviet military doctrine of executing large-scale
offensive operations followed by an exploitation and pursuit. Inherent in
Soviet command structure was the attitude that, "the success of offensive
combat is directly dependent on the level of training of commanders and staffs:
the lower that level the greater must be the degree of centralized
Early attempts by the Soviet leadership to deploy large, combined arms
formations to conduct a classic offensive and pursuit against Mujahideen
guerillas proved ineffective in a war that stressed the vital importance of
small unit operations. Most engagements were fought at the tactical level where
as the Soviet army was trained to operate at the operational level. At the
tactical level, battalion commanders needed instant support. Most Soviet combat
support elements however, such as artillery, engineers, signals, and aviation,
were organized at the divisional or higher levels. These lessons forced a major
reorganization within the 40th Army.
Perhaps the most significant consideration during the reorganization was the
difficult Afghan terrain. Soviet General Yuri Maksimov provides a good insight
into these considerations, "Combat operations in mountains are characterized by
a number of features conditioned by the nature of mountainous terrain, such as
its extremely rugged character, scarcity of roads with poor traffic ability,
and a great number of natural obstacles. All of this forces troops to operate
sometimes in comparatively small sub-units and in separate sectors. These
peculiarities make it more difficult to coordinate, control, and maneuver the
resources at hand. The lack of close cooperation among the motorized infantry,
artillery, and aviation in mountainous areas may result in the failure to
fulfill the combat mission assigned."
The Soviets reorganized their forces from highly centralized armor-heavy
elements into integrated combined arms battalions, brigades, and division task
forces. Special emphasis was placed upon the need for reconnaissance, aviation,
engineer, air assault, and special forces organizations. Soviet leadership also
recognized the requirement for greater firepower for its infantry formations.
The main battle tanks of the Soviet army were ineffective in the mountainous
Afghan terrain due to the limited elevation capability of both the main tank
gun and the coaxial machine gun. Used early as part of the large but
unsuccessful sweeping operations. The Soviets learned quickly that, "the
practice of massing a large number of regular forces against a small group of
irregular forces to fight guerrilla war on rugged terrain was bankrupt." As
a result, Soviet tanks often became stationary pillboxes positioned at Soviet
Greater emphasis was placed on the use of light armored, wheeled vehicles such
as the Soviet family of BMDs. These vehicles proved to be well suited for
Soviet operations in Afghanistan. They were twice as light, and shorter than
the Soviet BMP. They were well armed with a 73mm cannon, a coaxial machine gun,
and two bow-mount machine guns. They had a low silhouette, which enabled them
to hide in terrain folds or behind rock formations. Their lightweight proved
desirable in a war where there was a wide use of mines, and it allowed the
vehicle to be air transportable by a variety of aircraft to include
Light infantry formations such as the elite Soviet air assault, airborne and
special forces units proved to be the most effective against the guerrilla
tactics of the Mujahideen operating in the rugged Afghan terrain. Typically,
the tactical operations of these units were the raid, blocking positions and
search, and ambush. Since these formations executed the bulk of Soviet
offensive operations, these formations often received the best weapons,
equipment and training.
Soviet leadership placed a new emphasis on the firepower of their infantry
formations. The older 7.62mm AK-47 rifle was replaced in many units by the new
5.44mm AK-74 rifle. The lighter weight of the new rifle and its ammunition
proved to be better suited for operations in Afghanistan. Large numbers of
light machine guns, AA guns, automatic grenade launchers, flamethrowers, sniper
rifles, and mortars were also provided to the infantry units. The need for
longer range, portable and lethal firepower was a key lesson learned by Soviet
The Soviets required a large number of helicopters for their light infantry
formations such as the Soviet air assault or special forces to be effective.
Helicopters were essential in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan. They were
used to attack enemy forces and equipment, gather intelligence, target
artillery fire, insert assault troops, evacuate wounded, deliver supplies, and
transfer weapons and equipment. Operating helicopter assets in Afghanistan
however proved to be very difficult. Temperatures in Afghanistan can fluctuate
from extremely hot in the summer to well below freezing in the winter and at
high altitudes. Strong winds are often present, which can limit flying
operations, and reduce visibility by creating dust storms. Combat operations
were significantly effected at higher altitudes, where the lifting capacity of
helicopters was reduced causing the aircraft requirements during an air assault
in the mountains to double. Although a recognized shortfall, "the Soviets
never had enough helicopters in Afghanistan to meet their requirements."
Surface to air missiles acquired by the Mujahideen from covert U.S. weapons
programs proved problematic for Soviet aviation operations. The introduction of
more effective surface to air missiles including the Stinger in 1986
significantly affected Soviet air operations in Afghanistan. The Stinger, a
U.S. made man-portable system, weighs 34 pounds, is 5 feet long, and has a
maximum range of 5,800 meters and maximum altitude of 3,500 meters. Their use
forced the Soviets to greatly increase attack air speed and stop spending time
over target. Fighters and bombers were forced to increase attack height from
2,000-4,000 feet to around 10,000 feet. The Mujahideen, despite not having
received a great deal of training on the missile, were able to hit Soviet
aircraft out to a distance of 4,800 meters and up to 2,000 meters in
elevation. The greater altitudes forced upon Soviet close air support
aircraft due to the effectiveness of the Stingers significantly reduced the
accuracy of their bombing. The added danger of flying over target areas thought
to have Stingers as part of their air defense arsenal increased the threat to
Soviet pilots. As a result, "Soviet pilots proved far less willing to fly as
many missions or as demanding high-risk sorties". The sharp decrease in the
ability of fixed-wing aircraft to find and kill targets allowed the Mujahideen
to move through the country far more easily and restore their supply lines.
The main targets of the Mujahideen were Soviet helicopters, which also proved
to be vulnerable to the Stingers. This meant according to author and historian
Lester Grau, "The Soviet Command had to severely limit the employment of
helicopters, especially during daylight". The forced changes in Soviet
aviation tactics had profound effects on the battlefield. Helicopters were less
effective in providing direct fire support as pilots reduced the amount of time
over targets thought to have Stingers.
More than just combat missions were affected. Casualty evacuation, once
predominantly executed by helicopters, was significantly reduced. A Soviet
combatant remembered, "Until 1987 all of our wounded were evacuated by
helicopter to the hospital in Kabul. The arrival of Stinger missiles put an end
to our massive use of choppers. We were forced to cram the injured into armored
carriers-fifteen in each one-and send them down the local roads to Kabul."
Certainly, the fear of being wounded and not having adequate casualty
evacuation capability had a negative effect on the soldiers fighting on the
The rugged terrain combined with the guerrilla tactics of the Mujahideen called
for the application of new methods of conducting offensive operations by the
Soviets. "Combat showed that, as a rule, frontal attacks by Soviet and Afghan
forces did not succeed." Mujahideen forces were able to retreat into the
mountain passes when attacked. The Soviets were able to displace the Mujahideen
but unable in most cases to inflict significant casualties on the elusive
guerilla fighters. Among the new methods tried by the Soviets was the cordon
and search. The cordon and search was designed to trap the Mujahideen in a
valley between a main Soviet force and a tactical envelopment of the enemy by
air assault forces. This combination action when conducted correctly prevented
Mujahideen from maneuvering or escaping into the mountains. These cordon
and search operations were however routinely unsuccessful as they were often
compromised by Mujahideen intelligence sources who warned of Soviet units
departing base camps or the insertion of the blocking forces.
The lack of a professional NCO corps represented a critical problem in the 40th
army; especially an army fighting counter insurgency operations. Soviet
sergeants were conscripts who had to attend a six-month NCO course and
Lieutenants were inexperienced having been recently commissioned. Counter
insurgency, defined by the British as, "an NCO war", was directly opposed to
the well know aspects of Soviet military doctrine, which discouraged
independent action by junior officers. At the tactical level, the Soviet
small unit leaders were hard pressed to match the Mujahideen. Soviet experience
showed that success at the tactical level often involved small unit maneuver at
night with the use of night vision goggles and applying discipline to achieve
Junior officers were in many cases negligent in maintaining discipline and
morale within many of their units. Due to poor leadership, the 40th army
suffered from a lack of discipline that resulted in low morale. Many soldiers
suffered form depression and turned to abusing narcotics or alcohol. There was
racism, theft and violent crime both within units and against the Afghan
population. Many soldiers murdered civilians or destroyed villages in
retaliation to an ambush or fallen comrade.
Throughout the Soviet war in Afghanistan, up to 33% of the personnel in the
Soviet 40th Army were affected by an infectious disease every year. Of the
620,000 Soviets deployed to Afghanistan during the conflict, 415,932 or 67%
were hospitalized for some kind of serious illness or disease. These illnesses
included infectious hepatitis, typhoid fever, plague, malaria, cholera,
diphtheria, meningitis, dysentery, heat stroke, and pneumonia. A great
number of these casualties were directly related to poor hygiene, poor waste
removal, or poor drinking water.
Active leadership by a professional Non-commissioned officer corps could have
prevented many of the sources of disease. For example: Soviet troops were often
forced or chose to drink from natural water sources or local wells. The quality
of these sources in many cases was very poor and contained high bacteria
levels, typhus, and amoebic dysentery. To combat the spread of illnesses
caused from drinking from local sources, the Soviets issued a pantocide
water-purification tablet. These tablets were effective when used properly.
However, soldiers in many cases failed to wait the required 30 minutes for the
tablet to purify the water while others simply found the taste of the treated
water to be repulsive and refused to use them. Many of these casualties may
have been prevented if small unit leaders had enforced discipline in their
soldiers regarding such disciplines as field sanitation and drinking from
approved water sources.
Providing adequate logistics support in Afghanistan was a constant problem for
the 40th Army. The harsh climate and rugged terrain quickly wore out vehicles
and equipment. Vehicle fuel systems, cooling systems, and road wheels were
particularly susceptible to the harsh conditions. As a result, Soviet
maintenance personnel were forced to accelerate scheduled maintenance and
services on a variety of weapon systems and vehicles. Although the 40th Army
had a Material support Brigade and separate tank, motor vehicle, and artillery
repair battalions, it still "lacked sufficient maintenance personnel and
facilities during the entire war." The inadequate support resulted in poor
readiness, poor maintenance procedures, unsafe repairs, cannibalization of
repair parts and a tendency not to conserve the use of vehicles.
Many Soviet units were stationed in remote locations or far from supply bases.
Logistics units within the 40th Army were woefully lacking in their ability to
supply the troops. As a result, combat units often had to endure significant
supply shortages. In addition to fresh water, the most significant supply
shortage was the shortage of fresh, perishable foods.
The hot climate made it extremely difficult to provide fresh foods such as
meats and vegetables, which require a refrigeration capability for storage and
transport. Units were routinely supplied with a mixture of canned goods and
food concentrates. Dry rations consisted of 200 grams of rusks, 250 grams of
canned meat, 250 grams of canned fish, 30 grams of sugar, and four grams of
fruit extract. Hot meals were provided by the unit cooks when available but
were often according to Grau, "a mixed blessing, since a primary source of
infection was the cooks."
The mountainous terrain combined with the dry desert climate created special
conditions for Soviet soldiers who had to endure both exhausting heat during
the day in lower altitudes and freezing temperatures at night in higher
altitudes. Special uniform requires were needed in order to protect soldiers
from the extreme weather conditions. The standard Soviet issue of uniforms and
equipment was designed for the European theater and proved inadequate for
operations in Afghanistan.
The climate and terrain of Afghanistan demanded uniforms made from rugged,
lightweight materials capable of protecting soldiers from the cold, wind, and
moisture. The Soviets developed and issued special uniforms and accessories but
the quantity and quality were insufficient. The Soviet issue sleeping bag for
example did not provide enough warmth or protection from moisture. Pakistani or
English sleeping bags were a highly prized find. As a result, Soviet soldiers
were often exposed to the elements.
One of the most notable shortfalls was the issue of an acceptable mountain
boot. The mountainous terrain destroyed the standard issue boots in a short
period of time. Soviet soldiers improvised, utilizing alternative sources to
acquire acceptable footwear. "All of us walk in virtually indestructible
sneakers. They are far more reliable than even the best Adidas. Soldiers
pay for them out of their own pockets; a pair costs 24 rubles in the
The major lessons the Soviets learned during the war in Afghanistan were
according to Cordesman and Wagner that, "It is virtually impossible to defeat a
popular guerrilla army with secure sources of supply and a recovery area; it is
extremely difficult-if not impossible –to use modern weapons technology to cut
off a guerrilla force from food and other basic supplies; and the success of
pacification techniques depends on the existence of a popular local government,
and the techniques must be seen as the actions of the local government and not
of foreign military forces."
The Soviet leadership completely miscalculated the political and military
situation in Afghanistan. They were unable to anticipate the anti-Soviet
reaction that was generated in the United States and around the world. They
failed to understand their enemy and the power Islamic Nationalism had on the
will of the Afghani people to endure extreme hardships. They were unable or
unwilling to prevent the Mujahideen from operating from sanctuaries in
The 40th Army itself deployed into a theater of operations woefully unprepared
for the war they had to fight. Constantly short of the required number and
trained personnel, and adequate equipment, the 40th Army was forced to fight a
limited war with limited objectives against an extremely resilient and capable
guerrilla force. Over the years however, the Soviets did improved their tactics
in conducting counter insurgency operations. They were able to introduce and
test new weapons and new combat formations, and record many lessons learned
regarding Soviet doctrine and leadership. In the end however, the Soviets
failed to reach their political or military objectives in Afghanistan.
Show Footnotes and
. General (Ret) Mohammad Yahya Nawroz and LTC (Ret) Lester W. Grau, "The
Soviet War in Afghanistan: History and Harbinger of Future War?", (United
States Army Foreign Military Studies Office: Ft. Leavenworth Kansas), Article
on-line, accessed 18 June 2003 at
. Anthony H. Cordesman and Abraham R. Wagner, The Lessons of Modern War Vol
III. The Afghan and Falklands Conflicts, (Mansell Publishing Limited:
London, 1990), 219.
. Hauner, 114.
. Hammond, 132.
. M. Hassan Kakar, Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion and Afghan Response,
1979-1982, (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995), 194.
. Urban, 56.
. Cordesman and Wagner, 175.
. Steve Galster, "Afghanistan: The Making of U.S. Policy, 1973-1990," (The
National Security Archive, Article On-line, 2001), Accessed 13 June 2003
available at http://www.gwu.edu/`nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB57/essay.html.
. Galster, "Afghanistan: available at
. Milan Hauner, The Soviet War in Afghanistan: Patterns of Russian
Imperialism, (Philadelphia: University Press of America Foreign Policy
Research Institute, 1991), 113.
. Steve Galster, available at
. Mark Urban, War in Afghanistan, 2nd Edition, (London: The
Macmillan Press Ltd., 1990), 302.
. Urban, 224.
. Steve Galster, available at
. Lester W. Grau and Michael A. Gress, The Soviet Afghan War: How a
Superpower Fought and Lost, (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas,
. Ibid, 18.
. Urban, 65.
. Grau and Gress, 30.
. Urban, 159.
. Grau and Gress, 91.
. Ibid, 191.
. Cordesman and Wagner, 142.
. Grau and Gress, 210.
. Grau and Gress, 222.
. Cordesman and Wagner, 175.
. Grau and Gress, 213.
. Cordesman and Wagner, 176.
. Grau and Gress, 213.
. Artyom Borovik, The Hidden War: A Russian Journalist's Account of the
Soviet War in Afghanistan, (Grove Press: New York, 1990), 135.
. Grau and Gress, 81.
. Ibid, 80.
. Ibid, 116.
. Urban, 127.
. Urban, 65.
. Lester W. Grau and William A. Jorgensen, "Beaten by the Bugs: The
Soviet-Afghan War Experience", Military Review, VOL LXVII, Nov-Dec 97,
(article on-line) accessed 25 September 2003, available at
. Grau and Jorgensen, available at
. Grau and Gress, 290.
. Ibid, 281.
. Ibid, 281.
. Grau and Gress, 291.
. Ibid, 286.
. Grau and Jorgensen, available at
. Grau and Gress, 292.
. Grau and Gress, 53.
. Cordesman and Wagner, 95.
Copyright © 2008 James T. McGhee.
Written by James T. McGhee. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact James T. McGhee at:
About the author:
Major James T. McGhee is a native of Dexter, Missouri, and now serves in the
active Army as an Operations Officer assigned to the 101st Sustainment Brigade,
Ft. Campbell, KY. He studied history at Southeast Missouri State University, is
a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College, and holds a Maters
Degree in Military Studies from American Military University. In his spare
time, Todd enjoys researching and writing military history with emphasis on
World War II on the Eastern Front.
Published online: 06/14/2008.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.