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Learning from the Soviets

As the United States and its partners enter ten years of operations in Afghanistan this fall, there is a growing interest in the Soviet experience there during the 1980s. Unfortunately, the Soviet-Afghan war is remembered for US, Pakistani, and Saudi support of the mujahedeen, the importance of US stinger missiles, Soviet Retreat, and subsequent civil war giving rise to the Taliban. This ahistorical narrative neglects the efforts the Soviets made in building Afghan security forces, which sustained a socialist government in Kabul for two years after the Soviets withdrew.

Lester Grau has been one of the few who fought the oversimplification of the Soviet-Afghan war and his work is important to understand operations from a Soviet perspective. Adding to this literature is a new article in the Journal of Slavic Military Studies. In an effort to review the Soviet experience without a Reaganesque lens, Anton Minkov and Gregory Smolynec have been researching and writing about Soviet state-building efforts in Afghanistan. Their latest article is "4-D Soviet Style: Defense, Development, Diplomacy and Disengagement in Afghanistan During the Soviet Period Part I: State Building." They review the various efforts the Soviets made to build an Afghan state through political, economic, and military means. The effort was at great cost to the Afghan people; by some estimates, over a million were killed and the legacy of landmines in Afghanistan persists today.

Minkov and Smolynec make a good case that the Soviets did not expect the resistance they encountered and had hoped for a repeat of quick operations reminiscent of Prague 1968 or Budapest 1956. While they quickly achieved their military objectives and installed their preferred leader, the Soviets realized there were no quick solutions. Ultimately, they embarked on a state-building strategy that "envisioned establishing a strong communist party and affiliated mass organizations, which would control all state institutions, including the Afghan army, the police and the security services. The Afghan security forces, together with the Red Army, would apply pressure on the insurgency and expand government control in the countryside...[A crucial part] was working with the youth, educating a new generation..." The approach the Soviets pursued (minus the mass killings) seems familiar.

When the Soviet left in 1989, they trained and equipped about 310,000 personnel from the army, border guards, police, and intelligence services. After 1985, the Red Army gradually ceded operational responsibility to the Afghan Army. Minkov and Smolynec concluded "by 1989 the Soviet leadership believed that Afghan forces could ensure continuity of the pro-Moscow regime on their own...[the Afghan Army] was able to hold its ground, and even achieved important victories, defeating mujahidin offensives against Jelalabad and Kabul during 1989 and 1990."

The willingness to review Soviet lessons not only makes good historical sense, but also represents a good opportunity to reconsider one of the last chapters of the Cold War. In general, most analysts viewed the Soviet experience through Western eyes only concerned with Soviet defeat. By examining Soviet efforts in the context of supporting the Kabul government, building an Afghan state, there are important lessons to be learned. Unfortunately, the Soviet experience in Afghanistan was left to the dustbin of history; it is good to see analysts like Minkov and Smolynec are resurrecting this discussion to inform current thinking on Afghanistan.

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