How Afghanistan was broken: The disaster of the Soviet intervention

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From International Area Studies Review

As the US-led, NATO-organized and UN-mandated operation in Afghanistan draws to an uncertain end there is no point in looking back at the protracted disaster of the Soviet intervention to try and draw parallels with the wars. No retrospective analysis can establish with any certainty whether the war with the USSR had a ‘military solution’ or not, but it is quite clear that the USSR in its autumnal decade had neither the Stalinist determination nor the Leninist ingenuity to find one. The Soviet military machine was not over-burdened by the peripheral war and could have absorbed the defeat, but the consequences of the Mujahedin victory for Afghanistan were truly devastating.

This article seeks to combine historical and strategic analysis in examining that war as an evolving contradiction between nonsensical political aims and insufficient military means, and focusing on the shortcomings in projecting power that caused the escalation of rebellion and the subsequent defeat of the most powerful, but fast crumbling, military organization in the world. The aim is not to compile a list of mistakes, incompatibilities and limitations but rather to examine how their interplay condemned the intervention to disaster and the Afghan state to failure.

Abstract

The self-propelling dynamics of violence in Afghanistan, which appears set to outlast the as yet on-going peace-making, is rooted in the impact of the Soviet intervention, in which fighting was only an element of the complex political drama of destruction of the Afghan state. The intervention was launched in response to the escalation of domestic crisis in Afghanistan, about which the Soviet leadership knew much but understood little. The Soviet Army showed the capacity for learning but the improved tactical skills and upgraded operations brought only greater destruction, which was counter-productive in the absence of a coherent strategy and turned out to be politically unsustainable. No retrospective analysis can establish with any certainty whether the war had a ‘military solution’ or not, but it is quite clear that the USSR in its autumnal decade had neither Stalinist determination nor Leninist ingenuity to find one. The Soviet military machine was not over-burdened by the peripheral war and could have absorbed the defeat, but the consequences of the Mujahedin victory for Afghanistan were truly devastating. The USA helped to mobilize the most aggressively radical forces and remained in denial on their anti-modernization agenda, assuming that the ‘black hole’ that would emerge after the Soviet withdrawal was an isolated problem of no global significance.

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Article details
Pavel K Baev (2012). How Afghanistan was broken: The disaster of the Soviet intervention International Area Studies Review, 15 (3) : 10.1177/2233865912453802

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