Looking Back 1989 / By Mark Albertson: . . . history repeats itself. What happened in the 19th century to the invading British would also be the fate of the Soviet invaders. Philosophically the Soviets believed that history is not directional, progressive and does not repeat itself. History did repeat itself and we did prevail. — General Abdul Rahim Wardak.
Soviet soldiers aboard a BMD, an air-portable APC.
February 15, 1989, the last Soviet soldier crossed the Amu Darya River, ending the ill-fated Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. A defeat that will help lead a sequence of events resulting in the political collapse of the Soviet state and the Warsaw Pact, which in reality, was an empire.
A total of 642,000 Soviet troops served in Afghanistan; an average of 94,000 to 104,000 in-country at any one time. 14,262 of these were killed and another 49,985 were wounded, that is permanently disabled or unfit for duty.[2
The lethal Soviet ZSU-23-4 multiple-barreled 23 mm anti-aircraft gun.
However when accounting for those afflicted by sickness and disease, total casualties were an astounding majority of the overall force committed, and, who ultimately returned home. 415,932 were claimed by some form of sickness and disease, including 115,308 who suffered from infectious hepatitis and 31,080 from typhoid fever. Beyond the sheer magnitude of these numbers is what the figures say about Soviet hygiene and conditions surrounding troop life. Such numbers are unheard of in modern armies and modern medicine and their social impact among returnees and the Soviet population, in general, had to have been immense.
The Soviet sojourn into Afghanistan has been viewed from many quarters as Moscow’s Vietnam. There is some truth to this notion since the Soviets did get mired into a losing effort just the United States in Southeast Asia; with both major powers incurring political defeats. Yet the superior American political system and economy enabled the United States to weather such a setback in a fashion the Soviet system could not. For at tremendous cost, fighters from all over the Muslim world fight and win the last big military action of what is called the Cold War.
But a number of factors showcase the differences between the American and Soviet frustrations against concerted efforts in opposition by People’s Armies.
1. The Mujahideen (Soldiers of God) were not organized in the fashion of the Viet Cong. Decentralization based on ethnic, tribal, clannish and religious factors played a decisive part. Such baggage did not encumber Hanoi; whereas in Afghanistan, the ethnic differentiations made amalgamation difficult—Pashtuns, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Nurestanis, Baluchistanis, Aimaqs, Turkmen . . . Again add to this the tribal, clannish and religious divergencies, with practically all being Muslim, most Sunni, some Shia, a toxic brew which awaits any invader.
A loose confederation among groups did coalesce, but not to the extent of Hanoi’s effort of control during the Second Indochina War.
2. The Mujahideen did not have a single major leader. Ho Chi Minh was, until his death in 1969, that poster child expression of the effort to unite Vietnam during the First and Second Indochina Wars: That effort in Revolutionary Nationalism which began to manifest itself with the backlash to Western Colonialism beginning with the conclusion to the 1914-1918 chapter of the Great War. And the Vietnamese were going to wage this effort in Revolutionary Nationalism no matter the cost.
To the contrary, Afghanistan featured a loose confederation of guerrilla groups seeking to evict the infidel. Among the Sunnis were such offerings as:
A. Jamiat-i-Islami, founded in 1972 by Burhannudin Rabbani, a Tajik, an Islamic theologian from Kabul University.
B. Hizb-i-Islami (Hizb), 1979, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Breakaway group from Jamiat-i-Islami. Despite being secular, Hekmatyar was pursuant of an Islamic state
C. Hizb-i-Islami (Khalis), a splinter faction divorced from Hekmatyar, founded and led by Muhammad Yunus Khalis, a tribal leader from Paktia of the Deobandi variety.[5
D. Harakat-i-Inquilab-i-Islami, founded by Nabi Muhammadi. Practitioners of the strict adherence to Sharia Law.
The above are among the plethora of Sunni groups. But then there are the Shias. In central Afghanistan, the Hazaras, where some eight groups were lumped into Hizb-i-Wahdat, overseen by Abdul Ali Mazari, and supported by Tehran. Yet an independent Shia grouping existed as Harakat-i-Islami, led by Sheikh Asef Mohsini.
The above merely scratches the surface; but does convey the nature of resistance, which by comparison to Vietnam was noticeably decentralized.
3. Unlike the North Vietnamese, the Afghan resistance did not enjoy the largesse of aid and support in the volume of Hanoi. Pakistan cannot compare to China as that contiguous benefactor from which aid flowed; nor did Afghanistan, being landlocked, have a port like Haiphong in which ships brought in countless tons of stores and supplies.
4. The Mujahideen benefited from recruits streaming in from around the Islamic world, fellow Muslims from Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Pakistan . . . Journalist Ahmad Rashid estimated that upwards of 100,000 Muslims were drawn to the war in Afghanistan, to take part as combatants, training and other roles of support.
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In the aftermath of the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan, there is the larger picture: “When the last Russian troops crossed the Amu Darya River into Soviet territory in February 1989, at least one million Afghans had died. But that was not the end. A new force had been awakened by the Afghan War. As one mujahid (Soldier of God) told Peregrine Hodson, The present war against the Shuravi is part of a greater war: The Islamic Revolution. All over the world our brothers in the faith are awakening to a new spirit of religion. The Russians had planted the dragon seed: they would keep on paying as they had for centuries in Chechnya and the Americans would begin to pay in Iraq. But even more than they, the Afghans would continue to pay as fighting continued among the warlords, then between the warlords and the Taliban, and finally between Taliban and the Americans. There seems no end in sight.”
When asked what made him [Mujahideen] successful, Commander Beloch said, “We intended to fight to the last man and they didn’t.”
- See page 384, The Other Side of the Mountain, Ali Ahmad Jalai and Lester W. Grau.
- See page 181, Chapter 10, “The Bear Burns its Paws,” Afghanistan: A History of Conflict, by John C. Griffiths. According to David Isby, 13,310 Soviet troops were killed, with another 311 missing. See page 62, Chapter 3, “The Soviet War in Afghanistan,” War in a Distant Country, Afghanistan: Invasion and Resistance, by David Isby.
- See page XIV, “Introduction,” by Lieutenant Colonel David Glantz (Ret.), The Bear Went Over the Mountain, edited by Lester W. Grau.
- This writer does not hold to the popular view of World War I and World War II. There is only one war, the Great War, 1914-1918; 1931-1945. The European Colonial Powers started the conflict but could not win same, for they were not equipped to wage industrialized conflicts on the scale that it would be waged during 1939-1945. Only two nations were so equipped to do so, the victors, the United States and the Soviet Union.
- The Deobandi movement, named for a town in northern India, emerged in the late 19th century as an Islamic backlash to British colonialism, as well as to preserve the integrity of the Islam by returning to the roots of the religion; a Sunni view of the conservative approach, rejecting the Shia brand of Islam at the same time.
- The Deobandi strain still influences Muslims from Bangladesh down through southern Afghanistan. As such came to be seen as an influence on Sunni extremism during the Russo-Afghan War, later serving as an influence in the rise of the Taliban. See pages 100 and 101, Chapter 3, “The Fading Promise of Nationalism,” The Shia Revival, by Vali Nasr.“ . . . hundreds of Uzbek and Tajik Muslims (from the Soviet Union) clandestinely traveled to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to study in madrassahs or to train as guerrilla fighters so that they could join the Mujahedeen. This was part of a wider U.S., Pakistan, Saudi plan to recruit radical Muslims from around the world to fight with the Afghans. Between 1982 and 1992, thirty-five thousand Muslim radicals from forty-three Islamic countries fought for the Mujahideen. Tens of thousands more studied in the thousands of new government-funded madrassahs in Pakistan. Eventually more than a hundred thousand Muslim radicals from around the world had direct contact with Pakistan and Afghanistan.” See page 44, Chapter 3, “Islam Underground in the Soviet Union,” Jihad, by Ahmed Rashid.
- See page 201, Chapter 11, “The Afghan Resistance to the British and the Russians,” Violent Politics, by William R. Polk.
- See page 1, “Primer on Russian Afghan War, 1979-1989, Lessons Learned,” by Colonel David Shunk, USAF.
- Chaliand, Gerard, editor, Guerrilla Strategies: An Historical Anthology from the Long March to Afghanistan, University of California Press, Berkley and Los Angeles, Calif., 1982.
- Collins, Joseph, Understanding War in Afghanistan, National Defense University Press, Washington, D.C., 2011.
- Fullerton, John, The Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan, Methuen London Ltd., London, 1984.
- Grau, Lester W., The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan, Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, National Defense University Press, Washington, D.C., 1996.
- Grau, Lester W. and Jalai, Ali Ahmad, The Other Side of the Mountain: Mujahideen Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War, Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Published by the United States Marine Corps Studies and Analysis Division, Quantico, VA., 1999.
- Griffiths, John C., Afghanistan: A History of Conflict, Carlton Books Ltd., London, 2001.
- Isby, David C., War in a Distant Country, Afghanistan: Invasion and Resistance, Arms and Armour Press, London, 1989.
- Nasr, Vali, The Shia Revival, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY., 2006.
- Polk, William R., Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism & Guerrilla War, From the American Revolution to Iraq, Harper Collins Publishers, New York, NY., 2007.
- Rashid, Ahmed, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia, Yale University Press, New Haven, Ct., 2002.
- Shunk, Colonel David, USAF, “Primer on Russian Afghan War, 1979-1989, Lessons Learned,” dnipogo.org/wp-conten/uploads/2009/01/primer_on_afghan_war.pdf, December 26, 2008.