On the combat operations experience of Soviet troops in Afghanistan

On the combat operations experience of Soviet troops in Afghanistan

Col O.N. Kalinovskiy

One of the 20th-century armed conflicts involving our Armed Forces was the so-called Afghan crisis that started in the 1970s and lasted till the 1990s. Many politicians, diplomats and military officers sought (and are seeking today 14 years after the troop withdrawal) to analyze its importance in a number of publications appearing both in this country and elsewhere.

Among these, the military reader will certainly be attracted by a recently published book, whose author is Army General M.A. Gareyev, a prominent military leader, distinguished scientist, and also President of the Academy of Military Sciences. (1) The book provides an in-depth historical and theoretical analysis of the inception and development of the Afghan crisis and changes in the military-political situation in that country following the pullout of the limited Soviet troop contingent. It is also of much value that the contemporary events are presented by their direct observer and participant–the former chief military adviser to the DRA President–rather than some “armchair theorist.”

We regret to say that certain media tend to give rather lopsided and superficial estimates to all editions of that book in order of their appearance, starting from the first. (2) In anticipation of this sort of estimates with regard to the new, revised edition, the author took as an epigraph this evaluation of the Afghan crisis, made by. the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of Russia’s Armed Forces President V.V. Putin of the Russian Federation: “Often they talk about the Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan. But if we look closely and professionally, not propagandistically, at what was happening in Afghanistan in those years, we will see that, properly speaking, there was no military defeat of the Soviet Union at all. It achieved all the goals it had put before itself. On the military plane.”

This estimate influenced the nature of changes and amendments the author introduced in the edition of his book under review. He draws the readers’ attention to the characteristic manner of combat operations in Afghanistan, suggesting that they derive the necessary lessons. While speaking about the uniqueness of the Afghan war’s .record and the necessity of its most thorough perusal, the author quotes this bitter admission made by the former commander of the 40th Army, Colonel General B.V. Gromov: “Certain of our military chiefs thoroughly forgot what combat operations were all about, while some had never taken part in real combat at all. From among the military district commanders, as of that period, only Yazov, Belikov and Lushev had been through the Great Patriotic War, but even so their combat experience was quite outdated.” Said B.V. Gromov: “The visiting commanders were more interested in the orderly routine within unit bases rather than the experience of combat operations. By and large, no one ever too k an interest in the experience we had gained, it was just ignored and kept out of the scope of studies.” (3)

The author points to the intransient importance of studying the experience of any war, in which peoples and States have to participate. He asserts that, in principle, any war experience is never fully outdated, nor can it ever be, if, of course, it is regarded as a clot of military wisdom integrating all of what was instructive and negative in the former military practice, rather than as something to be copied and blindly imitated.

It must be kept in mind at the same time that each successive war keeps less elements of the past and increasingly generates something new connected in the first place with ‘the development of the means of warfare. What is needed, therefore, is a critical and creative approach to any war experience, including the experience of the Afghan war, which produced many new combat techniques as practiced under the specific conditions of the mountain-and-desert and mountain-and-forest TO’s.

There is yet another important lesson the author draws from the experience of the combat operations in Afghanistan, one to the effect that our military art was, until recently, fully oriented to the global, large-scale war alone. Local wars were habitually regarded as something temporary, accidental, untypical and uncharacteristic of the modem armed warfare, and unworthy of a serious study. That is why, neither the organizational structure of troops (forces), nor their weapons and military equipment, nor still their combat manuals and combat drills made full-scale allowance for a possibility of participation in local wars and military conflicts.

The author specifically emphasizes that presently all of that should be thoroughly revised and an effort should he made to repair the omission. It is also necessary to take a close look at the experience of other States as well, which are far advanced in reforming their armies applicably to missions to be tackled in local wars and armed conflicts.

Obviously, as we draw lessons from combat operations in the past wars, it is necessary to use in local wars and armed conflicts the kind of weapons and military equipment that fit them the most, and, if need be, to plan the development and manufacture of the relevant weapons adapted to warfare on the appropriate scale and in TO’s with specific physical and geographical conditions.

The book’s third edition presents a number of previously unpublished documents, a report by Lieutenant General D.G. Shkrudnev who was deputy chief military adviser in the DRA for combat operations, a tactical aide on guerilla warfare for the mujahiddin, etc.

By drawing a comparison between the forces and assets of the opposing sides in the Afghan war, the methods and forms of combat operations, and means of warfare, the author convincingly demonstrates that the period at the turn of the century was one instinct with the tendency for a rise in the number of local wars and armed conflicts. There are new seats of the same in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, something due primarily to the disintegration of the USSR and the socialist community, disappearance of the two-pole world and geo-strategic parity, problems with the sovereignty of the newly-formed states, and emergence of a new system of international relations.

The facts contained in the book confirm the author’s earlier conclusions to the effect that the local wars and armed conflicts of the latter half of the 20th century have a number of traits in common, which are behind both the variety of their own forms and methods and the combat efficiency of weapons used in their context. First, the aggravation of various interstate differences (economic, geopolitical, territorial, ethnic, religious, etc.), whose diversity predetermines the complex socio-political and military-strategic content of modem local wars and armed conflicts. Second, the restricted nature of local wars and armed conflicts, as far as their participants are concerned, is not infrequently one-sided, for one of the States participating in an armed conflict would commit only a portion of its military might, whereas others would have to mobilize their entire national forces. Third, there is an internationalization of local wars and armed conflicts in evidence, which is due to the fact that the belligere nts’ aims and, accordingly, the methods they use to achieve them affect the interests of third countries, which in some form or other join the conflict. Fourth, the far-flung web of international treaties and agreements provides participants in local wars with diverse support from neighboring and allied States, which not infrequently get involved in warfare, thus creating the danger of its expansion. Fifth, restricted to a relatively small, regional scale, combat operations in local wars and armed conflicts can be conducted by operational-strategic groupings of troops (forces) with the use of the entire range of weapons in their possession, from small arms and light weapons to the most sophisticated weapon systems, precision weapons included. Some military experts would not rule out a possibility of nuclear employment, such as that of third-generation nuclear weapons.

The problems the book considers are multi-faceted, while their analysis and the suggested methods of solving them reflect the author’s broad and versatile erudition as a military theorist, military historian and an ardent patriot of his country. As he analyzes the importance of the Afghan war experience, Army General M.A. Gareyev would not overlook the fates of soldiers, officers and generals, both those who died in that war and those who still live with an aching heart, essaying to comprehend its aims and significance. An Afghan war veteran himself, the author writes this: “No sir, the death of soldiers in Afghanistan, other victims of military conflicts, of grown crime rates and the general dislocation of our societal life are of little concern for certain hypocritical politicians and human rights activists. Knowing that no war is without losses, politicians should think about that before they link their policy with the use of armed violence. At any rate, our losses in Afghanistan cannot call into doubt th e execution of their military duty by soldiers and officers” (pp. 346-347).

Revealing yet another facet of problems considered in the book, one may claim without an exaggeration that the experience of combat operations in the Afghan crisis of the 1970s to the 1990s is as yet little studied but it will find its students, while the analysis of its most important components as carried out by Army General M.A. Gareyev will be their lodestar. The book without any doubt will be of interests to officers and generals of Russia’s new officer corps as well as to military historians and research fellows engaged in investigations. into the latter-day history of Russia.


(1.) See: M.A. Gareyev, Afganskaya strada, 3rd revised edition, Insan Publishers, Moscow, 2002.

(2.) See: M.A. Gareyev, Maya poslednyaya voina. Afganistan bez sovetskikh voisk, Moscow, 1996.

(3.) B.V. Gromov, Ogranichennyi kontingent, Moscow, 1994, p. 149.

COPYRIGHT 2003 East View Publications

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