Semantron 23 Summer 2023

Soviet intervention in Afghanistan

table. It was the assassination of Taraki, ordered by Amin, on 9 October 1979 that finally convinced the Soviet leadership that Amin should be removed. Units of the newly formed 40 th Army 3 began Operation Storm-333 on the night of 24 December 1979. The invasion marked the first time Soviet forces had faced a major conflict since the end of the Second World War, with the exception of the deployment of the Red Army to Hungary and Czechoslovakia to quell popular uprisings in 1956 and 1968. The operation resulted in Amin’s death (in uncertain circumstances), the overthrow of the government, and Karmal’s installation as the Chairman of the Revolutionary C ouncil and the Council of Ministers. Once the transfer of power was complete, ordinary Afghans were hoping that the departure of the Soviet troops would be imminent. The Soviets hoped for a similar result, only looking to stay long enough to stabilize Afghanistan, 4 allowing Karmal to introduce reforms, most notably a general amnesty for those imprisoned under Taraki and Amin. However, rising violence against Soviet diplomatic and military personnel, coupled with violent mass anti-Soviet protests in Kabul, convinced Moscow that stabilizing Afghanistan, a vital ally on an uncertain border, required a prolonged occupation.

Military failures

After continuous defeats in larger set-piece battles in the early months of 1980, the mujahedin , unable to match the strength of the 40 th Army in conventional warfare, began to wage guerilla warfare. The Soviets, who had only trained for conventional warfare against NATO, soon found themselves unprepared to deal with strongly motivated, lightly armed, mobile groups of what 40 th Army strategists deemed ‘bandits’. 5 The mujahedin fought Soviet troops at close range, neutralizing conventional army advantages such as artillery and air strikes, both pillars of Soviet combat doctrine. 6 The ill- preparedness and overall inflexibility of the Soviet armed forces had stemmed from the Stalinist political purges of the 1930s, which had intentionally stifled innovation. 7 The result had been an unchanging and stagnant school of Soviet military thought. Soviet armed forces had not developed counterinsurgency strategies, despite seeing their benefits during the Second World War, when Red Army partisans used them with success against the Nazis. It was not until later in the Afghanistan War that tactics such as picketing the sides of hills and mountains to protect convoys from potential ambushes were developed, reflecting the British experience during their punitive military expeditions in the 19 th century. The changes did not, however, reflect major doctrinal shifts within the 40 th Army. A sizable component of the Spetsnaz (special forces) attached to the 40 th Army was dedicated in the east to cutting mujahedin supply lines by neutralizing caravans hauling equipment from bases in Pakistan. The porous nature of the border and the difficult terrain meant that the Spetsnaz was only successful 3 At the time, the 40 th Army was composed of 81,000 men, 600 tanks, 1,500 infantry fighting vehicles, 300 armored personnel carriers, 900 artillery pieces and 500 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. Braithwaite (2011), p.122. 4 Zalmay Khalilzad, Afghanistan: Anatomy of a Soviet Failure, 1988, p.102. 5 Major Brian C. Hawkins, ‘Soviet counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan (1979 - 1988)’, thesis for Master of Military Studies degree, United States Marine Corps, Command and Staff College, Marine Corps University, April 2010. 6 Lester W. Grau and Michael A. Gress , The Soviet-Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost , 2002, p.13. 7 One of the victims of that era had been General Mikhail Tukhachevskii, author of multiple articles on counterinsurgency.


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