Semantron 23 Summer 2023

Soviet intervention in Afghanistan

in stopping 15-20 percent of supply caravans. 8 The mujahedin on the other hand did not encounter severe logistical difficulties.

Soviet technological advantages were often neutralized during fighting. For instance, the Mi-24 attack helicopter, nicknamed the ‘crocodile’, provided security and valuable overwatch to the special forces in the mountains and to regular forces on the ground. In response, the mujahedin received American, British, and Chinese supplied man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) such as the famous Stinger. The missiles threatened Soviet air power, forcing the development and practice of reliable countermeasures. However, despite their best efforts, the 40 th Army lost 113 fixed-wing aircraft and 333 helicopters during the war. 9 Soviet troops, trained on easier terrain in eastern Europe, suffered severe headaches from altitude sickness as well as the extreme temperatures on the Afghan mountains. Soviet manpower constraints meant that they could not hold any ground gained during major operations. The mujahedin would simply reoccupy Afghan kishlaks (villages) during the night, after the Soviet troops had left. As a Soviet officer lamented, ‘ when the operation was over, our forces would leave, and everything would return to what it had been before ’ . 10 The Soviet failure to prioritize winning hearts and minds over military success contributed to the prolonged fighting which gradually eroded Soviet morale. It further dispelled idealist notions of warrior-internationalism that the Soviet leadership had attempted to instill in the general public and 40 th Army. 11 Ultimately, despite Soviet ideological indoctrination, a soldier’s motivation to fight was increasingly derived from his desire to survive. Soviet soldiers suffered terribly. While the psychological trauma experienced by American soldiers in Vietnam is well documented in literature and film, less well known in the west is the human cost and profound impact on the veterans of the 40 th Army, the ‘Afgantsy’. Such impact is illustrated by Soviet Afghan war songs such as ‘We Are Leaving’ and ‘Swallowing Dust’. 12 While the Soviet-Afghan conflict may not be as prevalent as the Vietnam War in western political conscience, some interesting comparisons can be drawn from the two events. They appear extremely similar in that both great powers had to contend with a highly motivated, homegrown insurgency, both were unable to triumph militarily despite technological superiority and both were unable to create the political conditions necessary for a foreign war to succeed. 13

Political failures

Soviet troops, initially labouring under the misconception that the Afghans would welcome the stability, law and order that they provided, soon discovered that the Afghan people rather preferred the

8 Braithwaite (2011), p.134. 9 Such countermeasures included firing infrared flares to confuse the guidance systems of the MANPADS and flying at over 16,500 feet, over the advertised range of the Stinger. Braithwaite (2011), pp.204-205. 10 Braithwaite (2011), p.223. 11 The term had also been used to describe those who had performed their ‘international duty’ in the 1936 -1939 Spanish Civil War. 12 See and 13 David N. Gibbs, ‘Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion in Retrospect’, International Politics 37, no. 2, 2000, 233-246 at pp. 241-242.


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