The United States Must Learn From the Soviet War in Afghanistan

In response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President Bush has vowed to hunt down those who aided the assailants and punish them severely.

The top suspect in the attacks, Osama bin Laden, is believed to be hiding in Afghanistan. But because Afghanistan’s Taliban leadership refuses to turn over bin Laden to the United States, the Bush administration appears poised to launch a military assault on that Central Asian nation.

Although it is a poor country wracked by civil war, Afghanistan has experience fighting a military superpower.  During the 1980s, the Soviet Union failed in its attempt to subdue that nation militarily.

Nonetheless, the Bush administration should continue its plans to destroy terrorist networks in Afghanistan, meanwhile avoiding the kind of mistakes the Soviet Union committed — or it will risk a similar defeat.

In 1979, Soviet armed forces invaded Afghanistan to prop up a communist regime. Although the Soviet army enjoyed a numerical advantage in men and weapons over Afghan forces, the Afghani fighters mauled the Soviet forces. The Red Army was driven from Afghanistan in 1989, its pride bruised, its reputation bloodied and its spirit broken. The successor Russian army continues to suffer from the repercussions of that disastrous war.

Three factors contributed heavily to the defeat of the Soviet army:

First, the Soviet government chose the dubious political objective of militarily supporting an unpopular regime. This policy turned international opinion against the Soviet Union. At home, the Soviet leadership’s inability to justify this objective to its own people dampened public support for the war once casualties in the Red Army began to mount.

Second, the Soviet Union overlooked the importance of fielding motivated troops. The soldiers who fought in Afghanistan were mostly conscripts, hardly inspired to fight a war whose value to the Soviet national interest was questionable. As a result, the Soviet army was outfought by determined Afghans.

A third factor in the Soviet defeat was the poor training of Soviet troops, which rendered them ineffective against skilled Afghan fighters. Only Soviet special operation forces, elite fighting units trained to wage guerrilla war, performed well in the conflict.

The United States must bear these factors in mind as it plans for war in Afghanistan. The Bush administration must first set political objectives that will sustain broad support at home and abroad should the fighting drag on. Such support will be crucial should the fighting produce heavy casualties.

Like the Soviets, the United States must rely heavily on American special operations forces should it fight in Afghanistan. They are the best equipped and best trained fighting units in the world. They are also highly motivated. These advantages will enable them to balance the Afghan forces’ greater knowledge of their nation’s terrain.

Waging war in such a mountainous, war-torn and isolated land as Afghanistan presents formidable obstacles. But the wisdom and clarity of political and military objectives, the training and motivation of the troops and the quality of their leadership will play a key role in determining the outcome of any U.S. military action. 

The Bush administration must narrowly define its political and military objectives, justify these objectives to the American public and the international community, and ensure that the military forces and equipment it assigns to fight in Afghanistan are appropriate to the mission. By taking these actions and learning from the Soviet Union’s mistakes, the United States will increase its odds of achieving its objectives.

Michael H. Creswell is in associate professor of history at Florida State University. The author of "A Question of Balance: How France and the United States Created Cold War Europe" (2006), he is also a writer for the History News Service.