Soviet documents offer insights into fighting in Afghanistan Reason to be wary of war

Posted: Wednesday, October 31, 2001

WASHINGTON -- America, take heed.

Six years into its decade-long war in Afghanistan, with thousands of soldiers in their graves, the Soviet Union was still confounded by the traditions and terrain of the hardscrabble nation, according to recently translated documents in which President Mikhail Gorbachev admits:

''If we go on in the same way, we'll have to fight for another 20-30 years! They'll soon be calling it the weird war. In six years, we haven't learned how to fight there.''

The former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 because it feared the West was trying to topple a pro-Soviet regime in Kabul; it withdrew in defeat in 1989. The State Department estimates that 14,500 Soviets and 1 million Afghans died in the conflict.

Now, a dozen years later, the United States is bombing the Central Asian nation to root out Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and dislodge the ruling Taliban militia that is protecting him.

Recently declassified documents from archives of the former Soviet Union and new translations of the memoirs of senior Soviet military and political leaders offer disquieting insights into the hazards of fighting in Afghanistan.

The records, newly released by the National Security Archive, an independent research institute at George Washington University, show the Soviets underestimated the influential role of Islam in Afghan society and were hampered by the craggy mountain terrain. Some Soviets compared their war in Afghanistan to America's involvement in Vietnam.

''We did not even have a correct assessment of the unique geographical features of that hard-to-enter country,'' said a May 10, 1988, letter from the Kremlin to the Communist Party's central committee. Soviet troops were fighting ''small, highly mobile units where very little could be accomplished with the help of modern military technology.''

Essentially a self-critique stamped ''for internal use only,'' the letter went on to say: ''We completely disregarded the most important national and historical factors -- above all the fact that the appearance of armed foreigners in Afghanistan was always met with arms in the hands'' of Afghan citizens.

The United States needs to learn lessons from the Soviet invasion and avoid being seen as a meddling superpower, said David Isby, a defense analyst and expert on Afghanistan. The Afghans are ''obstinate,'' he said, ''but they're very proud and you don't mess with them.''

Any government that's not crafted by the Afghans themselves is doomed, Isby said of the West's efforts to help oust the Taliban and see a new, more moderate government, installed. While the United States insists its fight is against terrorism, not the Afghan people, the Taliban is telling Afghans that America is ''trying to mess with you the way the Soviets did,'' Isby said.

The documents indicate that the Soviets wanted to get out of Afghanistan earlier than they did.

At a politburo meeting on Oct. 17, 1985, Gorbachev read emotional letters from citizens who wanted Soviet leaders to stop sending soldiers to fight ethnic factions in the rugged nation.

''Gorbachev was apparently quoting all this to raise the emotional tension, but he sidestepped the underlying issue of whether the entire venture had been a mistake or not,'' Gorbachev adviser Anatoly Chernyaev wrote in his memoir published in English this year by the Penn State University Press.

At a meeting of the ruling Politburo a year later, Gorbachev feared the invasion soon would be called the ''weird war,'' Chernyaev said.

''Here we are trying to get some notion of where to deploy a tank corps, but this is a different kind of war. ... Like Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique,'' Chernyaev quoted Gorbachev as saying at the meeting on Nov. 13, 1986. ''So a reasonable question -- should we stop, or completely embarrass ourselves militarily as well?''

The document should make the United States wary of a long-term bombing campaign, said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russian and Eurasian program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

''Gorbachev understood that they had lost the hearts and minds of the Afghan people,'' Kuchins said. ''Even though they were killing exponential numbers of people and destroying the physical infrastructure of the country at a huge rate, the war was unwinnable. They were never going to be able to rout all of the mujahedeen (Afghan militiamen) from their caves.''

The Soviet leaders were still contemplating a pullout in February 1987.

''We can leave quickly without thinking about anything (and) say that the former leadership was to blame for everything, but we cannot do so,'' Chernyaev wrote in notes describing two Politburo sessions in February 1987.

''We will not be able to explain to our people why we did not complete it (the war). We suffered such heavy losses! And for what?''


On the Net: National Security Archive: 7/8nsarchiv

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