Parallel frontlines: ten years of Soviet and American occupation compared

On 7 October 2001, American-British air raids and Special Forces spearheaded an invasion of Afghanistan that resulted in the removal of the Taliban regime and the country’s occupation by the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf). Ten years later, Bruno De Cordier ponders to what extent this episode bears any similarity to the decade-long Soviet occupation of the country.

Bruno de Cordier
7 October 2011

“When I was serving there, it was the latter years of the war, at a time that everyone’s main concern was getting out unscathed and not saving Socialism”, a veteran from the Soviet-Afghan war told me several years ago. “It’s the sort of war and country that gets under your skin, brother. See, lately, I have followed closely what the Americans and Europeans are doing in Afghanistan and Iraq. The whole discourse about installing democracy, and the reality on the ground; it’s familiar”. But are both episodes really that similar? It is tempting to say so. For both, the cliched refrain that ‘it’s all about the oil’ doesn’t explain events. More important are security and ideology, though the global geopolitical context, of course, differs. The USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan was the result of the course and circumstances of the Cold War in which both sides had promoted satellite states and military blocs, rather than a war on terrorism and nation-building mission as characterised the 2000’s. 

The Soviets did not face a 9/11 type event. The mission was not retribution for a major terrorist attack, rather the invasion was hastened by a perception that the USSR’s position was under threat on a number of fronts during the 1970s. Nato’s installation of intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Europe and the unwelcome course of the Iranian revolution had altered the balance of power. In Afghanistan, which bordered the USSR, the Soviet-backed Socialist regime suffered factional infighting while it was confronted with an Islamist and nationalist insurgency that, according to KGB reports, it could no longer handle. The USSR had already intervened militarily in Afghanistan in the lead up to its fully-fledged invasion. In early 1979, for instance, Soviet fighter jets helped to quell a mutiny in Herat after the city’s Soviet expatriates were targeted by the insurgents, while Russia had maintained a strategic interest in Afghanistan since the nineteenth century. 

Socialist republics and Islamic emirates

This brings us to a second major difference between the two conflict phases: the role of the state in Afghanistan. The Soviets came not to depose a hostile regime but to support an ideologically affiliated one. When the Soviets entered Afghanistan, the country had a more or less functioning state. It was a state that was contested, fractured and partly dependent on alliances with local rulers, but it had a regime political party, armed forces, police and institutions, though it had been heavily dependent on outside assistance for years before the invasion. By 1978, most of Afghanistan’s petrol, military hardware and expertise came from the USSR, along with two-thirds of its development aid which was then, as now, a medium for political and ideological influence. Two-thirds of foreign trade was with the USSR. Some one thousand Soviet development workers resided in the country, while Afghan students were sent to study in the USSR, and Soviet engineers exploited the natural gas fields in the north of the country and built roads, tunnels and other infrastructure. 

The Soviets came to protect and reinforce a project of nation-building along Socialist lines that was already in train. Yet the Afghan state’s support-base was limited to certain urban groups, part of the Shiite minority and some units of the armed forces. Soviet patronage and the heavy-handedness with which the Socialist regime and its party organisations carried out land reforms, secularisation, literacy and women’s rights campaigns created resentment in wider society. The US and Nato, by contrast, had none of these ties with the Afghanistan that they invaded in late 2001 and early 2002, and faced an entirely different reality. They did not come to support but to topple a regime, in a country where basic state institutions had either stopped functioning or no longer existed after the civil war that followed the Soviet retreat in early 1989 and the overthrow of the Socialist regime in early 1992. 


US Marines patrol Marjah by Demotix/Def Vid. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without permission. 

The Islamic Emirate of the Taliban had its de facto capital and power base in Kandahar and was not propped up by an external power like its socialist predecessor. It was rather an embryonic state which, though it maintained some state infrastructure, mainly functioned on the basis of a system built around a central council, religious courts, tribal institutions, militias and alliances with local commanders. To varying degrees, it had established control over three-quarters of the country. It was assumed that the removal of the Taliban would make possible the rebuilding of the state and the nation from scratch in ways that would anchor Western and most importantly US influence and security interests in both the country and the wider region.

Ideological arrogance 

Both the Soviet and American invasions were driven forward by faith in their respective missions and their ability to implement them. In both cases, the invasions were justified as a move to ‘save’ Afghanistan – and especially its women and oppressed minorities – from ‘fanatics’ and to support or implant development models that could serve as an example for other countries in the region. But this confidence had been inflated by previous military successes and illusions of ideological supremacy. Decision-makers in the USSR assumed, for instance, that the sovietisation of the parts of the USSR that border Afghanistan and that have ethno-linguistic and geographic ties with the country could be replicated south of the border. Moreover, the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was seen as a restoration of order like that in Czechoslovakia in 1968. This operation, which is believed to have provided the blueprint for that in Afghanistan, had been a piece of cake, encountering, as it did, little armed resistance. 

In 1977-78, during the Ethiopian-Somali war in the Ogaden, the USSR, with Cuba and South Yemen, had also organised a successful airlift and sent some 1,500 military advisors to support the Soviet-aligned regime in Ethiopia. For its part, the US had emerged victorious from the  the Cold War as the sole superpower. In 1990, it had obtained an easy military victory over Iraq in Kuwait. 9/11, which followed the long-term diabolising of the Taliban in the global media, added the legitimacy of retaliation and a strengthened sense of moral superiority to the host of factors behind the invasion. In terms of state and nation building, it was believed in neoconservative as well as liberal circles that the successful transformation of aggressive militaristic societies like Germany and Japan after World War II into liberal democracies could be repeated in ‘backward Islamic societies’.

In the USSR’s case, the military operations, occupation and development of the country did not take place in close cooperation with the private sector and transnational corporations that would compose the scores of private contractors who operate in alls sorts of fields, from logistics and construction to security, in Afghanistan today. Nor did the USSR lead a multinational force into Afghanistan, notwithstanding the USSR’s own multinational character, although the fact that almost 3/4 of Isaf effectives are Anglo-American makes such a distinction relative. The USSR’s ‘limited contingent’ (as the occupation force was officially called) consisted of the fortieth Soviet army group along with KGB and Soviet Interior Ministry troops. It was also primarily an army of conscripts, who served tours of duty of one and a half years in much tougher working conditions and with poorer equipment than face today’s professional Isaf soldiers on their shorter tours of duty.

The international context

There are stark differences between both episodes in the position and role of the international community too. The USSR did not occupy Afghanistan under the umbrella of a military alliance or a supportive UN mandate. Contrary to the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, this was not a Warsaw Pact but an exclusively Soviet operation which was condemned by the UN. Nato’s presence, by contrast, is approved and mandated by the UN and the international community in general, which has clearly affected perceptions of the UN in Islamic opinion worldwide. The international aid industry was not so massively present in Afghanistan under Soviet occupation as it is now. Rather, the humanitarian crisis that came with the displacement of refugees and destruction of agriculture and infrastructure boosted the growth and legitimacy of Western as well as Islamic aid efforts which are now such important factors in contemporary conflicts. 

The exact toll of the Soviet occupation may never be known given the absence of specialised monitoring structures and proper censuses at the time, and the Cold War interest in minimising or exaggerating the figures depending on one’s allegiances. In terms of military fatalities, most estimates are of more than 13,800 Soviet and some 60,000 Afghan government troops killed. Estimates of the number of civilian casualties range from 650,000 to one million, although many were not directly killed by the Soviet troops but rather by the humanitarian crisis caused by the war. In ten years of US and Nato occupation, the number of military dead amount to almost 3,000 US and Isaf soldiers and some 1,500 Afghan army personnel. The much higher number of dead among international coalition troops is a result of the fact that in the initial occupation years there was no national army. Estimates on the number of civilian casualties range from 11,400 to over 34,000 though here again, only a part were killed in military operations. 


Restoring order on a Cold War frontier. Soviet armoured column during a break near Baharak-Jarm, 1987 (©Arkady V. Shestakevich, Art of War

Both are asymmetric wars pitching better organised and technologically superior armed forces against disparate insurgent groups. The USSR had several advantages that the US and Nato do not. It had a land border with Afghanistan and thus considerably shorter supply lines, and little overtly expressed public opinion or electoral considerations to be reckoned with at home. Due to the ethno-linguistic ties between some of the southern Soviet republics and Afghanistan, it had more military intelligence officers who had mastered one or more of the languages spoken in Afghanistan. There was less reluctance, among the Soviet command, to taking brutal counterinsurgency measures including collective punishment. Though this does not mean, however, that the Soviet occupiers were to a man the murderous villains that international audiences got to see in Cold War box office hits such as Rambo III

Afghan government troops, regime-affiliated militias, and the in-fighting between insurgents also brought their part of death and destruction. In practice, the course and nature of the Soviet occupation and the operations varied per sector and per commander. There were Soviet attempts to win hearts and minds. Certain parts of Afghanistan saw relatively little fighting. But others, like Kandahar, were subject to heavy assaults including carpet bombing and scorched-earth policies. Some places lost up to eighty percent of their population, either displaced or killed, in the course of only a few years. This is not the case now. Much like today, however, soldiers’ boredom and sense of uncertainty between operations, the insurgents’ near-invisibility, and, as an Isaf officer in Kandahar once put it to me, “the thin lines between friend and foe”, brought stress, frustration and eventually ‘bunkerisation’, leading to over-reaction and the use of excessive force. Both the USSR and the US and Nato were therein confronted with the fact that one’s strength in war does not depend on numbers of men, nor on technology, but on endurance, ideological determination and readiness for self-sacrifice. 

The Taliban and affiliated groups who resist the US and Isaf do not enjoy the same ‘freedom fighter’ aura in international opinion and do not have the same level of civilian or government support enjoyed by the Afghan Mujahedeen fighting the Soviets and the Socialist regime, much of it lost as they seemed to degenerate into warlords and gang leaders. Yet, in militant Islamist circles as well as in parts of wider Islamic opinion, Afghanistan and the present guerrillas are again considered to be part of a ‘symbolic frontline’: a beleaguered, invaded and occupied part of the Dar Al-Islam resisting ‘Western Crusaders’, as it resisted ‘Soviet atheists’ before, and the traitor local rulers and interest groups who are in cahoots with alien forces. Today, as then, the conflict attracts numbers of volunteers from the wider Islamic world to join the insurgents.

The vanishing home front

As in any war, the home front proved equally important to both superpowers. The Soviet occupation was largely carried out by conscripts, bringing the war directly into homeland society. Moreover, towards the end of the occupation, the USSR itself was a weary, rapidly unravelling system with a dysfunctional economy that was further drained by the war, and an ideological project that had long lost its mobilising power. Increasingly, cynicism affected the troops in Afghanistan, confronted with the reality that people and societies do not necessarily like to be ‘saved’ and ‘enlightened’ by others, and with consumer goods in the Afghan bazaars that were often of better quality than those available in state outlets at home. 

A few years after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the USSR itself would cease to exist. Ironically, a number of Afghanistan veterans and units who were stationed there would continue to fight in the several armed conflicts that erupted in what was, not so long before, their Soviet motherland, like in Tajikistan and Transnistria. The deadlock in Afghanistan and the stories brought home by demobilised soldiers contributed to a sense that the Soviet war machine was not invincible. This boosted the morale of anti-Soviet secessionist movements like those in the Baltic States. The failure of the intervention in Afghanistan was not the reason why the USSR collapsed, internal dynamics were far more important. Nonetheless, the coincidence has strengthened the conviction among the Taliban and many other Islamists that the defeat of the US in Afghanistan will result in the collapse of the US itself, especially now that it faces an economic recession. 

This, of course, is unlikely, either on account of the war toll in Afghanistan and Iraq or any other observable factors. American global influence will shrink, but the country will not disappear as a world power. Unlike the USSR, it does not face secessionism. Like the USSR, though, its presence in Afghanistan, however quickly it is brought to an end, will, for better or for worse, leave its marks. As had the USSR, the US has assumed that it could direct social change in a country from outside. In a way, both projects were to some degree sincere and well-meant. Yet both were roughly confronted with the limits of voluntarism, especially as what they wanted to build has and had little social base in the country. As one Afghan parliamentarian from Ghazni told me, “they both relied too long on the wrong Afghans, the sort of people that they wanted everyone to be and not those that are our real society.”

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