History Repeating: the Soviet-Afghan War (1979–1989)
A foreign misadventure, mounting losses, a determined enemy, and growing problems at home. Sound familiar?
Welcome back! Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the current situation in Ukraine and noting some glaring similarities with previous wars. In the previous installment, I addressed what I saw as the parallels to the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905). That one ended badly for the Russian empire, which included a humiliating peace and a revolution at home. The war also precipitated the February Revolution (1917) which led to the fall of the Romanov Dynasty and their execution.
As I mentioned briefly in that article, there is another conflict that is strikingly similar to the war in Ukraine. This would be Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, otherwise known as the Soviet-Afghan War (1979–1989). For Russians (until recently), this war was considered a misadventure and a terrible mistake. It has only been in recent years that Putin and state-controlled media have attempted to rehabilitate it.
In much the same way that he has tried to rehabilitate Stalin and the collapse of the Soviet Union (which he’s repeatedly called a “genuine tragedy”), the new narrative in that the war was justified, the Red Army fought and sacrificed bravely, and that withdrawing was a mistake. Legislation was even passed to reverse the Soviet-era condemnation, issued in 1989 shortly after the withdrawal.
Since he ordered the invasion of Ukraine, Putin has even tried to blame the war on the dissolution of the USSR, which is consistent with his attempts to blame the U.S. and NATO and showcases how he wants to restore the “good old days” of the Soviet empire.
In reality, the war was a terrible waste of life and has left scars on Afghanistan that may never heal. The Red Army committed extensive war crimes and crimes against humanity because of their inability to put down the Mujaheddin. And in the end, it was an international humiliation for the Soviets and precipitated the collapse of the regime. In this respect, it was just like the Russo-Japanese War and the fall of the Romanov dynasty.
Russians in Afghanistan
The Russians invasion was preceded by many years of conflict in the region. Since 1947, Afghanistan had been an ally, receiving economic aid, military equipment and training from the Soviet Union. In 1973, the Soviets backed a bloodless coup, where former Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud Khan (supported by Soviet-trained Afghan officers) overthrew the king of Afghanistan — Mohammed Zahir Shah.
In 1978, another coup took place (a bloody one this time!) as the Marxist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and the Afghan Army overthrew Daoud and executed both him and his family. The Marxist regime attempted to modernize the country’s Islamic civil law code and met widespread resistance — which they violently put down. A civil war began shortly thereafter between government forces and the rebel army (aka. the Mujaheddin).
As the war escalated, the Afghan government (led by Hafizullah Amin), called on the Soviet Union for military aid. By December 1979, the Soviets entered Afghanistan, executed Amin, and installed a new regime. The U.S., which had already been aiding the rebels under Operation Cyclone, began funneling money and advanced weapons (like Stinger missiles). Pakistan contributed by offering refugees sanctuary and training so they could join the fight, which was overseen by their intelligence services (the ISI).
During peak deployment, 115,000 Soviet personnel were stationed in Afghanistan, though a total 620,000 would serve there between 1979 and 1989. According to varying estimates, between 14,453 and 26,000 personnel were killed, 53,753 were wounded, and 264 were MIA. Equipment losses were also heavy, with 147 tanks, 451 aircraft (333 helicopters), 433 artillery pieces, and around 1,300 armored vehicles and 11,000 trucks.
For the Afghans, the situation was far worse. Between 90,000 and 180,000 fighters died in action, between 562,000 and two million civilians were murdered, over three million were wounded, and more than seven million people were displaced and became refugees. The extreme cost in civilians lives and the mass displacement reflected Soviet tactics, which became increasingly brutal and criminal as the war dragged on.
This included indiscriminately targeting civilians populations, refugee caravan, and killing and torturing prisoners. Some analysts have gone as far as to accuse the Red Army of intentionally committing genocide and trying to depopulate the land. After years of protracted fighting and mounting protests at home, the war finally ended when Premier Gorbachev (in office since 1985) ordered the withdrawal of the Red Army.
That same year, the Eastern Bloc began breaking apart as West Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, the Baltic States, etc., declared independence. Two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed and Gorbachev was ousted from power. One of the chief contributing factors was the war in Afghanistan, which effectively bankrupted a regime already teetering on the edge from decades of terror, brutality, repression, extreme corruption, overspending, and failed attempts at reform.
Already, Russia’s war in Ukraine has been compared to the war in Afghanistan. The main point of comparison, however, is how much greater Russian losses have been. While estimates vary, non-U.S., non-Ukrainian, and independent Russian sources estimate that Russian losses have been between 120,000 and 200,000 killed, captured, wounded, and missing.
In Afghanistan, the Red Army suffered a maximum of 80,000 killed, captured, wounded, and MIA over the course of ten years. On the surface, that means that they have already suffered 1.5 to 2.5 as many casualties in this war. But keep in mind that their current losses occurred in the space of about thirteen months (February 2022 to March 2023). Corrected for that, Russian losses have effectively been 15 to 25 times worse!
Equipment losses have also been dire. According to Oryx’s very detailed database, “Attack On Europe: Documenting Russian Equipment Losses During The 2022 Russian Invasion Of Ukraine,” Russia has lost a total of 1819 tanks, 3,273 armored vehicles, 851 artillery pieces or systems, 274 aircraft, 79 helicopters, and 2323 trucks and support vehicles since the war began.
Now compare that to the equipment losses in Afghanistan: 147 tanks, ~1,300 armored vehicles, 433 artillery pieces, 451 aircraft, 333 helicopters, and ~11,000 trucks. Corrected for the time frame in which those losses occurred, and the ratio of losses (Ukraine:Afghanistan) works out to around 120:1 for tanks, 25:1 for armored vehicles, 20:1 for artillery, 6:1 for aircraft, 2.4:1 for helicopters, and 2:1 for trucks.
Not only are the Russians suffering far greater losses in Ukraine, but the losses reflect the nature of the war and the tactics employed. In Afghanistan, the Red Army was fighting an asymmetric war against guerilla fighters, who largely targeted support vehicles and aircraft (thanks to all the Stinger missiles from the U.S.). In Ukraine, the war is a fight between conventional armies in which Russia’s heavy forces are being depleted.
Meanwhile, Russia is sending even older Soviet-era tanks to the front and resorting to conscription drives to make up for their losses. These drives are having a disastrous impact on Russia society, triggered large-scale migrations, and (coupled with the economic sanctions) is making a revolution seem more and more inevitable. In short, not only is Ukraine following a similar pattern to Afghanistan, it’s a lot f— worse!
The only question for Putin right now is, does he want to end up like Gorbachev and his cabinet or the Romanovs? Even if relinquishing power and living the rest of his life in obscurity seems like a humiliating prospect, it’s a lot better than being deposed and executed with his family! Time is not on his side, and the longer he waits, the more likely it is that the decision will be made for him.