An Uncomfortable War in the Graveyard of Empires

An Uncomfortable War in the Graveyard of Empires: Applying the Manwaring Paradigm to the Soviet-Afghan War

Michael McBride

The decades following World War II were consumed with the global struggle for power between the United States and the Soviet Union.  On battlefields were scattered across the developing world the two great superpowers competed for influence through the projection of soft power in the form of investment, development, and the spread of ideology.  However at times this influence was resisted and world leaders felt the need to intervene militarily.  Afghanistan, one of the last battlefields of the Cold War, was of strategic interest to the Soviets not only because of its geographic location on the southern border of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and because it was a step closer to the oft sought access to a warm water port, but equally as important because it was another sovereignty and people that the Soviets could include in their bloc as a part of the global competition for ideological acceptance. 

The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan was initially envisioned by Soviet leaders as a short term endeavor to right the direction of the revolution and bring stability to what had devolved into a fractious competition for power within the communist party.  However, the conflict quickly escalated into a full blown insurgency that would last nearly a decade, claiming the lives of over 13,000 Soviet soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Afghans, and ultimately end in withdrawal and the collapse of the Soviet backed regime a few years later.[i]  The failure of the Soviet counterinsurgency campaign has many parallels to the campaign waged by the United States in Afghanistan today that warrant its detailed analysis.  Applying the Manwaring Paradigm to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan uncovers structural flaws in Soviet strategy and numerous operational and tactical mistakes that contributed to the campaigns ultimate demise. 

Developed by Max G. Manwaring in the early 1990s, the Manwaring Paradigm, or SWORD Model as it is sometimes referred, introduced a framework that could be used to analyze internal conflicts.  The Manwaring Paradigm consists of six dimensions that can help explain the past failures or successes in internal wars and predict the outcome of future conflicts.  The six key factors are:  legitimacy of the government, organization for the unity of effort, type and consistency of support for the targeted government, ability to reduce outside aid to insurgents, intelligence (or action against subversion), and discipline and capabilities of a government’s armed forces.[ii]

As observed by Max Manwaring, legitimacy of the government is tantamount for the conduct of a successful counterinsurgency campaign.  The Afghan political landscape is wrought with ethnic rivalries, religious tensions, age old blood feuds, an intricate segmentary tribal system, and personal ambition all overlaid on a centuries old sociopolitical order based on unwritten social codes and patronage networks.  The Soviet leadership did not have an appreciation for the complexities of these dynamics when they signed a Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighborliness, and Cooperation in Moscow in December 1978 that would grant them the legal authority for later military intervention.[iii]

After years of spreading communist thought amongst the Afghan elite, offering educational opportunities in Moscow and steering curriculum in Soviet funded universities such as Kabul University, the communist party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) was founded in 1965.  Over time, the party split into two factions, the more radical Stalinist Khalq (“Masses”) seeking immediate revolution and the Marxist-Leninist Parcham (“Banner”) advocating more moderate socialist reforms.  The infighting between the two factions was rampant, at times escalating to violence, causing prohibitive internal fractures and preventing the communists from uniting to affect social and political change while also eroding their legitimacy. 

Many of the core tenets of communism are at odds with Afghan identity.  Due to the paucity of resources in Afghanistan, land ownership has always been a source of conflict.  Accordingly, the land reforms that were initiated by the PDPA once it came to power were intensely unpopular.  The atheism that accompanied communist ideology was also highly offensive to many Afghans.  As Islam spread across Afghanistan from the 7th to 10th centuries it became ingrained in the Afghan identity to the point that they are now intrinsically linked. [iv]  As such, an attack on Islam by atheism became an attack on Afghan identity as well.  Women are very closely tied with honor, the social currency in the vast expanses of the Afghan countryside.  While the communists stressed the equality of men and women and pushed for their inclusion in civil society, this violated the social code of the Afghans as well as their shared Muslim faith causing an uprising in Herat that would be brutally repressed by the Afghan regime.[v]  The principals of communism were fundamentally in opposition to Afghan culture and identity leading many to reject the legitimacy of the Soviet-backed communist regimes. 

The Soviet-backed Afghan leaders also failed to gain legitimacy.  The Saur Revolution in 1978 brought the PDPA to power with President Nur Mohammed Taraki and Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin at its head.  Since the founding of Afghanistan as sovereignty in 1747 by Ahmad Shah Durrani, Afghanistan has been ruled almost exclusively by members of the Durrani Tribal Confederation of the Pashtuns.  Over time, it has become accepted by many Afghans, not surprisingly amongst Durranis, that Durrani Pashtuns are the rightful, legitimate rulers of Afghanistan.[vi]  In addition to their communist reforms, rhetoric, and ideology, Taraki and Amin’s belonging to the rival Ghilzai Confederation added to their lack of legitimacy among large segments of the Afghan population. 

The murder of Taraki by his political rival Amin after they had jockeyed for supreme control of the government prompted the initial launch of the Soviet intervention, as they staged a spectacular special operations raid to kill Amin, seize control of the country, and install Babrak Karmal as head of the government.  Karmal lacked the charisma of Amin or Taraki and was unable to establish a dedicated loyal following.  By the very nature of his ascension his credibility and independence from Soviet influence was questioned.[vii]  Afghanistan has a long history of invasion and foreign occupations.  A historical narrative that has great resonance among Afghans is the righteous struggle to oust unwanted foreign occupiers.  Thus, Karmal’s linkage to the occupying Soviets greatly delegitimized him not only in the eyes of the Afghan people, but also internally within the PDPA. 

Gorbachev’s strategy review determined that Karmal lacked the political acumen necessary to manage a government capable of remaining in power after the planned Soviet withdrawal.  Ignoring the tribal dynamics that have factored so prominently in Afghan history, the Soviets once again partnered with a Ghilzai Pashtun, Mohammed Najibullah.  Najibullah had been a member of the PDPA since its inception and from the Afghan perspective did not represent a substantive change from previous leaders.  Further fueling his unpopularity, Najibullah had been the leader of KHAD, which by the time he left had become infamous for torture, murder, and indefinite imprisonment.[viii]  Najibullah deemphasized the atheist nature of the communist state as government officials lauded the Islamic character of the regime in an attempt to bolster legitimacy.  While the reforms did generate limited domestic backing for the regime that enabled it to survive until 1992, such support ultimately proved insufficient and temporary as the mujahideen stormed into Kabul and unseated the regime.  None of the several leaders backed by the Soviets had been able to garner legitimacy for their regimes.

Organization for the unity of effort is a second crucial factor in ultimate success or failure.  As counterinsurgency requires full spectrum operations with a clear, coordinated strategy, each subordinate component operating in harmony and contributing to the overall mission this dimension was particularly important to the Soviet campaign.  However, frequent turnover in leadership, disagreements between and amongst key military and civilian leaders, and lack of coordination between the various groups operating in Afghanistan prevented the Soviets from attaining a unity of effort sufficient to defeat the mujahideen

Throughout the course of the war, the USSR experienced a great deal of turnover in civilian, military, and intelligence leadership that made it difficult to develop a coherent, sustained strategy agreed upon by all.  During the initial decision to militarily intervene in 1979, Leonid Brezhnev was the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the commander of the 40th Army was General-Lieutenant Yuri Tukharinov, and the head of the KGB was Yuri Andropov.  With the death of Brezhnev in November 1982, Yuri Andropov ascended to the head of the government as General Secretary and was succeeded as head of the KGB by Vitaly Fedorchuk, who remained in the post for only seven months before being replaced by Viktor Chebrikov in December 1982.  When Yuri Andropov died in February 1984, he was replaced by Konstantin Chernenko, who died little over a year later.  With Mikhail Gorbachev assuming the post of Secretary General, the campaign would have its longest period of stable leadership until in 1988 when Cherbikov was replaced by Vladimir Kryuchkov as head of the KGB.  During the course of the war, the 40th Army would be commanded six additional General-Lieutenants including Boris Tkach, Viktor Yermakov, Leonid Generalov, Igor Rodinov, Viktory Dubynin, and Boris Gromov, all of whom commanded the army for less than two years.[ix]  Such frequent turnover prevented the Soviets from developing and implementing a comprehensive strategy and caused competition between these key decision makers for sway over the conduct of the campaign as newcomers rotated into positions. 

Within the Afghan government there were fierce divisions as the Khalqis controlled the ministries of interior and defense while the Parchamis headed KHAD and the Prime Minister’s office.  This segregation within the government led to disunity as stove piping became the norm with various ministries at time competing against each other for power and influence rather than coordinating with each other to defeat the mujahideen.[x]  Rivalries that plagued the Afghan corridors of power were mirrored within the Soviet leadership.  From the very beginning of the conflict, within the Politburo there was opposition to military intervention in any form.  However, foreign policy was principally controlled by foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, minister of defense Dmitrii Ustinov, and chairman of the KGB Yuri Andropov, who all suppressed dissent.[xi]  However, opposition continued as the short term intervention dragged on year after year, until finally Mikhail Gorbachev declared an official policy of withdrawal. 

Inter-service and interagency rivalry was rife between the Soviet military, the KGB, and the ministry of foreign affairs causing dysfunction at the strategic level.  Soviet journalist Artem Borovik observed, “One of our problems in Afghanistan, it seemed to me, was that the Soviet Union never had a central office in charge of the various delegations of its super ministries:  the KGB, MID [Ministry of Foreign Affairs], MVD [Ministry of Internal Affairs], and the Ministry of Defence.  The chiefs of these groups acted autonomously, often sending contradictory information to Moscow and often receiving conflicting orders in return.  The four offices should have been consolidated under the leadership of the Soviet Ambassador.”[xii]  His advice was never heeded by the Soviet leadership.  Even once consensus was achieved on the overall objectives by the Soviet leadership, dysfunction trickled down to the operational level as the agents and soldiers in the field disagreed over how to conduct the campaign.  As Kalinovsky notes, “there was often little coordination among the various groups working in Kabul.  The sharpest conflict was between the Soviet military and the KGB…These disagreements allowed Afghan communists to play various sides against one another, and even to develop a lobby in their views in Moscow.”[xiii]  The lack of unity not only contributed to internal chaos but also was detrimental for Soviet-Afghan relations. 

A third key factor in Manwaring’s paradigm is the type and consistency of external support for the targeted government.  It should be noted that the Soviets did display consistent, long term support in the form of economic aid, development efforts, military training, and the commitment of forces.  Throughout the decades following the conclusion of World War II, the Soviet Union provided financial and political support to Afghanistan.  As aforementioned, many Afghans were sent to the Soviet Union to receive education in engineering and intelligence work simultaneously being exposed to communist ideology.  The Soviets sent advisors and engineers to help improve Afghanistan’s infrastructure constructing roads, factories, and universities.  Perhaps the most notable projects include the Salang Tunnel, completed in 1964, Shindand Airbase, both which would act as key logistical hubs during the Soviet intervention.[xiv]  Between 1954 and 1980, the Soviet Union provided an estimated 1.5 billion rubles to Afghanistan.[xv]  This generosity extended through the subsequent decade, with the Soviet Union provided billions of rubles to Afghanistan both in the form of economic and military aid.  Between the years 1982 and 1986 alone, the Soviet Union provided 7.5 billion rubles to the Afghan government.[xvi]  It is notable that it was only after the Soviet Union itself collapsed in 1991 and was unable to provide support to Afghanistan did that flow of aid finally come to an end in January 1992.  Its importance to sustaining the regime is evidenced in that a mere two months later Najibullah’s regime was ousted by the mujahideen.[xvii]

In addition to the treasure expended by the Soviet Union, it also committed hundreds of thousands of conventional and Special Forces to bolster the Afghan regime throughout the intervention.  Over the nearly decade long intervention, over 620,000 Soviets served in Afghanistan, over 15,000 of whom were killed and over 50,000 wounded.[xviii]  Despite the large troop contributions, it never seemed to be enough as the Afghans consistently requested additional Soviet support, even lobbying for a residual force of 10,000-15,000 after the formal withdrawal in February 1989.  While that option was ultimately decided against for political and logistical reasons, the Soviet Union did leave behind a contingent of advisors and even maintained a sizeable force near the border for any contingencies that may have come up.[xix]  According to an excerpt from Soviet documents, “For the purposes of solving sudden problems in the case of worsening condition on the Soviet-Afghan border or in Afghanistan, [we are] making provisions to maintain temporarily, in battle readiness on USSR territory, three motorized rifle divisions, one airborne division, six aviation divisions, and two helicopter regiments.”[xx]

The Soviet Union provided training and equipment to the Afghan Army boosting its size from a pre-war strength of approximately 80,000 to at its height 140,000.[xxi]  The Soviets provided air support during combat operations for the Afghan army and for a good portion of the intervention actually led combat operations as they saw the Afghan army as incompetent, unwilling to fight, and ineffectual.[xxii]  Afghanistan’s intelligence service, the Khedamat-i  Ittala’at-i Daulati (KHAD), was mentored by the KGB and grew to over 40,000 agents, many of whom were sent to Moscow for training in tradecraft.[xxiii]  While the end of external support both military and financial to the Soviet backed Afghan regime finally ended in 1992 ultimately leading to the regime’s demise, it is worth noting that it was due to lack of means rather than lack of will or interest. 

Manwaring’s emphasis on the ability to reduce outside aid to the insurgents was particularly relevant to the Soviet intervention.  External aid to the mujahideen was critical to their survival, and the Soviet Union was never able to end it.  The United States sent billions of dollars that were matched by Saudi contributions to support the mujahideen that were funneled through the Pakistani Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).  China, Great Britain, and Iran also provided monetary support for the insurgency though to a much lesser degree. [xxiv]  In addition, the mujahideen were provided arms and training by the ISI in camps set up in the Pakistani safe havens.  The Soviets were unwilling, and perhaps even unable given the mountainous geography and porous nature of the border, to secure the border or extend the war across it to end external aid to the mujahideen for several reasons.  Expansion had the potential to escalate the conflict into a broader war possibly involving the United States as well as arouse additional public attention about the conflict, which they had been trying to suppress domestically.  The Soviets also viewed such action as beyond their mandate, which was to help the government in Kabul rather than fight the war on its behalf.[xxv]

Unable to forcibly end outside aid to the mujahideen, the Soviets attempted a political solution, eventually negotiating the Geneva Accords.  Signed on April 14, 1988, the Geneva Accords of 1988 stated, that both the United States and the USSR would, “undertake to invariably refrain from any form of interference and intervention in the internal affairs of the Republic of Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and respect the commitments contained in the bilateral Agreement between the Republic of Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan don the Principles of Mutual Relations, in particular on Non-Interference and Non-Intervention.”  Ostensibly, the Soviet Union would be able to continue funneling the Afghan government billions of rubles in aid, but the United States and Pakistan would have to end their support to the mujahideen.  However, such support would continue despite the agreement enabling the mujahideen to mass enough combat power to eventually depose Najibullah’s regime. 

Among the six dimensions, intelligence is perhaps the most critical.  Knowing who the insurgents are, where they are, and how to isolate them are a few of the vital questions that must be answered through intelligence collection and analysis.  Gathering intelligence was a problem that plagued the Soviets throughout the duration of the war.  The failure to reliably gather intelligence led to the Soviets being caught off guard numerous times throughout the intervention and forced them into creating and implementing reactionary rather than proactive policy. 

While the KGB and the Soviet military had significant influence in the regime, they lacked penetration into the Afghan countryside.  The KGB suffered from a lack of intelligence agents and officers that spoke local dialects and understood Afghan culture.  They also failed to develop a reliable, accurate source network that could fill in the many intelligence gaps that plagued the Soviets.  As a result, the majority of intelligence came through prisoner interrogations which at times included torture.  Afghan tribal elders whom they attempted to recruit were also under heavy pressure from mujahideen commanders and were often prone to support the side from which they were able to extract the highest payment for their loyalty.  Mujahideen intelligence on the other hand was able to penetrate the ranks of the army and police force with relative ease further frustrating Soviet efforts to collect intelligence and conduct effective military operations.[xxvi]

KHAD on the other hand was, “brutally efficient,” as its more than thirty thousand Soviet trained agents combed the countryside gathering intelligence on the mujahideen battle order, leadership, and location of caches and forces.[xxvii]  While KHAD was effective at collecting intelligence, they did not ably share intelligence with their counterparts and often made deals with the mujahideen.  KHAD extracted information from its prisoners largely through torture and even resorted to killing captured mujahideen fighters and sympathizers.  This had significant backlash in the form of bolstering support for the mujahideen who were comparatively less brutal further undermining the counterinsurgency campaign.[xxviii]

The final key factor in Manwaring’s Paradigm is the discipline and capabilities of a government’s armed forces.  The Soviet-Afghan war was a particularly brutal affair that was rife with wonton destruction and indiscriminate killing on both sides.  There are copious reports of Soviet forces throwing prisoners out of helicopters to their death, deliberately destroying agricultural means of production including livestock and natural irrigation system known as the karez system, and deliberately targeting civilians.  Numerous accounts emerging from the conflict detail instances of looting, widespread use of narcotics notably hashish and heroin which were readily available, and hazing within the ranks all of which were indicative of and contributing to the breakdown of morale and discipline.[xxix]

The Afghan army was equally undisciplined.  Soviet and Afghan soldiers alike were often undersupplied driving them to steal from the local populace and even sell their equipment to the mujahideen.[xxx]  Plagued by defections to the mujahideen, the army had a difficult time maintaining its formations.  The Afghans were heavily reliant on the Soviets not only for air support, but also for planning and at times the actual conduct of operations, which were continually stymied as soldiers and officers loyal to mujahideen commanders tipped them off to impending offensives.[xxxi]  While it can be argued that the Soviets were attempting an enemy centric counterinsurgency strategy that focused on offense operations to destroy the mujahideen, the lack of discipline both by the Afghans and the Soviets only further alienated the people and drove them to support the insurgency. 

While perhaps no framework can comprehensively explain or predict the outcome of internal wars, the Manwaring Paradigm does identify a number of the root causes that determine a conflict’s ultimate outcome.  The six dimensions, legitimacy of the government, organization for the unity of effort, type and consistency of support for the targeted government, ability to reduce outside aid to insurgents, intelligence (or action against subversion), and discipline and capabilities of a government’s armed forces offer a useful way to analyze the counterinsurgents performance in the campaign. 

As applied to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, fundamental flaws in Soviet structure, strategy, and execution emerge as significant contributing factors to their ultimate withdrawal and the collapse of their favored regime.  There was a lack of understanding among Soviet leadership of the complexities of the Afghan sociopolitical landscape and supported regimes that were seen as illegitimate in the eyes of the people.  The Soviets were not organized for a unity of effort and accordingly were never able to develop and implement a comprehensive strategy executed coherently by the many agencies and organizations involved.  They did provide significant consistent support for the targeted government, and it is only one that support ended due to the collapse of the Soviet Union that the Soviet-backed government fell to the mujahideen.  External aid to the mujahideen never forcibly or diplomatically prevented and the discipline of both the Soviet and the Afghan armies was largely absentThe Soviets were unable to penetrate either the population or the insurgency to gather actionable intelligence that could drive effective operations.  While there are many factors that contributed to the failure of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the dimensions put forth in the Manwaring Paradigm offer a foundational explanation for the outcome of the campaign.  This explanation reaffirms the utility of the Manwaring Paradigm and offers insight into policy that should be implemented and avoided as the United States concludes its own withdrawal from Afghanistan.

End Notes

[i] Estimates range from 800,000 to 1.2 million Afghans deaths as a result of the fighting.  Artemy, M. Kalinovsky, A Long Goodbye, (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2011), 1.

[ii] Stephen Sloan, “Introduction, in Low Intensity Conflict:  Old Threats in a New World, eds. Edwin G. Corr and Stephen Sloan, (San Francisco, CA:  Westview Press, 1992), 12. 

[iii] The Russian General Staff, The Soviet-Afghan War:  How a Superpower Fought and Lost, eds. Lester W. Grau and Michael A. Gress, (Lawrence, KS:  Kansas University Press, 2002), 10. 

[iv] Thomas Barfield, Afghanistan, (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press), 41.

[v] Gregory Feifer, The Great Gamble, (New York:  Harper Collins, 2009), 30.

[vi] Barfield, Afghanistan, 109.

[vii] Gilles Dorronsoro, Revolution Unending, (New York:  Columbia University Press, 2005), 174.

[viii] Ibid., 193.

[ix] Rodric Braithwaite, Afgantsy, (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2011), 124.

[x] Dorronsoro, Revolution Unending, 174.

[xi] Kalinovsky, A Long Goodbye, 23-24.

[xii] Braithwaite, Afgantsy, 61.

[xiii] Kalinovsky, A Long Goodbye, 13.

[xiv] Gregory Feifer, The Great Gamble, (New York:  Harper Collins, 2009), 22.

[xv] Braithwaite, Afgantsy, 147.

[xvi] Kalinovsky, A Long Goodbye, 42.

[xvii] Dorronsoro, Revolution Unending, 237.

[xviii] Braithwaite, Afgantsy, 329.

[xix] Kalinovsky, A Long Goodbye, 170-174.

[xx] “Regarding the Completion of Withdrawal of Soviet Troops from the Republic of Afghanistan,” CC CPSU memorandum, February 16, 1989, Volkogonov Papers, Reel 17, Box 26.

[xxi] The Russian General Staff, The Soviet-Afghan War, 48.

[xxii] Braithwaite, Afgantsy, 123-124.

[xxiii] Dorronsoro, Revolution Unending, 176-178.

[xxiv] Steve Coll, Ghost Wars, (New York:  Penguin Books, 2004), pp. 65-66.

[xxv] Kalinovsky, A Long Goodbye, 44.

[xxvi] Braithwaite, Afgantsy, 135-136. 

[xxvii] Ibid., 138-139.

[xxviii] Feifer, The Great Gamble, 147.

[xxix] Ibid., 107-109.

[xxx] Ibid., 222

[xxxi] Kalinovsky, The Long Goodbye, 41.


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