Small Wars Journal

Helicopter Parents: Comparing the US and Soviet efforts to build the Afghan Army

Fri, 06/23/2023 - 11:43am

Helicopter Parents:

Comparing the US and Soviet efforts to build the Afghan Army


Martin Stanton

In 1988 the Soviet Union began withdrawing from Afghanistan with the last troops leaving the country in January of 1989.  The Army of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) they left behind continued to receive resourcing and material from the Soviets.  A small number of Soviet soldiers remained in Afghanistan after the withdrawal in 1989 but they were overwhelmingly logisticians and technicians.  The DRA Army in the field faced the Mujaheddin alone.  They achieved some notable victories (Jalalabad in 1989) and suffered some notable defeats (Khost in 1991) but did not completely collapse until the Russians (not the Soviets – under new management) cut off funding and resourcing in early 1992.  Prior to the loss of Russian resourcing, the DRA Army, with all its imperfections, maintained a degree of combat efficacy.

In 2021 the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) and Afghan National Defense and Security Forces ( ANDSF) were informed of the final decision on US withdrawal on April 14th.   At no time or point was the ANDSF cut off from US/NATO resourcing or material support (which was scheduled to continue until at least 2024).  Four months to the day after the announcement of the president’s final decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, the Army that the US and its allies/partners had so painstakingly built over almost twenty years had collapsed (largely without a fight) and the GIRoA had fallen.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that the Soviets were more successful in developing an Afghan Army than we were.  It’s not enough to look at our mistakes.  We should also look at those who had more success at the endeavor than we did.  How were they different?  What environmental factors of the times helped them and what lessons transcend specific time periods?

Same country, different times:

To start, we must acknowledge that the Soviets had some key advantages that gave them more of a base foundation to work with.  First, the Afghan army they assisted was already established and the Soviets already had a train-and-equip relationship with it prior to the 1979 Invasion.  Second, the Afghan Military’s personnel system was based on a large body of high turnover conscripts/enlistees and a small body of professional cadre – in other words, it was a military model like that of the Soviet Army.  Lastly (and perhaps most significantly) the Afghan Army the Soviets worked with from 1979 to 1988 was made up of people who had undergone a degree of normal socialization in peacetime.  Even the youngest DRA recruit in 1988 at least had a childhood memory of Afghanistan at peace in a time of (relative) prosperity and normality.  Afghan national identity (although still relatively weak) was stronger in the 1960s/70s than perhaps any other time in recent history.  The soldiers that made up the DRA were from the last generation of Afghans whose socialization process had not been entirely interrupted by war.

Compare this to what the US found in January of 2002 when the Taliban had been defeated.  There was no standing Army, only various militias.  No Afghan identity and the military age population from which the Army would be built had both strong sub-loyalties (ethnic/confessional) and little to no memory of what it was like to live in a normal country.  In addition, there was a high degree of distrust between the former Mujaheddin and the former DRA trained leadership.

Same objective, different approaches:

            When one considers the time and resources the US and its partners (NATO and otherwise) poured into equipping and training the ANDSF, the judgment that the Soviet Union left behind a more combat effective Afghan Army than we did (in less than half the time) is unsettling, maybe even insulting.  It’s hard to look at a single piece of the training system we put together that doesn’t compare favorably to its 1980s Russian/DRA counterpart.  From marksmanship training to leader training to whatever.  Name your piece of the decades long endeavor to train the ANDSF and compare it to what the Soviets/DRA did in the 1980s and invariably the US training looks more competently put together.  And yet when the ANDSF faced the acid test of operating without US/partner direct battlefield support (but with US/Partner resourcing and material); except for the SOF units, it folded like a cheap suit.  The sum of the whole was less than the value of the training and aid we had heaped upon them.

            The Soviets “Tough Love and Doritos”.

            The Soviets resourced the DRA Army and they provided trainers for the DRA army but much of the Army still had a socially Afghan flavor.  What was imported from the Soviets came from a military culture that was famously callous about the losses and suffering of its own soldiers much less the losses of their local partners.  The combination of these two facts led the DRA to develop a hard-nosed and pragmatic approach to losses.  Units were trained to a certain standard, and then put out into the battlespace to sink- or -swim.  Losses were to be expected and if a company or a battalion was wiped out here or there it was the price of doing business.  The Soviet / DRA leaderships attitude is best summarized by a line from the Doritos commercial in which comedian Jay Leno says, “Crunch all you want… we’ll make more”.  The Soviets were not particularly solicitous of their Afghan partners well-being.  They’d help if it wasn’t too much of an effort.  But at the same time, they expected the DRA units to be able to fend for themselves.  Soviet advisors were normally only at regimental level or higher and lower-level units were expected to operate without Soviet assistance.

            Because of this, the DRA small units – although less technically well trained than their ANDSF descendants- tended to be more tactically cohesive and willing to fight.  For them, the Deus Machina of a high-tech foreign partner was never something they had come to expect or rely upon.  The DRA also faced a Mujahaddin enemy who were far less inclined to take prisoners than the Taliban.  These factors, the indifference at Soviet/DRA higher level command to tactical losses, the reality at tactical level that higher level support was at best a sometimes thing and the fact that the enemy was implacable and unamenable to reason all created an environment where the individual DRA units on the ground had to display a greater tactical efficacy and will to combat. 

Soviet / DRA use of local militias

Another big difference between the Soviet/DRA approach and the one taken by the US/Coalition and the GIRoA was in the attitude towards community militias.   These militias – the armed men of a community - pre-date written history in this part of the world.  The good-men-and-true of a village have always assembled in the village square (carrying either spears, muskets or AK-47s depending on what century they were in) to defend its property and interests…. or raid their neighbors.  It’s the cultural norm for this part of the world.  The Soviets accepted this cultural model and supported DRA efforts to pay and co-opt the community militias.  This worked more often than not, and the existence of these local militias (nominally loyal to DRA authority) added another layer of security against the Mujaheddin in many areas of the country.

Well, the best and brightest of the US policy establishment weren’t having any of that.

To the Americans the existence of militias conflicted with the vision of the Afghanistan we were trying to build.  Our policymakers at DOD and State equated militias to “warlordism” and the excesses of the Afghan civil war.  There was no way we were going to empower “militias”.  It would detract from the power and the authority of the GIRoA we were standing up.  We even went so far as to disband many extant militias not associated with the Taliban under a Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) program.  The impact of this wasn’t long in coming.  As early as 2006 we started getting rumblings that the Taliban were filling vacancies left by standing down of community militias.  There were some efforts at course correction.  Over the next few years there were several attempts to set up community defense programs, but they all fell afoul of US policy makers who dreaded the return of “warlordism”.  After Ashraf Ghani was elected, he used the power of the presidency and US influence to further deplete whatever vestigial power of militias remained.   Particularly those under powerbrokers like Dostum and Atta Noor.   He did this to cement the GIRoA’s central authority and his own hold on power.

This made it even more darkly comic when in the last months of GIRoA, US Policymakers and President Ghani (Mr “Fixing-Failed-States” himself) desperately tried to resuscitate powerbroker militias to reinforce the collapsing ANDSF.  The US had done all it could to undermining their position in Afghan society.  Ghani had spent years diminishing their capabilities and influence in a series of power political moves. Yet as the GIRoA was sinking there was an 11th hour call to bring them back.  But it was no use, the dreaded “militias” had been effectively defanged.  In the summer of 2021, the ANDSF was the only armed force available to the GIRoA, just like we wanted.  Oops.

The Soviets were smarter.  They saw a cultural model that worked and integrated it into their overall effort.   The DRA kept up the payments after the Soviets left and the militia support of the DRA only collapsed after Russian resourcing of the DRA was cut off and they could no longer be paid.

            The US and its Partners: “Hovering Helicopter Parents”.

Compared to the relatively austere environment in which the Soviets supported the DRA Army, the efforts of the US and its partner nations to train, resource, and sustain the ANDSF can only be described as “lavish”.  We spared no expense in making the ANDSF.  This was not necessarily a bad thing.  To be sure, over the years we wasted a lot of time and resources going down culturally unsustainable rabbit holes based off our mirror imaging (Computer automated logistics and personnel systems, the establishment of an NCO corps, expanded female roles in the military, our staff and decision-making processes…etc…etc) but even with these unproductive sidetracks, the way we trained and equipped units was basically sound.  It was what came after an Afghan unit left the training base that ultimately doomed our effort to create a self-sufficient ANDSF.

The Tactical “Easy” Button.

            Unlike the callous Soviets, the US/Coalition attitude towards their Afghan partners was far more solicitous.  Up to 2014 American advisors were on hand much farther down in the tactical structure than their Soviet predecessors.  The presence of these Americans meant that the ANDSF was also the beneficiary of the extraordinary support the would be provided for the advisors.  From Tactical air Support to incredibly responsive logistics to MEDEVAC within the golden hour, the US advisors became a tactical “Easy Button” for the Afghans.   Afghan units were also counterparts with coalition units in their areas of operation.  What this translated into after a few years was that the US/ Coalition advisors and counterpart units took on the responsibility of getting “their” Afghans to perform.  Afghan failure became something that could not be allowed.  Even if a given unit commander tried to force the issue and make the Afghans do their own work, that commander would either be (a) waited out or (b) directed to assist the Afghan counterpart after that Afghan counterpart complained to his Afghan higher who would then complain to the superior of the American counterpart that the offending American was not being “helpful”.   The Afghans very quickly learned how to push our buttons.  In turn, the success of Afghan counterpart units was something US field commanders were graded on.  Over time, doing it for them and swooping in to save them in difficult tactical situations became our default position.  They never had to stand on their own.  When US advisors and enablers began to depart, Afghan units in general became less mobile and aggressive. 

            Why ANSOF was different.

The exception to all this was of course the ANSOF and the various special police units.  But those had a longstanding relationship with US and Coalition SOF counterparts that was maintained even after the 2014 drawdown began.  The degradation of the regular ANDSF’s will-to-fight was further masked by the tendency to lead with ANSOF units in major operations relying on the regular ANDSF to merely occupy and hold ground already taken.  Since the ANSOF still normally had US counterparts with them on operations, US enablers were still prevalent on the battlefield even after the US drawdown began.  Although badly overstretched, the Afghan SOF remained effective largely due to the priority of resources they received, the quality of their training and the continuation of US partnering at the tactical level long past the time it had been ended in the regular ANDSF.  Had US partnering been withdrawn earlier it is likely the ANSOF performance would have dropped off quicker.

            Your Big Uncle will always be there.

The tactical “Easy Button” syndrome was further exacerbated by the open-ended nature of our commitment.  Even as we drew down most American senior officers assumed that there would be enough of a US residual force and CT mission remaining in country to keep the ANDSF from failing completely.  Warning signs of ANDSF incapacity were there, the battle of Konduz in the fall of 2015 being the most prominent.  But US senior leaders were either oblivious to the clear signs of ANDSF incapacity or felt the requirement to soft peddle it to support the narrative of GIRoA/ANDSF success.  Our rhetoric was all about tough love and forcing the Afghans to stand on their own.  But in every instance when faced with a tactical reverse we still stepped in to save them.  Despite clear US domestic weariness with the Afghan forever war, Senior officers and US Government officials convinced themselves that the bogyman of terrorist threats to the US homeland would be sufficient to keep US forces in Afghanistan in perpetuity.  After almost two decades the US commitment to Afghanistan had become a way of life for US senior military officers, diplomats, government officials, contractors, and media institutions.   We had been there long enough to create a “narrative” that had to be justified and defended.  The political uncertainty over withdrawal in the US - with many in the US policy establishment openly opposing President Trump’s plan to withdraw forces - had the impact of convincing GIRoA leadership that a change of US administrations would likely see a reversal of the withdrawal policy.   Given the mixed signals they were getting from us in the fall and winter of 2020/2021, nobody in the GIRoA or the ANDSF believed we would leave.  The almost 3 months of “Policy review” after the new administration took office only added to the uncertainty by making it virtually impossible to achieve the May 1 deadline for withdrawal as specified in the Doha agreement.  When the US Government finally announced its decision to depart on 14 April 2021, everyone was caught by surprise.  The Afghans and the Americans.

            Contrast this to the Soviet departure in 1989.  This had been pre-coordinated with the DRA going back to discussions held in 1987.  Furthermore, unlike the US withdrawal, the Soviet withdrawal was more of a return to the Soviets pre-1979 Invasion relationship with the Afghan government and military than the opening of an entirely new chapter.  Although not welcome by much of the DRA government and military, the Soviet withdrawal did not engender quite the same sense of abandonment that the GIRoA and ANDSF displayed. 

Let’s talk about Corruption:

No comparison of the US and Soviet experiences in Afghanistan would be complete without considering the impact of corruption.  As a young officer in the US Army during the 1980s I remember reading about the corruption of the Soviet forces in Afghanistan with a mix of incredulity and disbelief.  Soldiers selling their units equipment, even their own weapons to the enemy in exchange for drugs, units with “Ghost soldiers” to pad the payrolls, officers selling their troops rations and medical supplies for profit; I couldn’t imagine how a war could possibly be run like that.

            What an innocent young man I was.

            By the time the Taliban started their final offensive in the spring of 2021, apart from the ANSOF units the ANDSF was a largely hollow force eaten from the inside by corruption.  Troops went unpaid and unsupplied for months on end.  Far too often isolated posts of ANDSF soldiers would have to pool what personal money they had to buy food or ended up stealing from the communities they were supposed to be protecting.   The ANDSF soldiers had low morale and lower faith in their officers or their Army.  In far too many cases, all the Taliban had to do was approach an isolated ANDSF outpost and offer its occupants a safe conduct pass, free bus tickets home and a small cash stipend to get them to lay down their arms.  Much of the ANDSF dissolved without a fight in this manner.

Any honest comparison of the DRA and the GIRoA / ANDSF would force any impartial observer to conclude that the GIRoA and ANDSF were more corrupt than the DRA and its Army.  I would quickly point out that this was not because anyone in the US military was more corrupt than the Soviets.  I’m pretty certain no US soldier sold his weapon to the Taliban for drugs (although no doubt plenty of ANDSF did) and I’m equally sure no US commander ever knowingly carried US (or Afghan) ghost soldiers on any unit status report he or she had anything to do with.  But the sheer scale of the US commitment of resources and the sheer number of places money and assets were employed with incredible largesse absolutely dwarfs anything the Soviets did by comparison.  In short, there were far more opportunities for the GIRoA and ANDSF to be corrupt than anyone in the DRA could have ever dreamt of. 

            For the first dozen or so years of the campaign, corruption at the tactical level was held somewhat in check by the efforts and oversite of US and coalition advisory counterparts and trainers who curbed some of the worst excesses and made sure that the troops in their Afghan counterpart units were paid, fed, and supplied.  Unlike the Soviets - who were callous to the suffering of the DRA soldiers, American advisors and counterparts did their best to insure their ANDSF counterpart units’ soldiers were cared for and fit for combat.  However, (again, except for certain ANSOF units) we failed utterly to inculcate the Afghan leaders we trained with the ethos of soldier care.  As US/Coalition counterparts departed at the tactical level so too did most brakes on corruption.   

At the national / policy level corruption was further perpetuated by the fact that our senior Afghan counterparts knew they could act with impunity – offering only lip service to our complaints about corruption, because they also knew our threats to defund them were toothless and that we were powerless to remove them.  They were the democratically elected officials of their country – right?  Besides, they held the trump card by simply saying that the US withholding support would only mean that the Taliban would win and AQ would return.  Over time the whole interaction between Afghan and US senior leadership became kind of a grotesque pantomime. There were continuous high visibility Potemkin Village “anti-corruption” efforts, but they were just a drop in the bucket.   The occasional malefactor that was “caught” was normally someone who was out of national or local political favor and was the equivalent of a single motorist being stopped by the highway patrol when every car on the interstate is doing 95MPH.  Most of the officials who were “relieved” for corruption were merely moved to different locations where they immediately began their same practices.

Ultimately, the sheer pervasiveness of corruption overwhelmed our senior commanders and diplomats.  All were honest people by our own standards, none would even think about so much as falsifying a travel voucher.  But dealing with a corrupt culture defeated them entirely.  (To be fair the fact that senior GIRoA members all had patrons in Washington certainly didn’t help).  The only way the US led coalition could have gotten a handle on corruption would have been to starve it of fuel (the money and assets we kept shoveling into Afghanistan).  Unfortunately, US leaders over two decades equated assets expended to influence and efficacy.  So long as the true impact of corruption was held in check at the tactical level, it was easier at the policy level to ignore it as a cost of doing business and vaguely hope the Afghans would get better as the years went by.   After all, we were staying, weren’t we?

 In comparison, the Soviets did not have any of our handicaps.  Their priceless advantage in working with the DRA was that they were not tied to the fiction of a “democratically elected government”.   DRA leadership that got too far out of line with Soviet objectives could be (and was) replaced.  The Soviets did better in dealing with Afghan corruption in no small part because they came from a corrupt culture themselves.  Their senior officers and officials in many cases were the kind of guys who would skim off assets to pay for the construction of their private dacha-on-the-lake.  They knew what to look for, and how to mitigate against it more effectively.  And again, the Soviets had no open-ended commitment to Afghanistan.     

Same planet, different worlds  

            The Soviets went into Afghanistan knowing they weren’t going to stay foreverThere was never a Soviet version of “The-CT-Platform-in-Afghanistan” that needed to be present in perpetuity as part of the USSR’s strategic calculus.  The Soviets were more impersonal to their approach to sustaining the Afghan Army and were, if not indifferent to its tactical struggles, at least coldly rational. 

            The US on the other hand, informally but at the very highest levels operated on the assumption that we would be in Afghanistan over multiple decades and that our requirement for the CT platform justified this open-ended commitment.  However, we never really modified our personnel and rotation policies to support this.  Our advisors rotated on annual tours and often entire advisory groups would swap out at once as opposed to a 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 rotation that would have at least insured some degree of continuity.   Units seldom returned to the same location on rotation.  Non-DOD participation was no better.  Many diplomats and USG employees would punch their Afghan ticket and depart never to return.  Those who did do multiple tours in Afghanistan often showed a remarkable capacity for isolating themselves from all but the most elite strata of Afghan society.  It was very possible for many Americans to do multiple tours in Afghanistan and never observe the realities of life for the average Afghan.  Eight years into the war the US military did create the “Afghan Hands” program which attempted to build a cadre of Afghanistan associated officers but even with these individuals, returning to the same job and set of counterparts was the exception rather than the rule.  Afghanistan in general was not a destination that generated enthusiasm in many Americans.

            I think the crux of the issue was that Afghan culture was so foreign to our own.  It wasn’t just a question of “Flintstones-meet-the-Jetsons” as the author Ralph Peters puts it.  It was a cultural difference that went far deeper.  The Afghans were an honor-shame driven culture.  The single hallmark of 21st century American culture is its utter shamelessness (along with its unseriousness).  It wasn’t just that we came from technologically different societies (many Afghans were very adept at learning and using our technology – their ability to counterfeit documents alone proves that) it’s just that the way we lived as people was so different that the two cultures may as well have been from different planets.  It’s hard developing a wholesale counterpart relationship with a culture that strikes most of your servicemen and citizens who meet it as both incomprehensible and harsh.  In reflecting upon how we may have had more success had we modified our personnel policies to induce people to stay in Afghanistan for years on end, I do have to recognize that – even if we had done so – we may not have had sufficient volunteers to have made such an effort viable.  

            The Soviets on the other hand were free of most of our “improve the world” baggage, had no illusions about the people who they were dealing with and in general limited contact with the Afghans at the senior level to diplomats and officials who had years of experience in the region.  They were far from perfect, but their limited objectives (further modified down as their campaign drew on) served them in much better stead.

            To find an even partially successful relationship between a western military and Afghan / Pashtun culture one needs to go back further to the Brits of the 19th and early 20th century on the Afghan Frontier.  The Imperial British were quite successful in raising auxiliary formations staffed by Pashtun tribesmen and commanded by British officers.  But in comparing this to the US effort in Afghanistan you must remember two important things.  First, the British system supported generational commitment – Service on the Frontier was often seen as a career long enterprise.  Leaves to home were infrequent and it was not uncommon for men to spend 5-10 years without returning to England.  Men were encouraged to make lives in what was then British India.  Second (and more importantly), the 19th century British officers had more in common with the Pashtuns.  The technological differences between the Pashtuns and the Imperial British were not as vast, nor were the cultural differences as great between the Brits and the Pashtuns of the 19th and early 20th century.  The Victorian British, hard and uncompromising spiritual descendants of Cromwell’s Ironsides, saw in the Pashtuns many of their own qualities, for all the superficial cultural differences.  By the 21st century, the differences between Western and Southwest Asian cultures had become far more profound.


            Given the way we fought the war and the cultural differences between the US and Afghanistan, the Afghan campaign was probably never winnable.  We wasted untold treasure, too many lives and incalculable strategic opportunity trying.  We are only now beginning to see how much our 20-year road-to-nowhere in Afghanistan has cost us.  However, there will no doubt be some time in the future when we talk about the “Lessons of Afghanistan” and “How we could have won”.  We may, as a nation, after a generation or so even consider nation-building in some other obscure far away nation for reasons that seem good at the time.   It is my fervent hope that someone will pump the brakes on that effort.  We need to remember that for all our efforts and expenditures in Afghanistan, at the end of the day we failed miserably.  We didn’t do as well as the Soviets.  Not even close.



About the Author(s)

Martin Stanton is a retired Army officer currently residing in Florida.  The opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect any official DOD or USG position.