CIA Report on Soviet War Shows Futility of Military Effort in Afghanistan

To produce the CIA report, Open Source Works analysts fluent in Russian, Dari/Farsi, Arabic, Urdu, Tajik, and Uzbek reviewed government documents, as well as accounts, histories, and memoirs written by a wide range of participants in the Soviet Afghan War – Soviet civilian officials, diplomats, and military personnel; pro-Soviet Afghan government officials; Afghan resistance members; Arab mujahadeen; and Pakistani supporters of the Afghan resistance.

Public Intelligence

A 2009 report from the CIA’s Open Source Works describes how complex social, economic, and political plans utilized by Soviet forces during their decade-long incursion into Afghanistan in the 1980s were ultimately fruitless as “Afghanistan’s geographic and ethnic complexity, together with its lack of development, made implementation of these plans difficult even when significant resources were committed.”  The “For Official Use Only” report titled “Afghanistan: Lessons of the Soviet War” was recently obtained by Public Intelligence along with several other significant documents related to the Afghanistan conflict, including a U.S. Navy translation of the captured 2009 Mujahideen Rules and Regulations booklet distributed by the Taliban.

The report was produced by an “independent CIA unit that draws on the expertise of uncleared analysts with in-country experience and advanced, often native language skills to mine open-source information for new insights on intelligence issues” in late March 2009 and was derived from original accounts by “Soviet, Pakistani, Afghan, and Arab players in the Soviet Union’s decade-long war in Afghanistan”.

According to the report, many of the problems encountered by Soviet forces, as well as their initial strategies, are remarkably similar to those of U.S. and ISAF forces today.  In particular, the problem of establishing a legitimate central government is discussed in great detail, noting the heavy financial support provided by the Soviet government and their attempts to enlist “opposition forces to create a more stable regime”.  According to a number of sources, the U.S. has recently been in secret negotiations with the Taliban, hoping to achieve greater stability.  The CIA report states that this same action was seen by Afghans as a “sign of weakness and pending departure” when the Soviets attempted it.  According to the report:

Incompetence and corruption within the Afghan government, coupled with a dearth of domestic human capital, required the Soviets to take on substantial management responsibilities. This reinforced the perception of the Afghan regime as foreign and weak, further undermining its legitimacy . . . The constant Soviet presence, rather than building up Afghan capabilities, created a “policy of reliance” as Afghan officials became habituated to waiting for Soviet instruction.

A Soviet general is quoted as saying that he “lamented his ‘openness and gullibility’ in dealing with the Afghans” because they do not “accept ‘outside helpers’, no matter how noble their intentions.”  Sayed Ahmad Gailani, the National Islamic Front leader, is quoted as having told Soviet journalists that “everybody should remember that if anyone attempts to establish control over Afghanistan, we will fight him the same way we fought you.”

The report identifies three key lessons to be learned from the Soviet War: Afghanistan’s complexities undermined policy plans, attempts to modernize Afghanistan hindered stabilization, and exploiting Afghans’ economic self-interest was important to success.  Discussion of these lessons emphasizes how Soviet forces were prescient in identifying the major challenges they would face in Afghanistan and in some cases developed robust plans to address them, yet these efforts ultimately failed due to “complexities” that were beyond the control of policy planning.  Transcripts of Politburo meetings prior to the invasion indicate the Soviet leadership understood the depth of Afghanistan’s economic woes and hoped economic development would win popular support and central government legitimacy, though the Soviets were ultimately not successful in modernizing Afghanistan’s economy.  According to the report, the Soviets expended substantial financial and human capital trying to build up civilian infrastructure throughout the ten years of conflict, coming to the ultimate conclusion that “any effort, no matter how large, was simply a drop in the bucket: there was little hope for success in Afghanistan’s chronically poor, underdeveloped, rural, deeply divided, feudal society.”

A particularly disturbing quote from Sergei Akhromeyev, Soviet General Staff Chief in 1986, sums up many of the report’s findings quite simply:

“There is no single piece of land in Afghanistan that has not been occupied by a Soviet soldier . . . no single military problem that has arisen and not been solved, and yet there is still no result.”

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