The Soviet Union found out first hand the difficulties in attempting to occupy and stabilize the nation of Afghanistan. The comparisons to the American conflict in Vietnam, and now our own endeavors in Afghanistan certainly hold a good deal of merit. The Soviet experience in Afghanistan has always held a personal interest for me, having been deployed to the country myself as a Marine. I was only 20 years old when I first arrived there 6 years ago, and I often found myself wondering what might have been going through the mind of a young Soviet soldier decades earlier. After watching the clip from the 1988 film Soviet Patriot, I can see that our thoughts regarding our relationship with the Afghan people are much the same. It was an uneasy relationship between vastly different cultures.
The Soviet Union lost some 14,000 troops in 9 years of operations within Afghanistan, with roughly 50,000 others being wounded. The mujahedeen they were fighting received more external support than any rebel group in history. This obviously had a massive impact on Soviet military efforts, but the biggest problem is the same one we faced, a clash of ideologies. The people of Afghanistan are very proud and deeply set in their long standing culture. Naturally, the idea of adopting a Soviet induced system of socialism did not sit well with them. In the words of former Soviet Colonel Vladimir Savitsky, insurgency in Afghanistan “cannot be defeated with weapons alone” (Surkov). “We were losing on the ideological front. People there were very religious. We should not have tried to build socialism there at all,” Savitsky said. His words struck me as all too familiar. Just like the Soviets found out, the Afghan people were always grateful to receive humanitarian aid and building projects, but any measures they viewed as efforts to fundamentally change their way of life were always met with suspicion at best, and open hostility at worst.
The implications of the Soviet invasion and subsequent occupation have had long lasting impacts. Some elements of the Soviet “legacy” in Afghanistan still remain, mostly in the capitol of Kabul, where some past Soviet building projects continue to receive use. There are of course other, more nefarious, elements of their presence that remain. Landmines and other unexploded ordnance remain buried and scattered throughout the country. Mohammad Omar, the late founder and commander of the Taliban, gained his initial prominence among the Afghan people due to his reputation as a mujahedeen hero from his days fighting the Soviets. It is in such ways that the Soviet and American involvements in Afghanistan overlap, two separate powers experiencing similar challenges.
Today, with our official combat operations having ended in the country, I can only wonder how the “American legacy” will compare to its Soviet predecessor years from now. Like the Soviet soldiers who fought in Afghanistan, many American veterans wonder what, if any, lasting impacts were made in the country. After the Soviets withdrew, Afghanistan plunged into a dark period of civil war and its people suffered greatly. Now, the situation seems increasingly perilous once more, and I can only hope that peace and stability will one day be found. Today, my sentiments on Afghanistan align with the thoughts of a Soviet veteran, Sergei Goncharov. “Twenty-five years have passed and it is hard to judge those events, whether they were good or bad. At least we thought that we were fighting for justice and we had no doubts” (Surkov).
Surkov, Nikolay. “Soviet Veterans Remember the Afghan War”. Russia Beyond the Headlines.
17 Moments in Soviet History. “The Afghans”. Soviet History 1985.
17 Moments Soviet History. Soviet Patriot (1988). Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk