Frustration, Apathy, and Futility

Are the real reasons that great powers quit Afghanistan.

This is an especially hard, but important lesson to learn. Like many lessons of military history, it is best learned vicariously.

The current US situation in Afghanistan sheds a bright light on the Soviet experience, and transforms a different narrative from implausible to obvious.

The conventional narrative of the Soviet experience is that the insurgents bled them dry; that the staggering cost of sustaining forces in its remote reaches bankrupted them; and that the dismal experience of deployment reverberated through Soviet forces, dragging their morale down to the breaking point; that this campaign weakened popular support for the Soviet leadership to critical levels.  It is a narrative of attrition in every domain. Does our present experience empower us to understand a radically different narrative, a narrative that is not a simple-minded analogy of the liberal narrative of the US experience in Vietnam?

Over the course of the 1980s, the Soviets suffered about 15,000 KIA and another 50,000 wounded, which is about 2,000 KIA/year and 6,0000 wounded/year.  These casualties were inflicted mostly upon conscripts in an army that was several times larger than the US army of the time. In context, the Soviet casualty rate was in the same range (1.5x higher) as what US forces are sustaining at present, and diluted across a vastly larger force. The Soviet forces suffered far more casualties from infectious diseases than combat (most deaths were combat related).  Given that the Soviets always accepted a much higher death rate in their army than the US, the reality is that the casualty rate was overall low, and quite possibly hard to detect in year-to-year variation.  The notion that the Soviets were bleeding to death? Hogwash.

The cost of maintaining large forces in the remote reaches of Afghanistan bankrupted the Soviet economy? Get out a map, look at the rest of the former Soviet republics, in which the Soviets sustained a substantial military presence.  Afghanistan was neither farther nor more remote than the majority of the former Soviet Union.  Unlike the US at present, Soviet forces were mostly supplied by rail and road, at substantially less cost.  The cost of ammunition expended? Miniscule in comparison to the vast stockpiles that the Soviets added to over the duration of that war.

Does anyone really believe that the dictators of the former Soviet Union relied upon popular support?

Afghanistan is a mountainous, barren wasteland.  It is the Australian outback with mountains, Sub-Saharan Africa with seasons, the Arabian Peninsula without oil.  There’s nothing there.  Rumors of vast mineral wealth notwithstanding, Afghanistan’s scant economic potential is in the cash crop of opium.  Afghanistan as we know it could develop an agrarian economy, or an economy predicated on the exploitation of natural resources. Neither will ever make the country and its people wealthy by Western standards.  Its’ present culture and social organization precludes the kind of human capital centered economy that is the real engine of the wealth of great nations. Unless oil springs from its mountains, it has as much appeal as the Arabian peninsula did to the European powers in the 1870s.

Why did the Soviets quit Afghanistan? Because further military action was futile.  Because the Soviet leadership was apathetic to the fate of the people of Afghanistan. Because they were never going to reap any return from their minimal investment in blood and treasure; there were better ways to spend, or not spend, both.  The US will quit Afghanistan for exactly the same reasons.

A good summary of the Soviet experience:

The FMSO site, when accessible, is a terrific resource.

This website shows US military death rate over time in a telling graphic:

See footnote 13 here about the peacetime death rate in the Soviet military at the time:

I’m going to sign off now.  I’m looking at my email, and I see that I have an email from Mr Morse from Nigeria about rights to a trillion dollars worth of changium deposits in Afghanistan….. and it looks like I can in on the ground floor of the hopium crop as well……

2 thoughts on “Frustration, Apathy, and Futility”

  1. Gorby withdrew from Afghanistan because he thought that, with Soviet support, Najibullah would be able to hold off the mujahedeen on his own. This would have been true except for the small fact that the Soviet Union went away.

    I guess Gorby wasn’t that good at anticipating future events.

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