Helicopter gunships hovered overhead, watching the 154 Battalion getting slaughtered and refused to open fire: “I am not allowed to because of the international border.” The unit—battle-hardened Muslim soldiers drawn from the Soviet Central Asian republics—had fired the first shots of the Afghan war in 1979, shooting President Nur Muhammad Taraki. Now, to avenge the deaths of their comrades, they’d defied orders and targeted a mujahideen base inside Pakistan.
An ice-cold voice, historians Lester Grau and Ali Jalali have recorded, then spoke over the wireless: “I am Tail Number 25, and I am ready to fire. Give me the target.”
Last week, the United States Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) issued the latest in a series of reports, explaining just how a national military put together over two decades at a cost of $88 billion imploded within weeks last year as the Taliban took over. Among other things, the reports have blamed President Joe Biden’s morally sapping decision to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2021, the dependence on technologies Afghan forces could not maintain, and poor decisions on leadership and tactics.
The SIGAR reports are a model of honest introspection and careful study. The most important issue, though, is missing: the United States’ failure to destroy the Taliban’s sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan.
“Long ago,” Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko lamented at the 1986 meeting of the Politburo where its leaders concluded the war was lost, “we spoke on the fact that it is necessary to close off the border of Afghanistan with Pakistan and Iran….Experience has shown that we were unable to do this”. There are important lessons there for all militaries fighting insurgencies with transborder bases—India is among them.
Taliban’s impregnable fortress
From the outset, the Soviet military understood that its real problems lay across the border. In 1982, former KGB officer Vladimir Kuzichkin has recorded, the Soviet military developed plans to seal the border with Pakistan by building a chain of watchtowers and minefields and then using airborne troops to “annihilate the partisan formations shut up in Afghanistan.” The plan, however, would have needed more than 3,00,000 Soviet troops—far more than the political leadership would sanction and the country could afford.
Large-scale mining of the border, the Soviet military’s Plan B, did little to deter transborder movement—and as the United States enhanced funding for the mujahideen, the lethal insurgency against the Soviet Union grew.
From 1984, the Soviets launched a series of offensives targeting mujahideen supply routes, aimed at cutting off the insurgents from their bases in Pakistan. Large-scale use of airpower, which included the carpet-bombing of villages, created a 50-kilometre-wide depopulated zone along the border. “The destruction of Afghan villages,” military historian Thomas Bruscino has observed, “while morally reprehensible, did create problems for the guerrillas fighting deep in the country.”
Technology, though, levelled the field again. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) supplied the FIM-92 Stinger, man-portable air-defence missiles, which made it increasingly dangerous for Soviet aircraft to fly low. That meant mujahideen supply convoys could again resume crossing the border.
Frustration grew among mid-level Soviet commanders in Afghanistan. In February 1985, mujahideen Black Storks—reputed, though never proved, to be Pakistan Army Special Service Group (SSG) personnel—annihilated a company of the 154 Battalion. In defiance of express orders, the unit planned an assault on the mujahideen base at Krer, across the border in Pakistan. The initial assault went well—but a mujahideen counter-attack, using forces called in from the town of Bajaur, trapped the soldiers of the 154.
Even though the attack was a disaster, there’s further evidence that raids took place in the following years. In December 1987—long after the Soviet decided to withdraw—the special forces again struck at Krer, this time ambushing the mujahideen in the darkness. The mujahideen, Ali Jalali and Lester Grau have recorded, withdrew—only to return once the Soviets were gone.
The Soviet high command knew this kind of fighting would achieve little: To truly crush the mujahideen, they would have to go to war with Pakistan. That would risk outright confrontation with the United States—and a war the Soviets didn’t want to pay for.
Arithmetic of the Afghan war
Like everything else, wars have something to do with arithmetic. To fight insurgencies, conventional wisdom holds, militaries need 10:1 numerical superiority. Government forces, after all, have to guard infrastructure and populations. The combined strength of the Soviet and Afghanistan government forces, expert Charles Dudik has noted, never exceeded 2,00,000—the same as the mujahideen. Eighty-five per cent of those were committed to static duties, leaving less than 23,000 for counterinsurgency operations.
Even in the face of these odds, Soviet soldiers fought heroically. A single company famously held off hundreds of mujahideen at Hill 3234, holding the Khost-Gardez highway and enabling their comrades to retreat home in 1988. The victories, though, were to little avail.
“There is no single piece of land in this country that has not been occupied by a Soviet soldier,” noted Marshal Sergey Akhromeyev, architect of the military’s Afghanistan invasion plan, at the 1986 meeting. “Nevertheless,”, he continued, “the majority of the land remains in the hands of the rebels.” “There is no single military problem that has arisen that has not been solved, and yet there is no result,” he added.
Lessons America didn’t learn
From the outset, though, planning for the Afghan military did not include capacities to close the border with Pakistan. At its peak, the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces, or ANDSF, were some 63,000 personnel short of its sanctioned strength of 3,50,000. The contrast with the Indian Army in Jammu and Kashmir is stark — of an estimated 3,52,000 soldiers serving in the troubled region, not counting Central and state police, over 3,00,000 are used to plug the Line of Control today.
American strategic planners, like their Soviet counterparts, understood the problem. In 2011, then-chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, testified that the Taliban “operate from Pakistan with impunity.” “Extremist organisations serving as proxies of the government of Pakistan are attacking Afghan troops and civilians as well as US soldiers”, he complained.
Technology, for a time, offset some of the Taliban’s advantages. The withdrawal of the United States’ support, though, was a death blow. “The withdrawal of US-funded contractors in 2021,” an official study noted, “left aircraft overtaxed and the Afghan Air Force overtasked. Taliban operations isolated ANDSF units, and chronic Afghan government failures to provide food or logistical, hardware, and manpower support to many units meant that Afghan soldiers quickly became unable to fight.”
Like so many insurgencies—think of the United States in Vietnam or the French in Algeria—both Afghan wars saw a series of tactical battlefield victories for the government, followed by eventual strategic defeats. The insurgents did not win—the powers they fought were worn down and lost interest.
Few militaries have found real solutions. Like the French in Algeria, India has tried building physical barriers along its borders with Pakistan. Although evidence suggests that such barriers can increase insurgent attrition, they’re a far-than-total obstacle. Airstrikes and cross-border raids can have some effect too as lessons from the Soviet war in Afghanistan to India’s own experiences show, but their deterrent effect can be short-lived.
The United States, unlike the Soviet Union, could have used its vast coercive and economic resources to compel Pakistan to shut down the Taliban’s transborder sanctuaries. It chose not to, believing its relationship with Islamabad was of more strategic value than the war-torn country it chose to abandon. The wisdom of that choice will, in time, reveal itself.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)