Saturday, May 22, 2010

Book Review: The Soviet-Afghan War

The Soviet-Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost was a book written by the Russian General Staff after the end of the USSR and translated by Lester W. Grau and Michael A. Gress. It is the third in a triology of books by Grau, the other two being "The Bear Went Over The Mountain" and "The Other Side Of The Mountain", both dealing with the tactical level of the fight, Soviet and Muj sides.

This book is, or was, to be the offical Soviet General Staff study of the war. The Soviets had made a point to do this after every fight (starting with WWII) for future study. Since they lost, this was somewhat of a backburner project. When the USSR became Russia again, there was really no offical desire to write it. But being a "free" society, a couple of officers got together and published it on their own dime with some help from Grau. So its a pretty interesting book to start with just for that.

This is the offical look at the war as fought by the Soviets. The "Big Picture" if you will. Not a whole lot of tactical fights (some examples to explain a point usually), but lots of "This was the doctrine, this is what worked or didn't, this is what we developed" and so on. As a division staff officer, I found this to be very useful reading.

I learned a couple things that went a long way to explaining why the Soviets blew this fight. First, the book explains the Soviets focus on being an "Operationally Based" army. Since most of you won't get that term here it is: The Soviets don't fight battles at a battalion or BCT (Brigade) level, they fight in terms of Divisions, Corps, Armies, and Army Groups/Fronts. Like us (NATO/US) they viewed Western Europe or Northern China as the next big fights and were looking to repeat WWII. Lots of tanks, troops and FA moving straight ahead. Where we would be maneuvering a company or battalion, they thought in terms of moving a division or corps. Scale is vastly increased.

Now, for Europe this idea has a good deal of merit (Northern European Plain is ideal for this, not so much Central or Southern Germany though excepting the Fulda Gap). Afghanistan, not so much. Mountains, deserts, few roads, high altitude and so on. Afghanistan is a TACTICAL fight. In the US Army, a Corps is the highest level of tactical fighting you get. Usually we mean something like a company or battalion, maybe a platoon or BCT (Brigade Combat Team), a small combined arms team. Its our great strength. And the Soviets greatest weakness. The leaders in this fight are NCOs and junior officers, again our great strength. The USSR had a absolutely pathetic NCO corps and its junior officers were pretty much overpaid sergeants. Which was exactly the thing they couldn't afford to have and win. They didn't win so you can figure out how it worked for them. That fact alone was worth the read.

This book had sections on every branch and service and how well they did or did not do. FA, Transportation, Supply, Maintenance, Air Support (fixed wing and helio), armor, special forces, engineers, chemical (smoke and flamethrower units, no gas although there were rumors of its use), and even PXs and pay. A very useful insite to how they did business and where they came up short which was all too often.

The other major issue that this book brought out was one I thought interesting. The political lens that the 40th Army had to put on everything in order to be in line with the communist party political views. You would think that wasn't something you needed to worry about but it ended up being a major issue. The Soviets could not successfully explain what was going on to the political leadership due to this war being something that didn't exist. According to Marxism-Leninism theory, a country that has become communist will never want to be anything but that so it will never have a home grown revolution against it.

I am NOT making that up. The Russians tried to pin this on the US, Pakistan, China, Britain, Japan and Gulf Arabs, but since none of them actually ever showed up to actually fight they had to conclude that it WAS a home grown anti-communist revolution. But they couldn't tell that to the political bosses, or if they did (once or twice) that couldn't be sold to the people. So they couldn't devise a political strategy to support the military one (sound familiar? not for Iraq though, we did manage that). Confusion at the top had some bad effects.

I have to admit this book was very interesting, but it was hard to read. It took me about 3 months off and on to finish. General Staff Officers are not exactly great writers to begin with, but the topics were not exactly light reading either. You can't make a chapter on the Theater Maintenace Program for vehicles to be very exciting even if you hire Tom Clancy to write it. But it was very informative and I really have an understanding of how the USSR fumbled this war.

As a counter to what we are doing I can say that it appears we are not making nearly as many mistakes as the Soviets did. We are doing vastly better at the Combat Support and Combat Service Support functions the Soviets jacked up and we are doing much better at the political side of the house in that our problems are completely different than what the Russians faced. Yes we have major ones, but we managed to make ours original so at least we are not guilty of repeating past mistakes on that level.

This book is also great for its huge amount of "They did WHAT?" items they hit on as well as explaining many confusing items due to different army setups. Things like the fact that Soviets counted smoke artillery as chemical rounds so technically they did use chemical weapons in Afghanistan were as we count them as a type of artillery round. Or that they used LOTS of flamethrowers on about everything that moved. Or that 67% of their entire force serving in Afghanistan was hospitalized due to sickness at one point in time (we haven't ever gone past 5%, and probably not even that).

One of my favorite items: when the Soviets pulled out 6 regiments of troops in 1986, they laggered them together prior to moving them home. They had a Hepatitus outbreak and rendered all six regiments combat ineffective for 2 months until they could get them healthy again. They didn't identify it in time, they didn't contain it well and they couldn't get their soldiers to obey simple hygine rules to stop the spread.

Another fun fact: pay for a Soviet soldier was between 350 to 8 rubles a month for pay. 350 for senior officers, 8 for lowest private. Each ruble was worth (offically) $1.59. That was including the combat pay bonus, so if you were a private you made offically less than $15 a month for serving in Afghanistan. The comment was that a soldier who saved his money might be able to buy a pair of bluejeans when he mustered out. And to add another fun fact: the actual exchange rate of a ruble at this time was actually about 20 cents. Nice, thanks for your service.

The list goes on and its full of stuff that makes you do double takes. And this is written by the Soviet General Staff, which makes me wonder what they didn't talk about.

Over all, a very good book. This book is not meant for a casual read or someone with a superficial interest. You need to want to know what this book has in it to finish it or to read all of it and not skip parts that seem dull. I recommend it for people who also really want an understanding of how different our militaries worked and function.

As a professional aside, I have heard from several sources that the Russians are of two minds about our involvement in Afghanistan. One, many want some payback so are for us being there. But many others are really pissed that we are doing so well compared to them. We have been there going on nine years. We just hit the 1000 KIA in Afghanistan. The Soviets lost in a same amount of time at least 25,000 KIA (new number, numerous sources in Russia have published this number as the actual loss number instead of the offical 13,000, and its been independently verified that the 25K is correct).


  1. Very interesting book indeed. Funny how one's experiences change the ability to interpret a book, isn't it? One's ability to read and understand is always there - but insight and analysis only comes with experience. Have you ever gone back and read other military books to see if your views change?

    So your comments about organization of the Soviet army and how that structure doesn't work well in a tactical terrain (or without a good NCO structure may not be terribly effective at all) makes me wonder about another Army supposedly developed on the Soviet model due to having so much in man-power: The Chinese PLA. Any idea how the PLA compares to the Soviet army in it's organizational structure and abilities, or is there just not enough out there?

    My questions aside, I like reading these occasional book reviews. I tend to read more snapshot books of specific battles and not these in-depth studies, but maybe someday I'll try one of these out and see what I wrap my head around. I'm thinking of delving deeper into military technology books given my current line of work to see what it shakes loose, but I suspect the books out there go more into the engineering, and not the materials used in their construction which would be of more use and interest to me.

  2. Well, I can recommend a good book to test the waters to see if you are up for "higher up" levels of books. "Supplying War: From Wallenstein to Patton", be sure to get the updated version although the original version will work fine. That was the first upper level book I read and really got into. If you can get through that its a sign you may be ready for the "bigger leagues" of military books. Although maybe you should check into technical side of the house, so try "Innovations of the Interwar Period" which deals with new tech developed in WWI and how various countries ran with them up to WWII.

  3. Who's the author on the "Innovations of the Interwar Period"?

    Thanks for the recommendations - I'll add these to my "to read" list.

  4. Its a list of essays actually. I'll have to look it up though, my copy is still packed up.

  5. No hurry - I know you're busy, and thanks.