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Soviet hearts-and-minds operations in Afghanistan.

IN a 2007 article in the Globe and Mail, a former Soviet soldier, Nikolai Lanine, wrote how "[d]uring my first mission [in Afghanistan], we were protecting refugees escaping an area that was under mujahideen attack ... [i]n my mind our presence was 'helping Afghans' particularly with educating women and children [and m]y combat unit participated in 'humanitarian aid': accompanying doctors and delivering food, fuel, clothing, school and other supplies to Afghan villages." (1) Lanine's experience may not have been typical, but it was more common than is generally understood.

Since 2001, the US-led counter-insurgency war in Afghanistan has generated a renewed interest in the Soviet experience against Afghan resistance in the 1980s. Most articles and books on the subject concentrate almost exclusively on the combat operations of the Limited Contingent of Soviet Forces in Afghanistan (LCSFA). The most recent English-language history of the subject, Gregory Feifer's 2008 book The Great Gamble, mentions on one page that "Moscow sent thousands of economic advisers to oversee major new construction projects, including the building of hospitals and power stations and expansion of Kabul airport," but then says no more and spends the rest of its 300 or so pages recounting combat operations. (2) This is fairly typical of the existing literature on the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, both for Soviet/Russian studies and for those produced in the West. (3)

This article describes the investments made by the Soviet Army in hearts-and-minds operations in Afghanistan in the 1980s. (4) It shows that for most of this period hearts-and-minds operations were in fact small-scale and uncoordinated. They were a distinct afterthought to other military operations rather than an integrated part of an overall strategy to win the support of the Afghan population. By 1987 and 1988, however, Soviet thinking and practice had evolved. The Soviets sought to stabilize Afghanistan through a multi-pronged strategy which involved political reform, the withdrawal of the LCSFA, and increased economic and humanitarian aid. As part of this, some Soviet commanders began to realize the importance of hearts-and-minds operations, and the scale of such operations undertaken by LCSFA units increased.

This essay will argue that these operations probably did not achieve much success. The Soviets neither managed to coordinate the various tools they used, nor produced a proper doctrine for doing so. Too many hearts and minds had been lost through brutality by elements of the Soviet Army in the first few years of the occupation for any meaningful number of people to be won over through a softer approach towards the end of the decade. Nevertheless, hearts-and-minds operations did take place on a larger scale than is generally understood. By ignoring that these efforts were undertaken at all, historians have missed the opportunity to explain this failure, and also to explain why the experience failed to take hold in Soviet military thinking. In examining these issues, the article attempts to broaden our understanding of the causes of Soviet failures in Afghanistan.

Most Western writers create a general impression that the LCSFA did not engage in hearts-and-minds operations at all. One exception to this is Antonio Giustozzi, who mentions briefly the work of Soviet agitprop units in his book War, Politics, and Society in Afghanistan. (5) Even such brief mentions are, however, rare. On the whole, analyses of the LCSFA's operations follow a predictable path. The prevailing attitude of Western commentators is expressed by a contemporary observer, American diplomat J. Bruce Amstutz, who wrote in the mid-1980s that "[b]y 1982 the Soviets seemingly had abandoned any attempt to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan public [;... f]ood stocks, wheat fields, livestock, and water wells systematically were destroyed so that the local population, deprived of the means of survival, would be forced to move away." (6) More recently, British author Martin Ewans agreed that the Soviets did not attempt any type of "hearts-and-minds strategy":
   Instead, they simply did their best to depopulate the countryside
   by attacking civilians in the villages in which they lived.... When
   the population fled into the hills to escape them, they employed a
   'scorched earth' policy, destroying buildings, animals, crops and
   irrigation systems, and killed anyone who had been left behind.
   When they departed, they left booby traps behind them. Sometimes
   they simply carpetbombed villages and valleys. (7)

Soviet strategy has been described as "migratory genocide." (8) "The Soviet Army," claims Ahmed Rashid, "relied on massive firepower to kill and maim Afghans rather than winning their hearts and minds." (9)

The memoirs of Soviet generals tell a different story, however, that does not mention deliberate policies to attack civilians. While the generals do recall efforts to find a political solution to Afghanistan's problems, only in the case of a few exceptions, such as the memoirs of Generals Varennikov and Liakhovskii, do hearts-and-minds operations receive any attention. (10) Yet, after the LCSFA's departure from Afghanistan in February 1989, Major General Gelii Batenin, who was then attached to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, claimed that "[o]ne third of our military contingent--that is, the sapper and transportation units and battalions--discharged what essentially were purely peaceful functions: building houses, hospitals, roads, and wells, and transporting foodstuffs and other essentials to the population." (11) Evidence for these operations can be found in Soviet press reports: Although somewhat patchy, they do enable one to sketch the outlines of what Soviet units did. (12) These illustrate that Soviet hearts-and-minds operations did take place and involved both humanitarian assistance and efforts to assist in economic reconstruction. The number of reports of such activities is notably higher in the later 1980s. While this might reflect something different, such as changing reporting priorities, it does nevertheless provide support for the thesis that the tempo of such operations increased in the final years of the Soviet occupation.

Cold War narratives continue to shape, and mis-shape, our understanding of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. Now that Western states find themselves in a position somewhat similar to the previous Soviet one, cracks are beginning to appear in these narratives. As an editorial in the Washington Times noted in February 2009, "[c]ontrary to popular belief, the Soviet Union did not rely exclusively on military power in their Afghan war ... [a] close reading of the Soviet counterinsurgency strategy shows that they avidly pursued political reforms, economic development, infrastructure improvements, education and all the other elements of what is now 'smart power'." (13) Indeed, we may agree that the focus on the LCSFA's combat operations and the destruction these wrought has created a one-sided view of the LCSFA's activities. However limited and uncoordinated they were, hearts-and-minds operations did take place, and examining the causes of their failure contributes to our understanding of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Mao Zedong famously remarked that guerrillas are like fish which swim in the sea. (14) The sea is the civilian population, which provides the guerrillas with the support they need to survive. Counterinsurgency theory thus demands that the state catch the fish from the sea: It needs to separate the insurgents from the population. This can be done in a purely physical, and usually crude and brutal, fashion, simply by driving the population off its land. This was one of the strategies used by the British Army during the Second South African (Boer) War at the very beginning of the twentieth century: The British burned farmhouses and depopulated rural areas. An alternative method, more in tune with modern liberal-democratic leanings, is to deprive insurgents of popular support by providing the people with benefits which the insurgents cannot match, such as security, employment, or social services.

Today's counterinsurgency theory suggests that it is best to combine elements of both methods, pairing more precise military action with social, economic, diplomatic, and propaganda endeavors which will win hearts and minds. Counterinsurgency doctrine in most Western countries thus emphasizes what the government of Canada calls a "Whole of Government Approach": This finds expression in a host of acronyms, all of which express the sense that military power must be combined with economic and other forms of power to produce success, for instance: DDD (Defense, Diplomacy, and Development); DIME (Diplomacy, Information, Military, Economics); and PMESII (Political, Military, Economic, Social, Infrastructure, and Information). As the US Army's field manual on counter insurgency says, counterinsurgency "involves the application of national power in the political, military, economic, social, information, and infrastructure fields and disciplines." (15)

Even if the Soviet Army was structured to fight a major war against other states, it did not lack counterinsurgency experience. Soviet troops had fought guerrilla uprisings in Russia during the Civil War from 1918 to 1921, and by 1931 had successfully defeated the forces of the basmachi in Central Asia. (16) After the Second World War, they also conducted a long campaign against Ukrainian nationalist insurgents. (17) The struggle against anti-communist guerrillas in the 1920s had impressed upon Soviet leaders the importance of combining military and non-military measures in counter insurgency operations. Thus, although the Soviet Army used brutal methods including poisonous gas and the taking of hostages, it also enacted political and economic reforms, building in part on Lenin's New Economic Policy, introduced in 1921, which reduced much of the discontent that produced support for the insurgents. For instance, in Central Asia "the Bolshevik authorities in the region gave increased freedom to the population ... special tax deductions for land transactions.., permitted the return of Shari'a law.., created a variety of opportunities for small manufactures and traders ... [and] also increased freedom of travel along the railroad network." (18)

Building on these experiences, General Mikhail Tukhachevskii drew conclusions which strongly echo modern counter insurgency theorists' demand for "population-centric" strategy and a "whole of government approach." In 1922, Tukhachevskii wrote the article "The Eradication of Banditry," in which he stated that "consistent and skilful implementation of a new economic policy in bandit localities creates significant chances of rapid success in the eradication of banditry [, while t]hese actions absolutely must be accompanied by a strengthened agitational campaign, explaining and popularizing our policies." (19) And in his 1926 article "The Struggle with Counterrevolutionary Uprisings," Tukhachevskii wrote that, "[i]n regions of a firmly rooted uprising one must conduct not battles and operations.., but rather a whole form of war.... In a word, the struggle must be waged not primarily with the rebel bands, but with the entire local population." (20) By the late 1940s, governed by the less flexible regime of Joseph Stalin (who had Tukhachevskii executed in 1937), and fresh from its victory over Nazi Germany, the Soviet Army's approach towards counter insurgency in Ukraine was rather different. The Soviets chose to "overlook non-coercive--informational, economic, and administrative--instruments of power." (21) "The Soviet experience in Ukraine was characterised by a disproportionate reliance on the military instrument of power." (22) The lessons of the 1920s were forgotten.

Nothing between then and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 caused Soviet leaders to relearn these lessons. As a result, the Soviet Army arrived in Afghanistan with no doctrine for counter insurgency operations and no institutional memory of how to deal with unconventional warfare. As General A.A. Liakhovskii later wrote, "[a]lthough the theoretical military training of officers in general was high, it was oriented to traditional forms of fighting battles, without considering the specifics of local conditions and the methods of partisan war, the study of which had not had sufficient attention previously." (23)

This helps to explain many of the tactical failings of the LCFSA during its years in Afghanistan as well as the excessive violence it regularly used. By 1985, however, some Soviet officers had already become aware of the need for a different approach. This included many of those in the most important positions. In June 1985, for instance, General V.I. Varennikov, who represented the Soviet Ministry of Defense in Afghanistan as head of its "Operational Group," wrote to the Minister of Defence, Marshal S.L. Sokolov, that "[e]veryone recognizes that we cannot resolve the issues of the April revolution by military means." (24) Operations to clear areas of mujahideen rebels were often counterproductive, Varennikov claimed: "The point is that all Afghans are used to protecting their lands ... in the region where an operation was carried out to cleanse it of bandit formations, often there weren't any bandits, and the male population, when we came with guns and tanks, began to defend their land." (25) Sokolov in turn echoed Varennikov's complaint, telling the Politburo in January 1987 that "[t]his kind of war cannot be won by means of military force." The Politburo agreed. "We cannot bring them freedom by military means," said Politburo member Egor Ligachev, "[w]e have already lost by trying to do that." (26)

By 1987, many Soviet commanders had come to realize that winning the support of the people was the key to the successful prosecution of the war. Consequently, they sought to minimize military operations, both to reduce their own casualties (27) and to reduce damage to the Afghan population. Another Soviet general, M.A. Gareev, commented:
   [O]ften senseless bombing and rocket artillery strikes had little
   effect from a military point of view. They only made the local
   population hostile to the Soviet and government forces without
   causing serious damage to the armed formations of the mujahideen,
   while simultaneously causing large casualties among the peaceful
   population, the destruction of populated points, irrigation
   systems, crops and gardens. (28)

General Varennikov adds to this how "[i]n the Soviet forces the principle became stronger and stronger not to permit losses among the personnel of our forces, to avoid sacrifices among the population." (29) We can therefore discern an evolution in Soviet military thinking away from a model that emphasized purely military action and maximum force toward one which stressed minimum force and the winning of the hearts and minds of the local population.

Because the Soviets entered Afghanistan with no counter insurgency doctrine, hearts-and-minds operations had a largely uncoordinated character and were, especially in the early 1980s, often the result of local initiatives rather than centrally directed policy. Many stories from the early 1980s involved the de-mining of villages which had been mined and booby-trapped by the mujahideen. A typical article in Sovetskaia Rossiia in March 1983 described the actions of a Soviet military detachment which cleared 20 mines placed by the mujahideen in a village school. "The soldiers," claimed the newspaper, "constantly come to the aid of the local population." (30) Similarly, Moscow World Service broadcasted a report in August 1984 describing the actions of a dog-handler, Junior Sergeant Nikolai Svitsov, and his dog, Elsa, clearing mines from homes in an Afghan village. Svitsov and Elsa also removed fourteen mines "hidden in the walls and earthen floor" of the village school. (31)

The earlier report in Sovetskaia Rossiia also described another project undertaken by Soviet engineers in the mountain settlement of Kalay-Dala. After de-mining a village,
   One of them, Sergeant Sabit Pugmanov, told his comrades of a
   wonderful custom existing from time immemorial back home in
   Uzbekistan. 'When someone in our settlements decides to build a
   home, all the people come to help without being asked. This is
   called khashar. And people work without payment, from the goodness
   of their hearts.' The entire company supported the sergeant who
   proposed to organize such a khashar in the Afghan settlement which
   had suffered heavily from the bandit attack. And work started. The
   walls of new homes grew like in a fairy tale. In one of them smoke
   even started pouring from the chimney. It was the grateful hosts
   who had started to cook supper for all those on the building sites.
   Thus they celebrated the new settlement together, Soviet soldiers
   and Afghan peasants. (32)

Three important points emerge from these accounts. First, these activities were distinctly small scale. Moreover, there are very few such episodes to be found either in the Soviet press or Soviet memoirs from the early 1980s. It is clear that their extent was very limited. Second, the humanitarian benefits of such activities were, by and large, incidental by-products of what were essentially military operations rather than deliberate hearts-and-minds operations. De-mining, for instance, served a military purpose--making villages and roads safer for Soviet troops--and the benefits to the villagers were merely incidental to that. And third, the initiative in the event described in Sovetskaia Rossiia came from a sergeant. While the order to de-mine the village had been given by higher authority, it clearly had not occurred to Sergeant Pugmanov's superiors to make further use of their troops for hearts-and-minds purposes. Relying on such low-level initiative to support hearts and minds was never going to be sufficient. It confirms how during the early 1980s few senior officers regarded hearts and minds as a priority.

What was needed was something more organized. In due course this came in the form of Soviet "agitprop" units. Each division, brigade, and regiment eventually had one such unit. These would conduct non-combat "raids" in which they entered an Afghan village, broadcast propaganda from loudspeakers, spoke to village elders to convince them to support the government, distributed foodstuffs, kerosene, and other material goods, and provided medical aid to villagers. A 1988 article in Sotsialisticheskaia Industriia described a typical agitprop raid:
   A raid with an agit detachment in a mountain village. This is the
   usual work of the twenty propagandists. Time after time they go out
   into Afghan settlements, in order to provide the inhabitants with
   products, to help the sick, and, above all, to tell them the truth
   about what is happening in the country ... The boys waste no time.
   They turn on a loudspeaker. It broadcasts a communication about the
   loya jirga taking place in Kabul, and talks about the policy of
   national reconciliation. They start to give out kerosene....
   Nearby they give bread, salt, grain. Not far away the soldiers have
   put up a tent with a red cross. I look inside. An old man is
   complaining of a headache. He receives a couple of boxes of
   aspirin. (33)

A similar description by a Soviet interpreter appears in Svetlana Alexievich's book Zinky Boys:
   Afghan songs blare out from the loudspeakers, which even the
   Afghans call 'Alia Pugacheva' [a universally popular Russian
   singer]. We soldiers hang our visual propaganda materials from our
   vehicles--flags, posters, slogans--and unfurl a screen for the film
   show. The medics put up tables and unpack their crates of
   medicines. A mullah in a long white robe and a white turban comes
   forward to read a sura from the Koran. Then he turns to Allah,
   begging him to protect believers from all the evils of the
   universe.... The children do not listen to the speech--they're
   waiting for the film. As usual, we have cartoons in English,
   followed by two documentaries in Farsi and Pashtu.... After the
   film show we distribute presents--today, toys and a bag of flour.

Agitprop units appear to have begun as a local initiative, the first unit being created by a Soviet political advisor, L.I. Shershnev, in 1981. (35) Their initial scope of activities was limited. Over time, they spread throughout the LCSFA, reaching a peak of activity in the years 1987-1988, when the Afghan government embarked on a new "National Reconciliation Program." In the first four months of the program alone, agitprop units distributed 100,000 bars of soap, 17,000 pairs of shoes, and other goods. (36)

Agitprop units were not the only ones giving aid to Afghan civilians. Soviet medical units did so too. The official history of the war produced by the Russian General Staff claimed that "Soviet medical services ... constantly provided consultative assistance to the local population and provided laboratory services, technical testing, electro-cardiograms, and X-ray examinations, as well as providing local medical facilities with medications, Soviet-made materials, and medical instruments." (37) Major General A. Zakharov, the head of the political department of the LCSFA, told the newspaper Trud in February 1989 how "[s]ixty patients a day ... was the norm for the local population treated by Soviet medics." (38) Ultimately, according to Antonio Giustozzi, between 1981 and 1989 "Soviet forces gave medical assistance to 400,000 Afghans and material aid to over 1,000,000." (39)

Soviet troops also provided security to aid convoys and repaired the roads and bridges required to transport the aid. As the General Staff history says, "[d]uring the years that the 40th Army was stationed in Afghanistan, the engineer forces continually worked to improve the roads and bridges that were vulnerable to devastation by the enemy and nature." (40) Repair of road infrastructure served military as much, if not more, than humanitarian purposes, for it enabled military transport to move more effectively, and, as General Gareev noted, "covering the streets with asphalt prevented unnoticed mining." (41) Once again, therefore, the benefits to the local population were essentially incidental by-products rather than deliberate policy. Still, such activity did facilitate humanitarian aid, which was delivered on a large scale. Iurii Sal'nikov, a Soviet political advisor in Kandahar in the mid-1980s, wrote how "[a] column arrives in the city with material aid from the Soviet Union for the inhabitants of Kandahar [, who] for a long time have been awaiting salt, butter, galoshes, matches, and other necessary small items." (42) Many other such columns unloaded in the major cities of Afghanistan throughout the 1980s. Afghan food production plummeted as a result of the war. The Soviet Union responded by sending tens of thousands of tons of wheat to Afghanistan each year, rising from 74,000 tons in 1981 to 2,00,000 in 1983, and eventually reaching 250,000 tons. (43) For security reasons, all this aid had to be protected by Soviet forces.

Most of what has been described consisted of short-term humanitarian aid, designed to provide temporary relief. To a lesser degree, the Soviet Army also attempted to contribute to more permanent reconstruction and long-term economic development. Valerii Ivanov, a leading Soviet economic advisor in Afghanistan in the 1980s, commented in an interview that the primary economic contribution of the army was protecting key sites, such as power stations, factories, and major irrigation facilities. (44) For the most part, these were located in northern Afghanistan, in the area of the gasfields around Sheberghan and the cities of Mazar-i-Sharif and Pul-i-Kbumri. Other key sites were in the city and environs of Kabul, the Jalalabad irrigation complex, and the city of Kandahar. The Soviet Army's ability to support economic activity was, however, limited. The army guarded and occupied the main cities and the major highway linking them, but beyond this zone could do no more than conduct occasional raids. The army could not, therefore, protect industry and commerce in most of the country, especially the countryside, which was the source of the bulk of Afghanistan's national income. Still, its presence did play a vital role in enabling economic activity to continue at those sites it did guard, most notably the gasfields. Production at these came to an end immediately after the Soviet Army withdrew in 1989. Protection of key points did not always involve combat. According to Anton Minkov, "Soviet officers, especially those guarding strategic sites, would occasionally try to limit hostilities with insurgent groups and to establish friendly relations with the surrounding villages by entering into local deals and truces with villages and tribal authorities, warlords and mujahidin commanders without formal authorisation[:] Over the years, this practice became widespread." (45)

Soviet troops also sometimes carried out construction work, such as building and repairing homes and schools. References to the products of this work occasionally appear in contemporary reports. Soviet reporter Artyom Borovik recorded how "[he] came upon a hotel that has been restored from ruins by Soviet soldiers at a cost of eighty thousand rubles ..., has all the comforts of modern life [and] is intended to house the refugees who are streaming in from Pakistan." (46) TASS claimed in July 1988 that, "[d]uring the years of their deployment in Afghanistan, the troops have built and restored more than 80 schools, 25 hospitals, 26 kindergartens, 35 mosques and 325 residential houses. Hundreds of kilometers of ditches and canals have been dug and bore-holes drilled to supply fresh water for the population." (47) A few months later, in February 1989, General Zakharov issued similar, though slightly higher, figures: Soviet troops had, he said, built and repaired about 100 lycees, schools, and colleges, more than 25 hospitals, around 40 mosques, and many homes, and had dug or restored tens of kilometers of canals and irrigation ditches. (48)

To place this effort in context, it is worth noting that the Soviets are estimated to have spent approximately 45 billion rubles on military operations in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. (49) In the same period, they spent a little over one billion rubles on economic and technical assistance, (50) and perhaps two billion rubles in the form of various subsidies and "free aid." (51) The military thus absorbed about 94% of Soviet spending in Afghanistan, while non-military aid accounted for only six percent. Furthermore, the volume of military resources devoted to hearts and minds was small (one agitprop unit for every approximately 2,500-man regiment). Clearly, winning the support of the people took second place in Soviet thinking to fighting insurgents.

Even so, it should be pointed out that the scale of the Soviet effort was not that much different from that of the United States in Afghanistan since 2001. According to the Congressional Research Service, between 2001 and 2009 the war in Afghanistan cost the United States $187.9 billion, of which $175 billion went to the Department of Defense and only $12.9 billion to diplomacy and aid, giving a ratio of military to non-military spending of 94:6, the same proportion as the Soviets reached. (52) The number of American troops specifically assigned to hearts-and-minds projects was also similar, with approximately 800 assigned to Provincial Reconstruction Teams out of a total complement of up to 60,000 troops. The difference between Soviets and Americans lies not so much in the volume of resources assigned to hearts and minds as to the manner in which they were integrated into overall operations. The need to minimize violence and support the local population is taught to all Western troops in present-day Afghanistan. This was not the case with the Soviets. It appears that for them combat was one thing, and hearts and minds another. The latter was merely something added on as an afterthought, not part of a coherent counter insurgency doctrine or part of a general culture which permeated all activity. This was an important weakness.

In the final two years of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, 1987 and 1988, the tempo of hearts-and-minds operations increased significantly. For the first time, the Soviets appeared to be managing, even if imperfectly, to combine military and civilian instruments in pursuit of a strategy which bore at least some relation to the "whole-of-government" approach favored by counterinsurgency theorists. By the mid-1980s many senior Soviet officials, both military and civilian, were aware that the Soviet Union could not achieve success in Afghanistan by purely military means and were looking for an alternative strategy. The new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1985, became determined to withdraw the USSR's forces from the country. Not wishing to see the Afghan government collapse as a result of a withdrawal, Gorbachev sought a political solution to the country's problems, urging the Afghan leadership to strengthen the state through political reform. This implied also an increased emphasis on winning popular support.

As a first step, in May 1986 the Soviets engineered the replacement of Babrak Karmal (1929-96) as Secretary General of the ruling People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) by Mohammad Najibullah (1947-96), who was generally regarded as a much stronger but also more flexible leader. As Gilles Dorronsoro writes, "[tlhe appointment of Najibullah gave a new impetus to reform and implied a renunciation of the military solution. From now on the accent would be placed on an indirect approach." (53)

As a second step, Gorbachev informed Najibullah in December 1986 that the Soviet Union would withdraw its troops from Afghanistan within two years (in fact it took two years and two months). (54) Within a month Najibullah announced the start of a National Reconciliation Program. With this Najibullah abandoned many of the dogmatic Marxist positions previously adopted by the PDPA, "lifted restrictions on commerce," introduced a "new attitude of respect for religion," and sought to "establish contacts with opposition groups." (55) At the same time, the scale of Soviet economic and humanitarian assistance greatly increased, rising from about 450 million rubles in 1986 to about 1.25 billion rubles in 1987 (meaning that the ratio of military to non-military expenditure shifted dramatically in 1987 from the previous average of 94:6 to about 80:20). (56)

According to one analyst, "the main initial impetus behind this policy shift in Afghanistan came primarily not from Moscow, but from the members of the Operational Group of the Ministry of Defense," led by General Varennikow. (57) From early 1987 onwards, changes in military policy accompanied the shift in political policy, as at least some Soviet commanders sought to minimize military operations and to find ways of using military power to win the support of Afghan people rather than attack them. As part of this change in direction, Varennikov introduced a number of initiatives to better distribute aid to the Afghans, for instance by using the hundreds of roadblocks manned by Soviet troops throughout the country as aid distribution points. (58) And as we have seen, the tempo of agitprop operations also rose during this period.

Some Soviet commanders began to pay compensation to Afghans whose property had been damaged by Soviet troops. General Liakhovskii, for instance, recounted a story in which he paid compensation to a group of villagers whose goats had been seized. "I looked at these poor people and sincerely pitied them," he wrote. "In principle we were here to defend them, but in practice we hurt them," an acknowledgement which would have served the Soviets better had it come a few years earlier and had the feeling been more widespread. (59) Iurii Sal'nikov also described his efforts to give compensation to villagers whose homes had been destroyed in an Afghan artillery bombardment. The villagers did not seem very interested in compensation, he noted; rather, they wanted to find someone to blame. Sal'nikov's Afghan colleagues suggested appeasing this anger by taking a random prisoner from Kandahar prison, putting him in army uniform, presenting him to the villagers as the officer responsible for ordering the artillery strike, and then shooting him in front of them. Sal'nikov vetoed this "barbaric idea." (60)

Some major military operations took on a new form. Instead of rapid sweeps to clear areas of mujahideen, who simply came back into the area as soon as the sweep was over, Soviet troops in at least some instances took a slower approach, designed to reduce both Soviet and Afghan casualties and to allow aid to be distributed in the "liberated" areas. The most notable effort took place in Kandahar province in 1987. Operations here dragged on for several months, from April to October, in order "to avoid excessive casualties among our troops, the soldiers of the Afghan army, and, of course, the population." (61) General Varennikov's description of this operation is worthwhile to render at length, as it indicates how the Soviets had come to develop a new form of counterinsurgency tactics far different from the tactics of "migratory genocide" normally imputed to them:
   Through military or KGB scouts we established contacts with leaders
   of rebel bands and often reached agreement to decide all issues
   without battle. We sent material aid there [such as] flour, rice,
   fats, canned goods, sugar, kerosene, soap, etc. In many regions,
   medical groups arrived, and looked at nearly all the inhabitants of
   the village on the spot and provided them with medicines [such as]
   antibiotics for bowel diseases, analgesics, and, of course, large
   quantities of aspirin. These medical-humanitarian detachments had
   colossal success. In a number of regions we built bridges, roads
   and even wells; dug artesian bore-holes, and set up automatic
   diesel engines, which pumped water and simultaneously powered
   generators giving electric power. (62)

Soviet troops under Colonel Anatolii Kozin also attempted to repair the high-voltage line bringing electric power to Kandahar city from the Kajaki dam. This, it was hoped, would enable production to resume at the Kandahar woolen and cotton factories, which Varennikov suggested "would have been an enormous contribution to the development of Afghanistan's economy, and, consequently, to improving the life of the people." (63) Ultimately, though, the effort to restore the power line failed, due to repeated mujahideen sabotage.

Despite such failures, the new Soviet approach appears to have reaped dividends. As Varennikov noted, "By autumn 1987 in Kandahar and the great majority of districts of the province the situation had changed for the better in a fundamental way."(64) Indeed, the months following the introduction of the National Reconciliation Program and the change in Soviet tactics witnessed a sharp increase in the number of mujahideen who surrendered to the government, although it is clear neither which was the decisive factor in bringing this about nor how long-lasting the impact was. (65)

Despite the progress made in 1987, the situation in the country remained critical, especially as the LCSFA prepared to withdraw. Most of the countryside remained in rebel hands. Unable to take the major cities by storm, the mujahideen instead endeavored to strangle them to death, cutting the main roads to prevent the arrival of food, fuel, and other necessities of life. The situation became particularly bad in Kabul in the winter of 1988-89. The Soviet armed forces played a vital role in alleviating the conditions. In the final months of their presence in Afghanistan, massive humanitarian relief became one of their major tasks. As TASS reported in January 1989:
   People in many Afghan cities are having a hard time.... Formerly
   crowded streets in Kabul's downtown shopping area now are empty....
   Roads linking Kabul with the country's south and east have been cut
   off by rebels, while the only operating road north through the
   Salang pass is posing a threat to traffic due to snow drifts. Each
   day, scores of Aeroflot and military-transport planes bring here
   foodstuffs and fuel which are later distributed free of charge
   among the most needy citizens. On January 19, Soviet and Afghan
   soldiers distributed more than 40 tons of flour and rice and nearly
   30,000 litres of kerosene among hundreds of families. (66)

Artyom Borovik met one of the soldiers giving out the airlifted flour in Kabul. "This is some kind of international duty," the soldier told Borovik, "[y]ou shoot them with one hand and put food in their mouths with the other." (67)

Even more supplies came in by road on convoys managed and escorted by the Soviet Army. Near the end of 1988, General Liakhovskii found hundreds of wagons of goods donated by Soviet republics and oblasts stuck at the railhead at Termez on the Soviet-Afghan borden Some of them had been there for as much as eighteen months, unable to be moved due to the shortage of transport in Afghanistan. Liakhovskii organized the shipment of these and other goods, including vital supplies for Kabul, over the winter of 1988-89. In November-December 1988 alone, 27,500 tons of goods were transported from the Afghan border town of Hairatan to Kabul, half by vehicles of the Soviet Army. (68) The convoys and airlifts had the desired effect. While Kabul remained under siege, famine was avoided, and by May 1989, following the complete withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, "the crisis was over." (69)

It is difficult to determine to what extent Soviet hearts-and-minds operations actually won any hearts and minds. Antonio Giustozzi speculates that "[e]ven if not many villages joined the government side as a consequence of the agitprop effort, it may well be that the traditional hostility of the countryside towards Kabul was reduced to some extent." (70) This, though, is only speculation, and we have no firm data as to the effectiveness of the effort. As Giustozzi notes,
   ... much depended on the quality of the cadres involved in the
   propaganda effort. In Samangan province, the success of the Soviet
   agitprop campaign was in large measure due to the abilities of a
   Tajik officer of the Red Army, who was well received by the
   population because he knew the local customs and had 'a respectful
   attitude' towards the Afghans. (71)

It stands to reason, however, that most soldiers or units were rather less able to propitiate the local population.

The interpreter who described the agitprop raid quoted above disparaged the raid's success. The Soviet soldiers did not distribute their goods directly to the villagers they met, but gave them instead to a village elder to distribute:
   As he swears publicly that all will be done honestly and properly
   his sons begin to carry the gifts to their house. 'Do you think
   he'll share things out fairly?' the CO [commanding officer]
   worries. 'I doubt it. The locals have
   already warned us he's a grafter. Tomorrow it'll all be for sale in
   the shops.' (72)

This was a perpetual problem with aid distributed through the Afghan authorities: It tended to disappear and not go to those for whom it was intended. This was probably one reason why General Varennikov sought to use Soviet roadblocks to give out aid. This was a way of bypassing corrupt officials and giving aid directly to those who needed it. Iurii Sal'nikov complained that Soviet "fertilizers and seeds do not reach the peasants for whom they have been designated [for l]ocal bureaucrats divert the material aid which has come from the Soviet Union to the black market and sell it to the peasants at three times the price." (73) Similarly, in January 1989, a TASS report describing the airlift of aid to Kabul complained that "substantial consignments of food that are delivered are concealed instead of sold." (74)

Corruption was not the only problem the Soviets faced with the Afghan government and the PDPA. As Bhabani Sen Gupta comments, "Of all the Marxist revolutions in the Third World, the Afghan revolution has come most conspicuously from above ... the PDPA was nowhere near the party of Lenin in leadership quality, organization, ideology, and disciplined cadres." (75) The PDPA was also deeply divided between its Khalq and Parcham factions, whose members spent much of their time fighting one another rather than common enemies. As Sen writes, "[n]ot only did the Khalq and Parcham factions fall out with one another within weeks of the revolution, within Khalq also, factional infighting broke out in no time, and these disputes were settled by bullets rather than by votes." (76) Consequently, the government was extremely weak, and lacked the capacity to exploit any success achieved by the Soviet Army. As Varennikov complained, "[Communist] Party and state organs looked on passively rather than exploit the results of successful military operations [because of which] military operations could have only temporary results in stabilizing the situation in the country." (77) John Nagl, a prominent modern counterinsurgency theorist, underscores Varennikov's viewpoint when he notes how "the establishment of a legitimate, functioning government is the surest means to fostering a lasting peace." (78) The Soviet experience in Afghanistan supports this conclusion. It did the Soviets little good to try to win Afghan hearts and minds when the Afghan government itself was often inadvertently doing its very best to alienate them.

Any effort in changing Afghan perception about the Soviets was beset by other problems as well. For example, Afghans were not always aware that the aid they received came from the Soviet Union. Soviet packaging was poor, and Afghan merchants who resold pilfered aid repackaged it in materials brought from refugee camps in Pakistan. General Liakhovskii complained that his soldiers were offended to find Soviet aid being sold in bazaars in bags saying "A gift from the American people" or "A gift from the government of Canada." (79) Soviet aid was probably less successful in winning the gratitude of ordinary Afghans than it ought to have been.

The history of Soviet hearts-and-minds operations is a history of too little, too late. Soviet troops were notoriously ill-disciplined, and most commanders made little effort to punish those who mistreated locals. As a result, "killing civilians and taking their property soon seemed almost normal." (80) We cannot tell how common behavior such as that of the house-building Uzbek Sergeant Pugmanov was, but, given the indiscipline of Soviet troops, we can assume that it was greatly outweighed by behavior of a more abusive type. As Feifer comments,
   In the few parts of the country the Soviets controlled, they set up
   schools and day-care centers. Soviet officials also provided aid to
   farmers, then paid generously for their produce. But civilian aid
   of that kind was small compensation for the growing number of
   atrocities committed elsewhere in the countryside." (81)

By the time Soviet commanders began to take hearts and minds seriously, too many had already been lost for it ever to be likely that they would be won back in large numbers.

Moreover, while some senior officers such as Generals Varennikov, Gareev, and Liakhovskii came to understand their importance, it is not clear how widespread this understanding was. The memoirs of the last commander of the LCSFA, General Gromov, for instance, make no mention of hearts-and-minds operations, and show that he regarded as his primary purpose to avoid operations of all sorts as much as possible in order to forestall casualties. Hearts-and-minds operations involve risk, as the soldiers delivering aid expose themselves to danger. By the mid-1980s, very many Soviet officers had become risk-averse.

Furthermore, the Soviet officers who did place a strong importance on this aspect of the campaign were not able to fully coordinate their actions with other Soviet agencies. As General Gareev complained, "[t]he Soviet political and military leadership from the very start, in truth right up to the very end, had no definite political, strategic plan and single conception of how to use military forces in Afghanistan." (82) "There was," Gareev continued, "no responsible person to whom all the institutions carrying out various tasks were subordinate." (83) Different institutions and parts of institutions pursued different and often contradictory policies. Despite occasional examples of local coordination, as in Kandahar in 1987, hearts-and-minds operations were thus never properly coordinated into a general counterinsurgency strategy across the whole of Afghanistan.

In any case, assuming that General Zakharov's figures are accurate, the volume of reconstruction carried out by Soviet forces was grossly inadequate, given Afghanistan's needs. Zakharov claimed that Soviet troops built or repaired about 100 schools and colleges during the 1980s. In the same time period, the mujahideen were reported to have destroyed over 2,000. (84) Any benefits brought by Soviet aid were far outweighed by the destruction brought by the war.

Finally, it is worth noting that the Afghan experience did not result in the production of any formal counterinsurgency doctrine incorporating the lessons learned in the 1980s. Rather like their counterparts in the US Army after Vietnam, Russian officers seem to have decided that the main lesson to draw from counterinsurgency experience was not to engage in counterinsurgencies. Instead, they chose to re-focus on studying conventional inter-state warfare. As General Gareev complains, "[d]espite the ten-year experience in Afghanistan and the experience of other countries in local armed conflicts our military art has remained until recently completely oriented only to global, large-scale war [, considering] local wars as something temporary, occasional, uncharacteristic of contemporary armed conflict and unworthy of 'serious' study." (85) The initial failure of the Russian Army in Chechnya in the mid-1990s may well have been the price Russians paid for this neglect.

Nonetheless, the prevailing view among Western historians that the Soviets did not attempt any kind of hearts-and-minds strategy in Afghanistan is clearly wrong. Even if Soviet hearts-and-minds operations did not win the Soviet Union many friends, they did take place, and did provide some benefits to those who received them. In particular, the airlift and aid convoys to Kabul in the winter of 1988-89 provided substantial relief to the inhabitants of Afghanistan's capital city, without which, commentators agree, Najibullah's regime could not have survived. (86) As Marshall writes, in addition to fighting a military campaign, "the Soviet Union also poured humanitarian aid into the country ... in a massive attempt to relieve the suffering of the local population [... ,] the Soviet intervention resembled more a poorly conducted stabilization effort than a conventional campaign of invasion and annexation." (87)

(1.) Nikolai Lanine, "We're Still Dying in Afghanistan," Globe and Mail, 30 November 2006, available at, accessed 7 January 2010.

(2.) Gregory Feifer, The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan (New York: Harper, 2009), 146.

(3.) For a comment to this effect, see Anton Minkov and Gregory Smolynec, Economic Development in Afghanistan During the Soviet Period, 1979-1989: Lessons Learned from the Soviet Experience in Afghanistan (Ottawa: DRDC Centre for Operational Research and Analysis, 2007), 1.

(4.) It is worth emphasizing that the focus here is exclusively on actions of the Soviet Army, not on similar activity undertaken by Soviet civilians, such as the provision of economic and technical assistance. The latter will form the subject of a separate study.

(5.) Antonio Giustozzi, War, Politics and Society in Afghanistan, 1978-1992 (London: C. Hurst, 2000), 41.

(6.) J. Bruce Amstutz, Afghanistan: The First Five Years of Soviet Occupation (Washington, DC: National Defense University, 1986), 145.

(7.) Martin Ewans, Afghanistan: A Short History of Its People and Politics (New York: Perennial, 2001), 221.

(8.) Mark Galeotti, Afghanistan: The Soviet Union's Last War (London: Frank Cass, 1995), 17.

(9.) Ahmed Rashid, "Graveyard of Analogies," The National, 30 January 2009 (available at:, accessed 15 August 2009).

(10.) See A. A. Liakhovskii, Tragediia i doblest' Afgana (Moscow: GPI lskona, 1995); V. Varennikov, Nepovtorimoe, 7 vols (Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel', 2001-02).

(11.) Interview in Mlada Fronta (Prague), 17 February 1989, 5, as reported in Foreign Broadcast Information Service (henceforth FBIS), International Affairs, FBIS-SOV-89-037, 27 February 1989, 49.

(12.) On the whole Soviet press reports appear reliable, at least in the sense that one can generally verify that the things they say were done actually were done. They mislead less by what they say than by what they do not say. Thus, for instance, if a Soviet press report claims that the Soviets built a power line in Afghanistan, this may create a false impression of progress by not mentioning the many other power lines that had been destroyed, but the basic claim that a power line was built is probably true.

(13.) "Editorial: Lessons From Soviets in Afghanistan," Washington Times, 18 February 2009 (available at: feb/18/iessons-from-soviets-inafghanistan, accessed 10 September 2009).

(14.) Mao Zedong, On Guerilla Warfare, trans S.B. Griffith (Champaign, IL: U. of Illinois P., 2000; original Chinese edition: 1937), 93.

(15.) Headquarters, Department of the Army, Counterinsurgency, FM3-24, Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 2006, 1-1.

(16.) See for example Alexander Marshall, "Turkfront: Frunze and the Development of Soviet Counter-Insurgency in Central Asia," in Tom Everett-Heath, ed., Central Asia: Aspects of Transition (New York: Routledge, 2003), 5-29.

(17.) See for example K. Boterbloem, The Life and Times of Andrei Zhdanov, 1896-1948 (Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen's UP, 2004), 274, 479n177.

(18.) John P. Riordan, Red DIME: Dissecting the Bolshevik Liquidation Campaign in the Ferghana Valley against the Basmachi Resistance (Fort Leavenworth, KS: School of Advanced Military Studies, 2008), 9.

(19.) Mikhail Tukhachevskii, "Iskorenie banditizma," Voina i Revolutsiia 16, 1922, cited in Iuliia Kantor, Voina i mir Mikhaila Tukhachevskogo (Moscow: lzdatel'stvo Ogonek, 2005), 264.

(20.) Mikhail Tukhachevskii, "Bor'ba s kontrrevoliutsionnymi vosstaniiami," Voina i Revolutsiia 7, 1926, cited in Kantor, Voina, 257.

(21.) Yuri Zhukov, "Examining the Authoritarian Model of Counter-Insurgency: The Soviet Campaign Against the Ukrainian Insurgent Army," Small Wars and lnsurgencies 3, 2007, 439-466, 450.

(22.) Ibid., 453.

(23.) Liakhovskii, Tragediia, 1634.

(24.) V.I. Varennikov, Nepovtorimoe, vol. 5, 203. The April or "Saur" Revolution brought the PDPA to power in April 1978.

(25.) Ibid, 172-3.

(26.) Anatolii Cherniaev, "The Afghanistan Problem," Russian Politics and Law 5, 2004, 29-49:38.

(27.) In his memoirs General Gromov strongly expressed his desire to minimize military operations so as to reduce Soviet casualties: B.V. Gromov, Ogranichenyi kontingent (Moscow: Progress, 1994), 174, 196, 219.

(28.) M.A. Gareev, Afganskaia strada (s SOl,etskimi voiskami i bez nikh), second ed. (Moscow: Insan, 1999), 52.

(29.) Varennikov, Nepovtorimoe, 113.

(30.) Sovetskaia Rossiia, 12 March 1983, first edition, 3, in FBIS, USSR International Affairs, 17 March 1983, D1.

(31.) Moscow World Service, 11 August 1984, in FBIS, USSR International Affairs, South Asia, 13 August 1984, D3.

(32.) Sovetskaia Rossiia, 12 March 1983, first edition, 3, in FBIS, USSR International Affairs, 17 March 1983, D1.

(33.) "Afganistan, god 1366-i," Sotsialisticheskaia Industriia, 29 March 1988, 3.

(34.) Svetlana Alexievich, Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from a Forgotten War (London: Chatto & Windus, 1992), 143.

(35.) Giustozzi, War, 41.

(36.) Giustozzi, War, 44.

(37.) The Russian General Staff, The Soviet-Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost (Lawrence, KS: UP of Kansas, 2002), 296.

(38.) "Vozvrashchenie," Trud, 7 February 1989, 3.

(39.) Giustozzi, War, 44.

(40.) The Russian General Staff, Soviet-Afghan War, 248.

(41.) Gareev, Afganskaia strada, 333.

(42.) Iurii Sal'nikov, Kandagar: zapiski sovetnika posol'stva (Volgograd: Volgogradskii Komitet po Pechati, 1995), 115.

(43.) Giustozzi, War, 233.

(44.) Interview with Valerii lvanov by the author, 8 December 2008.

(45.) Anton Minkov, Soviet Counterinsurgency and Development Efforts in Afghanistan: Implications for US Strategy in Iraq (Technical Memorandum TM 2009-017; Ottawa: DRDC Centre for Operational Research and Analysis, 2009), 13.

(46.) Artyom Borovik, The Hidden War: A Russian Journalist's Account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), 48.

(47.) TASS, 15 July 1988, in FBIS, International Affairs, FBIS-SOV-88-137, 18 July 1988, 35.

(48.) "Vozvrashchenie," Trud, 7 February 1989, 3.

(49.) Saadet Deger & Somnath Sen, Military Expenditure: The Political Economy of International Security (Stockholm: SIPRI, 1990), 126.

(50.) Data provided by Valerii Ivanov.

(51.) Designated "free aid" to distinguish it from other forms of aid, such as economic and technical assistance, which were paid for by loans, which in theory Afghanistan had to repay, although in practice the Soviet Union regularly rescheduled debt repayments.

(52.) Amy Belasco, The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations since 2001 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2009), 13.

(53.) Gilles Dorronsoro, Revolution Unending: Afghanistan 1979 to the Present (London: Hurst, 2000), 195.

(54.) Henry S. Bradsher, Afghan Communism and Soviet Intervention (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999), 279.

(55.) Dorronsoro, Revolution Unending, 196.

(56.) "Note by USSR Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov to Mikhail Gorbachev, Attacking State Planning Committee (Gosplan) Memorandum on Soviet Expenditures in Afghanistan, January 1988," Coht War International History Project Bulletin 14-15, 2003-4, 255-6.

(57.) Alex Marshall, "Managing Withdrawal: Afghanistan as the Forgotten Example in Attempting Conflict Resolution and State Reconstruction," Small Wars and Insurgencies 1, 2007, 68-89: 73.

(58.) Feller, Great Gamble, 190.

(59.) Liakhovskii, Tragediia, 268.

(60.) Sal'nikov, Kandagar, 134-6.

(61.) Varennikm, Nepovtorimoe, 333.

(62.) Ibid., 331.

(63.) Ibid., 332.

(64.) Ibid., 334.

(65.) Giustozzi, War, 296.

(66.) TASS, 20 January 1989, in FBIS, FBIS-SOV-89-013, 23 January 1989, 36.

(67.) Borovik, Hidden War, 240.

(68.) Liakhovskii, Tragediia, 445. The goods were delivered following a 1987 Soviet-Afghan agreement on "direct ties" between Afghan provinces and Soviet republics and oblasts. They were provided free of charge rather than on credit.

(69.) Barnett Rubin, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1995), 171.

(70.) Giustozzi, War, 45.

(71.) Ibid.

(72.) Alexievich, Zinky Boys, 144[o].

(73.) Sal'nikov, Kandagar, p. 115.

(74.) TASS International Service, 21 January 1989, FBIS, FBIS-SOV-89-O13, 23 January 1989, 36.

(75.) Bhabani Sen Gupta, Afghanistan: Politics, Economics, Society (Boulder, CO: Lynner Rienner, 1986), 158.

(76.) Ibid, 68.

(77.) See Varennikov, Nepovtorimoe, 195. See also pages 171,173, and 176 for further comments in this regard.

(78.) interview with LTC John A. Nagl, 20with_20LTC_20John_20A_20Nagl.pdf?fileld=649884.

(79.) Liakhovskii, Liakhovskii, 446-7.

(80.) Feifer, Great Gamble, 166.

(81.) Ibid., 168.

(82.) Gareev, Afganskaia strada, 56.

(83.) Ibid, 62.

(84.) L. B. Aristova, "Sotsial'naia infrastruktura Afganistana," in lu.V. Gankovskii, ed., Afganistan. lstoriia, ekonomika, kul'tura: sbornik statei (Moscow: Nauka, 1989), 99-106: 101.

(85.) Gareev, Afganskaia strada, 323.

(86.) For instance, Martin Ewans, Conflict in Afghanistan: Studies in Asymmetric Warfare (London: Routledge, 2005), 150.

(87.) Marshall, "Managing Withdrawal," 70.

Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. His publications include Military Honour and the Conduct of War (London: Routledge, 2006) and The White Russian Army in Exile, 1920-1941 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002). He would like to thank Alfia Sorokina for her excellent work in locating Soviet materials for this article.
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