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The war against Russia 1979 to 1988

In 1978, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was formed with the help of the Soviet Union. The government was a self-described socialist state that had overthrown the old regime led by Prince Mohammed Daoud Khan during the Saur Revolution.

This revolution may be considered the culmination of Russian influence, from the days of the Great Game. However, even as the new regime took over, rumblings for independence from Soviet influence were erupting among the local mujahideen. In this case, the resistance to the Soviets was based more on religion than the conflicts of the Great Game, which were more about power and foreign relations.

The mountainous border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan had become an important center of fundamentalist Islam. Across the border in Pakistan, were many madrassas or schools that indoctrinated young men into strict Islamic ways of thought. These madrassas were particularly effective at taking in young boys from poor families by offering to take care of all their needs. The boys would be raised at the madrassas providing financial relief to the family.

These orthodox religious groups became strongly opposed to Western influence, which they viewed as antagonistic to the religion of Islam. The mujahideen were religious fighters who were taking up the struggle against the enemies of Islam, which at the time were the “godless” communists of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and their state sponsor, the Soviet Union.

The Soviet strategy to deal with Afghanistan’s daunting terrain concentrated on using modern technology, especially attack helicopters, in place of main battle tanks as offensive weapons. The Soviets considered the armored attack helicopter as the perfect weapon capable of operating in areas that were unsuited for tank warfare including mountainous terrain. Helicopters like the Mil Mi-24 Hind not only had tank-like firepower, but they also acted as troop transports allowing helicopter forces to hold territory before conventional ground forces arrived on the scene.

Moscow deployed its troops starting in the spring of 1979. The Soviets sent both air-mobile helicopter units and airborne units, as well as more conventional tank and BMP forces. Again, the Afghans showed their ability to find allies even under difficult circumstances. In this case, the mujahideen were able to establish a relationship with the United States – an unlikely alliance when we compare the ideologies of both sides. Indeed, the same mujahideen who were supplied and trained by U.S. forces during the war against the Soviets later became the core group within al-Qaeda.

In addition to the United States, the Afghan forces also received help from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China, the United Kingdom and others.

One of the important weapon systems provided by the Americans to the mujahideen was the Stinger portable anti-aircraft missile. This missile, along with conventional anti-aircraft guns, helped the mujahideen neutralize Soviet air power. The Soviet forces found it especially difficult to control the border area with Pakistan, the heartland of Afghani religious extremism. The mujahideen practiced a strategy of placing Soviet-controlled cities and towns under siege, something that was made easier by the nature of the terrain.

Mujahideen forces tended to operate in rather small, autonomous units. There was little centralization, and bases could operate on their own if necessary for long periods of time. It was a loose network of resistance that would later be used as the pattern for the al-Qaeda organization and the Taliban insurgency. Because of the structure of the resistance forces, intelligence operations against the mujahideen were difficult. Also, it was difficult for the Soviets to target mujahideen leadership, and effective strikes had limited effect due to the highly-autonomous nature of mujahideen bases.

The Afghani strategy gradually wore down the Soviets and sharply drove up the costs of their military and political operations. In 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from Afghanistan leaving behind the puppet Democratic Republic of Afghanistan that would eventually fall in 1992.

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