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  • Ryan Sullivan

The Soviet Sisyphus: Intelligence Failures Derived from the Soviet-Afghan War

Updated: Nov 13, 2021

In December 1979, Hafizullah Amin, the president of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA), found his country seized via a highly coordinated invasion, as Soviet armored divisions and paratroopers secured key sites across the state. Amin was executed and replaced by a puppet of the Soviets, while various protests across urban centers, led by insurgent cells, intensified to insurrection. The Soviet-Afghan conflict was intended to be a three-year intervention to stabilize the country but spiraled on for a decade. The details of its stages are discussed during analysis of the failures in planning and intelligence, but a four-part outline is as follows: First, Soviet occupation and entry combat operations; Second, unsuccessful engagements with guerilla forces in irregular terrain; Third, Soviet forces find success in tactical adaptation; Fourth, withdrawal of Soviet forces and the “afghanization” of the war. These phases are each interlaced with numerous intelligence failures, poor decision making, and insufficient training, logistics, and situational awareness. This culminated in 60,000 Soviet casualties and the collapse of the DRA under pressure of insurgent forces mere months after the withdrawal.¹ This analysis will address the Soviet-Afghan War based on Michael Gress and Lester Grau’s key findings in two parts: decisions that needed to be made, particularly with regards to an ignorance of the intelligence cycle in the Military Decision-Making Process (MDMP), and Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB).


While the capable Soviet 40th Army eventually proved up to the task of fighting the Mujahideen in their own territory, once there was a dissemination of knowledge from the early portions of the war, it failed as a whole to enact consistent planning methods based on intelligence. It further failed to adapt to the tempo of the conflict at a tactical level within a reasonable timeframe. The limited contingent of Soviet forces (LCOSF) allowed itself to become dominated by the mindset of the European theater, centralizing on operational level combat, armored engagements, and continuous kinetic fighting with lines of contact.² Initially, contact with adversaries represented organized and identifiable opposition, the significant losses the Mujahadeen endured when confronting motorized and armored divisions forced local insurgents to return to petite guerre tactics of previous invasions. The 40th needed to alter their MDMP, as well as expand their IPBs to succeed, yet failed to do so, ensuring forces were often surprised by an enemy’s composition, tactics, and size.³


Insurgent cells quickly went to ground at the end of phase one, blending into countryside communities and fortified mountain positions while beginning a relentless, asymmetric, tactical-level war on the operationally focused LCOSF. Military decision makers in Moscow and Kabul should have recognized the changing situation, having access to the open-source historical records of the region’s guerilla conflicts, as well as their own experience fighting partisans in WWII as well as the Basmachi in Turkestan. Combined with lessons learned from watching British soldiers struggle against these same guerillas should have informed planners to adopt a tactical orientation, targeting strongholds, winning the support of the population, and training for a tactical conflict. While a tactical mindset was eventually adopted, it was only done in the third phase in a limited sense, specifically with the operating capabilities of reconnaissance and spetsnaz units. This war was not the expected conventional conflict, and lack of success at the operational level combined with the available history, which had been ignored by the initial planning staff, should have resulted in a faster shift.


The lack of tactical focus and training permeated a need for a critical change within the LCOSF’s own MDMP and IPBs, as numerous cases within after-action reports demonstrate a lack of knowledge regarding terrain, adversaries, logistics, and intelligence. These reports often make clear that the MDMP used by the Soviet military at the time was very commander-centric, with decisions regarding the specifics of logistics, manpower, distribution, and maneuvers all made at the upper level. Staff wargaming, analysis, and development of alternative courses of action (COA), as well as necessary contingencies to account for the most likely and most dangerous scenarios, played no part in this process. Instead, once a tasking had been provided, commanders developed their own COA, usually supported by an insufficient intelligence collection flow and analysis in the IBP, which further disregarded the dimensions of allied forces.6 These COAs were often formulated 36 to 48 hours in advance, with equipment requests and tasking not disseminated until 16 to 24 hours beforehand, giving little time for a thorough review. The results were poorly planned operations with multiplied risks and little support that continued to ignore various forms of intelligence while endangering force, mission, and relationships with Afghani institutions.


The IPB process further amplified the intelligence failures of Soviet operations throughout the war, as the primary use of MASINT and GEOINT failed to detect concealed positions amidst irregular terrain, offered little intelligence support, and miscalculated threat capabilities and COAs. While the enemy lacked high-level technologies to exploit through the various technical INTS, Soviet reconnaissance units — intelligence collectors — relied on long-distance observation in tandem with limited ISR from the small number of reconnaissance craft. Intelligence collection was further strained by the hostile populace, leaving the Soviets lacking HUMINT agents to provide reliable insight into an enemy’s morale, position, capabilities, and manpower, something that recon often failed to supplement. IPBs often analyzed little outside of incomplete GEOINT and unsupported assumptions of enemy forces, leaving them an undervalued asset that saw Soviets often stumbling into fortified emplacements, minefields, as well as forces stronger their own in an undefined operational environment. The Soviets had little to no regard for tactics and intelligence, an issue which needed to be changed earlier in the conflict to affect the MDMP.


These uninformed MDMPs and IPBs often failed to account for civilian populations, the enemy’s capabilities, techniques, or tactics, as well as forsook LOCs and contingencies. This resulted in dozens of instances where civilians and friendly forces egregiously suffered preventable casualties, alongside loss of equipment.¹⁰ Soviet command staff needed to adjust their parameters to account for the complicated nature of low-tempo guerilla conflicts, as well as consider ways to prevent alienation of the population and allied forces while in operation. Failure to do so allowed the Mujahadeen to exploit decision advantage and Soviet reliance on large maneuver operations, while the population suffered intensively as the Soviets gave little regard for civilian loss of life, famine, and frequent crime. The IPB process was insufficient in defining the operational environment, degrading the already limited MDMP.


The intelligence cycle was used, though limited in scope, and often represented narrow taskings that inhibited effective decision making. At the most basic level, taskings were purely military-target-focused, looking to find the next insurgent location, surround it, and eliminate. While this resulted in small victories, it failed to account for the larger intelligence image of a growing insurgent force motivated by the brutal actions of the Soviets in the mass displacement of the population and use of historic ethnic enemies of Afghanistan in the LCOSF’s vanguard units.¹¹ These military-centric tasks, especially at the start of the intervention, ignored the region’s history, its way of war, and population divisions, all of which could have been exploited in favor of Soviet operations. Collection means were poor, as the scope available through exhausted recon units -- who also acted as field analysts -- unreliable informants, ISR vehicles, and surveyors left much to be desired, especially in HUMINT.


The lack of direction in the intelligence cycle led Russian commanders into poor analytical judgments and drastic intelligence failures during the intervention. With the narrow tasking of the intelligence cycle towards raiding operation and regional security, command staff found itself engrossed in wide operational foci for the first six years of conflict, leaving forces to suffer at a tactical level and causing unnecessary casualties across the LCOSF. The power of the intelligence cycle was limited purely to commanders, inhibiting access to planning information and necessary knowledge among staff to better spread expertise for operations.¹² Furthermore, these analytics were squared on military aspects and left no room to garner public support or a sustainable position with local populations, but instead turned them into the enemy via forced displacements meant to dislodge insurgents. The LCOSF bred enemies that quickly learned their trade compared to the ever-rotated inexperienced, inadequately trained LCOSF who treated the populace as a threat or supporter of the enemy.¹³ The reality of environmental and situational awareness was neglected, as intelligence outside of military components, which was already lacking in collection, was outright disregarded in collection metrics, leaving commanders only the means to build their approaches from concepts of simple military terms in a nuanced conflict. The failure to move beyond the constrained objectives of eliminating the bodies of insurgents while ignoring the greater motive and movement of said insurgents left the LCOSF exposed to meaningless expenditures in finding an endpoint for mission fulfillment.


Ultimately, Gress and Grau’s work makes clear that the critical intelligence events that shaped the fate of the LCOSF derives from the original politburo planning staff, as their failure to regard Afghanistan’s history, ethnic divisions, and military experiences, as well as consider the need for intelligence in the field, set their army on a course of defeat from the beginning.¹⁴ The politburo’s choice to exclude the General Staff from the intervention’s framework, objective parameters, and overhead military planning drove commanders to act on the directions of vague, Marxist policy that did not account for changing ground scenarios, public dissent, or the need for the adoption of tactical-level slow-tempo kinetic planning. Had military staff been able to incorporate a complete analytical image of all source intelligence with Russia’s own experience fighting guerilla wars, as well as its history with the region, in setting objectives, the 40th Army may have been able to enforce stability while combating at their enemy’s foundations. Ignorance of the enemy and within themselves instead led the LCOSF into the trap of political meddling and opened their operations to exploitation by an adversary who maintained decision-making and information dominance. These conflict-wide issues all trace themselves to the poor use of intelligence analytics and processes available to planners, who, despite ample time and resources, including established intelligence products, disregarded analysis at the expense of force and mission.


The intervention’s planning is a critical example of an intelligence failure, as the inability to take advantage of the intelligence resources led to a degradation which prevented necessary quality of life changes to operations. From the outset, the LCOSF lacked deliberate analytical capabilities to utilize the intelligence cycle to understand the form of conflict they were engaged in. Ignorance of the intelligence cycle and analysis gave little reason for the LCOSF to engage in in-depth collection to support the mission or recognize regional nuances, diluting the thoroughness of the MDMP and IPB and stifling operational capabilities throughout the war. As a result, the LCOSF lacked deliberate means to fulfill the mission or see the necessary objectives to win this war, damning the intervention to failure from the beginning.


The Soviet-Afghan War Endnotes
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Soviet Sisyphus Citations
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Download PDF • 45KB

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