Follow the Bear

By Commander David A. Adams, U.S. Navy, Major Kevin Norton, U.S. Marine Corps, Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Schmitt, U.S. Army, and Lieutenant Colonel Jefferson E. Turner, U.S. Air Force

By centralizing their forces in large bases, building the Afghan Army to mirror Soviet forces, and conducting large-scale operations, the Soviets modeled what FM 3-24 refers to as an unsuccessful counterinsurgency approach (see column two of Table 2.). Following Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong's theory of guerilla warfare - where "guerilla fish" would swim and hide in the "sea of people" - the Soviets worked to drain the sea by deliberately depopulating the lands adjacent to strategic roads, cities, and garrison outposts. 9 Soviet operations were further characterized by intense bombing, heavy civilian casualties, and the total annihilation of villages with the widespread use of chemical weapons and land mines. By the time Gorbachev took office, Soviet troops had enlarged the sea by emboldening the resolve of the local populace to repel "invaders." 10

In early 1986, as Gorbachev was grappling with the Afghan dilemma, the United States approved the distribution of Stinger missiles to the Mujahideen, significantly weakening Soviet air supremacy. The resulting change in air tactics greatly increased the vulnerability of Soviet ground forces. And as losses mounted, Moscow "had to either reinforce or lose - because they clearly were not winning." 11

Referring to Afghanistan as his country's "bleeding scab," Gorbachev, on assuming the helm as General Secretary, initiated a revamped approach. 12 He identified three clear ways to success:

  • Direct talks with Pakistan and other third parties to secure the borders.
  • "National reconciliation" to defuse widespread opposition and increase legitimacy.
  • Shifting military efforts toward strengthening Afghan security forces.

    Putting these goals in the context of FM 3-24 demonstrates how the Soviets abandoned their previously unsuccessful practices in favor of a different approach. Specifically, they embraced: 

  • Negotiations aimed at securing host-nation borders and denying insurgents safe havens.
  • A national reconciliation program that amounted to conducting pervasive, effective, and continuous information operations as well as offering amnesty for insurgents who would support the government.
  • Military efforts focused on strengthening host-nation security forces' ability to establish and expand secure areas.

    Although elements of the strategy had varying degrees of success, overall it effectively achieved goals that would "hasten the early withdrawal of Soviet forces while assuring the survival of a friendly regime in Kabul." 13

Engaging in Talks

Negotiations would be key. 14 At a 13 November 1986 meeting, the Politburo discussed the dire necessity to strengthen the already ongoing negotiations framework to address Mujahideen safe heavens in Pakistan while diminishing support to the insurgency from Washington and Saudi Arabia. 15 To that end, Moscow began direct talks with Pakistan, despite flagrant participation of Pakistani border guards in military operations inside Afghanistan, a violation of the previous Geneva accords. 16

Gorbachev indicated his high hopes for the United Nations talks held in Geneva, focusing on "agreements between Afghanistan and Pakistan on non-interference in each other's internal affairs and on the return of Afghanistan refugees from Pakistan; international guarantees of non-interference in Afghanistan's internal affairs; a document on the interrelationship of all elements of political settlement," and establishing a verification mechanism, using a proposed timetable for the withdrawal of Soviet troops as a lever. 17

UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar's special representative, Diego Cordovez, began brokering an agreement to minimize the Soviet Union's humiliation, in respect for its enormous financial, political, and human investment in Afghanistan. The Soviets demanded a bilateral agreement between Islamabad and Kabul. Pakistan, however, continually refused to even recognize the Kabul regime. Cordovez mediated indirect negotiations between the parties to resolve the impasse.

On 14 April 1988, Afghanistan and Pakistan finally agreed on principles of non-interference and non-intervention. The agreement's clauses affirmed Afghan sovereignty and the right of Afghan refugees to a secure and honorable return. The core of the agreement was removal of the threat - mainly terminating U.S. and Pakistani support to the insurgents - in exchange for the subsequent withdrawal of "foreign troops" by 15 February the following year. 18 Each party signed up to forego any act that could remotely affect the sovereignty or security of the other; the United States and the Soviet Union countersigned as a guarantee of implementation and enforcement.

Over time, Pakistan ignored its obligations under the treaty and once again openly supported the insurgents. Nonetheless, the Soviet Union had obtained a solid, workable agreement to end the Afghan civil war. 19 In the context of FM 3-24, the agreement constituted a determined effort to "secure host-nation borders as well as deny insurgents safe havens and material support." Even though Pakistan violated its treaty obligations, the United States did suspend support to the belligerents, the Kabul regime survived the Soviet withdrawal, and Moscow was able to claim an honorable exit.

National Reconciliation

As negotiations proceeded, Gorbachev set out to strengthen the political position of his Soviet client government in Kabul. He directed the KGB and its Afghan counterpart, the KHAD, to conduct extensive information operations aimed at transforming the Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) into a united and legitimate ruling entity. 20

Like Afghanistan itself, the party was fractured along Pashtun and central Asian lines. Khaliqs - comprised mostly of the majority Pashtun ethnicity - disproportionately filled the ranks of the PDPA Armed Forces. 21 Uzbeks and Tajiks dominated the Parcham faction, which comprised a large portion of the party's political leadership. Gorbachev recognized that any viable Afghan government must include sizeable Pashtun elements both inside and outside the party. To fix this disparity, he replaced the bumbling General Secretary Barak Karmal with a skilled Pashtun orator and politician, Dr. Najibullah (Najib). 22

Najib was known for his exceptional ability to cultivate tribal support while working across PDPA factions. On taking office, Najib appointed two prominent Pashtun Khaliq's to the key ministries of Internal Affairs and Defense: Sayed Gulabzai and Shahnawaz Tanai. 23 Both initially worked closely with Najib in uniting the party behind a broad program of national reconciliation. 24

Gorbachev understood that previous Soviet attempts to shape Afghanistan into a model secular Soviet state were unworkable. He became less interested in ideological purity and more focused on tangible measures to assure the survival of the government in Kabul. By allowing Najib to distance himself from communist dogma, openly attend prayer, and retake his full Islamic-grounded name of Najibullah, Gorbachev began to extinguish the anti-Islamic ideology fueling the insurgency. The new Afghan leader also shifted his title from General Secretary to President, implemented a new Constitution that allowed multiple parties to share power, and changed the Afghan nation's name from the Democratic Republic to the Republic of Afghanistan. 25

National reconciliation involved not just these symbolic steps to persuade the Afghan people of the government's legitimacy but also immediate outreach to warring factions. By inviting Mujahideen groups to join a government of national unity, granting amnesty to all opposition fighters, and promising respect for all Islamic, Afghan national, and cultural traditions, Najibullah further undermined the ideological underpinnings of the insurgency. He garnered support from Afghan villagers by abandoning the hated Soviet-style land reforms and ceasing all scorched-earth policies. Najibullah also downplayed assertions that the PDPA was simply a puppet infidel government by openly advocating the withdrawal of Soviet troops. 26

Although the Mujahideen in Pakistan officially rejected Najibullah's proposal, several key leaders opened discussions with PDPA officials. In the first month of national reconciliation, 30,000 Pashtun fighters from 174 groups laid down their arms, and 1,500 new villages pledged their support for the government. 27 Even the Mujahideen in Pakistan began recognizing Najibullah's success, fearing that he might convince a sufficient number of its fighters to return home to break the back of the resistance. 28

These programs were consistent with FM 3-24 and fairly successful. By "proclaiming the national reconciliation policy and calling on the armed opposition to negotiate, Najib retained political initiative and won people's sympathies." 29 National reconciliation enabled the PDPA government to hold power far longer than anyone expected. Gorbachev supported Najibullah as he forged a fragile coalition that somehow managed to outlive his sponsor regime in Moscow.

Shifting Military Efforts

As these efforts fostered political solutions, Gorbachev promoted a strong field commander - General Mikhail Zaitsev - to command the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. His task was to turn around a desperate military situation. Zaitsev immediately moved Soviet operations away from ruthless, large mechanized offensives toward counterinsurgency operations using decentralized special forces operations in concert with Afghan commandos. 30

This partnership was more effective at interdicting insurgent supply lines and emphasized accurate intelligence, surprise, mobility, and night maneuver. Mujahideen fighters were engaged in their remote camps rather than terrorizing the general population in their villages. These operations began to reverse the Spetznaz troops' previous reputation for "failing to respect women when searching Afghanistan homes for terrorists." 31

Although Soviet special forces achieved small-scale tactical successes in outlying encampments, it is clear in retrospect that the Soviets simply never had a sufficient number of troops properly trained in this type of counterinsurgency. Most of the regular Soviet forces "were good for little more than guarding towns and conducting futile sweep operations." 32 Fewer than 20,000 Soviet elite troops, in fact, were trained and committed to waging the new counterinsurgency campaign.

A few Soviet commanders broadened their approach to successfully engage and win over the local villagers. In Kunduz, for instance, a Captain Zakharov (first name unavailable) spent several months exploring the countryside and immersing himself in Afghan customs. 33 He built strong relations with the locals by sharing his unit's fuel and supplies, respecting their culture, and deconflicting operations with planting and harvesting schedules.

Unlike Soviet forces elsewhere, he avoided mining of Mujahideen supply trails for fear of injuring non-combatants and refusing to fire on local Mujahideen when in populated areas. As a result, Kunduz grew to be one of the most secure areas in Afghanistan during his tour. Unfortunately, the Soviets never codified and applied his lessons in broad enough fashion to enlarge his success.

Most Soviet units could effectively clear areas but rarely held them as Zakharov did. Without local support, the number of security forces required to hold an area became overwhelming. It is not surprising that in 1979, the Soviet General Staff estimated that 30-35 divisions - approximately 650,000 soldiers - were required to secure the country. 34 They planned to strengthen the Afghan Army to make up the difference.

That army, however, consistently proved to be an unreliable ally for the Soviet military. Although different estimates place the size of it from a pre-invasion force of 80,000 to 150,000, lack of oversight allowed many Afghan soldiers to form non-aggression pacts with the Mujahideen. The Soviets failed to build a reliable partner in the local army, largely because of lack of resources, support, and rewards to those who served as their advisers. Serving as an "adviser to a DRA [Democratic Republic of Afghanistan] unit was considered a hardship assignment by Soviet officers. Adviser duty was not considered a stepping stone to promotion." 35

The Strength of Militias

In early 1986, a talented governor, Nurulhak Olumi of Kandahar, recognized the ineffectiveness of the army and convinced the Soviets to build up local militias to protect the people from the insurgency. He demonstrated how a partnership with the Soviet forces and the local tribes could turn around what had previously been the most difficult province for the communist regime to control. 36 Kandahar was notorious for having not a single village party organization and for only "allowing one school to be opened since the revolution." 37 The insurgents in Kandahar prided themselves for attacking every convoy that dared venture the Kandahar-Herat road. 

By using kinship ties, Olumi's alliance with the local tribes and their militias brought security and allowed implementation of Soviet-funded development projects. It wasn't long before insurgent activities evaporated and Kandahar's population returned to pre-war levels. The city became a model province, and as a result, Najib embraced a much wider use of tribal militias for supporting the government and securing their area. 38

Organized as Ghund-e Qawmi (Tribal Regiments), Geruh az Defa-I Inqilab (Groups for the Defense of the Revolution), or Milishia-I Sahardi (Border Militia), militias made up for large shortfalls. 39 These effectively guarded urban centers, secured key lines of resupply, and controlled selected border crossings. 40 They were united by tribal kinships and the Pashtunwali code, which allowed them to easily secure their areas. Loyalty to the government, however, was contingent on cash payments and the perception that tribal interests were represented at the national level. Deals were cut with almost half of the tribes in south and eastern Afghanistan.

Use of militias - for the first time during the Soviet period - brought real security to large parts of the countryside. A downside was that PDPA militia and Mujahideen fighters split along clear tribal lines, setting the stage for an intense Afghan civil war several years after Soviet withdrawal. While the majority of the militias remained loyal to the Najib government for several years after the Soviet withdrawal, the failure to embed quality advisers and to integrate the militias with other Afghan security forces made it much more difficult to sustain the militia's loyalty over the long haul.

Soviet military operations in the Gorbachev era reinforce several principles of FM 3-24. While the Soviets failed at embedding quality advisers to train the Afghan Army and police, they were able to establish and expand security through the use of local militias and by abandoning many of their unsuccessful practices such as large scale operations in favor of focusing on security of the populace.

Understanding the Soviet Withdrawal

Understanding the post-1986 Soviet end state is essential to deriving any lessons from the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. An objective look at the causes and consequences of the Soviet withdrawal and eventual collapse of the Najib government is required to avoid mistakes as well as replicate areas of Soviet success.

Prior to 1986, heavy-handed Soviet tactics had sowed the seeds for their withdrawal. The Soviet political machine also became very sensitive to losses. In the Paghman highlands, for instance, Soviet Forces surrounded 500 Mujahideen fighters but were ordered to retreat when an ambush took the lives of 50 soldiers. 41

These domestic political constraints narrowed Gorbachev's options. At the same time, the General Secretary sought to gain assistance for turning around deep-seeded economic troubles at home by strengthening his nation's international legitimacy. For these reasons, it was clear from the beginning that Gorbachev was seeking an exit strategy.

The fact that the Soviets pursued narrower goals does not change the fact that their new approach to counterinsurgency succeeded beyond all expectations. Gorbachev's surge strengthened Najib's government sufficiently that, to the surprise of almost everyone involved, it survived almost four years after Soviet withdrawal, outliving the USSR itself. The eventual government collapse should be attributed as much, or more, to internal rivalries than to the insurgency's salience.

Najib's efforts to reach out internally were less successful over time than his national reconciliation efforts. Eventually, his accommodation with the Pashtun Khaliqs fell apart. Successive coup attempts by Ministers Gulabzai and Tanai forced Najib to arrest more than 600 Pashtun political leaders and military officers. These quickly rekindled Khaliq opposition to his government, castrated the remaining elements of the Afghan Army, and discredited Najib's outreach to the Pashtun villages and militias.

As a result, a long civil war ensued, Najib voluntarily surrendered power in the spring of 1992, Kabul was destroyed, and incessant violence continued because no leader was able to unite the Pashtun factions - a perennial stumbling block of any Afghan government. The Taliban temporarily united the Pashtuns, bringing peace with their notorious tyranny. However, it wasn't long before hostilities resumed as the United States unwittingly supplanted the Soviets as the "foreign invader," helping rekindle the 25-year-old Afghan civil war.

Implications for U.S. Policy

Ironically, the United States has found itself following the bear's footsteps into Afghanistan. While American forces have not made nearly the number, or the magnitude, of mistakes initially committed by the Soviets in Afghanistan, our formations are still guilty of many of the same unsuccessful counterinsurgency practices listed in FM 3-24 (See Table 3). 42

It is not surprising that U.S. leaders have reached almost exactly the same conclusions that Gorbachev did in 1986. Indeed, the parallels between the Secretary Gorbachev's and the new administration's Afghan strategies are striking. Comparing the 1986 Gorbachev and 2009 Obama statements demonstrates how the three main elements are nearly identical.

  • Direct talks with Pakistan and other third parties to secure the borders.
  • National reconciliation to defuse widespread opposition and increase legitimacy.
  • Shifting military efforts toward strengthening Afghan security forces.

The good news is, these latter Soviet efforts essentially confirm the soundness of U.S. doctrine embodied by FM 3-24. Studying the Soviet Gorbachev era, the United States can derive three major lessons to improve its effectiveness in Afghanistan.

1. Negotiations securing Afghanistan border are essential but will be ineffective if the United States fails to hold Pakistan's government and military strictly accountable.

2. National reconciliation offering amnesty to insurgents can effectively increase government legitimacy, but internal reconciliation is equally important. Failure to deal with widespread Pashtun disaffectedness can unravel reconciliation efforts.

3. Increasing the size of Afghan Security Forces, so that they can eventually take the lead in securing their country, will likely fail unless:

  • Quality advisers are embedded across all Afghan formations (Army, Police, and Militias).
  • Militias, when used as a stop-gap measure only, are aligned with vetted tribal leaders loyal to the government and ultimately integrated into the Afghan National Security Force (army or police). 43
  • A widespread combined (coalition and Afghan) presence is set in place at the district and village level to initially establish and expand security.
  • The Afghan National Army abandons its focus on large-scale operations in favor of securing the population to fill gaps created by low police capacity. 44

Even better news is that while the Soviets endeavored successfully to employ just five FM 3-24 counterinsurgency practices, our policy makers and troops on the ground have an opportunity to employ all 14 successful practices. 45 The United States can also exploit many advantages the Soviets did not enjoy. The United States has international legitimacy for its presence in Afghanistan as well as closer relationship with Pakistan.

The most important difference between 1986 Soviet and 2009 U.S. strategies, however, is one of resolve. Gorbachev was clearly surging to set the condition for withdrawal, while the new U.S. administration appears to be committed to stay long enough to create long-term stability. In addition to the three key pillars outlined here, the U.S. plan emphasizes a whole-of-government approach, including a plan to raise the foundation of Afghanistan's economy.

Development, until now, is something the United States has left under resourced and which the Soviets never seriously resourced at all. After establishing a combined security presence in villages, the U.S. plan demands a partnership with Afghan tribal leaders and government officials to deliver essential services. Such development efforts - if we are willing to hold Afghan leaders strictly accountable for honest implementation - can demonstrate the Islamic republic's ability to meet the needs of her people thereby undermining the remaining conditions fueling the insurgency.

Ralph Peters commented last year that FM 3-24 is the "wrong book" for Afghanistan and advocates "digging fewer wells and forcing our enemies to dig more graves." 46 The Soviet experience proves the contrary. FM 3-24 is the secret to success in Afghanistan. Yet, while the theory is sound, execution is always complex and difficult. The cost in blood and treasure will likely be high. U.S. efforts require a determined political effort to keep the American public committed as the going will surely get rough before it gets better. Surprisingly, success will come if we take the time to actually learn from the Soviet Bear, following his successes and avoiding his mistakes.


1. See Washington Times Editorial Staff, "Lessons from Soviets in Afghanistan," 15 May 2009).

2. See Lester W. Grau, trans. and ed., The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan (Washington: National Defense University Press, 1996) and Stephen D. Pomper, "Don't Follow the Bear: The Soviet Attempt to Build Afghanistan's Military," Military Review (September-October 2005).

3. Neri Zilber, "Obama Using Gorbachev's Afghan Plan," Middle East Times online (3 April 2009) (accessed 2 June 2009).

4. Barack Obama, "New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan" The White House, 27 March 2009]. CQ Transcripts Wire online, _ wprss=rss_politics (accessed 20 May 2009).

5. U.S. Army and Marine Corps, Counterinsurgency Field Manual (U.S. Army Field Manual No. 3-24; Marine Corps Warfighting Publication No. 3-33.5) [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007]. Hereafter referred to as Counterinsurgency Field Manual.

6. Mikhail Gorbachev, "Text of Gorbachev Statement Setting Forth Soviet Position on Afghan War" (Vladivostok, 9 February 1988). (accessed 20 May 2009).

7. Obama, "New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan."

8. Counterinsurgency Field Manual, 1-29. Hereafter words in italics are meant to specifically reference practices of FM 3-24 Table 1-1. See also Grau, The Bear Went Over the Mountain, p. 310.

9. Ibid.

10. Robert M. Gates, From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), p. 350.

11. Ibid.

12. Gorbachev, "Text of Gorbachev Statement Setting Forth Soviet Position on Afghan War."

13. Diego Cordovez and Selig S. Harrison, Out of Afghanistan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 250.

14. Documents on the Soviet Invasion, e-Dossier No. 4 (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2001), pp. 178-179. (accessed 19 May 2009).

15. Ibid.

16. Documents on the Soviet Invasion, e-Dossier No. 4, p. 183.

17. Gorbachev, "Text of Gorbachev Statement Setting Forth Soviet Position on Afghan War."

18. Cordovez and Harrison, p. 100.

19. Ibid.

20. Anthony Arnold, The Fateful Pebble: Afghanistan's Role in the Fall of the Soviet Empire (Novato, CA.: Presidio, 1993), p. 151.

21. David B. Edwards, Before Taliban: Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002], pp. 61-86.

22. Arnold, p. 150.

23. Ibid., p. 156.

24. Edgar O'Ballance, Afghan Wars 1839-1992, What Britain Gave Up and the Soviets Lost (New York: Brasseys, 1993), p. 187.

25. Arnold, p. 157.

26. Ibid., p. 152.

27. Gilles Dorronsoro, John King, trans., Revolution Unending: Afghanistan, 1979 to the Present, (New York: Columbia University Press, in association with the Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches Internationales, Paris, 2005), p. 196.

28. Arnold, p. 153.

29. Gregory Feifer, The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), p. 127.

30. Stephen J. Blank, Operational and Strategic Lessons of the War in Afghanistan, 1979-90 (Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 1991), p. 91.

31. Feifer, p. 29.

32. Ali Ahmad Jalali and Lester W. Grau, In the Words of the Mujahideen Fighters (St. Paul, MN: MBI Publishing Company, 2001), p. 212.

33. Artem Borovik, The Hidden War: a Russian Journalist's Account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan (New York: Grove Press, 1990), p. 111.

34. Pomper, "Don't Follow the Bear. . . ," p. 26.

35. The Russian General Staff, The Soviet-Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost, trans. and ed. Lester W. Grau and Michael A. Gress (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2002), p. 52.

36. Anton Minkov and Gregory Smolynec, "3-D Soviet Style: A Presentation on Lessons Learned from the Soviet Experience in Afghanstan," (accessed 2 June 2009).

37. Ibid.

38. Ibid.

39. William Maley, The Afghan Wars (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002), p. 109.

40. Maley, p. 110.

41. Steven J. Zaloga, "The Red Thrust," (accessed on 2 June 2009).

42. Counterinsurgency Field Manual, pp. 1-29.

43. Minkov and Smolynec, "3-D Soviet Style: A Presentation on Lessons Learned from the Soviet Experience in Afghanstan."

44. Anthony H. Cordesman, Winning in Afghanistan: Creating effective Afghan Security Forces, Working Draft: Revised 9 December 2008 [Washington, DC: Center for Strategic & International Studies, 2008], p. 98. (accessed 19 May 2009).

45. See Counterinsurgency Field Manual, I-29 and compare with Barack Obama, "New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan" and unpublished white paper Department of State, "The Afghanistan-Pakistan Strategy."

46. Ralph Peters, "Afghan Graveyard: Burying Military Reputations," (accessed 2 June 2009).

Commander Adams - prospective commanding officer of the USS Santa Fe (SSN-763) - served as a provincial reconstruction team commander in Khost, Afghanistan.

Major Norton served as company commander, battalion operations, and executive officer during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Lieutenant Colonel Schmitt has conducted multiple special forces deployments to Afghanistan, Northern and Eastern Africa, Sri Lanka, and the Balkans.

Lieutenant Colonel Turner is currently serving as chief, Central and South Asian Intelligence Plans Branch, at USCENTCOM and also has deployed to Afghanistan.


Lieutenant Commander Adams is executive officer of the USS Honolulu (SSN-718) and a frequent contributor to Proceedings.

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