Lessons from Afghanistan

Reviewed by Capt Robert C Fulford

THE BEAR WENT OVER THE MOUNTAIN: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan. Edited by Lester W. Grau. Frank Cass Publishers, Portland, OR, 1998, 220 pp., $24.50. (Member $22.00)

In the not so distant future, the preponderance of our Corps’ junior leaders will be products of the postCold War era. Most of the current lieutenants and captains were commissioned after the fall of the “Evil Empire.” The 18- and 19-year-old recruits entering today’s Corps were only 10 or 11 years old when the Soviet Union finally collapsed. While there are many tangible benefits associated with residing in a country serving as the world’s only remaining “superpower,” complacency and arrogance reign as our newfound foes. It is easy to ignore the lessons of the past; especially those learned by our former adversaries. As Bill Lind notes in The Maneuver Warfare Handbook and repeatedly warns us, “Too often, Americans do not pay much attention to what others are doing and learning.” If we are to remain successful and dominant as a society and as a military, we must overcome this arrogant habit.

The reduction in tensions between East and West resulted in a period of relative openness, providing opportunities for the exchange of ideas and lessons learned over nearly 50 years of bitter worldwide competition. The Bear Went Over the Mountain is a product of this period. The History of Military Art Department at the Frunze Combined Arms Academy in Moscow produced a collection of lessons learned titled, Combat Action of Soviet Forces in the Republic of Afghanistan. This book is a product of countless interviews with small unit leaders, battalion commanders, and staff officers in the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan. The Frunze Academy staff compiled these interviews into a series of 47 vignettes, complete with first person narrative and academy staff commentary. Created prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, Combat Action was intended for use within the Soviet military and not for external publication. The result is a very honest appraisal of the successes and failures of Soviet leadership and tactics during the decade long conflict.

It is obvious that the Soviets intended this book for the use of small unit leaders, for it focuses solely on the tactical level of operations. Combat Action is very similar to our Infantry In Battle, and provides examples of tactical actions in ambushes, cordon and searches, convoy operations, defensive operations, and attacking a strongpoint. The commentary brings out as common trends the failures in tactical reconnaissance, the results of poor tactical discipline, and the importance and challenge of attaining tactical surprise.

One trend, however, stands out above the rest in its importance-the lack of rapid and sound decisionmaking by small unit leaders. Time and again, the Frunze staff points to this as a prominent factor in the failure of its units. Over the course of this war, the Soviets began to realize that their methodical and centralized philosophy of warfare was not conducive to the current battlefield. Out of necessity, they attempted to develop their small unit leaders’ initiative and decisionmaking skills. With this change came tactical success. Unfortunately, for the Soviets it came too late, as their nation lost the will to sustain the conflict.

LtCol Lester Grau is a retired U.S. Army infantry officer with combat experience in Vietnam. Currently, he is on the staff at the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, specializing in Russian studies. Several years ago, he received a copy of the Frunze Academy’s work and deemed it valuable enough for translation into English. To this translation LtCol Grau added his own commentary, as well as two additional vignettes. The result is titled, The Bear Went Over the Mountain. This is not a study in maneuver warfare, nor is it a template for doctrinal change within a military. Additionally, it was not designed as a literary work, but rather as a documentation of lessons learned. These lessons, though, do lend credence to the Marine Corps’ warfighting doctrine, and bear out the importance of the education and development of the small unit leader. It is here that you will find this book the most useful. It is an outstanding source of tactical decision game material, and it will prove extremely useful for small unit level PME.

LtCol Grau provides us with a unique opportunity to look inside the successes and failures of another military; coincidentally, one that our nation’s military organized, trained, and prepared to fight for almost 50 years. When taken in the proper context, the lessons gleaned out of this work will prove to be valuable tools in preparation for future conflicts.