Kunduz, Cubans & They Do Not Want to Die

Why are the armies trained by the American military so bad?


Taliban fighters with a capture Humvee outside Kunduz, Afghanistan

It is one of the key questions of current-day foreign affairs and yet few people ask it. We have interminable media discussions of the military strength of IS or the Taliban: yet little of why the local armies that are purportedly fighting against them are so ineffective?

It is worth examining this question with the news this week that the Taliban have seized the northern Afghan city of Kunduz. An event U.S. Senator John McCain has described as an indication of “the Taliban’s capability to launch a very significant and successful attack.” More telling perhaps is a local Afghan politician saying to Reuters, “We still have enough forces to take on the Taliban but sadly there is no will or resolve to fight.”

It is reminiscent of the debate in Iraq after IS took control of the cities of Mosul and Ramadi. Despite a widely publicized advance on Mosul by the Iraqi National Army, IS still firmly controls many Iraqi cities and countryside.
The answer to why American trained local armies are inadequate may come from some of most successful soldiers of the modern era: Cuban veterans of the Angolan War.



Cuban soldiers in Angola with local MPLA fighters

This particular phase of a long brutal civil war in Angola has largely been forgotten in the West. It was a typical Cold War conflict. In the late 1980s, a group of proxies fought on behalf of the United States and Soviet Union for control of resources in a developing country. In this case, the wealthy oil reserves of Angola.

The western proxies were the apartheid-era South Africans and private mercenaries. The communists used the Cubans.

Part of the reason that the war has been mostly-forgotten in the West is that our people lost. Not only did the western proxies lose – they lost the largest battle – Cuito Cuanavale – fought in Africa since the Second World War. This defeat led to the South Africans and mercenaries pulling out of Angola, the independence of the neighboring country of Namibia and, some historians argue, the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

The answer why the South Africans and the western mercenaries lost in Angola is important because it is the same weakness at the heart of western proxy armies in the war against Islamic terrorism.

Recently, I traveled across Cuba and spoke to a range of veterans of the Angolan War. One common theme emerged from these interviews. The Cubans say that the South Africans were individually good soldiers. They were well-trained and better-equipped. However, they had one weakness: they did not want to die.

For the South Africans and the mercenaries the Angolan war was not one of survival. It was not for their own country nor for their own lives. Conversely, the Cubans were dumped in the country and told they were not coming home until they won. They had to win or they were going to die.


Cuban soldiers in Angola

It is the key to soldiers since the Italian Renaissance when Machiavelli watched mercenaries leisurely fight against Pisa for the army of Florence. It is the reason why IS routinely beats much-larger armies in Iraq. It is the reason why the real power in Afghanistan – after fourteen-years and countless hundreds-of-billions of dollars – is not in the Afghan Congress or foreign embassies but at the negotiating table with the Taliban.

Mercenaries like standing around with guns lording it over unarmed civilians. They love getting paid. They hate dying.

The Iraqi National Army and the Afghan National Army have been trained for years by the American military. They have lots of modern equipment. In resource terms they outrank the Taliban and IS by several light years. Yet in the field, they regularly get beaten.

This is because they are, effectively, mercenary forces. Few people join these “national armies” for ideals or patriotism. They mostly join for money. If a soldier is motivated by money, then by paying him more money you can motivate him to do something else.
It is a significant problem. In Afghanistan, some of the western-allied warlords sign protection contracts with the Taliban, so that the warlords can safely supply the American Army bases.

The Iraqi media reports regularly that many officers of the Iraqi Army are deeply corrupt. Soldiers can pay to get out of service. Officers can bribe superior officers so they never have to fight. Generals can command massive phantom brigades of men, many of whom are hundreds of kilometers from the battle.

Ironically, the Angola War is not discussed much in Cuba. Once their victorious army came home, the communists lost the peace. Now some Cuban veterans complain that they are being ignored by their government. They complain of comrades lost in a fog of PTSD, of unpaid pensions and lack of medical support. It is a pity. If we properly understood their experiences we might be able to prevent our own military disasters today.


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Comments (9)

  • Steven Powell Reply

    I think that the answer why the US apparently can’t successfully train other armies is relatively simple . The best military training (of the rank and file, NCOs and officers), weapons and equipment in the world won’t make up for motivation. Just look at Vietnam. The Americans had endless resources along with their South Vietnamese allies compared to the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong. That didn’t make up for a) the Americans’ relative inexperience in jungle guerrilla warfare (what they’d learned in the Pacific Islands in WW2 seemed to have been forgotten) and b) the lack of motivation of both the American and South Vietnamese soldiers, most of whom were conscripts. The American draft was designed to ensure nobody of upper middle or upper class background had to go. The GIs knew it. In the case of the South Vietnamese the government was autocratic and deeply corrupt. The soldiers were disinclined to fight for a government that neither practiced nor believed in freedom and democracy nor did anything to benefit the majority of a very poor nation.

    As far as Angola goes my reading of the available history, now clearer than it once was with the changes in South Africa and the opening of many Soviet government and party archives is that the impulse to send Cuban troops to Angola came from the Cuban government responding to pleas for assistance from the MPLA. The Soviet government – busy trying to make detente work with the Americans and Europeans – was disinclined to get too involved. It did provide logistical support, principally in airlifting the Cubans to Angola and providing spares for heavy weaponry.

    The UNITA guerrillas were backed by the CIA, BOSS (the Bureau Of State Security, South Africa’s secret political police) and more openly by the South African Defense Force “Reccies” (special forces commandos). UNITA and its leader Jonas Savimbi were corrupt to the core, psychotic even. Savimbi was a highly intelligent man but a philistine barbarian. UNITA troops were ill-disciplined and poorly trained brutes capable only of plunder, pillage and rapine. Privately their American and apartheid South African masters despaired of them, although Savimbi was fated by the Reagan White House (showing that mixture of ignorance, wishful thinking and pure fantasy which all too often passes for US foreign policy).

    The Cubans on the other hand were mainly disciplined,motivated (even if it was just to do the job and return home), reasonably well-equipped and well led. Oscar, a former Cuban army officer whom I met on my first visit to Cuba in 2008 is old enough to have remembered pre-revolutionary Cuba. He told me when I met him that “We haven’t created a paradise. We have serious problems. Many of them are of our own making. But what we have is better than we had. We are masters in our own house.” He went to Angola as a captain. He was subsequently promoted to major. He was clearly proud of his service in Angola.

    In Afghanistan and Iraq we see the same pattern with the added complication of ethnic and religious divides all too easily exploited. Both countries have suffered from massive government corruption. Saddam Hussein was a viscous, ruthless and cunning dictator. In Afghanistan the Americans backed the Mujaheddin against the Soviet invasion, again showing their complete inability to think long-term, nor to understand the complexities of other lands, especially somewhere like Afghanistan with its multiple languages and nationalities. I remember coming home in a cab about twenty years ago. The cabbie was an Afghani. His wife was a doctor. Nearly nine out of ten doctors in Afghanistan were women then. The first thing the Taliban did when it took over was ban women doctors from treating men. Cue the complete collapse of healthcare in the country. Well played US government for backing a bunch of Medieval headbangers. They might be headbangers but they make great fighters and suicide bombers. They’re all convinced that they’re going to paradise to be with 57 virgins. The government troops on the other hand are the product of a weak, ineffective and deeply corrupt government. Those who join don’t do so with a mission to guard the nation and serve its people.

    In Iraq the torture chambers returned almost before the Americans had pulled out of the barracks and police stations. They left behind a country with many of its cities bombed back to the Stone Age lacking even the most basic infrastructure and torn apart by ethnic and religious divisions. These had been frozen under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship but were under the surface ready to explode when the Americans opened Pandora’s Box. Every single thing that Jaques Chirac said in refusing to involve France has come to pass.

    As for Angola, it was indeed the catalyst for Namibian independence, one person one vote in South Africa and the eventual end of the civil war in Angola itself. It’s not so much that the USA can’t train other armies, it’s that the USA’s political leaders and senior government officials haven’t got a clue what they’re doing. They therefore blunder around like a bull in a china shop.

    October 1, 2015 at 4:15 pm
  • Andre Reply

    What you are professing is B.S.
    Cuba got involved in many wars in South America, Africa and even Grenada as a PROXY ARMY fighting for the USSR, spreading their own interest namely Communism and getting their hands on the natural resources of that country. They got paid by the USSR and got special prices for their sugar cane for their effort. Does that not also define them as mercenaries? This romantic notion of being “Internationalists” by helping “the oppressed” was just a cover for communist expansion.
    In the end the Communists were bankrupted and had to withdraw out of the war and the USSR disintegrated and Cuba turned into the armpit of the Carribian.
    You know,it was facinating to see how the “well disciplined Cubans” and Russians got airlifted out of battles against the South Africans leaving their poor MPLA comrades leaderless!!!

    October 26, 2016 at 3:51 am
  • Declan Hill Reply

    Hi Andre,

    ‘For the South Africans and the mercenaries the Angolan war was not one of survival. It was not for their own country nor for their own lives. Conversely, the Cubans were dumped in the country and told they were not coming home until they won. They had to win or they were going to die.’

    The important point is ‘told they were not coming home until they won’. There is a fair amount of anger in Cuba for the way their soldiers were treated by their top brass Nothing romantic or singing of the Internationale here.

    All good wishes,


    October 26, 2016 at 11:56 am
  • Steve Reply

    I think your theory is simplistic.

    There is, for one thing, a huge difference between Taliban who believe themselves soldiers of God, who will be holy martyrs on their death with all that that entails, and Cubans, who are told that they must fight or win or die.

    For starters, let’s take Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan. They had little hope of rescue if captured; the reigning military ethic of Stalin was, ‘a captured soldier is a traitor’. Therefor the Soviet conscripts on long distance patrols had little hope of being baled out of a bad situation. They’d have to fight and win to live. They often died, enough that after 10 years they decided to cut their losses. The Soviets lost.

    Likewise your vaunted Cubans who fought in Afghanistan, and were defeated there along with their Soviet comrades in arms by the mujahidin.
    In fact, soldiers fighting for Communist government proxy wars probably felt even less personal stake in these battles than many Americans in Vietnam before 1967. At any rate, whether Us, Cuban, South African or Russian forces, few felt the existential call to combat, that heralds heroics on the field.

    Israelis are different, for the simple, glaring reason that they are fighting for the existence of their homeland. The Taliban, al Qaeda jihadis and to some extent (only some extent) IS are likewise fighting an existential battle to the extent they see themselves as representing the natural spread of Islam. They are subservient to jihad, therefor they willingly give their lives for it.

    These things are too complex in terms of myriad factors on the battlefield to boil down to, Cubans: motivated, South Africans: unmotivated. You’ll have to look more closely. Both were equally proxy armies and in neither did the foot soldier feel a great personal reason to fight, as demonstrated by how the Cubans did against the Taliban.

    November 17, 2016 at 10:50 pm
  • Steve Reply

    Actually I have to take back what I said about Cubans fighting in Afghanistan; it seems there weren’t any! I had read about mujahidin claiming to have killed Cubans, probably to impress American reporters.
    That said, I stand by the meat of my argument.

    November 17, 2016 at 11:21 pm
  • Declan Hill Reply

    Dear Steve,

    Your final paragraph sums it up best:

    These things are too complex in terms of myriad factors on the battlefield to boil down to, Cubans: motivated, South Africans: unmotivated. You’ll have to look more closely. Both were equally proxy armies and in neither did the foot soldier feel a great personal reason to fight…

    I agree I am being simplistic. My main point is that the Taliban, etc fight best when defending their own homes. The Americans, UN, etc… are not as good as they should be when invading other people’s countries.

    The ideal would be to do a documentary where South African veterans (truly the forgotten) and Cubans are brought together. The battles were extraordinary: Cuito Cuanavale was the largest in Africa since Rommel’s Days. Now largely ignored.

    If you come across any South African former soldiers please direct them my way. I would be very interested in their perspective. And, of course, if I am wrong – open to being corrected.



    November 18, 2016 at 11:55 am
  • Beans Reply

    Interesting article, however it must be noted that the MPLA employed South African mercenaries very effectively. In the 80s and 90s they invested millions of dollars in Executive Outcomes – the world’s first modern private military company – and it paid off until the UN banned mercenaries in Angola. So it isn’t true that mercenaries were only employed by the west.

    What it really comes down to in the end is popular support. The MPLA were very popular because of their actions against the colonial Portuguese government. They also had a lot more money than their UNITA counterparts, through soviet aid, oil, and diamonds.

    April 23, 2017 at 9:48 am
  • Peter Williams Reply

    The photo of “Cuban soldiers in Angola with local MPLA fighters” is actually South African 32 Battalion!

    March 16, 2019 at 7:15 am

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