`Alexander next marched to the Oxus [Amu] opposite Kilif; where the river was about three-quarters of a mile wide. It was crossed by means of skins stuffed with chaff …. it took in all five days.’
Major-General J.F.C. Fuller, The Generalship of Alexander the Great, 1958.
SOME 2,300 years after Alexander had crossed the Amu a high-ranking American official was examining this river on my map. His interest was focused on that part of it that formed the border between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan, particularly where it meandered for some 500 kilometres across the plain from Badakshan in the east to just beyond Kilif in the west. Then, using Winston Churchill’s famous phrase, coined during World War 2 about Italy, he declared, ‘This is the soft underbelly of the Soviet Union’. William Casey was thus the first person seriously to advocate operations against the Soviets inside their own territory. In his view the ethnic, tribal and religious ties of the people who lived on both sides of this river should be exploited. He was convinced that stirring up trouble in this region would be certain to give the Russian bear a bellyache. He suggested to General Akhtar that perhaps a start could be made by smuggling written propaganda material across, to be followed by arms to encourage local uprisings. Akhtar agreed to consider the written materials, but deliberately did not respond on the explosive issue of weapons.
Thus it was the US that put in train a major escalation of the wat which, over the next three years, culminated in numerous cross-border raids and sabotage missions north of the Amu. During this period we were specifically to train and despatch hundreds of Mujahideen up to 25 kilometres deep inside the Soviet Union. They were probably the most secret and sensitive operations of the war. They only occurred during my time with ISI as, in 1987, an audacious, and successful attack on an industrial site well north of the river caused the water temperature to come perilously close to boiling, which compelled Prime Minister Junejo to halt them. There was, for a short while, real fear among the politicians
that the Soviet Union and Pakistan might go to war. It was a dangerous game. Casey had been correct — we were touching an extremely tender spot.
As I write this the world has witnessed the communist empire crumbling round its edges, including its southern edges. The Kremlin has always been concerned to keep the lid on its ethnic minorities, particularly those who were faithful to Islam. The Afghan border touches three Soviet Republics —Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan; it divides two countries but it does not divide the people (see Map 19). The Turkomens, Uzbeks and Tajiks of Afghanistan share the same culture, history, languages, apprearance and religion with their neighbours a few hundred metres away over the frontier. Moscow’s specific worry was the spread of fundamentalism and its influence on Soviet Central Asian Muslims. This was one of the reasons for the invasion in the first place, to prevent the possibility of a Khomeini-style régime sweeping aside the fledgling communist government in Kabul. It had removed a threat to the Soviet Union’s southern border. This fear of fundamentalism was one that they shared with the US, and which, I believe, was ultimately to prevent an outright military victory for the Mujahideen in 1989.
When Casey studied the map, what did he see? He was looking at a region that had political and economic, as well as military, importance. The Kremlin had no wish to see political instability in the area, no wish to see a religious revival which could not only disrupt the war effort, but might merge with a nationalistic movement aimed at greater autonomy, or even independence. The Soviet military presence in these republics, and in Afghanistan, was also protecting an investment. These southern regions were a rich source of natural gas, oil and minerals for Moscow. Considerable effort had been made to develop these natural resources, to build up an industrial infrastructure, and expand road, rail and air communications.
Over the past three decades the Soviets had used the mask of international aid to explore, identify and map the natural resources of Afghanistan. Their invasion was substantially motivated by the need to seize them. Indeed, within a few months they had stolen millions of dollars worth of precious stones, including 2.2 kilos of uncut emeralds, from government stores. Eighty per cent of all natural gas flowed from the fields around Shibarghan, north over the Amu. Even the metering of the amount was carried out in the Soviet Union, and Soviet officials decided the price they would pay, or rather be credited against Afghanistan’s ‘debt’ to Moscow. As far as I am aware this milking of the Afghan economy continues today.
Southern Central Asia had only belonged to the Soviets for about a hundred years. It was a part of their empire acquired by force, and it still required force to retain it. Modern Termez, the centre of their base of supply for the war, had begun its life as a Russian fort in 1897, but for over 2,000 years before that few Russians had ever ventured that far south. This area,
[Begin Graphic – Map 19]
THE ‘UNDERBELLY’ OF THE SOVIET UNION
[End Graphic – Map 19]
which boasted one of the hottest temperatures recorded in the Soviet Union, 50 degrees centigrade, had seen Alexander’s army when it recrossed the Amu nearby on its return from Samarkand on the march to India. The ancient town of Termez flourished in the first century BC, welcomed Islam from the Arabs, was sacked by Ghengis Khan’s Golden Horde, became a part of Tamerlane’s empire, and was again destroyed at the end of the 17th century.
Into this melting pot of peoples, languages, cultures and Islam the Soviets had recently poured communism and quickly slammed the lid. The Army made sure it stayed shut. Casey had been right. It was an area of great potential for seriously damaging our enemy.
One of the men involved in our campaign of incursions over the Amu from the outset, indeed he later became the Commander of the raid that resulted in our being ordered to halt these operations, was Wali Beg. This is not his real name, as for obvious reasons it is essential for me to conceal his true identity. Wali Beg is an Uzbek, 53 years old but looks older, with a beard nearer to white than grey. He used to be a farmer and had a wife, two sons and a daughter. Now he has lost all his close family, and lives the life of a crippled carpet maker in a refugee camp in Pakistan. His original home was one of the tiny, long-since-destroyed villages on the south bank of the river in Kunduz Province. His house was only minutes walk from the water. It was also not far from the old Afghan river port of Sherkhan, which the Soviets had recently developed into a fuel storage area. A bridge now straddles the river at Sherkhan. This is a new structure, as trade and people had crossed the Amu for centuries in boats and barges at ferry crossing places. Wali remembers going over as a boy with his father to meet relatives and friends on the far side. Sometimes these people would visit his family. They would cross on flat-bottomed boats, towed by two swimming horses attached to outriggers. The horses were guided by the ferryman, and were partially supported in the water by the outriggers. By such means large loads of men and goods could be moved slowly across.
Wali’s background is typical of millions of Afghans. Islam had dominated his village life, with the mosque as the centre of all social organization. Only boys received any education, and that was in the mosque school, where Wali had learned to read a little, and learned a lot of verses and prayers from the Holy Koran. At the age of ten he became a herdsman and fed the animals. In rural Afghanistan every family, except the very poorest, has a few animals: a donkey, or preferably a horse, for transport, a cow for milking and calves, an ox to make up a yoke with neighbours, and a few goats or sheep. At fifteen he learned to plough.
Wali told me that his wife had been selected for him when she was still an infant. When she was fourteen they were married without his ever having seen her face, although relatives had told him she was pretty. Marriage was
for the production of children. Most young women in those days expected to have a child every two years, although many died in infancy. Instances of one woman having sixteen children, of whom only five or six reached adulthood, are not unknown. Allah blessed Wali with four children, of whom two sons and a daughter lived.
Wall grew up beside the Amu, so over the years he acquired an extensive knowledge of his area. He knew the river, the tracks leading to it, the reed swamps that clogged its banks, and its twists and turns and tributary streams. He knew the strength of the current, he knew the river in flood, and in the winter when the water was at its lowest. He knew the little sandy islands that sometimes split the sluggish flow.
With the Soviet invasion Wali’s life was devastated. His sons had joined the Mujahideen, but the youngest, a boy of seventeen, was soon Shaheed in fighting along the Kunduz-Baghlan road. The eldest simply disappeared. To Wali this indicated arrest, infinitely worse than an honourable death in the Jehad. When I talked with Wali he was convinced his boy was dead, but it was the probable manner of his dying that consumed him. The tortures his son would have had to bear before death had released him made Wali’s hatred of the Soviets totally merciless. The bombing of his village while he was in Kunduz had killed his daughter, so he and his wife had fled to Pakistan via Chitral. Within a few months she had succumbed to malaria. For our purpose Wali’s knowledge of the border region, coupled with his oath of vengeance taken against the Soviets, made him an ideal Mujahid to carry the war over the Amu.
I had several options in attacking the Soviets in their own country. I could start with tentative incursions to distribute propaganda and to sound out how receptive the people would be to assisting with sabotage or other missions. Then I could confine our activities to firing into Soviet territory from inside Afghanistan, or sink barges and steamers on the river. Finally, I could send teams over the river to carry out rocket attacks, mine-laying, derailment of trains or ambushes. It was decided to start with the renewal of contacts, together with the distribution propaganda to test the water before anything more adventurous.
Casey had suggested sending books, and I had discussions on this with a CIA psychological warfare expert who recommended several books describing Soviet atrocities against Uzbeks. He was himself an Uzbek who had been working with the CIA since 1948. Although we agreed to use these books, our inclination was to send in copies of the Holy Koran that had been translated into Soviet Uzbek. We persuaded the CIA to obtain 10,000 copies.
While these were being printed we called in a number of Commanders and other suitable persons, including Wali, from the northern provinces. They were carefully screened, briefed to make contacts over the Amu and report
back on whether the Holy Koran would be welcome, and whether some of the people would be willing to assist any future operations by giving information on Soviet troops movements, industrial installations, or act as guides. Later Wali explained to me how he had made his first trip in the late spring of 1984.
He decided to make for a village that he had last visited about ten years previously, as there was a good chance one or two of the families he knew would still be there. It was not safe to cross near Sherkhan, with its busy Soviet port of Nizhniy Pyandzh on the opposite bank, so he chose a quieter area where the river made several loops, and there were large expanses of jungle and reeds before reaching the bank. It would need to be a night crossing as he knew there were border security posts, and possibly patrols by day. Because of the distance he could not manhandle a boat, so it would mean swimming at least 600 metres, possibly more, as the Amu was full of icy water from melting snows. Wali had killed a goat, dried its skin and inflated it. He intended to cross as Alexander’s soldiers had done.
He had set off after dark carrying his goatskin. Within two hours he hit the reeds and swamp on the south bank, which slowed progress and were noisy. When he finally reached the river he could dimly see the land opposite only about 300 metres away. He was in luck — only a short swim. In fact he only had to swim for about half the distance, with the goatskin easily taking the weight of his body. The ground on the far side was flat and sandy, but after walking for some time he came to the river again. For a moment Wali had been perplexed, surely he had not walked in a circle. The channel in front of him was barely 100 metres across. Then it struck him; he had been on an island. Although he did not know it, the boundary between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union ran through the island, so he was now in hostile territory. Another short swim, followed by a two-hour walk brought him to the houses of the village he sought: The first grey streaks of dawn were on the horizon when Wali quietly dropped on his knees, bent forward to touch the sand with his forehead, offering his thanks to Allah for his mercy so far.
Wali spent two days in the village, much of the time out in the fields as a shepherd with his friends and their sheep. His report was entirely favourable. His contacts would welcome copies of the Holy Koran, and, yes, they would pass them on. Two men had asked for rifles, but Wali had not been able to agree to this at this stage. Perhaps later, if things developed well, weapons would follow; for the moment information on which to plan, and a willingness to provide guides or shelter was all that was needed.
Wali’s two days in the field were most revealing. There was a busy 25-kilometre road running NE between Nizhniy Pyandzh and the town of Dusti. Close to Dusti was an airfield. An overhead electric pylon line followed the road, upon which there was considerable traffic, including many
military vehicles. Dusti had a Soviet garrison, and Wali’s friends were certain military planes used the airfield. They told him of a railway line that linked Dusti with the riverside town of Pyandzh some 40 kilometres upriver from where Wali had crossed. This railway had a road paralleling it all the way, and was protected by border posts at regular intervals as it came close to the river for much of its length.
Wali was one of the dozens of Mujahideen who ventured across the river over a period of several months in 1984. Most of them brought back similarly encouraging news. We duly received the Holy Korans and the other books and began to take them over in batches of 100-300 at a time in small rubber boats, or Zodiacs (eight-man wooden recce boats) with small outboard engines. The latter were not popular as they were too noisy. The CIA had provided the boats but could not oblige with the specially silenced outboards that we had requested. About 5,000 Holy Korans were distributed, but the atrocity novels did not have much appeal. I was impressed by the number of reports of people wanting to assist. Some wanted weapons, some wanted to join the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, and others to participate in operations inside the Soviet Union.
We were now in a position to start raising the water temperature.
By 1985 it became obvious that the US had got cold feet. I had asked for more Holy Korans and large-scale maps of the Soviet Union up to 30 kilometres north of the border, on which to plan our incursions, but, while the Holy Korans were no problem, I was told no maps could be provided. It was not that their satellites were not taking the pictures, they were, but somebody at the top in the American administration was getting frightened. From then on we got no information on what was happening north of the Amu from the CIA. They produced detailed maps of anywhere we asked in Afghanistan, but when the sheet covered a part of the Soviet Union, that part was always blank (see Map 20). The CIA, and others, gave us every encouragement unofficially to take the war into the Soviet Union, but they were careful not to provide anything that might be traceable to the US. They quoted some article, which I do not remember, for their sudden inability to help in this respect.
The Afghanistan border with the Soviet Union is over 2,000 kilometres long. For more than half this distance it is the Amu River, but in the west the frontier is merely an erratic line across the desert and barren rocks of southern Turkmenistan to Iran. From my point of view, in selecting suitable Soviet targets, the border divided itself neatly into three. In the east, from Takhar Province to the eastern tip of the Wakhan peninsula where Afghanistan and China briefly touch each other, the border snakes its way through deep mountain gorges. The Wakhan was part of the roof of the world with towering, lofty, icy peaks over 20,000 feet high. Population was
[Begin Graphic – Map 20]
THE CIA MAP OF SHERKHAN
[End Graphic – Map 20]
sparse, all the valleys cut off for months on end in the winter, and even in the less inhospitable Badakshan further west there were few worthwhile targets near the border.
Similarly, the western half of the frontier crossed arid land. Only around Kushka (see Map 9), which was the base of supply for the Soviet forces in the extreme west of Afghanistan, were there installations worth attacking.
It was the central 500 kilometres, from Kilif in the west to north of Faizabad in the east, that was the ‘underbelly’ that Casey had described. Throughout 1984 I had expended much time and effort in boosting the Mujahideen activities in the northern provinces. I had persuaded General Akhtar of their importance and managed to increase the allocation of heavier weapons to the more effective Commanders in this area. The problems were largely ones of distance and time. Winter closed our main supply route from Chitral, so much forward planning was necessary to get large convoys to the Mujahideen operational bases facing the Amu. A minor operation would take up to six months to plan and execute, while a major one would need nine. For this reason it was not until 1986 that our campaign started to be effective.
As the optimistic reports came in of contacts anxious to help I had many discussions with my staff as to how we should start bear-baiting in earnest. We decided on a cautious and gradual campaign of incursions, but spread out over a wide area. Depending on our success rate, we could increase the frequency and depth of the penetrations, although I had to assess the Soviet reaction with great care, as I had no wish to provoke a direct confrontation.
First, there was the river itself. There had always been a brisk trade both along and across the river. Now, with the Amu acting as the forward edge of the Soviet supply base, the traffic across had increased fivefold. All the Soviet freight in trucks and trains headed for the river. The choke points were the crossing places, mainly the bridges at Sherkhan and Hairatan (Termez). This latter was a newly built, 1000-metre long iron bridge over the Amu, about 12 kilometres west of Termez. Opened in June, 1982, it had been named the ‘Friendship Bridge’, and was the first road and rail link between the two countries. Built at a cost of 34 million roubles, this bridge was expected greatly to speed up the movement of goods and had greatly strengthened the Soviets’ strategic position. It had enabled the Soviets to establish, for the first time, a railhead on the south side of the Amu. Hairatan was expanded as a port to handle the bulk of the river trade. The bridge marked the start of the Salang Highway on its long journey to Kabul. In addition to the road and rail it also carried the oil pipeline, and as such was second only to the Salang Tunnel as a critical congestion point on the Soviets’ main line of communication.
I started the long process of planning, with the aim of blowing this bridge, in early 1985. I asked the CIA to provide technical advice. They cooperated to the extent of recommending the type and amount of charges needed,
where they should be placed, also details of the current, flow and best time of year to destroy it. The expert favoured a summer attack, with a minimum of two spans, preferably three, collapsing. The actual operation would need to be an underwater demolition mission by night. The CIA did not, however, give us good photographs of the bridge; for these we had to rely on the amateur efforts of local Commanders. It was they who also reported on the security arrangements. These consisted of sentries and a company post on the Afghan side, plus an APC on permanent duty. We could identify the guard posts at the Soviet end. I went ahead with ordering all the equipment from the CIA. I called for a Commander to bring a team for special underwater demolition training at a suitable dam inside Afghanistan, but, in late 1985, the operation was called off. General Akhtar had explained what was to happen to the President who had vetoed it immediately. He was worried that its success might trigger a series of sabotage attacks on key bridges inside Pakistan. Personally, I did not consider this likely, but I could not argue. Once again I was thwarted in my efforts to hit the two main Salang Highway bottlenecks — the tunnel and the bridge.
Barges and boats were easier, although the high level of activity and security near crossing places meant that these attacks needed to be covert, and therefore during darkness. We required limpet mines that a small recce boat or a swimmer could carry, which could be clamped to the side of the boat just below the water line. For these we turned to the British, via MI-6. They obliged, and it was the UK’s small, but effective, contribution to destroying a number of loaded barges on the Soviet side of the Amu throughout 1986. Others were sunk by recoiless rifle fire from positions in the reeds and swamps near the south bank.
Because the Americans declined to provide maps or photographs of Soviet territory I was hampered in selecting targets both for rocket attacks from inside Afghanistan and for the Mujahideen raiding parties crossing the river. I had to rely on information brought back from operations, such as Wali Beg had provided after his first mission. During 1986 some fifteen Commanders were specially trained in Pakistan for these operations. In particular we concentrated on derailment. A massive amount of freight came down the rail link from Samarkand to Termez, but there was also a link line that hugged the northern bank of the Amu, which was within striking distance. We did succeed with several such attacks, but two large-scale operations failed when the Soviets reacted quickly to cut off the invaders. I am certain they had been forewarned.
Commanders were issued with 107mm Chinese single-barreled rocket launchers (SBRLs) and 122mm Egyptian rocket launchers, with ranges of nine and eleven kilometres respectively, which meant they could set up their firing positions well south of the river, and still bring down effective fire inside the Soviet Union. Teams went across to hit border posts, lay anti-tank
and anti-personnel mines on the tracks between posts, and to knock down power lines. Despite the CIA’s advice to the contrary, as they were worried they might fall into Soviet hands, we positioned several Stingers in the north, close to the Amu. On one occasion, in December, 1986, some thirty Mujahideen crossed in rubber boats near the base of the Wakhan panhandle to attack two hydro-electric power stations in Tajikistan. This raid involved an assault on two small Soviet guard posts, during which some eighteen Muslim soldiers surrendered and joined the Jehad. It was later reported that a number were subsequently Shaheed in Afghanistan.
There were many operations launched from the Hazrat Imam district in Kunduz Province, the area from which Wali Beg came. An attractive target that came under rocket attack was the small Soviet town of Pyandzh, set among the cotton fields within a hundred metres of the north bank of the Amu. The attraction was the airfield on the northern edge of the town, which was in frequent use by military planes and helicopters launching retaliatory strikes at villages around Kunduz.
Just to the west of where Wali first crossed the Amu on his goatskin is Sherkhan river port, with its Soviet twin of Nizhniy Pyandzh on the far side (see Map 21). The main road from Kunduz comes north until it almost hits the river at Sherkhan village before swinging west for the 5-kilometre run to the port facilities. It used to be a busy ferry crossing point, but the Soviets built a pontoon bridge to take a road that has two branches leaving Nizhniy Pyandzh. One goes NE to Dusti, while the other goes NW, before turning back to become the river road that follows the north bank of the Amu all the way to Termez and beyond. The importance of this facility to the Soviets was that the road fed the 201st MRD at Kunduz, and then joined the Salang Highway at their main fuel and vehicle depot Pul-i-Khumri.
I was keen that the Sherkhan/Nizhniy Pyandzh fuel storage complex came under attack. The fuel was stored in tanks and open storage areas on both sides of the river, and there was barrack accommodation for the Soviet border security unit near the northern end of the pontoon bridge. The layout of the area on Map 20 shows it exactly as I was given it by the CIA, with all the territory north of the river blank. I had to pinpoint potential targets and other features from Mujahideen sources, and then try to locate them on the map. The concentric circles were drawn to assist the Commander in estimating the range to his chosen target. Using this map, and the Commanders’ local knowledge, it was not difficult to select a series of alternative firing positions for his rocket launchers. The river, streams, tracks, houses, swamp and road were known to him, and he could point out likely positions and approaches to them on my map. We could then give him the various bearings and ranges from each position to each target. This was important, as few Mujahideen could read a map, but provided we supplied the technical data for firing, they were able to get good results.
In this instance we highlighted the facilities in Nizhniy Pyandzh (the blank area just north of the bridge), emphasizing that so long as the rocket launcher was located within the 7-kilometre circle he would be certain to be in range of the targets in the Soviet Union. The Commander was given complete discretion as to which target he engaged, from which firing position, and when he carried out his attacks. For example, we might ask that he did so once a week for two months, but nothing more specific. Within six weeks of our briefing the Commander at Peshawar, rockets started to rain down on Nizhniy Pyandzh.
These cross-border strikes were at their peak during 1986. Scores of attacks were made across the Amu from Jozjan to Badakshan Provinces. Sometimes Soviet citizens joined in these operations, or came back into Afghanistan to join the Mujahideen. As I have mentioned above, in at least one instance some Soviet soldiers deserted to us. That we were hitting a sore spot was confirmed by the ferocity of the Soviets’ reaction. Virtually every incursion provoked massive aerial bombing and gunship attacks on all villages south of the river in the vicinity of our strike. These were punitive missions, with no other purpose than razing houses, killing people and forcing the survivors to flee, thus creating a belt of ‘scorched earth’ along the Amu, from which it would hopefully prove impossible for the Mujahideen to operate. Their aim was sufficiently to demoralize the population to halt our incursions.
In so far as destroying villages, killing women and children and driving survivors into Pakistani refugee camps were concerned, the Soviets succeeded. But if stopping our attacks or weakening the Mujahideen resolve were their objectives, they failed. We continued to bait the bear until April, 1987, when Soviet diplomatic reaction rather than military, sufficiently frightened Pakistani politicians into ordering us to stop. Perhaps our April attacks were just that much over-ambitious and represented too deep a cut in the Soviet anatomy.
During late 1986 we made tentative plans to continue operations inside the Soviet Union the following spring. With this in mind Commanders were trained, briefed and supplied with the necessary weapons and ammunition before winter set in. In April we hoped to start the offensive with three slightly more ambitious attacks. The first involved a heavy rocket attack on an airfield called Shurob East, some 25 kilometres NW of Termez, near the Soviet village of Gilyambor. It was not a major airfield, but it was in use, and lay only 3 kilometres north of the river, so the firing positions could be in Afghanistan. In early April this bombardment was successfully completed, with the airstrip being engaged several times over a period of ten days.
The second attack involved a party of twenty men armed with RPGs and anti-tank mines, tasked with ambushing the frontier road east of Termez, between that town and the Tajikistan border. They were to lay the mines
[Begin Graphic – Map 21]
WALI BEG’S INCURSION INTO THE SPVIET UNION
[End Graphic – Map 21]
between two security posts, wait for some vehicles to hit the mines, then open fire and withdraw. In the event three soft-skinned Soviet vehicles drove along the road at night, one hit a mine and the two others were destroyed by RPG rounds. Several Soviet soldiers were reported killed or injured, the nearby post opened up with mortar and machine-gun fire, and the Mujahideen pulled back over the Amu. This was followed by the third, and most ambitious, mission which penetrated some 20 kilometres north of the Amu, and struck an industrial target close to the airfield at Voroshilovabad (see Map 21). This was Wali Beg’s operation.
By 1986 Wei was a commander in his own right, with operational control over about 300 men. He had been inside the Soviet Union five times since his first reconnaissance mission in 1984. The area I had chosen for him was the large region between the Amu, north of Sherkhan, and the Soviet town of Kurgan Tyube. It was a well developed area with no less than nine airfields, industrial facilities, railway depots, and power stations (see Map 21). It was full of potential targets and I was hoping that Wali would be able to get much deeper inside than we had managed previously. Not that I was able to be specific as to what to expect, or exactly where he would find a worthwhile objective. The only guidelines I could give him were to go in on a long reconnaissance, make contact with his friends, then find a suitable target, firing positions and routes in and out. The detailed planning I left to Wall, who I had come to respect as a shrewd tactician.
He took two Mujahideen with him in early April. All three crossed the Amu in a small recce boat, not far from his first crossing place nearly three years earlier. After a night at his friend’s house they were taken up into the hills behind the village to graze sheep. Leaving one man to tend the animals, Wali and his comrade set off north with the guide. He had a compass and binoculars, and wanted to reach a good position from which to observe the plain below him to the west. It was a clear spring morning. They would see the road from Pyandzh to Kurgan Tyube about 5 kilometres from the hills on which they stood. Even at this early hour there was some military traffic. They walked fast for several hours, keeping to the goat and sheep trails, until they had covered some 12 kilometres, and were overlooking the centre of the plain east of Kolkhozabad. They had only met a few shepherds, to whom their guide shouted a greeting as they passed.
Wall and his companions had no map, neither did they know the names of the Soviet industrial areas, factories or airfields that were scattered over the cotton-growing plain below them. Wali needed to find a target, one that he would be able to get within 9 kilometres of by night, and then withdraw from hurriedly while it was still dark. He slowly scanned the area through his binoculars. He could see vehicles on the road about 7 kilometers from his position, and near that what had to be a small airstrip upon which a light aircraft had just landed. Beyond, but close to the airfield, were a cluster of
high chimneys belching black smoke. In front of the airfield, by the road, and on the far side of it, were several long, greyish buildings with a number of shorter chimneys, with more smoke – a factory of some sort. Wall took a bearing. From the spur on which he stood, the factory, airfield and high chimneys were more or less lined up on 283 degrees. The range to the factory? Hard to be sure, but not more than 9 and not less than 7 kilometres. However, it was spread over a largish area, with what seemed to be a lot of industrial-type buildings in the vicinity of the factory. If he missed the factory there was still a good chance of hitting something worthwhile. It would suffice. The firing position was easy, it could be anywhere on the spur on which he stood. Wali and his companions hurried home, rechecking the route as they went, noting the landmarks and timing themselves over the distance. They were back well before dusk – a round trip of eight hours.
Like most military commanders, Waifs problems were largely centred on getting to and from the target. The actual firing was the easy part. It was a question of time and space. He would need to go lightly armed, with only personal weapons and two Chinese-made 107mm SBRLs. These were ideal. With a range of 9 kilometres, they could each be manpacked by two men, one carrying the biped, the other the barrel. Wali considered taking only one, but the thought of it failing at the crucial moment convinced him to play it safe. He wanted to fire up to thirty rockets, which, at one per man, meant a total force of at least thirty-four men.
With four recce boats, he would need one night to get his men and weapons across the Amu and safely into a scrub-covered gully in the hills beyond his contact’s village. They would shelter in the gully that day and set off immediately it got dark at around 7.00 pm. That would give him 11 hours to do the job and return, walking at night carrying the SBRLs, rockets and rifles. By day it had taken eight, so it was cutting it a bit fine, but if they stopped an hour before dawn to fmd a suitable hide it should be enough. He was certain they would have to wait another day in the hills before re-crossing the river on the third night.
The operation went ahead in mid-April. After pre-positioning the recce boats in the reeds near the river bank the night before, Wali and his men crossed over and were met by their guide. He safely led them between the Soviet border posts up into their hide in the hills. A sweltering day was spent under blankets and rocks in a small gully, trying to sleep, occasionally nibbling at nan bread, or drinking a little water from chugals (water bottles).
It took five hours hard marching to reach the firing position. The night sky was lit by myriad stars, while the plain below sparkled with hundreds of electric lights. Both SBRLs were set up with fifteen rockets apiece. Wali took his bearing, then went to each launcher to check the setting. He
adjusted the elevation to give a range of 8 kilometres on one launcher and 7.5 on the other, to give himself a better chance of hitting the factory with at least some of the rockets.
`Allah o Akbar – Fire’. With their distinctive whoosh and roar two rockets soared up in their graceful arcs. All eyes followed the trails until they both plunged out of sight into the blackness, the white flash of the final explosions just visible for a split second. Wali had included ten smoke rockets, for their incendiary properties, with the HE, as he hoped to set some buildings on fire. Now both launchers fired indepedently until all the rockets had gone, while Wali peered through his binoculars at the impact area. Something was burning over there, but Wall did not wait to watch for more than a few minutes, just long enough to know the strike was successful.
The journey back to the hide was uneventful. As Wali had anticipated, they did not have sufficient darkness left to cross the river, so spent a second day crouched among the boulders and scrub. From there they saw the start of the Soviet reaction. Within an hour of daybreak gunships and fighter bombers swarmed south over the Amu to pound the area around Imam Sahib and the high ground beyond. All day the planes flew back and forth, blasting every village, every valley that might conceal Mujahideen – not that the already ruined buildings housed more than a handful of people. By 1987 they had long gone to Pakistan, Kunduz or Kabul. The planes kept coming for a week. Wali’s cut into the ‘soft underbelly’ had been deep and the bear’s roar of rage was loud and long.
It was the next night, after recrossing the river, when the party was making its way round Imam Sahib that disaster struck. Unbeknown to the Mujahideen, the Soviet helicopters had been dropping hundreds of anti-personnel mines, mostly of the ‘butterfly’ type. They took their name from the little wings they had, which enabled them to flutter gently down without tumbling. Coloured brown or green, these vicious mines blended with the soil or rocks and could easily remove the foot of the unwary. This is what happened to Wall. A flash, a bang, and Wali collapsed with his left foot hanging by a piece of tendon and skin. A quick tourniquet with a piece of cord, a quick cut with a sharp knife to remove the foot before the numbing effect of the injury wore off was the best his companions could do; then a blanket tied to rifles as a stretcher, followed by the long, agonizing trek into the hills. They were hounded from the air for six days, during which four more men were wounded. Wall would have preferred to die. He would have been a Shaheed; he would have joined his family; Allah the Merciful would surely have welcomed him. Now, he was a cripple with nothing to live for. He could not even continue to kill Soviets.
Somehow, even though the will to live had gone, even though it was several weeks before he could be brought on horseback to Pakistan for proper attention, Wali survived. It was several weeks after I had left the Army that
I heard the full story of his raid into the Soviet Union from Wall himself, as he sat learning to make carpets in a camp not far from Peshawar. Had he been a regular soldier Wall would have received a high decoration for his leadership that day. As it was, he was content to know that his attack had been too successful, too damaging and too daring.
By one of those strange twists of fate 25 April, 1987, the date that brought the Soviet Ambassador in Islamabad to our Foreign Minister’s office, was the same day that the Army Promotion Board declined to promote me to major-general.
Wall’s attack had caused considerable damage and inflicted a number of Soviet casualties, although I was never able to establish exactly how many. The smoke rockets had started a fire which had consumed several buildings, but it was the suddenness, the ferocity and the distance (about 20 kilometres) inside the Soviet Union that was so galling to the enemy. It was the third successful attack within three weeks, and the Soviet Ambassador had been instructed by Moscow to use whatever language necessary to get future attacks halted immediately.
Our Foreign Minister, Sahibzada Yaqoob, was left in no doubt that if any further operation was conducted in the Soviet Union the consequences for the security and integrity of Pakistan would be dire. It was a threat of outright attack by the Soviet military. That they used this threat was itself confirmation that our raids were hurting. They were concerned, not so much with the actual damage caused, but by the effect they were having on the local Muslim population. If the attacks were to continue unchecked it might not be long before they had a general uprising on their hands. There was panic in our Foreign Office. The Prime Minister was informed that Pakistan might be on the brink of war, so he at once ordered General Gul, who had recently replaced General Akhtar at ISI, to cease all such operations at once.
Gul contacted me late at night in Peshawar, where I had gone to plan some operations with the Military Committee, telling me to halt these incursions immediately. I responded that it was impossible. I was not in communication with all the Commanders involved, and to pass on this order would take time. This infuriated Gul, whose head would roll if the Prime Minister’s instructions were not obeyed, so he insisted that I confirm to him that these activities had been halted by the morning. I could only repeat that it was impossible, but I added that if any did take place no Commander or Party would claim the credit. I told him I would endeavour to pass the message by the quickest means. I myself felt that calling them all off indefinitely was too hasty, as we would lose the momentum. When I returned to Islamabad I tried to convince General Gulof the tremendous advantages of such operations. I did not want to abandon our contacts and stop everything, just when we were obviously hurting the Soviets. Of course, I spoke as a soldier,
not a politician, and I knew there was no way the Pakistan Army could meet an all-out Soviet ground attack, but I believed they were bluffmg.
Even the CIA was shaken. The local chief told me, ‘Please don’t start a third world war by conducting these operations inside Soviet territory’. There were no more. Looking back I believe I was right; the Soviets would never have launched an invasion of Pakistan. Within a few months they had agreed to withdraw from Afghanistan, so I do not see how Gorbachev would ever have escalated the conflict and brought the world to the brink of a world war. It was surely the last thing he wanted. I must acknowledge my limited wisdom in this matter, but I feel that had General Akhtar still been in the chair at ISI he would have allowed such operations to continue, but at a lower key.
Be that as it may, these attacks remain for me the high point of my career with ISI. My bureau was the only military headquarters in over 40 years to have planned and coordinated military operations inside the communist superpower. The great majority were successful; they wounded the bear and they proved the effectiveness of well-led guerrilla attacks to be out of all proportion to their size. That the small-scale raids by such Commanders as Wall Beg could influence the councils in the Kremlin was of itself a singular reward.