‘There were 58,000 [US] dead in Vietnam and we owe the Russians
one…. I have a slight obsession with it because of Vietnam. I
thought the Soviets ought to get a dose of it.’
Congressman Charles Wilson, formerly an avid supporter of US assistance to the
Mujahideen, as quoted in the Daily Telegraph, 14 January 1985.
I ARRANGED Wilson’s visit into Afghanistan in 1987. It was something he had always wanted to do, as he had been an energetic and persuasive spokesman for the Mujahideen cause inside the House of Representatives for a number of years. He had proved a good supporter of the Jehad, and was well known to President Zia, to whom he had casually let slip that he was going inside Afghanistan. Zia, who was not aware that this had been arranged, kept a straight face but later sought out General Akhtar and forbade it. He did so for political reasons, in case news of it were to leak, and because of the slight risk of his becoming a casualty, or, much worse, taken prisoner. Zia wanted the water warm, not boiling hot. Wilson had also arrived with a lady friend who he had hoped would accompany him, but this would have proved embarrassing and risky to arrange.
Wilson had arranged his visit directly with Khalis’ Party, and we were unaware of it, as was the President. Although Zia vetoed the visit, he was adamant that Wilson should not know that he, or ISI, had prevented it. We concocted a plan whereby Wilson be allowed to approach the border, and then be stopped by Mujahideen on the pretext of inter-tribal fighting in the vicinity. This worked, and I went to Peshawar to escort him back to Islamabad. When he saw General Akhtar he was told that if he came back secretly arrangements would be made to get him into Afghanistan. Wilson duly returned and visited the Mujahideen base at Zhawar, some five kilometres into Afghanistan, opposite Miram Shah (see Map 1). There he enjoyed himself, being photographed on a white pony dressed as a Mujahideen, with a bandolier of bullets across his chest. He was most excited when he came under spasmodic shellfire, although nothing landed closer than 200 metres. Because we had several Stingers with us we tried to tempt
a helicopter to come within range, as the Mujahideen wanted to show off their skill, and Wilson was equally enthusiastic to see one brought down. Unfortunately, they kept well away. On his return he was furious that the US Embassy had, somewhat thoughtlessly, arranged for him to fly home via Moscow. He made a monumental fuss and refused to board the aircraft, so another flight had to be found for him. I still have his letter of thanks for this covert trip to the war.
I mention this now because Wilson epitomized the attitude of many American officials that I met that Afghanistan must be made into a Soviet Vietnam. The Soviets had kept the Viet-Cong supplied with the hardware to fight and kill Americans, so the US would now do the same for the Mujahideen so they could kill Soviets. This view was similarly prevalent among CIA officers including, particularly, the Director, William Casey. I could see they were deeply resentful of their failure to win in Vietnam, which had been a major military defeat for the world’s leading superpower. To me, getting their own back seemed to be the primary reason for the US backing the war with so much money. I have no doubt that the State Department had many valid strategic and political reasons for US support, but I am merely emphasizing that many American officials appeared to regard it as a God-given opportunity to kill Soviets, without any US lives being endangered. General Akhtar agreed with them that the war could be turned into a Soviet Vietnam. He had convinced the President it was entirely feasible, and now it was my job to see it carried out.
Certainly it seemed there were numerous similarities between the two wars. At the political level both involved superpowers fighting in a foreign country on the Asian continent; in both cases they fought to prop up a government that was corrupt and unpopular with the majority of the population; in both Vietnam and Afghanistan huge, modern, conventional forces fought, at least initially, a guerrilla force; and in both instances the superpower fatally underestimated their enemy, considering, at the outset, speedy victory within their grasp.
Strategically the terrain favoured the guerrillas in both countries, with the jungle-covered mountains of Vietnam, and the high, barren, rocky mountains of Afghanistan providing refuge and cover from the air to the insurgents. Both the US and Soviet Union relied heavily on airpower to compensate for their inability to meet their enemies on equal terms on the ground. For the conventional armies it was primarily a defensive war on land, with each trying to retain control over cities, communication centres, towns and strategic military bases, leaving the rural areas to the guerrillas. Both wars saw the use of terror and the indiscriminate bombing of villages which were supposedly sheltering the enemy. The guerrillas in Vietnam could obtain reinforcements, supplies and sanctuary across the borders in Laos and Cambodia, while the Mujahideen sought the same in Pakistan.
At the tactical level the superpowers depended heavily on firepower, rather than infantry manpower, to destroy their elusive opponents. Both re-learned the lesson that this tactic on its own does not defeat the guerrilla. The Americans coined a new military phrase, search and destroy, which became synonymous with surrounding a village or locality, then pounding it from the air and ground, irrespective of who was inside the cordon. Afterwards, there was a body count and the units claimed another victory. The Soviets copied this type of haphazard slaughter with great zeal, although they were not so adept at the cordoning. Neither America nor the Soviet Union could have survived as long as they did without the helicopter; but even then this wonder weapon could not give either the victory they sought. The attitudes of the soldiery of both superpowers developed along remarkably similar lines. Both were largely conscript armies, whose men fought with great reluctance — in order to survive. They had no interest in the war, no cause with which they could relate. This resulted in poor performance, particularly at small-unit level. Morale dropped alarmingly, and many resorted to alcohol or drugs in order to forget. With the Americans it led to widespread ‘combat refusals’, and over a thousand cases of fragging (soldiers murdering their own officers). With certain notable exceptions, the average US and Soviet infantryman proved, at best mediocre, at worst useless. It was the inevitable result of their governments expecting reluctant conscript troops to fight in a war in which they could see no purpose.
Interestingly, the career officers of both armies saw the war differently from their men. It was, for them, an opportunity to further their careers. Many did this, ‘punching their ticket’ with (for the Americans) a six-month tour to gain combat experience. Something like 60,000 Soviet officers went through the Afghanistan war, thus qualifying for the ‘Afghan Brotherhood’, membership of which was so often rewarded with promotion and medals.
I was now cast in the role of overall guerrilla leader. I ran over in my mind the recognized criteria normally necessary for an armed resistance movement to succeed: first, a loyal people who would support the effort at great risk to themselves, a local population, the majority of whom would supply shelter, food, recruits and information. The Afghan people in the thousands of rural villages met this requirement. Second, the need for the guerrilla to believe implicitly in his cause, for him to be willing to sacrifice himself completely to achieve victory. The Afghans had Islam. They fought a Jehad, they fought to protect their homes and families. Third, favourable terrain. With over two-thirds of Afghanistan covered by inhospitable mountains known only to the local people, I had no doubts about this. Fourth, a safe haven — a secure base area to which the guerrilla could withdraw to refit and rest without fear of attack. Pakistan provided the Mujahideen with such a sanctuary. Fifth, and possibly most important of
all, a resistance movement needs outside backers, who will not only represent his cause in international councils, but are a bountiful source of funds. The US and Saudi Arabia certainly fulfilled this role. General Akhtar had been right; the ingredients for military victory were all there. I needed to give careful thought to where, and how, to apply the thousand cuts to bring down the bear.
It was important for me to understand the military geography of Afghanistan and how it related to the bases and lines of communication of both sides (see Map 6). No army, not even a guerrilla one, can fight a prolonged campaign without bases with lines of communication leading from them to the troops in the field. There are two types of base — the main strategic base of supply and the operational bases. The main bases of supply in this case were the Soviet Republics of southern Central Asia, from the borders of Iran in the west to China in the east, and for the Mujahideen the western border areas of Pakistan. Behind these frontiers were the depots, stares, training camps, main ammunition dumps, staging areas and, in the case of the Soviets, airfields that supplied the forces in Afghanistan. In both cases they had so far been immune from serious attack. Units could return for resting and refitting, and reinforcements could assemble unhindered. These were extremely long frontiers, each stretching several thousand kilometres. The Pakistan — Afghanistan border was mountainous for 90 per cent of its length, and in western Baluchistan there was desert. This frontier followed bleak and formidable barriers. Because of the excessive length of both borders, these bases of supply were developed around two towns in each country. In the Soviet Union Termez saw 75 per cent of supplies destined for Afghanistan pass through it, while the remainder went via Kushka. For the Mujahideen, Peshawar was the centre of their supply organization, with Quetta the secondary one in the south.
Operational bases were different. They were tactical bases inside Afghanistan, upon which formations or units were dependent for their immediate battlefield needs on a day-to-day basis. They were also usually the locations at which the units were stationed, and from which they sallied out on operations. After a sweep operation the Soviets would normally withdraw to their operational base; similarly, the Mujahideen would retire to their local base area after an ambush or rocket attack. For the Soviets the main operational bases were the larger cities and airfields such as Kabul, Bagram, Kunduz, Jalalabad, Shindand, Kandahar, and the newly built depot just south of Pul-i-Khumri. The Mujahideen used the hundreds of small villages and valleys scattered all over Afghanistan. Every Commander had his operational base.
A secure base of supply in which you can stockpile all the necessary weapons of war is useless unless the items can be delivered to the units in the field. For that lines of communication are essential. They are the arteries
[Begin Graphic – Map 6]
Soviet and Mujahideen Supply Routes and Bases
[End Graphic – Map 6]
and veins of an army. Just as a human heart pumps blood along these veins to all parts of the body, so a strategic base must pump supplies to all parts of an army. Block a minor road for a short period and a unit is inconvenienced until the route is cleared, just as a cut finger will bleed until bandaged. Neither are serious injuries. But sever or block an army’s main line of communication and it must be retaken or the army will die, just as surely as a patient with a severed artery will die without immediate attention.
Map 6 indicates the Soviets’ ground logistics system. They were able to airlift supplies to most of their garrisons or operational bases if necessary, and they did so, particularly in emergencies when a post was surrounded. But air supply could not replace ground lines of communication, the scale of their needs was so immense. If the Termez base of supply was their heart, then Kabul was the head of the Soviet forces inside Afghanistan. Here was their forward headquarters, here was the centre of the communist government, and whoever sat at the centre controlled the country, at least as far as the outside world was concerned. The artery, the main line of communication, that kept Kabul functioning was Highway 2, the Salang Highway. It stretched for 450 vulnerable kilometres. It had been, and was to continue to be, the scene of some of the most successful Mujahideen ambushes of the war.
From Kabul other routes led forward to the limbs of the Soviet forces. Highway 1 led south to Ghazni, and then to Kandahar 500 kilometres away to the SW. Route 157 went due south to the garrison at Gardez 120 kilometres away, and the eastern arm of Highway 1 led to Jalalabad, and thence to Peshawar via the Khyber Pass. Each of these roads was important. If they were cut it was painful, and possibly incapacitating for a while, but it was not fatal.
In the west the secondary base around Kushka fed the forces at Herat and Shindand. In comparison to the east and the north this was a backwater of the war. Its importance lay in acting as a buffer against Iran. To get from Shindand to Kabul, by the southern route, necessitated taking the great ‘ring road’ via Kandahar. One thousand kilometres of tortuous, back-breaking, blistering motoring, every one through hostile provinces, and much of it across the Desert of Death.
The more I examined the map the more I understood the Soviet’s problems. Their main lifeline, the Salang Highway, and its extension for 500 kilometres further south to Kandahar, was comparatively close to and, most importantly, parallel to, the Pakistan border. The Mujahideen’s main base, with all its jump-off points, was within striking distance of the Soviets’ principal north-south line of communication for over a distance of 1000 kilometres. The Parachinar (Parrot’s Beak) peninsula pointed directly at Kabul. From its tip the centre of communist Afghanistan was only 90 kilometres away. By a strange coincidence a similar peninsula, also called the
Parrot’s Beak, had jutted out from Cambodian territory only 65 kilometres from Saigon in South Vietnam. This gave us a great strategic advantage. Not only did the Soviets depend on one single highway in the critical eastern portion of the country, but it was excessively long, passed through Mujahideen-held areas and across the Hindu Kush mountains, but it was exposed throughout its length to the enemy frontier (Pakistan). We, on the other hand, had many routes into Afghanistan from the border bases, and they were comparatively short to the eastern provinces, and certainly far less exposed to attack.
As I well knew, the longer an army’s line of communication the weaker the forces in the field. This is because such an army must deploy a high proportion of its troops protecting supply lines. The longer the route the more guards required, and the weaker the field force. This was the case with the Soviet and Afghan Armies. It was a major factor in limiting their ability to gather together a sizeable force for prolonged operations in the rural areas. I would estimate that 9 out of 10 of the enemy soldiers were committed to static defensive duties, garrisoning posts protecting roads or logistic bases, convoy escorts and administrative tasks.
The Soviets were sensitive to threats against their main supply line because they really only had one in the part of the country that mattered. They could not switch to another line if the Salang Highway was blocked. It was also their line of retreat. Eventually, when in 1988/89 the Soviets withdrew, it was up this road. In terms of military strategy theirs was an awkward position. Their forces had been compelled, by the relative positions of their supply base and Pakistan, to ‘turn front to flank’. In other words their army had marched south for several hundred kilometres to the Kabul area with their supply route trailing behind them. Then, to get to the critical eastern provinces and face the enemy frontier, they had to turn left (east). Their front was now facing towards what had been their flank, but their line of communication was still running north-south, and so much more exposed to attack. The Mujahideen did not have this problem.
Despite these advantages, I had to be careful to remember that the Mujahideen were a guerrilla force and could not, in 1983, confront their opponents in a conventional stand-up battle. Our strategy must remain one of a thousand cuts. There is a great deal of difference between a stroke that cuts a major supply route and keeps it severed and a raid that is a fleeting attack which causes losses but does not block the route for a long period. To achieve the former on the Salang Highway would require a substantial force, able and prepared to hold on to the blocking position in the face of the inevitable massive air and ground counter-attack. Such a strategy was, I believed, beyond the capacity of the Mujahideen, even had I been able to get sufficient concentration and cooperation. The better strategy would be the raid, the ambush, the stand-off attack, but made with such frequency
and ferocity that the loss of blood from these multiple cuts would seriously weaken the enemy’s ability to continue. Such pressure on the supply lines would have the added benefit of compelling the Soviets to tie down an ever higher proportion of their men in static security duties. The initiative would be retained by the Mujahideen, with all that would mean in terms of their morale, and in convincing their backers to keep supporting them.
During my early weeks I met with General Akhtar several times to discuss an overall strategy for the war. In his view 1984 would see the Soviets continue to adopt their generally defensive posture, with emphasis on protecting important political centres, lines of communication and key installations, such as airfields, dams, industrial sites and hydro-electric plants. He foresaw the enemy confining any major operations to those necessary to increase security to the above vulnerable points. These would be likely in areas close to the Pakistan border to disrupt the Mujahideen supply routes, and in Mujahideen operational base areas close to important cities or air bases such as Kabul and Bagram. The Panjsher valley (see Map 7i, which had so often been the springboard for attacks on the Salang Highway, and which had already been the target for no less than six major sweep operations in the first three years of the war, was considered the likely location of another Soviet offensive.
Akhtar also anticipated a build-up of air and artillery violations across the border into Pakistan. He saw the desire to create a widening rift between the local Pakistani population and the refugees as a crucial part of Soviet strategy. Sabotage and subversion would continue to be used to destabilize Pakistan, and this would include the provision of arms and money to tribes in the frontier areas that had always been hostile to the central government at Islamabad. If a breakdown of law and order could be fomented then it would put further pressure on Pakistan, which at this time meant President Zia, to withdraw its support for the Jehad. We both agreed that the Soviets seemed wedded to a military defensive strategy in Afghanistan, aimed at holding what they had got, coupled with a sabotage offensive in Pakistan, aimed at making support for the Mujahideen too expensive politically for Zia. The Soviets seemed disinclined to raise the stakes with large-scale reinforcements, hoping that in the long run the inability of the Mujahideen to capture key towns and the progressive destruction of the villages and rural infrastructure would make them give up the struggle through sheer war-weariness.
Our plans for 1984 were modest in their scope. They envisaged concentrating attacks on Kabul, which General Akhtar saw as the centre of gravity of the communist regime and army. It should be subjected to every type of assault and harassment to gain a political and psychological edge in the international press and media. Operations against the enemy’s main line
[Begin Graphic – Map 7]
The Panjsher 7 Offensive April-May 1984
[End Graphic – Map 7]
of communication and airfields were to be intensified and attempts should be made to lure small garrisons out into the field so that they could be caught at a disadvantage.
This was not an ambitious strategy. But, as I was quickly to appreciate, it took account of the limited capabilities of the Mujahideen at that stage of the war. There was still no real unity among Leaders; the Alliance was only just being set up; the Military Committee was in its infancy; the number of Mujahideen who had received training was tiny and they possessed no effective answer to the helicopter gunship. It was only during that year that Chinese 107mm rockets started to arrive; until then the Mujahideen’s artillery had been the 82mm mortar.
Before I could do much to implement these decisions a major offensive was launched up the Panjsher Valley. It was the seventh such attack and illustrated the critical importance of this valley to both sides. Map 7 makes clear its significance. It takes its name from the river that rises in the heart of the Hindu Kush, amongst ice-capped peaks 20,000 feet high, and it points like a sword at the Salang Highway. The tip of the blade almost touches the road at Jabal Saraj. This valley contained the operational bases of the Mujahideen Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. Massoud had agreed a ceasefire in the valley during 1983, but had refused to renew it for 1984, and this is what sparked the offensive.
The winter of 1983/84 had been a hard one and we did not expect any large-scale offensive until May. Nevertheless, we started receiving reports via our informers in Kabul that a major attack was coming in the Panjsher Valley. I held hurried discussions with my staff and the Military Committee as to how we could best assist Massoud. Our problem was that the shortest supply route to Panjsher was through the northern passes of the Hindu Kush from Chitral, but these were snow-bound, and on the other routes Commanders from different Parties to Massoud would not allow supply trains through their area. It was my first experience of how these inter-Party feuds could jeopardize operations. Massoud belonged to Rabbani’s Party, so I put a lot of pressure on Rabbani to swallow his pride and ask the others to assist and cooperate. Reluctantly he did so, and I was relieved when Hekmatyar agreed, as his men were strong near the mouth of the valley overlooking Jabal Saraj and Gulbahar where we wanted to counter-attack as the offensive moved up the valley. I also hurriedly briefed and trained as many Mujahideen as were available in Pakistan, before despatching them to undertake diversionary attacks on Kabul, Bagram and in the Pakistan border regions. It was not much, but time was against me and there was no way I could coordinate any response to prevent the offensive getting under way.
The Soviets achieved surprise with the timing, strength and scope of their attack. Although we at ISI had insufficient time to organize an immediate response to the warning, Massoud was able to blunt the expected blow. He
evacuated hundreds of villagers from the mouth and lower part of the valley into the side valleys; he laid mines along the road up the valley and he sprung a highly successful ambush on the Salang Highway in which some 70 fuel tankers were destroyed. He also blew up two important road bridges. The next day, 20 April, he started to pull back his men, who numbered up to 5000, into the mountains and side valleys.
On the same day the aerial bombardment started (see Map 7). Thirty-six TU-16 high-altitude bombers (Badgers), together with numerous SU-24 bombers (Fencers), had been pre-positioned from other parts of the Soviet Union to airfields at Mary North and Termez. The ground advance was to be preceded by high-level carpet bombing of the valley. The Badgers would be so high as to make them inaudible and invisible. On the people in the Panjsher it suddenly started raining 500 and 10001b bombs. As the Americans had found with their massive B-52 raids over Vietnam, and the Allies in N.W Europe in 1944/45, aerial bombardment can be disappointing if itsaim is to kill people or break their will to fight. So it was in the Panjsher, where Massoud’s forethought reduced casualties, while the poor weather hampered the Fencers and forced one Badger to fly into a mountain. The narrow, steep-sided valleys offered excellent shelter from aerial attack. The mountains rose up to 19,000 feet in places, the tiny valleys twisted and turned, often becoming gorges rather than valleys, making such attacks extremely hazardous, if not impossible. In these areas attacking aircraft could not make proper approaches to the target and high-level bombing was usually wide of the mark. It was a lesson worth learning, and I made a mental note of the value of mountains against air attack.
For the Soviets this was their most ambitious offensive to date, reflecting the importance they attached to the Salang Highway, and the Panjsher as a threat to its security. It is likely that Major-General Saradov, the commander of the 108th MRD, was in charge of the operation, with a senior general from the General Staff flown in from Moscow to advise and report on progress. An airborne command post was set up in a four-engined An-12 Cub, which was packed with Soviet staff officers and nicknamed the ‘Flying Kremlin’. Under command were some 10,000 Soviet and 5,000 Afghan troops.
The attack was in two phases. The first lasted from 22-30 April and was largely confined to the Panjsher valley, with armoured columns crawling slowly up the road, taking casualties from mines and Mujahideen spoiling attacks from the flanks. A rolling barrage of gunfire and rockets preceded the advance, while heliborne units were landed behind villages in front of the attackers to act as stop groups. It took the force eight days to get to Khenj, a small village some 60 kilometres up the valley. Here they halted, although a battalion was helicoptered into Dasht-i-Ravat, 20 kilometres further on, where it was mauled for its audacity and isolation. Phase two now started, as the upper reaches of the Panjsher were still secured by the snow.
This was the boldest part of the operation, as it involved several units outside the Panjsher Valley joining in an attempt to squeeze the Mujahideen between the forces approaching up the side valleys, and others coming over the passes behind them. These units formed an outer cordon, while battalion-sized units of paratroops would be landed in dominating positions to form an inner cordon (see Map 7). Again a battalion was cut up when it landed too far ahead of the ground troops.
By 7 May the second phase was over, and our activity around Kabul was being felt. A highly successful Mujahideen attack on Bagram Air Base demolished several aircraft on the ground. The attackers pulled back from the side valleys and from Dasht-i-Ravat, which was the furthest they had penetrated. As the Soviets withdrew to their bases at the end of June they left behind Afghan garrisons in permanent posts at Anawa, Rokha, Bazarak and Peshghor.
It had been a partial success for the Soviets. It also gave me further insight into future Soviet tactics and capabilities, as well as underlining some obvious Mujahideen weaknesses. The Soviets seemed to have improved their techniques since the previous, small-scale offensive up the Salang Highway that had occurred shortly after my arrival. This attack was better coordinated, with much more use being made of helicopters to position units in cordon positions. But once again there had been a deja vu feeling about the operation. US Vietnam veterans, and their South Vietnamese comrades, would have found little difficulty in relating to the problems facing the Soviets and their Afghan allies, trying to destroy an elusive enemy who could turn from fighter to farmer in a few moments. Search and destroy missions are much the same whoever undertakes them.
I had had a sharp reminder of how inter-Party jealousies had the potential to cripple the best laid plans. I had seen how difficult, if not impossible, it was to mount a quick operation. I had received the warning of an impending attack several weeks in advance, but the lack of communications, the lack of any sort of mobile reserve force which could be despatched to a critical point, and the lack of a willingness among Leaders and Commanders to cooperate, had negated this advantage. Our efforts were belated, and therefore only partially succeeded.
On the other hand I had been shown how hard it is for aircraft to kill guerrillas in the mountains, and I knew for certain that the jugular vein of the Soviets in Afghanistan was the Salang Highway.
The Salang Highway had been constructed by the Soviets in the sixties as part of their development aid. Its primary purpose was to link Kabul to the Soviet Union and to establish a permanent, all-weather route over the Hindu Kush so that there could be a free flow of goods and people in both directions. Certainly its military significance had been appreciated, if not openly discussed. It effectively joined northern to southern Afghanistan,
something that had not been achieved before, cutting the journey time from weeks to hours. While the Soviets had concentrated on this strategic link, the Americans struggled to build the ‘ring road’ to the south of the inhospitable mass of mountains, the Hazarajat, that sat in the centre of the country.
If the base area around Termez was the heart, which pumped supplies along the Salang artery to the head of the war effort at Kabul, then the choke point at the neck, 120 kilometres from Kabul, was the Salang Tunnel. Also built by the Soviets in 1964, the tunnel is a masterful piece of engineering. Located just east of Mount Salang, at 11,000 feet up, it is the highest tunnel in the world. It was blasted through solid rock for nearly five kilometres at the point where the Hindu Kush is at its narrowest. It is expected to remain open throughout the winter but this is only possible with the extensive use of bulldozers clearing snowdrifts and rock falls on the approaches. Although lit inside with power from its own generators, the journey through was seldom pleasant. In winter Soviet soldiers recall the intense cold, trucks slipping on ice, filth, the stink of fumes and the claustrophobic feeling as they disappeared into the mountain. The horror of being entombed remained with many until, after some 15 minutes if all went smoothly, the fresh air and freedom at the far end was reached.
Entrapment was not an unreasonable fear. In 1982 a series of landslides of snow and boulders blocked the road, bottling up a large convoy inside. The dense clouds of exhaust fumes quickly built up a poisonous concentration of carbon monoxide in the confined space, causing several Soviet deaths, much sickness and total chaos. This incident was erroneously reported as being a Mujahideen ambush and the number of deaths was exaggerated. It resulted in more ventilation shafts being bored through the roof. Stringent security was enforced at the tunnel. At each end permanent company posts were built to guard the entrances from close attack. Check points and barriers were in operation, with security troops or KHAD officials scrutinizing documents and searching suspect vehicles.
To me it was probably the most alluring target in Afghanistan. It cried out for attack. To destroy the tunnel would cause staggering logistic difficulties for the Soviets and be a Mujahideen triumph of the first magnitude. But, as I was to appreciate more and more, selecting a target was easy, hitting it was the problem.
Nevertheless, I determined to try. First there were the technical calculations of the quantity, type and positioning of the explosive. On the advice of a CIA expert it was established that several tons were necessary, which meant using a truck. Then, I was told one truckload would only cause damage that could be cleared in two or three days, so three trucks positioned at intervals inside would be needed.
There was a complication with the type of truck. Vehicles were liable to
search on entering, so packing explosives into an ordinary lorry was impossible. We opted for a fuel tanker. With modification these vehicles could be filled with explosives, while a cursory inspection would still reveal fuel. Afghan government tankers would be ideal, so one was purchased for examination and testing. Another difficulty arose. A full tanker must enter the tunnel from the north end as only empty ones came up from Kabul in the south. The trouble was that the only road from Pakistan into Afghanistan ended up in Kabul. How to get three tankers packed with explosives positioned north of the tunnel was probably the most baffling of our tasks. They would have to travel up empty, and somehow the explosives would be carried in on horses or mules to a suitable rendezvous for loading.
We had to find several volunteer drivers to be trained and briefed. This proved difficult. It involved high personal risk and was not the sort of operation popular with the Mujahideen, who preferred the glamour and glory of the battlefield to clandestine sabotage activities. In practical terms the vehicles would need to be driven into the tunnel, have some sort of mechanical breakdown at the appropriate positions, the timing devices started, and then the drivers must get out. Motor cycles, or another vehicle leading the way, were possibilities, but a lot could go wrong. Breakdowns always caused chaos inside, plus an immediate reaction from the security units at either end. The tankers would need to be disabled in such a way that they could not be quickly towed clear. Both a remote-control exploder and a timing device were to be used. A timing mechanism was important in case the remote control one did not work. If all went well, the remote control would be used as soon as the drivers got out, in the hope of catching the Soviets inside attempting to clear the breakdowns. This they would try to do at once, with their suspicions aroused by three tankers stalled simultaneously. The timers would be set for about half an hour, long enough for the drivers to escape, but not long enough for the vehicles to be recovered, or the explosives found and defused. To obtain the maximum effect the operation was scheduled for the winter when Kabul would be short of supplies and clearance hampered by the weather, with bulldozers battling ten-foot snowdrifts on both approaches.
It would have been a magnificent Mujahideen triumph, but sadly it was not to be. Several times Commanders agreed they would do it, but always after a few months I would get word that it was impossible to find the men. Perhaps it was too ambitious, although I personally do not think so. It had all the makings of a classic guerrilla attack. History would surely have recorded it as the supreme example of a single act of sabotage crippling a modern army for weeks.
The Salang Highway was the most closely guarded road in Afghanistan. From the newly built bridge at Hairatan, just west of Termez, to Kabul, troops were deployed at scores of posts, large and small, each sited for
mutual support. At intervals of about 20 kilometres large garrisons would be positioned with a mobile reserve force, artillery, armoured vehicles, tanks, and often Air Force ground controllers. They seemed not so very different from the fire support bases that the Americans built all over South Vietnam to protect supply routes, or support search-and-destroy missions. At places where the ground favoured an ambush the smaller posts would usually be sited on high ground overlooking the highway. Each post would be surrounded by wire and minefields, and was linked to its sector headquarters by radio. Mines were frequently strewn off the road at potential ambush sites, while any trees or scrub that might provide cover were cut down.
Not only did 75 per cent of all ground traffic to support the war travel down this road, but so did all the fuel oil. Only a few feet from the highway, above ground, ran the oil pipeline from the Soviet Union. It followed the road throughout its length to the air base at Bagram and was another tempting target for the Mujahideen.
Apart from the road, the pipeline, the convoys, the bridges and the tunnel, there were two major bases located close to or on the highway. One south of the Hindu Kush was at Bagram which was the most important air base in the country. To the north of the mountains, just south of Pol-i-Khumri, was the largest Soviet/Afghan logistics depot in Afghanistan, divided into two parts, one for fuel and the other for ammunition and vehicles. Although on a grander scale, Cam Ranh Bay and Da Nang had served similar purposes in South Vietnam.
To turn Afghanistan into a Vietnam, and by that I mean forcing a Soviet military withdrawal, so that the Mujahideen were only left with the Afghans to deal with, was by no means the impossibility I had once thought. 1984 was, for me, to be a year of learning from experience what could or could not be achieved. It was to be the year in which training facilities were dramatically increased, the year in which operations against Kabul were stepped up and coordinated, the year in which my first request for the Stinger SAM was rejected, and it was the year in which we made the first tentative moves along the Amu River, aimed at Soviet soil. Those first twelve months confirmed me in my belief that the Soviets were casualty-shy. Many times they would not leave their armoured vehicles, or at the last moment push forward an assault to clinch a victory. They were also scared of night operations. Everything stopped at night. There were no convoys, no movement, no attacks, and very few patrols during darkness. This was due to the reduced effectiveness of air cover. Our enemy was frightened to do anything without helicopters hovering nearby, or on immediate call — a trait which mirrored many Americans in Vietnam. My impression was that both these superpowers had been geared up to wage a conventional, or even nuclear, war in Europe, but never a counter-insurgency campaign in Asia. Other things being equal, it is the infantryman on the ground taking the war
to the guerrilla that wins, not sitting tight in static posts and blasting the countryside with bombs and rockets. In simple terms both the capitalist and communist governments had asked the impossible in expecting conscripts, for whom the war meant nothing, to take on such a task.
I had to fight a guerrilla war of a thousand cuts. I knew my enemy’s sensitive spots — the Salang Highway, aircraft on the ground, the power supply, the dams, the bridges, the pipelines, the isolated posts or convoys and, at the centre of them all, Kabul. I knew where to wield the knife, but knowing what to do is a far cry from doing it. Selecting a target, deciding a particular move would be effective, or pinpointing an opponent’s weakness is the easy part of generalship. The hard part is assembling your force in sufficient strength; getting it well trained under reliable leaders; ensuring it is adequately armed, equipped and fed; making certain it understands the plan; and then moving it, covertly, to the right place at the right time. This is the real test of generalship.
As I was about to discover, nothing moves, in peace or war, without money. The Mujahideen could achieve nothing without financial support. No matter how brilliant my strategy might be, the implementation depended on the availability of a vast reservoir of cash with which to arm, train and move my forces. Almost half of this money originated from the US taxpayer, with the remainder coming from the Saudi Arabian government or rich Arab individuals.