Kabul, the Key
`Kabul must burn.’
Lieutenant-General Akhtar Abdul Rehman Khan, Director of Inter-Services
Intelligence, Pakistan, 1980-1987.
IN the twenty months from April, 1978, to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December, 1979, Kabul was surely the coup capital of the world. In that short period no less than three bloody coups took place in the city. During those months tens of thousands of Afghans died in perhaps the most murderous purges since Stalin’s day. As always Kabul was at the centre of the bloodbath, with its brand new jail at Pul-i-Charki, 10 kilometres east of the city, becoming the primary site for executions and torture. Whoever controlled Kabul controlled Afghanistan, both in the eyes of its people and the world.
For centuries the palace and throne of Afghan kings had been in Kabul, until royal rule was abruptly overthrown by King Zahir Shah’s cousin, Daoud Khan, in 1973. But within five years Daoud was showing disturbing signs of independence from his Soviet masters in Moscow. Things came to a head in 1977 when, during a visit to the Kremlin, Daoud had a flaming row with Brezhnev, literally banging his fists on the table, while yelling that Afghans made the decisions in Afghanistan. Fury showed on the Soviet President’s face. Daoud had signed his own death warrant. At 9.00 am on 27 April, 1978, a group of young Marxist officers led an armoured and air attack on the Arg Palace in the city centre, where Daoud and his family lived surrounded by the 1,800-strong Presidential Guard. The coup got off to a slow, unsteady start at Kabul airport. By afternoon the palace was being strafed by MiG-21s and Su-7s, but was holding out; that evening Radio Kabul fell; but not until 4.00 am on the 28th did Daoud die, with his family, in the rubble of the palace.
The Soviets had to choose who would be the most amenable puppet to install. The choice was complicated by the fact that the Afghan Communist Party was split. Like the Mujahideen, these Marxists were first and foremost Afghans subject to the same propensity for infighting, violence and tribal
rivalries. The Afghan communists were, and still are, divided into two factions. In 1978 the Parcham faction was led by Babrak Karmal and the Khalq group by Nur Mohammad Taraki. Brezhnev picked Taraki as he had met him once and ‘was sure he would do a good job’. Taraki’s first act was to get rid of his rival, Karmal, by appointing him ambassador in Prague. Then he set about killing Karmal’s supporters, many of whom were KGB agents. Afghanistan was now officially a communist state.
Within a month an armed resistance movement started. In Kabul red replaced green as the national colour. A huge demonstration was organized to watch the raising of the red flag and the release of scores of pigeons decorated with red ribbons. Public buildings were painted red, while shopkeepers and householders in Kabul vied with each other to display the largest portrait of Taraki, or have their doors and windows the brightest shade of red. By the spring of 1979 stocks of paint were exhausted. But most Kabulis, indeed most Afghans who professed to be followers of the new faith, were radish communists, red on the outside and white within. Their feverish decorating was inspired by fear rather than political conviction.
The bulldozers were hard at work in the fields outside Pul-i-Charki jail, excavating mass burial pits as execution squads did a brisk business. It was later alleged by witnesses that thirty huge holes were dug. Each was the grave of some 100 prisoners who, with hands tied, were pushed into the pits at night, then buried alive when the bulldozers filled the graves.
In February, 1979, the US Ambassador, Dubs, was shot dead in a Kabul hotel as previously related. The next month saw the mass mutiny of the 17th Division of the Afghan Army at Herat, coupled with the slaughter and dismemberment of Soviet citizens in that city. By then even Brezhnev was having doubts as to the wisdom of picking Taraki. He dispatched the ideological head of the Red Army, General Alexei Yepishev, with six other generals, on a fact-finding mission to Kabul. He was severely shaken by what he saw. The indiscriminate killings were driving the people into the rapidly growing resistance movement, the Afghan Army was on the point of collapse, and Taraki would not listen to his Soviet mentors. A plot was hatched in the Kremlin that Amin, the Prime Minister, should take over the presidency from Taraki. According to KGB sources, this was against their advice as they were suspicious of Amin’s student days in the US, at Columbia University, even suspecting he had links with the CIA. Once again Brezhnev overruled them. Taraki was summoned to Moscow for consultations, while in Kabul Amin prepared to pounce. Shortly after Taraki’s return, Amin had him seized, tied to a bed and suffocated with a cushion. That was in September, 1979.
Within weeks it was apparent that Brezhnev had made yet another blunder. Amin began to renege on promises made to Moscow. He
demanded that Soviet advisers be recalled; he protested against KGB activities; he did nothing to combat the uprising against communism that was taking hold in all provinces. The KGB, who had advised against his appointment, were given the task of removing Amin. An agent, who was at that time one of Amin’s chefs, was given the job of poisoning him. But as Amin kept switching his food and drink this method proved difficult. The Politburo lost patience and opted for a full-scale invasion, preceded by a KGB-organized coup that would kill him. In late December, 1979, the Christmas coup took place with Amin dying in Darulaman Palace under the guns of the KGB commandos who had stormed the building. They were under orders’ that nobody should survive, and had had a tough, room-by-room fight against Amin’s guards. As their commander, Colonel Bayerenov, who was in Afghan uniform, left the palace, supposedly to call up reinforcements, the edgy troops outside shot him dead as well. Soviet divisions were pouring over the Amu and landing at Kabul airport. The invasion was underway, the Jehad was about to start, and Babrak Karmal finally secured his place in the President’s palace.
I have deliberately described the events in Kabul immediately preceding the Soviet occupation of the city in some detail, as it is important to understand Kabul’s significance to Afghanistan and to the Jehad. Kabul, as the capital, is the hub of political, educational, economic, diplomatic and military activity. Within its confines are the government ministries, the university and technical colleges, foreign embassies and the headquarters of the Afghan Army and its Central Corps. From Radio Kabul and the television studios the ruling regime can manipulate the news, disseminate propaganda and issue its decrees.
Like Rome, in the days of the Roman empire, all roads in Afghanistan eventually lead to Kabul. It sits at the centre of a wheel, whose spokes are the roads and valleys fanning out in all directions. To the north the Salang Highway takes traffic to the Amu, and the Panjsher valley splits the Hindu Kush. In the east Route I carries the traveller along the Kabul River, through Jalalabad, and over the Khyber Pass to Peshawar. Several lesser roads to the SE reach the passes over the mountains into the Parachinar peninsula and, via Gardez and Khost, to Miram Shah in Pakistan. The long ‘ring road’, built by the Americans, heads south to Ghazni, Kandahar and, eventually, to Herat some 650 kilometres west of Kabul. Even to the immediate west of the city numerous lesser valleys and trails wriggle their way into the mass of mountains that form the Hazarajat. Kabul has great strategic importance. As we at ISI appreciated, so long as a communist government controlled Kabul it controlled the nerve centre of the country. To win the war we had not only to push the Soviets out of Afghanistan, but also to eject the Afghan communists from Kabul. Only with the Mujahideen ensconsed in the capital would the
world recognize our victory. Such was General Akhtar’s belief, such was our objective. In order to achieve it Kabul had to burn.
Kabul’s pre-war population was 750,000, but with the ever-increasing Soviet devastation of the countryside refugees poured in. By 1985 some 2 million people were crammed into its confines, or camped in tents on its outskirts. Add to these the influx of tens of thousands of Soviet and Afghan soldiers, and some idea of the resultant strain on all facilities can be imagined. Fifteen people in a 30-square-feet room was common; water and power supplies were erratic; the sewers stank; people lived in constant fear of the midnight knock on the door as KHAD agents abounded; Pul-i-Charki prison, built for 5000, had over 20,000 within its walls.
Everybody had to carry identity cards at all times, every street had its checkpoints at which security personnel scrutinized papers. A curfew cleared the city, except for police and military patrols, between 10.00 pm and 4.00 am, although few people were not home by eight. Movement into and out of Kabul was rigidly restricted. Even diplomats were issued with a map marked with a large red circle with a radius of 10 kilometres from the city centre. This was the furthest they could travel.
Afghan troops in their sand-coloured uniforms and pillbox caps, and Soviet soldiers in olive drab and wide-brimmed floppy hats manned security posts at all government or military buildings. Some installations were sand-bagged, and the Indian Embassy had taped its windows against blast. Telephones were tapped, while at the Post Office everybody was body searched before they could buy a stamp. Huge revolutionary posters were plastered to walls, while loudspeakers in the streets ensured everybody heard the latest political proclamation. Food was always scarce, particularly fruit and vegetables. Staples such as flour, bread, sugar and vegetable oil were sold at subsidized prices, but quantities were limited. The 100 tons of flour distributed daily, half to the bakers and half to the public, did not go far among two million mouths. The price of petrol rose weekly, although communist party officials were cushioned against the soaring cost of living by being allowed to buy at special cheap rates.
Strangely, stores were still full of luxury western consumer goods, which the Soviet troops snapped up if they could afford them. For the average Kabuli, who earned some 3000 afghanis a month, buying such items could only be dreamt about. A small refrigerator cost a year’s salary, a colour TV two year’s, and a Toyota car 27. Some sought to forget their sorrows in drink. A new distillery had been constructed for vodka, brandy and wine. Drunks in Kabul’s bazaars were now common. It was all part of the communists’ anti-Islam campaign, which went to the extent of forcing Afghan Army conscripts to drink alcohol.
Well over half the population inside Kabul supported the Jehad, if not in
practical ways then at least by their hatred of the Soviets, and indifference to their Afghan allies. Although fear pervaded the city, many of its people were Mujahideen who risked their own and their families’ lives daily by carrying out acts of sabotage, passing on information, or giving shelter to those on the run. Despite the tightening of security, despite the use of terror and torture, we always had active supporters in Kabul throughout the war. Our problem was how to bring about the collapse of communism without resorting to a direct military assault, which the Mujahideen could not hope to mount successfully with the Soviet Army occupying the city.
Our strategy had three features. First, there was a concerted effort on my part to coordinate attacks aimed at cutting off Kabul from supplies or facilities coming from outside the city. This involved ambushes on convoys on roads leading to Kabul, the mining of dams that provided its water, or cutting its power lines.
Next was sabotage and assassination from within. I always emphasized that our targets were Soviets, KHAD agents, government officials and their facilities in Kabul. These attacks could range from a knife between the shoulder blades of a Soviet soldier shopping in the bazaar to the placing of a briefcase bomb in a senior official’s office. The former were sufficiently successful to force all Soviet troops to move about in armed groups, and for civilians to have military escorts. Markets were eventually declared off-limits to Soviets and their families. The latter included placing a bomb under the dining-room table of Kabul University in late 1983. The explosion, in the middle of their meal, killed nine Soviets, including a woman professor. Educational institutions were considered fair game, as the staff were all communists indoctrinating their students with Marxist dogma. To the Mujahideen this was corrupting the youth of the country, turning them away from the true faith of Islam. I would point out that in 1982 no fewer than 140 Soviet specialists and 105 Russian language teachers taught at the university and Kabul technical colleges. Among other victims were the rector of the university and General Abdul Wadood, the commander of the Central Corps, who was killed in his office. In 1983 seven senior Soviet officers were reported as killed in Kabul. Two such officers were shot dead by a 17-year-old boy whose parents had been killed by the Soviets. He hid a pistol under his blanket and approached them as they were leaving the Soviet Cultural Centre (a cinema), where films were shown for senior officials. Several quick shots and the boy escaped by dashing into the back streets. We later provided him with false identity documents.
We made numerous attempts to kill Najibullah, both when he was head of KHAD and after he became President. In late 1985, for example, a Commander who had the assistance of a KHAD officer in Kabul who was a Mujahideen sympathizer, almost succeeded. Explosives were smuggled into the city, a car purchased under a false name, and a bomb placed in the
vehicle. The Commander got details of a planned visit by Najibullah to the Indian Embassy, which was almost opposite the KHAD headquarters in the Ministry of the Interior on Shari Nu Road. He parked the car between the two buildings. As the remote-control exploder had been known to fail at the crucial moment, on this occasion a timing device was used as well. Unfortunately Najibullah was delayed by 40 minutes, so the bomb detonated before its intended victim arrived. The Commander drove off in his get-away car, only to die some months later when he blew himself up preparing another bomb — a not uncommon fate for amateur bomb-makers.
The third way of hitting Kabul was by stand-off long-range rocket attacks. This was by far the most common method. Tens of thousands of rockets have fallen on the city and its environments during the war. Only for brief periods during the winter has a day passed without such an attack. Kabul is a huge place and so is virtually impossible to miss, but I would stress that we never deliberately fired indiscriminately. Our targets were always military, or associated with the Communist government in some way. I am not saying that innocent civilians or Mujahideen supporters were never killed by rockets: they were, but it was unintentional. Regrettably, no modern war can be fought without the innocent suffering. If we had ceased to attack Kabul because of the possibility of hitting civilians it would have pulled the carpet from under our fundamental strategy.
A revealing comment on the unintentional killing of civilians was made to Mark Urban, the author of War in Afghanistan, by Abdul Haq, a Commander who operated against Kabul. He said, ‘Their [the Mujahideen] target is not the civilians … but if I hit them I don’t care…. If my family lived near the Soviet Embassy I would hit it. I wouldn’t care about them. If I am prepared to die, my son has to die for it, and my wife has to die for it.’
My list of potential targets suitable for rocket attack in Kabul ran to over seventy. On Map 12 I have included the important ones. The Soviet and Afghan military installations, barracks and depots were top priority. The Darulaman Palace and Tani Tajbeg Camp, which housed the headquarters of the Soviet 40th Army and Afghan Central Corps; Kabul airport, with its surrounding garrison; Chihilasatoon barracks; the camps opposite Pul-i-Charki prison; Bala Hissar Fort, with its Soviet signals regiment; Khair Khana Camp, housing a massive motor transport depot, and the 108th MRD; Rishkoor garrison, the headquarters of both the Afghan 7th Division and 37th Commando Brigade, plus the 88th Artillery Brigade; and Kargha Garrison, with its enormous ammunition depot and 8th Division headquarters, are examples of purely military targets.
First on the list of Soviet civilian establishments was their Embassy. Hardly a week went by without attempts being made to hit this building. A close second was the Microrayan district of the city. This was a sprawling, prefabricated, apartment development reserved for Soviet advisers, their
[Begin Graphic – Map 12]
KEY POINTS IN KABUL
[End Graphic – Map 12]
families and senior Afghan Communist Party officials. KHAD headquarters buildings, all government ministries, the President’s palace, Radio Kabul (which was awkward as it was the neighbour of the US Embassy), television studios, transport pools, power stations and fuel storage tanks, all merited our attention.
Our ability to inflict damage or casualties depended on the weapons we used and their handling by the Mujahideen. With the weapons, it was all a question of range. How far into Kabul would the bomb or rocket fall, and therefore how close to the target must the firing-point be? It was not until early 1984 that we had 107mm MBRLs with ranges of 8 to 10 kilometres. Prior to this our artillery was the 82mm mortar, so we had to get to within 3000 metres of the target which, as the ring on Map 13 illustrates, often meant a firing point inside the city. As time passed, and the Kabul defences were pushed steadily further out from the centre, these short-range attacks became impossible to mount. The arrival of the Chinese MBRL gave us the breakthrough we needed. Although it was a cumbersome and weighty weapon it had the necessary range, accuracy and firepower. With its twelve barrels we were able literally to rain rockets on a target, provided we could hump sufficient ammunition to the firing point. This enabled us to mount truly stand-off attacks throughout the remainder of the war. Some 500 of these weapons were obtained during my time at ISI, of which 75 per cent were deployed against Kabul.
It was not only the range of the weapon that was critical for successful attacks, but the suitability of the ammunition. It was useless to hit a target if it was not damaged, destroyed or casualties inflicted. Often this meant the strike had to cause a secondary explosion or fire. We had a number of disappointments. The largest petrol storage reservoir in Kabul is located in a re-entrant on the northern side of the Koh-i-Azamai feature (see Map 12). It was an obvious objective. Our first attempt was a mortar attack which scored a direct hit, but the fuel did not burn. Perhaps the tanks were not full or there were insufficient fumes to ignite. The high-explosive mortar bomb would penetrate the tank’s cover but would not start a fire. A white phosphorous (smoke) bomb could be used for its excellent incendiary effects, but it would not pierce the top of the tank.
The next try involved three Mujahideen creeping to within a hundred metres at night before firing two rockets from a RPG-2 anti-tank launcher into the reservoir and escaping in a car. Again a direct hit, but again no fire. I had long discussions with CIA technicians on this problem, but they could not come up with a direct-fire weapon to do the job. Meanwhile local defences were strengthened, making a close approach impossible. Although it remained a target for long-range stand-off attacks, it survived the war.
By April, 1985, the Soviets had established an outer ring of defences around Kabul that extended up to 10 to 12 kilometres from the centre. This
caused us grave problems in mounting rocket attacks, even with the MBRLs. The difficulties were weight and range. The MBRL was too heavy to manpack over long distances, and its range of 9 kilometres meant immunity for most targets deep in the city. As there was, at that time, no prospect of a longer-range weapon, I resorted to self-help to give us a lighter launcher. What was needed was a single-barrel rocket-launcher (SBRL) that could be easily manhandled by one man, at night, between hostile posts.
We obtained a ‘tube’ from a partially destroyed MBRL which the Pakistan Army converted into a workable weapon – an SBRL. It was demonstrated to the CIA and I asked them to provide this weapon in large quantities. Meanwhile, I met the Chinese military attaché and asked him if he could manufacture this weapon. To my surprise he said that the SBRL used to be issued to the Chinese Army, but that it was now obsolete. It would take some time to get it back into production, but it could be done. The CIA and the Chinese cooperated fully on this project. I placed orders for 500 in 1985, and by early the following year the first consignment was flown to Rawalpindi. We had received 1,000 by late 1987. This weapon greatly enhanced our ability to hit Kabul.
The problem of range was partially overcome when we obtained the Egyptian 122mm rocket launcher which could fire out to 11 kilometres. It was not the complete answer, as, although it only had a single barrel, it was long and unwieldy, making it a difficult horse- or mule-load. Like the MBRL, it was far too heavy for manpacking. Only about 100 were obtained, and I restricted their issue to those Commanders able to fire on Kabul or major airfields.
For two hours from 9.00 pm the sky over Kabul was normally the backdrop for a spectacular firework display, with dozens of rockets roaring through the darkness, Soviet flares and searchlights, and their responding rockets and artillery fire. As most of the city’s street lights had long since broken down this duel was the only illumination in an otherwise blacked-out metropolis. By eleven o’clock most Mujahideen firing points had run out of rockets so their firing died away, but not so the Soviets. Their flares and guns kept going until morning. At 5.30 am gunships and fighter bombers would scramble to carry out sweeps over suspected Mujahideen positions. It all became an accepted routine for Kabulis, Soviets and ourselves.
Perhaps our most dramatic success, which was recorded on video film from the roof of the British Embassy, was the strike against the ammunition stockpile at Kharga garrison on the western outskirts of the city. This depot supposedly had the largest storage capacity in Afghanistan, with anything up to 40,000 tons of all types of ammunition, including virtually all the reserve of surface-to-air missiles. I had briefed a number of Commanders to regard this as a priority target, and on 27 August it went up in a spectacular fireball that rose a thousand feet in the air. Missiles flew in every direction,
windows vibrated throughout Kabul with each successive explosion, and the fire raged until well into the next day. Scores of Afghan soldiers were killed or injured. The credit was claimed by several Commanders so I carried out an investigation to try to establish whose triumph it was. I examined all the reports, timings, locations and capabilities of the claimants to engage this particular target, before establishing it could have been a Commander from either Khalis’ or Sayaf’s Party.
Because of our lack of an effective answer to the helicopter gunships we always had to carry out our rocket attacks at night. This meant moving into position in the dark, firing in the dark, and then withdrawing before dawn to avoid the inevitable retaliation from the air. With the increasing number of defensive posts and the ever-widening ring of them around Kabul, it was always a risky operation to infiltrate between them to get within range, particularly with the number of men and mules needed for a large strike. I wanted to be able to hit the city by day as well, but it was not until 1986 that we were able to do so.
The idea was to use free flight rockets. A party of six men, each carrying one rocket, would infiltrate to a firing point in the darkness, set up the rockets using improvised bipods of rocks and connect a delayed-action, electrically-operated firing device. The group would then retire, still at night, and 6-8 hours later the rockets would be on their way. If this was done by numerous groups from different directions, by different Commanders, then Kabul could be under attack at any time, day or night. We successfully instituted this method, but only after some delay, as the CIA could not initially meet our requirement for the special firing devices.
General Akhtar had an obsession with Kabul. He was adamant that attacks on Kabul should have priority over all others. If a Commander made known to the general that he wanted heavy weapons to hit the city, then he was well on the way to getting them, even if I was opposed. Keeping the pressure on the capital was the fundamental theme of our strategy. If Kabul fell we had won the war — it was as simple as that.
Because of its importance the majority of the Pakistani teams of advisers were used against Kabul. As I have indicated before, I was not initially enthusiastic about committing our nationals inside Afghanistan. However, when General Akhtar instructed me to step up the pressure on the city in 1984 I resolved to make the maximum use of them. Of the eleven teams sent in that year seven were used against Kabul. The attacks they led were spread out over the period April to November, and lasted for up to six weeks.
I selected the targets with care. They were to be primarily Soviet installations, the successful attack of which would become well known outside of Afghanistan through foreign embassies and the media. Originally I chose eight objectives, but in the event the last one could not be carried
out due to the onset of bad winter weather. The targets were Kabul airfield, Darulaman Palace, Kharga garrison, the Soviet Embassy, Microrayan, Rishkoor garrison, and Chihilasatoon, which was a Soviet barracks area and housed some key officials (see Map 12). Each team had alternative targets.
The team tasked with Rishkoor had an interesting experience with the enemy garrison at one of the posts on their route, which was not untypical. The Commander had been called for training in June for three weeks on the MBRL. The Pakistani major with his two NCOs who were to accompany them were among the instructors on the course. The first that the Commander and his men knew that they would have advisers with them was on the Pakistan border, just prior to their move back into Afghanistan. They were to make for Chakri, some 35 kilometres SE of Kabul, where the Commander had his operational base.
The journey to Chakri (Map 13), via Ali Khel, took seven days, so it was early August before the major and the Commander could start the detailed reconnaissance necessary to confirm the route to a suitable firing point. The three Pakistanis, the Commander and an escort of six Mujahideen spent two days and a night on their reconnaissance. The Commander, who knew the area well, explained that two platoon-sized posts that formed a part of the outer ring of defences would have to be bypassed if they were to get within range.
Back at the base the details of the plan were put together. The Commander had returned with fifty men from the course, all trained on the MBRL, so they would provide the firing party and its covering group, and guide the mules. Another fifty men would be needed as escorts and to man the two 82mm mortars and three machine guns — in total a sizeable force of 100 Mujahideen with twenty-five mules. They wanted to mount a worthwhile attack, so had decided to take sixty rockets, rendering a smaller force impractical.
My major felt that security would be difficult as they crossed the Logar River, as this area was heavily populated, but the Commander knew the people well and was confident they would go unhindered. There seemed to be no answer to the need to pass close to at least one of the guard posts other than a long, laborious, and probably noisy, detour. The Commander’s solution was to send a messenger direct to the enemy post to demand safe passage on pain of their position being destroyed. My team thought this somewhat unorthodox and were sceptical when the messenger returned to say that he had to go back in three nights’ time as the Afghan platoon commander had to consult his Soviet adviser.
On his next visit the Afghan officer said that, with great difficulty, he had persuaded the adviser to allow the Mujahideen through, but only on condition that while the rocket attack was in progress the post could open fire, but in the wrong direction. When the firing party withdrew the garrison
would open up on the area of the firing point. The Mujahideen Commander was quite satisfied with this arrangement, but, naturally, my team was far from happy. The decision was the Commander’s, so the Pakistanis had to go along with it, although the major intended to position the mortars and machine guns to cover the post in case of treachery.
Starting from Chakri in the afternoon, moving fast, and on through the night the hide was reached two hours before dawn. The next day was spent crouched among the boulders under blankets, overlooking the Logar Valley. Immediately after last light they left for the 9-kilometre march to the firing position. The footbridge-crossing over the river and the move through the villages was disturbed only by a few barking dogs. Then, by 10.30 pm the force was approaching the gap between the Afghan posts. At a distance of 600 metres the major sited the mortars and machine guns on a low spur off the track from which the post could be covered. The team’s sergeant was left with this group.
The main body moved, with the mules, in single file towards the post. This was the moment of truth, for no matter how careful they were it was impossible to avoid some slight noise as a mule kicked a loose stone, or a man’s weapon knocked against a rocket or part of the MBRL. The column passed within 20 metres of the Afghans, with a sentry standing in his trench clearly visible. No challenge, no whispered exchange; the Mujahideen passed by like so many ghosts.
By midnight the covering party was deployed ahead of the firing point and the MBRL was ready. ‘Allah o Akbar. Mordabad Shuravi’ (God is great. Death to the Soviets): with this shout the firing started. In less than half an hour all sixty rockets had gone and the Rishkoor complex was burning brightly. While the MBRL was in action the enemy opened up with a suitably impressive expenditure of ammunition, well away from the Mujahideen.
The move back was hurried, no attempt being made at silence as speed was more important in order to make the most of the remaining five hours of darkness. With much lighter loads now the firing was over, the column moved past the post at a brisk walk. The Afghans had stopped firing, but after the Mujahideen had disappeared into the gloom they opened up again, with streams of tracer rounds flashing down the track towards the firing point. They had kept their bargain to the letter. Later, back at Chakri, Kabul Radio confirmed that Rishkoor had been hit and that fires had taken several hours to bring under control. Like the other Pakistani teams, the major and his two NCOs were later congratulated and decorated by the President.
Kabul was well defended with a huge concentration of troops, guns and aircraft. By early 1985 no less than three rings of mutually supporting positions surrounded the city (see Map 13). We could not, until 1986, carry out stand-off attacks by day. Until the introduction of the Stinger in late
1986 and early 1987, the Soviets’ complete control of the air prevented us applying the sustained pressure needed to isolate the city. Not only were our attacks confined to the night, but they were reduced to almost zero during the winter. These day and winter respites were enough to allow the enemy to recover, retaliate and retrieve lost ground. It was during the months from January to March that the Soviets extended their defences, pushed their perimeter outwards and captured Mujahideen bases and arms dumps in the hills surrounding Kabul.
The reason they were able to do this year after year was that most Mujahideen went home for the winter. I have indicated the main guerrilla operational bases within striking distance of Kabul on Map 13. In terms of time this meant they could reach firing positions in two night marches, anything more was too hazardous. Except for Koh-i-Safi each base had several Commanders from various Parties controlling anything from 100 to 1000 Mujahideen. The seemingly insuperable problem was that in winter, with heavy snow in the passes, supply columns could not get through. Much forethought, planning and logistic effort was required to pre-dump sufficient stocks at the bases to last until April. We made concerted efforts to do this, but the unforeseen problems in the pipeline, over which we had no control, often thwarted us. This, however, was not the only difficulty.
As I have previously explained, the Mujahideen were not expected to remain in the field indefinitely without respite. A few months’ stint in the Jehad, then back home to see their families or to earn money was the norm. Couple this with the harsh conditions in caves or tents with little firewood, scarce rations, and no proper clothing, and the unpopularity of winter warfare is understandable. Most Afghans hibernate in winter, whether soldiers or civilians. It is stressful to venture out from the house, even for a few hours. The Mujahideen were human, and it was asking too much to expect them to tramp through the snow in open sandals, or sleep rough, wrapped in one threadbare blanket. To keep warm in a blanket you need to wrap it around your body with your arms inside, hardly conducive to firing a rifle, loading a mortar, or the freedom of movement needed to fight. We needed to give them proper winter clothing and equipment. By this I mean thick jackets, snow boots and ski tents. The fact that we failed to supply these items from 1979 through to 1985 was a shameful failure on our part.
During 1984 I held numerous discussions with my staff and Commanders as to how to maintain attacks on Kabul during the 1984/85 winter. In the end it boiled down to money. Did we have sufficient for the extra transport costs to pre-position stocks or for winter clothes? Regrettably the answer was no. It was decided to try nominating different Commanders for different sectors for two-month periods. Their task was to keep up regular rocket strikes on a nightly basis throughout the winter. We felt this could be done if the Commanders kept a minimum of 100 to 200 men in the field. Some
[Begin Graphic – Map 13]
KABUL UNDER PRESSURE
[End Graphic – Map 13]
thirty Commanders were involved and we offered them extra MBRLs as an incentive.
For the first few weeks all went well, but with the heavy snowfalls in January movement towards Kabul became more and more difficult and expensive. Some commanders started to withdraw due to lack of shelter, food, clothing and equipment with which to counter the freezing conditions. This created a vacuum around Kabul of which the Soviets were quick to take advantage. They mounted offensives against Chakri and Paghman where resistance was light. The result was that we lost ground gained in the summer, the enemy built another series of posts to consolidate their gains and protect them with wire and mines. We had been pushed back, the range to our targets in the city had been lengthened, and our grip weakened. In 1985 we lost Chakri completely. In 1986 Paghman was taken, with only Koh-i-Safi remaining unscathed. It was not until the introduction of Stingers in early 1987 that we were able to regain some lost ground in the Paghman area. Until then the inevitable pattern was repeated annually: a successful campaign of attacks up to December, a winter withdrawal, with the Soviets pushing their defences outwards, leading to our needing longer-range weapons. Thus was our ability to strangle Kabul eroded.
I believe that if we had diverted enough money for appropriate clothing from the start we could have kept fighting throughout the year. I tried hard during 1985 not to repeat the errors of previous years, putting forward urgent requests for 5,000 sets of winter clothing to General Akhtar. He did not have the money. The best he could hope for was 1,000 sets, which, in order to save funds, were to be purchased from Pakistani manufacturers. Despite ISI’s best efforts they did not honour their commitments.
Some Commanders did make an effort to keep a token force of 30-40 men operative throughout the winter, with personnel changing over after about two months, but it was seldom effective. To live in a tent placed on top of the ruined walls of a house, with the temperature of minus 15-20 degrees, completely isolated, living on a meagre ration of nan bread, as for most of the time there were no civilians within 15 kilometres, was asking a lot. These men had to remain alert, do sentry duties, and go out to launch rocket attacks or collect firewood. If they were lucky they obtained a little flour or tea, but not sugar. Tea was often drunk while eating a sweet to make it slightly more palatable. Without warm clothing or boots, the battle against the cold was unremitting and unsuccessful. Mujahideen in these conditions all lost 20-25 pounds in weight, came back haggard, their faces drawn, aged and blackened by fire smoke. Winter was an infinitely tougher opponent than the Soviets.
During 1985 operations elsewhere were, I believe, showing that the Mujahideen could get the upper hand. If only we had had Stingers I am certain the war would have been winnable much earlier. As it was, we were struggling to maintain the fight, and around Kabul, our primary target, we
were losing momentum. The CIA had provided me with a series of excellent satellite photographs of dozens of enemy posts within a 20-kilometre radius of Kabul. With the aid of these I set about renewed planning.
It was at this time that General Akhtar came up with the idea of a concerted attack to capture a part of Kabul and hold it for up to 36 hours. If it could be achieved, it would have a tremendously favourable effect on Mujahideen morale. I asked for time to study the proposal, but the General had mentioned it to Hekmatyar and Sayaf, both of whom were enthusiastic, provided they got more heavy weapons, so I was ordered to discuss plans in detail immediately.
The results of my talks were that such an operation would need to be a joint one, with at least two Parties cooperating. In the absence of an effective anti-aircraft weapon, the attack could not succeed by day. We would need to mount simultaneous diversionary attacks on Kabul, Bagram and Jalalabad airfields. Finally, secrecy would be of paramount importance — hard to ensure if we were to group 5,000 Mujahideen around Kabul. This was the number that the Leaders insisted was the minimum necessary.
Our view was that, instead of holding Kabul for 36 hours, which meant fighting throughout at least one day, we should confine the operation to the launching of numerous small attacks from multiple directions. These should be during one night only, with exfiltration complete by dawn. Neither of the Leaders was prepared to accept a joint operation, and our alternative plan did not meet with their approval either, as it did not, in their view, involve a sufficiently generous allocation of heavy weapons.
I was never able to coordinate truly joint attacks on Kabul, although I believe I created this impression to the enemy by a system of briefing numerous Commanders to carry out operations against targets from multiple directions during the same period.
Kabul was the key to Afghanistan; of this I have no doubt. It should have fallen within weeks of the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, but the story of why it did not belongs to a different chapter.