The Bear Attacks
`This animal is very bad; when attacked it defends itself.’
THE Soviet high command was acutely sensitive to the activities of the Mujahideen in the eastern border provinces of Kunar, Nangarhar and Paktia. Just across the frontier in Pakistan were the Mujahideen’s forward supply bases, training facilities and scores of refugee camps. From this area the great bulk of arms and ammunition poured into Afghanistan in an endless stream of caravans, or pack trains of animals, moving along the tracks and trails through the mountains. The strategic importance to both sides of this border zone, from Barikot in the north, to Urgun in the south, is illustrated on Map 1.
A main road ran from Kabul to Peshawar, via Jalalabad, over the Khyber Pass. For the Soviets Jalalabad was a key city. All roads, tracks and valleys from the frontier converged on Jalalabad. Here were the headquarters of the Afghan 11th Division, the Soviet 66th MRR, a Spetsnaz battalion, plus the 1st Afghan Border Brigade. Half-way up the Kunar Valley to the NE was another Afghan division, the 9th, at Asadabad, with a second Spetsnaz battalion further up still at Asmar (Map 11). At the Afghanistan end of the
Khyber Pass was Torkham, overlooked by a high, dominating feature occupied by the Afghans, called Shamshadsar. In early 1984 I was awakened one night with the news that Shamshadsar had fallen to the Mujahideen and that the Soviet/Afghan counter-attack had failed to dislodge them. Apparently the Afghans had given an ultimatum to the local Pakistan border post that unless the Mujahideen withdrew they would shell the nearby Pakistani civilian population. This had caused considerable panic. The Mujahideen had refused to budge unless so instructed by General Akhtar, who was in Karachi. The governor of the NWFP was furious and had complained to President Zia. The upshot was I had to go, reluctantly, to get the Mujahideen to pull back. Eventually I succeeded, but thereafter there was a presidential ban on any Mujahideen offensives within 10 kilometres of Torkham, or of Chaman on the Khojak Pass in Baluchistan.
The Soviets were equally touchy about the Parrot’s Beak peninsula which
outflanked both Jalalabad to its north and Khost to its south. The Mujahideen dumps concentrated in this area were closer to Kabul than either of these two Afghan towns. We despatched nearly 40 per cent of our supplies for the entire guerrilla war effort from this area around Parachinar. The cork intended to stem the flow was the Afghan garrison at Ali Khel, 12 kilometres from the border.
Of similar significance to Jalalabad, but south of Parrot’s Beak, was the town of Khost. Its garrison, from the Afghan 25th Division and 2nd Border Brigade, was responsible for maintaining the small border posts facing Miram Shah in Pakistan. Through Miram Shah ran another branch of our supply pipeline, carrying a good 20 per cent of the Mujahideen’s arms requirements.
Soviet border strategy was based on maintaining a multitude of posts, large and small, close to Pakistan. They were intended to seal the border and interdict our supply routes. It was rather like a person trying to shut off a large tap by putting his hand over it. Throughout the war the majority of these garrisons have been under at least partial siege, and many times small posts have fallen to attack. These eastern provinces have seen some of the fiercest fighting of the campaign, with battles resembling conventional war being fought in several instances. In fact, with hindsight, these towns and posts probably diverted our efforts too much from Kabul and other more suitable guerrilla targets. It was tempting to try to take isolated garrisons adjacent to the border. They were close to our main base with all the advantages that gave; small successes were not difficult to achieve and Commanders could be certain of recognition for their victories. Plunder and publicity were the rewards of some comparatively easy, low-risk triumphs.
In strictly military terms an isolated fort is only beneficial if it ties down more enemy in besieging it than its own garrison, or it threatens a supply line which necessitates a strong enemy masking force to prevent forays. Judged by these criteria perhaps the continuous and costly efforts of the Soviets and Afghans to maintain these posts was worthwhile. There is little doubt they tied down large numbers of Mujahideen. Two examples of this were the garrisons at Ali Khel and Khost, both of which were under continuous siege from early in the war. At both these locations operations alternated, with the Mujahideen concentrating up to 5,000 active fighters, cutting off supplies to the garrisons, seizing outlying posts and threatening to capture the town, followed by a major Soviet/Afghan thrust to break the investment. These were usually successful, with the Mujahideen melting back into the mountains along the border, only to return again when the enemy columns withdrew. In 1983 it looked for a while as if Khost would fall. At the end of August, with the situation critical, the Kabul regime flew in Colonel Shahnawaz Tani’s 37th
Commando Brigade by helicopter. This forced us back after bitter fighting. By October the commandos were back in Kabul and we were closing in again.
By 1985 the Mujahideen Leaders and senior Commanders were determined that Khost should fall, and a major offensive was mooted to this end. To take a strongly-held town such as Khost was not really a task for a guerrilla force. It would require the cooperation of at least two parties and their Commanders to mobilize sufficient men. Even then, the militarily desirable ratio of 3:1 in favour of the attacker could not be achieved. Couple this with the Mujahideen’s exposure to air attack and the likely massive Soviet/Afghan response that would be provoked, and the doubtful wisdom of such an assault is apparent.
I called a conference in Peshawar to discuss the problems. It was to be a combined effort between Khalis’ and Gailani’s Parties, with Jalaluddin Haqqani, a renowned Khalis Commander, playing a leading role from his forward base at Zhawar only 6 kilometres over the border opposite Miram Shah, and some 20 kilometres south of Khost. I found that Gailani was not ready, while Khalis pressed me hard to give the go-ahead, and issue the necessary heavy weapons and ammunition. Although I had misgivings I had previously decided I would give this operation my full support provided the Commanders would mount a joint attack in accordance with a sound tactical plan. I had resolved to go into Afghanistan myself to coordinate the assault, and to send in several Pakistani teams of advisers with various Commanders. On Map 14 I have shown the tactical situation.
Khost was surrounded by mountains in which sat the Mujahideen. All around were a series of defensive posts and minefields, with a substantial garrison at Tani. The Mujahideen were particularly strong to the south and SE of the town, with their outposts overlooking the plain along the line shown on the map. The only feature that they did not occupy, as it was held by the enemy, was Torgarh. This mountain ridge was about 9 kilometres from Khost, with its northern end curling round to within 4 kilometres of the totally exposed airfield. In fact this strip was seldom used by the Afghans as we could bring it under fire so easily that they often resorted to parachute dropping of supplies. Torgarh was what the military term vital ground for any force wishing to defend or attack Khost.
I explained to the assembled Commanders that phase one of any assault on Khost must be the taking of Torgarh by night. To my dismay they all wanted a daytime attack. For hours I tried to convince them that this would be folly, with the Mujahideen exposed to heavy fire from the air and artillery long before they could reach Torgarh itself. The principal Commander, Haqqani, would not budge. My attempts to enlist the support of ex-Colonel Wardak, the military representative from Gailani’s Party, failed, as he was reluctant to oppose Haqqani for political reasons. Haqqani argued that by
[Begin Graphic – Map 14]
THE MUJAHIODEEN ASSUALT ON KHOST FAILS – 1985
[End Graphic – Map 14]
day everybody would do their best, nobody would hold back in front of his comrades, while in a night attack nobody would cooperate and everybody would blame each other for failure. He believed that only by day could Commanders exercise control. He assured me of success, and accepted full, personal responsibility for the operation.
At the end of a day of fruitless discussions I said to Haqqani, ‘I am not prepared to be a party to a plan which I know for certain will not only fail, but result in heavy casualties.’ I withdrew Pakistani adviser support, but later relented and allowed two teams to go in.
The Torgarh attack was timed to start at 10.00 am (H-hour), but the inevitable delays meant that it was midday before the Mujahideen started moving forward. Regrettably, as I had forecast, the attack was broken up by concentrated fire. The Mujahideen suffered numerous unnecessary casualties. After dark some progress was made up the slopes of Torgarh, but, with the exception of taking a few bunkers, little could be achieved. By midnight they had had enough and fell back, carrying their dead and wounded with them.
After two weeks Haqqani came to me to apologize for rejecting my advice. He admitted his error, and in the same breath urged me to allocate him more weapons and ammunition. He wanted to try again – by night. But by then the Afghan hold on Torgarh had been consolidated. I declined a second attempt. Reinforcing failure has never been a sensible military tactic.
My prediction that such a large-scale attack would provoke a correspondingly strong retaliation was also proved correct. On 20 August the enemy launched their second eastern offensive of 1985, involving some 20,000 men. A series of pincer movements (shown on Map 15) were aimed at flushing out the Mujahideen from their strongholds west of the Parrot’s Beak around Azra, Ali Khel and Khost. From the latter their intention was also to move south, up to the border, and demolish the Zhawar base area. Considerable use was made of heliborne encirclement, particularly around Azra. No less than nine landing zones were used to position the cordon troops of Soviet air assault units around guerrilla bases or villages. It was a similar story around Ali Khel, with the attackers able to secure several small arms caches and inflict losses on the Mujahideen.
The thrust from Khost, through Tani, towards Zhawar was also worrying. In fact any strong offensive from Ali Khel, or towards Zhawar and Pakistan, always produced squeals of alarm from both politicians and the military in Islamabad. If ever the Soviets contemplated ground incursions into Pakistan these were two obvious routes. Just inside Pakistan the huge Peiwar Kotal mountain feature dominated, not only the approaches to Afghanistan but, more importantly, the whole of the Kurram Valley back through Parachinar and beyond. To lose these heights would mean our border defences had been pierced. I can vouch for the fact that during these months of intense activity
[Begin Graphic – Map 15]
THE SOVIETS SECOND EASTERN OFFENSIVE OF 1985
[End Graphic – Map 15]
and probing of the border the Pakistan Army in the NWFP was on full alert, and indeed had deployed units forward to prepared positions — just in case.
Although our siege of Khost was broken by the enemy counter-attack, Zhawar did not fall. In fact the Afghans did not make headway south beyond Tani due to some skilful and courageous fighting by Mujahideen forces operating from the Zhawar area. We were somewhat handicapped by the absence of many Commanders, including Haqqani, who had left for the Haj (pilgrimage to Mecca). His second-in-command was Shaheed in these battles, and it was quite a close-run thing. The Soviet/Afghan forces had shown that their tactics and techniques were improving, they had been able to penetrate into areas long held to be inaccessible, and had they been able to close right up to the border and destroy our bases there, the entire campaign might have been put in jeopardy. I decided to ensure that any future attempt should also be defeated.
Throughout mid-1985 I did much soul-searching as to whether my overall strategy was working. Our efforts to keep the enemy away from the border areas seemed to have failed, we had suffered casualties, our attempt to seize Khost had been badly flawed, and the Soviet high command had apparently gained the initiative. I spent many hours in front of the map of Afghanistan as I pondered and debated in my mind how best to prosecute the war. My conclusions were that the Soviets had not inflicted any serious defeat on the battlefield; in fact the border engagements although intense, had been indecisive. I believe the enemy had launched its offensives in order to relieve pressure elsewhere in Afghanistan, particularly around Kabul; that they were designed to disrupt and destroy our base areas south and east of Ali Khel and Zhawar with this as their primary aim. I felt that there was nothing wrong with our basic strategy; in fact with our increasing efforts against Kabul, and in the north across the Amu, I was certain we could expect the Soviet/Afghan forces to lash out again at our border strongholds. It would be a sign that we were succeeding elsewhere. In this connection I made a controversial decision. I decided that should any future offensive attempt to take either the Ali Khel or Zhawar base areas they would be defended, we would not withdraw into Pakistan, but attempt to hold our own and fight a conventional defensive battle. This was against the normal principles of guerrilla war. Some in my staff felt I was making an error of judgement, that to hold ground against superior forces who had complete air cover was tactically unsound and would lead to defeat with heavy losses. I understood the wisdom of what they said, but I was convinced that other factors overrode their arguments. War is an art, not a science.
First and foremost I felt that with up to 60 per cent of our supplies passing through these two forward base areas we just could not afford to lose them.
They were essential jump-off points for the entire campaign. If they were occupied for any length of time by the enemy, with their forces close up to the frontier, they would have effectively blocked our major logistics artery feeding the war. These areas were vital ground to us and merited determined defence.
The establishment of strongpoints along the border in these areas would act as a trip-wire should the war escalate. In the event of the Soviets moving on Pakistan these two routes would certainly be used by ground troops. Mujahideen defensive positions would delay the advance, cause casualties and gain time for the Pakistan Army to complete its forward deployment and rush up reinforcements.
It took us three months fmally to decide to adopt these measures, at the end of which time General Akhtar and President Zia were both in favour. It was with the President’s approval that, in September/October, 1985, I visited the Ali Khel and Zhawar areas to put in motion the necessary defensive preparations to try to convert the bases into defensive localities.
My first trip took me to Ali Khel, accompanied by the members of the Military Committee of Hekmatyar’s and Sayaf s Parties, who had undertaken responsibility for the work in that area. I wanted a close look at Ali Khel and the surrounding enemy posts, so I took forward a reconnaissance party to a ridge within 2 kilometres of the village. Later, we pulled back to an observation post (OP) some 4 kilometres away to watch a Mujahideen fire-power demonstration scheduled to start at 4.00 pm. This would give insufficient time for gunships to scramble from Kabul or Jalalabad and get overhead before last light. I was suitably impressed. Over 1,000 rounds from 107mm rocket launchers, 82mm mortars, and recoilless rifles were rained down on Ali Khel and associated defences during a two-hour period. The response was unimpressive, as the enemy artillery counter-battery fire was wide of all our firing points, with the closest shell to my position, from which we were adjusting the fire, falling 500 metres away.
That night, back in a bunker at Sayaf’s base, I was touched by two brief but revealing examples of Mujahideen hospitality in the field. Several local Commanders dismissed my escort of three Pakistani soldiers and themselves took turn at sentry duty outside my bunker. Rather thoughtlessly, I had asked one of my soldiers to get me a bucket of hot water in the morning. There was no bucket in the entire base. They only had a plastic jerrycan, which they filled laboriously by continuously heating water in a kettle over an open fire. I felt most ashamed in the morning when I realized that I was the only person among several hundred to wash in hot water.
We spent a second day on reconnaissance from a forward OP. Again we arranged for an MBRL bombardment of the Ali Khel positions. It was followed by a pause of about 30 minutes to deceive the enemy into thinking we had finished. As soon as movement was spotted we opened up again,
continuing until nightfall. Back at the base I met Professor Sayaf and some of his Commanders from Kabul. He was keen that his Party alone should be responsible for the defence, and I had great difficulty persuading him otherwise.
The next day was spent in touring the base area and discussing with the Commanders how best to prepare to withstand an assault. Areas for minefields were defined; AA guns, machine guns, recoilless rifles and mortars were sited to cover likely approaches; possible helicopter landing zones (LZs) were identified for mining and heavy weapons designated to cover them by fire.
I stressed the urgent need for communication trenches and for all weapon pits or bunkers to have overhead protection. There was a great deal to do and I could only hope that the Commanders would galvanize their men into action. I gave them two months to complete the tasks, with the promise of extra heavy weapons as an incentive.
I suppose I had expected too much. My officers spent considerable time giving guidance and checking progress, but at the end of two months the Parties asked for more time. Again I went into Afghanistan to see for myself. It was disappointing. Even taking into account the Mujahideen’s antipathy towards digging and reluctance to defend static positions, I was inwardly exasperated by what I saw. Trenches had not been dug, gun positions were exposed without proper camouflage, tents were conspicuously pitched close to forward positions and overhead protection was lacking everywhere. In contrast with the forward positions, great efforts had been made to construct a series of tunnels to house the headquarters and administrative facilities. I was forced to release some heavy weapons, but on the understanding that considerable improvement must be made to all defences before the balance was allocated.
The situation at Zhawar was identical. The Mujahideen worked enthusiastically at tunnel-building, using bulldozers and explosives to produce seven tunnels dug into the side of a wide, dried-up nullah. They included shelter for a mosque, garage, armourers’ shop, small medical aid post, radio station, kitchen, guest house and stores. A generator provided power for the aid post, mosque and guests’ tunnel. It was even possible to watch video films at the base. This work always had priority over the tactical defences facing the enemy. The Parties and Commanders were eager to have an impressive ‘showpiece’ for visiting journalists. The fact that the previous attempt to reach Zhawar in September had petered out gave them a false sense of security.
Map 16 shows the approximate defensive deployment for the battle of Zhawar, which took place in April, 1986. Zhawar was a substantial administrative base. From there operations against Khost were planned and conducted; it was a Mujahideen centre for training recruits on both small
arms and heavy weapons; it was the focal point of what was regarded as a liberated area, where a sort of mini-government had been set up, courts were held and delegations and journalists were received. The principal Commander was the tall, blackbearded, 50-year-old Haqqani from Khalis’ Party, although Hekmatyar, Nabi and Gailani also had Commanders in the vicinity. Haqqani had some forty to fifty subordinates under his direction, with probably 10,000 Mujahideen spread over the border district between Ali Khel and Zhawar. I have shown the line of the forward defences at Zhawar as following the foothills of the mountains up to 10 kilometres from the frontier, although smaller outlying groups were located on the Khost plain.
The AA defences were dependent on three Oerlikon guns, the 12.7mm and 14.5mm machine guns, and shoulder-fired SA-7s, which were often sited up to 7 kilometres forward of Zhawar itself. Likely ground approaches for armour or infantry were protected by anti-tank minefields, mortars, recoilless rifles and RPGs. Some positions were connected by field telephone or walkie-talkie radios. While, in theory, the tactical handling of the defence was Haqqani’s responsibility, in practice individual Commanders would fight their own battles, with Haqqani devoting his efforts to coordinating logistic support. The weapon positions shown on the map are not completely accurate but are indicative of the layout and type used.
In Zhawar base itself, in and around the tunnels, about 400 men were deployed for its close protection, or to work on administrative support. Here also was Haqqani’s headquarters. These Mujahideen lived in or near the tunnels, while those in the forward positions lived, ate and slept at their posts. Food was often prepared centrally, operations permitting, or even cooked in Pakistan and carried forward to the Commanders. Once fighting started everybody survived on what he carried.
Although the Soviets masterminded the attack on Zhawar, they only deployed one Soviet air assault regiment from the 103rd GAAD at Darulaman, the remainder of the 12,000 men assembled for the advance being Afghans. Tactical control was to be exercised by the staff of Major-General Shahnawaz Tani, who four years later, as Defence Minister, was to launch a coup attempt against the Kabul regime, and then flee to join the Mujahideen. The Afghan Army commander on the spot was Tani’s deputy, a talented officer of Baluchi origins, Brigadier Abdol Gafur.
The Soviet/Afghan objective was to smash the guerrilla base infrastructure around Zhawar, occupy the area and seal off this important Mujahideen supply route (see Map 17). It was an ambitious undertaking. The operation was certain to involve tough fighting, with the Mujahideen able to call in reinforcements quickly from Pakistan. There was no way that the Khost garrison of the 25th Division and 2nd Border Brigade could undertake a
[Begin Graphic – Map 16]
MUJAHIDEEN DEFENSES OF ZHAWAR
[End Graphic – Map 16]
mission of this size. Khost would provide a convenient jump-off point, but the bulk of the troops would have come from elsewhere. Showing a remarkable display of staff work, Gafur used the month of March to assemble his task force. Units from the 7th and 8th Divisions in Kabul, the 12th at Gardez and 14th at Ghazni were concentrated at Khost. Three battalions (1,500 men) of the 37th Commando Brigade and the Soviet AAR (2,200 men) were flown in to spearhead the offensive into the mountains. The entire operation would have the usual air umbrella, artillery and rocket support, together with scores of transport and gunship helicopters. That the Afghan Army was able to put together such an operation was striking evidence of how it had regained much of its military competence. Such an undertaking would have been unthinkable three years earlier.
As the winter weather abated in the first week of April the advance began, under cover of air-strikes and gunfire, led by Soviet and Afghan commandos in helicopters. Immediately, the ground columns came under fire from pockets of Mujahideen south of Khost and around Tani, which slowed progress to a crawl. South of Tani the operation bogged down for several days as the leading elements of the enemy came up against stiffer resistance from the mountains north of Zhawar, and groups of Mujahideen fired hundreds of 107mm rockets into Khost airfield to disrupt helicopter sorties. The second phase from Tani to Zhawar was going to require rethinking and reorganizing, so Gafur paused until 11 April.
His final plan envisaged the bold use of heliborne commandos to seize dominating ground in a coup-de-main operation close to Zhawar base, the extensive use of airpower to smash the Mujahideen positions, and the use of ground forces to link up with the commandos, and mop up what was left.
For ten days Gafur struggled to get from Tani to Zhawar, ten days of heavy fighting in which the Mujahideen resistance took a severe pounding, but during which they proved they could hold their ground even in adverse circumstances. Their outstanding triumph of this battle was the complete destruction of a battalion from 37 Commando Brigade, which was a part of Gafur’s plan to land troops behind the Mujahideen positions. In this instance they miscalculated badly in selecting as a landing zone (LZ) a flat, open plateau close to the base, but within range of higher ground held by some of Haqqani’s and Hekmatyar’s men. In broad daylight ten or more helicopters came in in waves to set down the 400 commandos. As they flew overhead they were met by a barrage of fire from SA-7s and heavy machine guns. Three helicopters crashed, while the others disgorged their troops under intense cross-fire from both Mujahideen positions. In the open ground the commandos were badly cut up and demoralized. By nightfall there was nothing left of this battalion: all were either killed or captured. Had we had the Stinger missile I doubt if any helicopter could have escaped.
From 11 to 22 April Zhawar was isolated from the rest of the area by
[Begin Graphic – Map 17]
THE BATTLE FOR ZHAWAR
[End Graphic – Map 17]
artillery and air strikes. Pakistani air space was violated countless times as enemy aircraft wheeled overhead before diving down on their targets. Some used laser-guided bombs for pinpoint accuracy in taking out the Zhawar tunnels. A direct hit on one tunnel caused it to collapse, crushing many of its occupants, including Haqqani who was injured, but survived. Back at Rawalpindi I received frantic calls from the Parties to do something to alleviate the rain of rockets and bombs from the air. In desperation I briefed General Akhtar that I proposed asking for Pakistani volunteers from my staff to take in some more Blowpipe missiles. My logistics colonel, who had been in the anti-aircraft artillery, offered his services. He was to be accompanied by several others, including a young captain. General Akhtar agreed, so the team was rushed to the frontier. Within 24 hours they were in Zhawar.
Early in the morning the Blowpipe party climbed up a prominent peak nearby to set themselves up for the day’s shooting. It was to turn out to be a duck shoot in which the ducks won. From their hide on the hill they had a magnificent view of the enemy aircraft as they banked, turned, dived and pulled up again, in their efforts to strafe our defences. The first Blowpipe missile roared majestically upwards but wide of its mark. From then On the firing point had been identified. Within a few minutes the colonel had been slightly wounded and several Mujahideen hit, but the captain kept the Blowpipe firing. In all thirteen missiles were fired before a direct hit severely wounded the captain and his JCO assistant, and killed several men nearby. Not a single missile had hit an aircraft. For me it was the fmal proof that this weapon system was useless on the battlefield. We had said so from the outset, and now it had failed us at a critical juncture of a desperate battle. A British artillery officer who saw the Blowpipe in action in the Falklands excused its poor performance by saying that at least it frightened pilots into veering off and leaving the firer alone. This was not our experience, and anyway we needed to knock them down, not frighten them.
Our team was evacuated under the directions of my colonel, back to a military hospital in Pakistan. Weeks after the incident I asked the captain why he had not tried changing his firing point once it had been located by the enemy. It was the obvious thing to do as both he and I knew. His reply was interesting. He had felt that to move would have damaged his reputation for courage in the eyes of the Mujahideen around him. They showed no inclination to move, they intended to stand their ground under fire, and the young officer felt that the honour of the Pakistan Army was at stake, so he stayed until hit. He was later decorated by the President.
With Haqqani out of the fight, there was even less coordination of the defences, and I was alarmed at the series of conflicting and worrying reports that came in daily. I urged General Akhtar to let me go forward, but he refused. Meanwhile, I arranged for all the military representatives of the Parties to go personally to Zhawar to organize operations aimed at the
enemy’s rear areas and Khost airfield. The ferocity of the fighting may be judged by the fact that the barrels of many of our AA guns had been worn out, and there were instances of hand-to-hand combat.
Again I pleaded with General Akhtar to let me at least go up to the border, as I felt my presence close to the fighting would be a steadying influence, and that from there I could coordinate things. After all, the enemy were now within 3 kilometres of Pakistan, and for all we knew might come across the frontier. On my assurance that I would not venture into Afghanistan, he let me go. The day I reached Miram Shah Zhawar fell. Soviet and Afghan commandos secured the tunnels and set about completing the destruction of the base. The Mujahideen had eventually been forced back in some of the toughest fighting of the war in which they had used every weapon in their armoury, including several captured tanks.
At Miram Shah I met Hekmatyar and Khalis who had gone to the border for the same purpose as myself. The news was bad, but large numbers of Mujahideen were still in the area, and not all the bases had been lost. Hekmatyar agreed to lead in reinforcements that night to secure his base. To try to find out the exact situation I went to a suitable vantage point from which I could observe enemy movement around Zhawar. I gazed long and hard through my binoculars, but saw nothing. There was no enemy in Zhawar. I hurried back and spoke to Haqqani, who was recovering well, telling him that Zhawar appeared unoccupied. He ordered a Commander to take in a patrol that night.
During the night I watched an impressive 107mm rocket barrage by Hekmatyar’s men on to suspected enemy rear areas. Others joined in, confirming that the Mujahideen were far from defeated. The next day it was confirmed that the enemy had withdrawn. Within 48 hours Zhawar was back in our hands.
The Kabul régime celebrated a major victory. According to radio broadcasts hundreds of Mujahideen bunkers and fortifications had been destroyed; thousands of weapons and mines captured, and millions of rounds of ammunition secured. According to their account we lost 2,000 dead and 4,000 wounded. To say that this propaganda stretched the truth would be a serious understatement. Mujahideen losses at Zhawar did not exceed 300 killed, together with a few truck-loads of arms and ammunition. Although Zhawar base fell, other nearby strongpoints did not, and within a few hours the enemy pulled back to Khost, making no attempt to hold the ground they had won. We had shot down thirteen helicopters and aircraft, captured over 100 Afghan soldiers and killed or wounded about 1,500.
Our decision to fight a conventional defensive battle at Zhawar came under great criticism. We were accused of violating the principles of guerrilla war. As I have explained earlier, we had valid reasons for developing Zhawar and Ali Khel into strong points, and holding them if attacked. Our conduct of
the war was dependent on these operational and logistic jump-off points. After the Zhawar battle we rebuilt the base and continued to use it throughout the rest of the campaign. It was Zhawar that so impressed Mr Wilson when I took him there about a year later. As far as I know it continues to function as an essential part of the Mujahideen’s military strategy.
By all this I do not mean that we had not been dealt a severe tactical blow. We had, but it was not as serious as was made out at the time. I have no doubt that the Mujahideen would have repulsed all the assaults, with fewer losses, had two matters been resolved beforehand. First, if the Commanders had properly constructed their defences, ensured overhead cover and dug in with enthusiasm in the preceding weeks, the Mujahideen would not have received such a bloody nose. Second, and more importantly, if the US and Pakistan had not procrastinated for so many years over supplying us with an effective anti-aircraft weapon, we would assuredly have beaten off the attack with comparative ease. The Mujahideen, properly dug in at Zhawar with the Stinger, would have been unbeatable. Of that I have no doubt.