‘It is right to be taught, even by an enemy.’
Ovid, Metamorphoses, IV
COURTESY of the CIA and their spy satellites over Afghanistan, my operations room walls were covered with excellent large-scale maps. They showed a rash of red symbols and pins. These portrayed the known locations of dozens of different formations and units, both ground and air, Soviet and Afghan. My first step in devising any plans to attack my enemy was to know where he was. Map 3 indicates, in outline, what I saw in terms of Soviet formations down to independent regimental, and Afghan to divisional, level. It was quite an imposing display. In all some 85,000 Soviet soldiers were inside Afghanistan, with another 30,000 or more deployed just north of the Amu River in the Soviet Union. Battalion-sized units from these latter formations frequently came over the river for operational duties, although the bulk had administrative or training responsibilities.
The Soviet chain of command went back to Moscow. There political decisions affecting the war were decided in the Kremlin. The Soviet General Staff (Operations Main Directorate) had initially appointed Marshal Sergei Sokolov to supervise the invasion. He had established his staff at the headquarters of the Southern Theatre of Operations. Further forward, at Tashkent, was the headquarters of the Turkestan Military District (TMD) with Colonel-General Yuri Maksimov in command. I was interested to learn that his performance as the overall Soviet commander of the Afghan War was highly regarded. In 1982 he had received promotion to colonel-general and was made a Hero of the Soviet Union at 58 — two years earlier than usual. Under him was the 40th Army rear headquarters at Termez on the Afghanistan border. Its forward command elements were under Lieutenant-General V.M. Mikhailov at Tapa-Tajbeg camp, Kabul. His command had the rather cumbersome and misleading title of Limited Contingent of Soviet Forces in Afghanistan (LCSFA). Working alongside him, but with no troops under command, was the senior Soviet military adviser to the Afghan regime, Lieutenant-General Alexander Mayorov.
[Begin Graphic – Map 3]
Soviet-Afghan Deployment 1983-84
[End Graphic – Map 3]
At the time I thought it a little strange that in terms of numbers the Soviet pressure had not increased much since 1979. There was no evidence of their pouring more and more men into a bottomless bucket as the US had in Vietnam. It seemed they were not prepared to commit substantial additional formations to the war. If this deduction was true, it could be a critical factor for the success of future Mujahideen operations.
When the Soviets invaded they did not expect to have to mount a full-scale counter-insurgency campaign themselves. They had gone in with only four motor rifle divisions (MRDs), and one and a half air assault divisions (AADs) of paratroopers. These MRDs had been understrength cadre formations, fleshed out with hastily recalled reservists. They were composed of troops ill-trained for any war, let alone an anti-guerrilla one, and they arrived with obsolescent weapons and equipment, some dating back to WW2. This had been in marked contrast to their occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which had required 250,000 troops in 20 divisions. We deduced from this that their original intention had been merely to stiffen the Kabul government under their newly installed puppet, Karmal. Their presence would hopefully give the Afghan Army sufficient confidence to get out into the countryside and flush out the resistance. In this they had been disappointed, but not sufficiently so to flood the country with overwhelming numbers.
As the map showed, in terms of combat troops not much had changed since 1979. There were now only three MRDs, one each at Kabul (108th), Kunduz (201st) and Shindand (5th Guards), with an AAD (103rd Guards) also based in Kabul. In addition there was a generous sprinkling of independent brigades and regiments at strategic points or important towns. There was a motor rifle brigade (MRB) at Jalalabad (66th), another at Kandahar (70th), plus an air assault brigade (AAB) at Gardez (56th). Independent motor rifle regiments (MRR) were at Ghazni (191st), Faizabad (866th), Bagram (181st) and Mazar-i-Sharif (187th). Finally, an independent guards air assault regiment (GAAR) was also at Bagram (345th) as a mobile reserve. The 346th MRD at Kushka and the 54th MRD at Termez were partially training formations, while the 280th MRD in the west near the Iranian border at Ashkabad was entirely for that purpose. The 66th MRD at Samarkand sometimes provided units for operations south of the Amu.
I knew from my Soviet studies that MRDs would probably have 11,000 men, the AAD about 7,000, while the strength of brigades and regiments were around 2,600 and 2,000 respectively. This would give just under 60,000 infantrymen, either motorized or paratroops. The remainder of the 85,000 were made up of artillery, engineer, signals, construction, border or security units, together with Air Force personnel.
My staff and I discussed the implications of the Soviet deployment. The first notable fact was that some 50 per cent of all their troops appeared to be tied up in or around Kabul. No less than two divisions were based there,
with the majority of their artillery, transport, signals and engineer units, together with large numbers of other support and headquarters staff. The Soviets attached great importance to Kabul, with its airfield, which was the centre of government, and from which the war was controlled on a day to day basis. Only 50 kilometres north of Kabul was another huge concentration of Soviet personnel at Bagram. This air base had an independent regiment, a brigade from the 108th Kabul-based MRD and the independent GAAR, as well as the highest concentration of aircraft and Air Force personnel. Bagram was obviously regarded as the most critical air base in the country.
Another division was at Kunduz in the NE, and the two more independent brigades at Gardez and Jalalabad, each positioned opposite a main route to Pakistan. Clearly the Soviets regarded the capital and the eastern part of the country as the critical area. In the centre of Afghanistan the vast inaccessible jumble of mountains of Hazarajat, which made up almost half of the country, was almost devoid of Soviet units. Six hundred kilometres away in the west, a solitary division (5th GMRD) protected the second most important airbase, Shindand. To the south a single independent MRB was garrisoning Kandahar, opposite the route over the pass to Quetta. The Soviets appreciated that the centre of gravity was in the east, facing Pakistan, which was providing sanctuary for the refugees and Mujahideen. They had opted to hold the area Kabul-Bagram as the vital sector, with most of their other major units deployed to protect routes converging on this region, or to guard the Salang Highway that was its lifeline from the Soviet Union.
I also believed that the Soviets were sensitive in the north. Not only was their base area for the entire war effort just north of the Amu, but northern Afghanistan had had great commercial value to the Soviet Union for many years. In 1960 Soviet exploration had discovered several substantial natural gas fields near Shibarghan (see Map 6) in the northern province of Jozjan. It had an estimated reserve in excess of 500 billion cubic metres. In 1968 a 15-kilometre pipeline was opened, carrying the gas into the Soviet Union. Later, oil was discovered at Sar-i-Pul and Ali Gul 200 kilometres further west. Copper, iron, gold and precious stones are among the other profitable minerals that have been located in the northern and eastern parts of Afghanistan centred on or near the cities of Kabul, Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif. Precisely the areas that coincided with the Soviets military dispositions.
A further reason for my belief in the importance of the northern provinces was that they bordered on Soviet Central Asia. The people on both sides were Uzbeks, Tajiks and Turkomans. They shared a common ethnic identity and, despite the communist clamp-down on religious activities, they also shared the same faith – Islam.
My map also showed that the Afghan Army was deployed primarily in the east and north, mirroring the Soviets, with only a single division ‘out of area’ at Kandahar, and another at Herat in the far west.
From the Soviet and Afghan dispositions I was able to deduce several tentative conclusions upon which to base my own strategic thinking for the prosecution of the war. First, the Soviets were by and large content to hold a series of major military bases or strategic towns, and the routes between them, which indicated a mainly static, defensive posture. They did not seem to want to occupy large tracts of countryside. Second, they attached great importance to the Kabul-Bagram complex, and all approaches to it. Third, the provinces north of the Hindu Kush were critical to the Soviets for strategic (the Salang Highway ran through them), economic (gas, oil and mineral-producing regions) and political (the same people lived on either side of the border) reasons. Fourth, west and SW Afghanistan were not critical to the Soviets. Apart from the protection of Shindand, which, as a major air base, directly threatened the Persian Gulf, this part of the country was probably only considered as a buffer zone between themselves and Iran. Provided their road link north to Kushka via Herat, upon which the Afghan 17th Division was based, was kept open they would be happy.
The Soviet Forces had been in Afghanistan for four years, yet there was no evidence that they wished to escalate the war in terms of numbers. Despite the fact that they had underestimated the Mujahideen, and overestimated the capacity of the Afghan Army, they seemed content with improving their tactics, rationalizing their forces, developing the use of air power, bolstering their Afghan allies, and introducing more suitable weapons, in fact trying desperately to improve the quality of their troops rather than the quantity. I felt that they must realize that if they wanted to overrun the entire country quickly then they would need to triple the size of their forces inside Afghanistan. In 1964 the US had 16,000 men in Vietnam, yet within five years this figure had sky-rocketed to over 500,000 in an attempt to smother the opposition. The Soviets were not following the American example in, this respect. I suspected that the reasons for this were more political and economic than military.
Internationally the Soviets had been vehemently condemned for their invasion. It had soured steadily improving relations with both the West and China, so to triple the size of their army in Afghanistan would certainly heighten the political outcry against the Soviet Union and boost the resolve of the US and others to sustain the Mujahideen. Economically the war was an enormous drain. Gorbachev was later to call it a ‘bleeding wound’. Not only were the Soviets funding their own forces, but with the local economy in ruins they had to fund the Afghan government and army as well. Then, as their scorched-earth strategy took effect and refugees swarmed into Kabul and other large cities, they had to provide food for thousands of civilians.
Billions of roubles were needed from an already flawed Soviet economy. It was estimated that $12 million a day were required to keep the country and its war ticking over. Drastically to enlarge the strength of the occupying troops would be asking too much. In practical terms such an increase would have needed a much improved supply line from the north to Kabul, and one that was not subject to frequent attacks. The Salang Highway could not meet these requirements. All this was of some encouragement to me. If the enemy was fully committed militarily, then I knew exactly what we were up against; if there was unlikely to be massive reinforcement, I surmised the Soviets might have no trumps in their hand.
I already knew there was a political as well as military side to the Soviet strategy. The Kremlin, and indeed the Soviet General Staff, understood the fundamental truth that without Pakistan the Jehad was doomed. When President Zia, acting on the urging of General Akhtar, offered Pakistan as a secure base area, he condemned the Soviets to a prolonged counter¬insurgency campaign that they were ill-prepared to fight. Like all armies, guerrilla forces cannot survive indefmitely without adequate bases to which they can withdraw from time to time to rest and refit. They need the means with which to fight, they need resupplying, they need to train and they need intelligence. Pakistan provided all these things to the Mujahideen.
For the Soviets this was extremely frustrating. By 1983 they had launched a well-coordinated campaign to make the cost to Pakistan of supporting the Afghan resistance progressively higher. Their aim was to undermine President Zia and his policies by a massive subversion and sabotage effort, based on the use of thousands of KHAD agents and informers. Every KHAD bomb in a Pakistan bazaar, every shell that landed inside Pakistan, every Soviet or Afghan aircraft that infringed Pakistan’s airspace, and there were hundreds of them; every weapon that was distributed illegally to the border tribes, and every fresh influx of refugees, was aimed at getting Pakistan to back off. The Soviets sought with increasing vigour to foment trouble inside Pakistan. Their agents strove to alienate the Pakistanis from the refugees, whose camps stretched from Chitral in the north all the way to beyond Quetta, almost 2000 kilometres to the south.
The border areas of Pakistan had grown into a vast, sprawling administrative base for the Jehad. The Mujahideen came there for arms, they came to rest, they came to settle their families into the camps, they came for training and they came for medical attention. At the time we in ISI did not appreciate how fine a line President Zia was treading. As a soldier, I fmd it hard to believe that the Soviet High Command was not putting powerful pressure on their political leaders to allow them to strike at Pakistan. After all, the Americans had expanded the Vietnam war into Laos and Cambodia, which had been used as secure bases by the Viet Cong. The Soviet Union, however, held back from any serious escalation. I had to
ensure that we did not provoke them sufficiently to do so. A war with the Soviets would have been the end of Pakistan and could have unleashed a world war. It was a great responsibility, and one which I had to keep constantly in mind during those years.
An interesting example of the sort of incident that could quickly get out of hand, or lead to international confrontation, involved Soviet prisoners of war, and occurred about a year after I arrived at ISI. At that time a few Soviet prisoners were kept by the Parties in their unofficial jails on the outskirts of Peshawar. On this occasion Rabbani had thirty-five such captives, together with several suspect KHAD agents, locked up near his warehouse. Three of these Soviets had been taken prisoner two years earlier, and outwardly at least appeared to have accepted Islam – possibly as a way of saving their lives. Because of this they were not secured or watched vigilantly. One evening, when everyone was at prayers, they overpowered a solitary sentry, took his weapon, and then smashed the armoury door to get more. After clambering on to the roof they demanded to be handed over to the Soviet embassy. Their captors did not agree. A long night was spent with the Soviets on the roof surrounded by well-armed Mujahideen. In the morning Rabbani’s military representative tried to reason with them, but as he was doing so the Soviets spotted some men trying to get closer by a covered approach. The escapees opened up with a 60mm mortar, killing one Mujahid and wounding others. The battle was joined. Then, without thinking, one Mujahid fired an RPG-7 into the building, straight into the ammunition store. The explosion shook Peshawar, sending missiles and rockets flying in all directions and shredding the Soviets and KHAD agents. Fortunately, although the firework display closed the Peshawar-Kohat road, no civilians were injured. The Soviet press got wind of what had happened and later described the incident as an heroic last stand against impossible odds, with the prisoners killing scores of the enemy before being overwhelmed. Our government was highly embarrassed, as they always emphatically denied holding Soviet prisoners in Pakistan. We received explicit orders that all such prisoners must be held in Afghanistan. We had learnt a lesson, at the cost of a valuable arms dump, and allowing the water to come perilously near the boil.
1983 had been a comparatively quiet year in the field as far as the Soviets were concerned. There were no Soviet divisional offensive sweeps similar to those launched the previous year around Herat and in the Panjsher Valley. Nevertheless, I was able to study a regimental-sized operation which gave me some inkling as to how the Soviets had adapted themselves tactically to a guerrilla war. It occurred six weeks after I joined ISI.
On 26 November long columns of armoured personnel carriers, tanks, trucks and guns drove north up the Salang Highway from Khair Khana camp
[Begin Graphic – Map 4]
The Soviets Final Operation of 1983
[End Graphic – Map 4]
on the outskirts of Kabul (see Map 4). They belonged to the 180th MRR of the Soviet 108th MRD. With them went Afghan Army units and helicopter gunships. The Soviet high command had been stung by the endless attacks on convoys using this critical life-line from the north. To the west of this road the massif, called the Koh-i-Paghman, rose up in places to over 12,000 feet. It was cut by several narrow east-west valleys that provided the Mujahideen with perfect covered approaches to and from the highway, from their bases in the mountains. Each valley had its tiny villages, with a larger one at the entrance, from which movement up and down the main road could be readily observed. The Soviets resolved to have a final attempt to clear three of these valleys before winter set in. From the equipment and weapons carried they appeared to have learned some expensive lessons.
Always edgy, always sensitive to sniper fire and ambushes at close range in the defiles, many troops now wore bulky metal-plate flak jackets. Special anti-sniper squads had been created to pinpoint marksmen. The firepower of the platoon had been boosted by the issue of the new AK-74 rifle, some with a single-shot 40mm grenade-launcher attached under the barrel, 30mm automatic grenade launchers with a range out to 800 metres and a high proportion of RPGs. Some platoons were being equipped with a highly demoralizing incendiary weapon. It resembled a bazooka and fired a shell up to 200 metres which exploded into a fireball on hitting the target. The standard APC of the MRD was the BTR-60 which mounted a 14.5mm heavy machine gun, a fine weapon provided the gunner could bring it to bear on his target. Often he could not, as his enemy had the disconcerting habit of overlooking him from high up steep slopes. Try as he might, the gunner could not elevate his gun sufficiently to engage. A 30° maximum elevation was perfect for the flat plains or undulating hills of Europe, but useless in the defiles of Afghanistan. By 1983 a workable solution had been improvised. Twin 23mm AA guns were fixed to the rear of a heavy-duty truck to give the required high rate of accurate fire at any angle up to the almost vertical.
The Soviet Air Force had learned from their low-level bombing runs. There had been a worryingly high proportion of bombs failing to detonate (the Mujahideen had sometimes used them as a source of explosive), so retard bombs which had a small parachute attached were now being employed. They descended more slowly and thus, even at minimal heights, gave enough time for the bombs to become armed before hitting the ground. Anti-personnel cluster bombs were another deadly innovation. They contained sixty bomblets each equivalent to an 81mm mortar bomb. The firepower was awesome, but without sound tactics it could not of itself bring victory, certainly not against a guerrilla force.
The column was split into three separate battalion battle groups each covered by gunships. Within a short distance the leading battalion swung left off the highway and headed towards the village of Shakadara. Ten
kilometres further on the next battalion turned towards the Farza valley, and finally the last battalion moved into the Istalef valley, the northernmost of the three. The maximum distance travelled by any unit was 25 kilometres, but by nightfall on the 26th the battalions had merely positioned themselves astride the highway exits to each valley. The Mujahideen in the area were well aware of what was happening. On the following day the bombing started. Fighter bombers from nearby Bagram screamed up the valleys. Their targets were the people and houses below them. The air attacks, with the crash of 5001b bombs and palls of black smoke, were intended to kill indiscriminately, to terrify, to destroy houses and, supposedly, entrap any Mujahideen who might be in the valleys. On the 28th more bombers pounded the mountainsides and valley floor as the ground forces began pushing up towards Shakadara, Farza and Istalef, each of which was shelled and rocketed by gunships to supplement the air strikes. Not surprisingly, little was left when the Soviet troops arrived – some dead and injured civilians, piles of rubble, a few old men, women and children who had survived by cowering under rocks. Of the Mujahideen – nothing. The pretence of attacking and securing ground continued for another week before the entire force pulled back to Kabul.
There was nothing out of the ordinary in this comparatively small-scale operation. For this very reason it was illuminating for me. It was typical of Soviet tactics at this stage of the war. Road-bound units, bristling with guns, moved tortuously along the roads and tracks in broad daylight. There was no discernible attempt at surprise; the entire effort was slow-moving and ponderous, enabling the Mujahideen either to fight or disappear at their will. No serious attempt had been made to block the heads of the valleys, other than by bombs, and there was not much evidence of coordinating the air strikes with a swift approach by the ground forces. There was bombing, there was shelling, then there was a ground advance to find out what was left, a search and destroy mission with not much searching but a lot of destruction of buildings. No effort was made to position a proper cordon by using helicopters. The Soviets seemed content to stay in their vehicles for the most part, and when they did dismount it was usually only to sift through the debris wrought by high explosive on mud and brick. After a few days of this everybody had gone back, chalking up another victory for official reports. It reminded me of the boxer with his punchbag. Just so long as the boxer keeps his fist on the bag after making his punch an impression is maintained. When he removes his fist to strike again elsewhere the bag resumes its original shape.
It was not enough to know where the enemy was, or even to know his strength, weapons and tactics. I needed knowledge of his morale, his motivations and his will to fight. My recent studies of the Soviet soldier had left me with a high opinion of his fighting qualities, which was one of the
reasons I had been somewhat sceptical of the ability of the Mujahideen to defeat him in the field.
The German, Major-General von Mellenthin, who fought the Russians in 1943, rated their toughness, determination and willpower second to none. He wrote: ‘Natural obstacles simply do not exist for him [the Soviet soldier]; he is at home in the desert, forest, in swamps and marshes, as much as the roadless steppes. He crosses broad rivers by the most primitive means; he can make roads anywhere … in winter, columns ten men abreast and a hundred deep will be sent into forests deeply covered in snow; in half an hour these thousand men will stamp out a path, and another thousand will take their place; within a few hours a road will exist across ground deemed inaccessible by any Western standard.’ Fortunately, as I was to discover, things had changed a lot in forty years, and the general had made no mention of mountains.
The Soviet soldier in Afghanistan proved to be a different man from his father in the ‘Great Patriotic War’, as they called World War 2. Then, the Soviets were defending their motherland, the Germans had killed or captured millions, overrun vast stretches of Russia and driven to the gates of Moscow. The Soviet troops fought with the ferocity and determination of cornered animals. They had no other option, theirs was a battle for personal and national survival; there is no greater cause. In Afghanistan things were completely different.
The modern Soviet soldier is a conscript; even his sergeants are the same. He is compelled to enlist at eighteen for two years. As a conscript recruit his life is normally miserable, often degrading. Prisoners or deserters described the intensive bullying to which they had to submit from private soldiers only six months their senior, as well as from many of their officers. The average Soviet had no motivation to fight in Afghanistan other than to survive and go home. He was not defending his homeland, he was the invader, detested by most Afghans, allies or enemy, and badly trained, fed and accommodated. As the American Vietnam veteran David Parks wrote in GI Diary in 1%8: ‘I never felt I was fighting for any particular cause. I fought to stay alive, and I killed to keep from getting killed.’ I was quite sure many Soviet conscripts in Afghanistan would have expressed the same sentiments.
What puzzled me as a professional soldier was the almost total lack of even basic training given to men who were posted to operational units in the early days of the war. It was quite normal for a recruit to go on operations with only three weeks training behind him. Even worse was the prisoner who described how, during his first six weeks in the Army, he was merely given food and a uniform, no weapon and no training at all. Then he was posted to Afghanistan, to Mazar-i-Sharif, where he was immediately sent on village clearing and house-to-house searches, looking for Chinese, American
or Pakistani mercenaries. Initially, as this man explained, he had to rely on his lessons on the AK-47 that he had received as a twelve-year-old school boy.
When it was realized that Soviet units would be needed to spearhead major operations and that the Afghan Army was totally unreliable, efforts were made to improve training standards, although this did not seemingly improve morale. Reinforcements were held back in the training divisions around Termez, but even this did not obviate the need for continuation training in operational units. The Soviet system did not work well. A conscript was in the Army for two years, with a new intake arriving every six months, and a time-expired group of roughly equal numbers leaving at the same time. Units, many of whom were under-strength anyway, lost their most experienced 25 per cent which were replaced by completely green recruits who required further training. As was pointed out to me, this was one of the reasons why Soviet units had so small a proportion of their men available for active operations away from their bases. A regimental commander could seldom, if ever, put his entire regiment in the field. He would have one battalion resting and being used as a training unit, another manning static defensive posts, with only his third available for deployment. On examining the figures, I doubted whether more than 10-12,000 Soviet troops from their 85,000 inside Afghanistan could have been committed to active operations at any one time. Even these men were in scattered formations, not all concentrated in one area for a major offensive.
Although I treated the horror stories of deserters or prisoners with a degree of scepticism, there appeared to be a basis of truth in what they said, if only because so many told the same thing. By and large the average man from an MRD detested the war, had no enthusiasm for his task, was concerned only with surviving and going home. Living conditions were harsh. Even in Kabul camps were often tented, with forty men living in each throughout the winter, packed around a single stove in the centre. Those in the middle roasted, those on the outside froze. Lack of hygiene and bathing facilities caused sickness, as did a vitamin-deficient diet. Many Soviets went hungry for much of the time. Their rations were insufficient in quantity and lacked variety. Rarely did they eat fruit or vegetables.
These deprivations were accentuated by a lack of cash. A conscript private with no qualifications or experience received roughly the equivalent of five dollars a month. Usually this was spent at once on more food. As well as being bleak and brutal, the existence of many was also boring. The same troops could man the same hilltop outpost for months on end, freezing in winter, baking in the summer. The daily grind of sentry duty, bad food and boredom caused many to seek solace in drugs or alcohol. Hashish was cheaper and easier to obtain than drink, vodka being a luxury reserved for officers. A Soviet soldier from Estonia was quoted as saying, ‘Often regular
Afghan Army soldiers exchanged their Russian arms for food and drink from the peasants. So we did the same thing, because in the chaos of war to explain the loss of a weapon is easy…. We used to buy all kinds of food and drink, and even bread in exchange for our weapons…. Some soldiers got hashish and other drugs. Our Asian soldiers were very often drug addicts because hash and other things grow on their land.’
For money the Soviet soldier would sell anything, including weapons and ammunition, despite draconian punishments if the offender was caught. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that these conscripts were reluctant warriors. Often they were loath to quit the comparative security of their bases, or to dismount from behind armour plate in the field. Their preferred tactics seemed to be to leave the fighting to the Afghan Army, make maximum use of firepower, both ground and air, and stick to the roads as much as possible, only venturing out on foot when the area had been thoroughly strafed and pounded by shells, bombs and rockets. It was my impression, which I retained throughout my tour, that the Soviets were excessively casualty-conscious. This was reflected in the tactics of the senior commanders as well as the actions of individual soldiers.
There were exceptions. The paratroop (air assault) units fought much more aggressively. These men were all jump-trained before arriving in Afghanistan; their NCOs had all done six month courses. Their units had better equipment and their officers were normally of a higher calibre than those in MRDs. In the months following my arrival the Soviets committed more Special Operations Forces to the conflict. These Spetsnaz (Soviet Special Forces) troops were highly trained and motivated. Although the soldiers were conscripts they were the cream of the national intake. In Afghanistan they eventually deployed seven battalions, each of around 250 men, five of which were located in the east and two in the south of the country. I noticed there was a high proportion of paratroops in the Soviet order of battle, indicating that it was these units that would play a key role in offensive sweeps away from the roads. This was invariably the case, although they deployed to battle in helicopters rather than by parachute.
Although the Soviets were my principal target, and it was their withdrawal that was our ultimate goal, most of the time the Mujahideen would be fighting the Afghan Army — Afghan against Afghan. At the start of the resistance movement against the communist government in Kabul in 1978-79, the Afghan Army, trained and equipped by the Soviets for many years, was divided against itself. When the government had announced a compulsory literacy campaign for all women in early 1979, it provoked nationwide protests. This was against all the traditions of Afghans. On 15 March, 1979, a mob of armed protesters had assembled in the city of Herat. The demonstration rapidly turned into a general uprising of the townsmen
and an assault on the prison to release political opponents of the regime. On the 17th soldiers from the garrison joined in, shooting some of their officers. That day the entire Afghan 17th Division mutinied, led by Captain Ismael Khan from the anti-aircraft battalion (he subsequently became a leading Mujahideen Commander in the Herat area). It was the only occasion that a complete division went over to the resistance with its weapons. In the ensuing chaos the people vented their hatred on the Soviet military advisers and their families in Herat. Some fifty or more were rounded up, tortured, cut to pieces, and their heads stuck on poles for parading round the city. Government armoured reinforcements from Kabul and heavy bombing subsequently retook Herat and smashed the resistance at a cost of 5,000, mostly civilian, lives. It was the start of what I would term the ‘revolving door’ period of the Afghan Army.
This period lasted two years, during which it was common for whole units to defect to the Mujahideen. As fast as the Kabul government rounded up recruits, even greater numbers deserted — hence the likeness to a revolving door. In 1980 the situation was so desperate that the 9th Division was down to little more than 1000 men. Commanders confined their men to their bases, or within defensive posts, as to take them out on an operation was tantamount to sending them over to the Mujahideen. Wire and mines were laid to keep defenders in as much as attackers out. The Soviet invasion had given the guerrillas what was to prove their largest recruitment boost of the war as thousands of civilians and soldiers joined what had become a Jehad. The arrival of the infidels gave the resistance a cause, transformed the guerrilla fighter into a crusader, a Mujahideen, with all that that implied. From 100,000 men the Afghan Army shrivelled to a mere 25,000.
Right up to 1987, when I left ISI, I believe the Afghan Army had an annual loss due to desertion, demobilization and death, of around 20,000. Recruitment had to be maintained by press-gangs. In theory conscription was for men aged 18-25 for a period of three years, but in practice those from 15-55 were often taken. The problem was that the manpower pool from which to take recruits had been cut dramatically by the war. Kabul found it impossible to tap the rural areas outside their control, which only left the larger cities which could provide conscripts. By the end of 1980 severe penalties were imposed to keep men in. For ignoring call-up papers up to four years’ jail, for absence without leave up to five years and for desertion, conspiracy against the revolution and a long list of other offences, fifteen years or execution. Later the period of service was extended to four years, which sparked off several mutinies. I heard of men conscripted twice, even three times. Once conscripted a private had to exist on 200 afghanis ($2) a month, whereas if he had volunteered he would have got 3000-6000 afghanis. Everywhere he went he was watched,
an escort accompanied him to the toilet, and sometimes it was two months before he was allowed a weapon at night, or ammunition for his rifle.
This was the force that the Soviets had expected to go out and fight the guerrillas; more often it had to be locked in to prevent its men joining them. This situation threw the Soviets’ initial plan out of gear. I believe now, looking back on it with the benefit of hindsight, that 1980 was the year in which the Mujahideen could have won the war. It was the period in which they received the most recruits from a population nine-tenths opposed to communism; it was the period in which the Soviets found themselves ill-equipped, ill-trained and disinclined to mount counter-insurgency operations (and they were also under immense international pressure as aggressors); and it was the time that the Afghan Army was almost totally useless as a military force. In combination, these factors could have proved fatal to the communists. They did not, for two reasons. Firstly, the Mujahideen did not combine quickly to take advantage of their enemy’s weakness. Secondly, they were not being supplied with sufficient weapons designed to engage tanks, APCs and aircraft. The supply pipeline through Pakistan was not yet functioning at anything like the capacity of the mid-1980s. The Soviets, and the Kabul government, were given time to put their house in order, which they partially succeeded in doing. Thereafter, success for the Jehad was that much more elusive and time-consuming, but still far from impossible.
By 1983 the Afghan Army was functioning again as a viable force. Its dispositions down to divisional level are shown on Map 3, but none of them exceeded 5000 men, making them at best brigades as far as numbers were concerned. One division, the 7th in Kabul, could only muster 1000, while battalions of 200 were not uncommon. Nevertheless, the total strength of the Army had climbed back up to 35,000-40,000 men. It was being utilized in the field to a limited extent and the Soviets were using it to fight the war along the Pakistan border. All the minor posts and garrisons in the east were manned by Afghans. In theory the Afghan High Command worked alongside the Soviets, there supposedly being a partnership to run the war. In practice this was nonsense, as all strategic and most tactical decisions were made by the Soviets. A Soviet military adviser looked over his Afghan opposite number’s shoulder from the headquarters of 40th Army in Kabul down to every isolated company post throughout the twenty-nine provinces. An Afghan officer disregarded his adviser at his peril. There seemed to be a widening rift between Soviet and Afghan commanders, with the former regarding the latter as a second-rate, even expendable, ally. I was later to read transcripts of intercepted radio messages in which Afghan officers complained that they were being ordered to undertake risky, dangerous missions, while the Soviets remained secure in base. I was certain there was little love lost between the two, although both parties realized neither could
survive without the other, so they kept up a pretence of fraternal cooperation.
I was especially keen to understand what was happening in the air. Airpower was assuredly the enemy’s greatest asset. It bestowed not only unlimited firepower, but also mobility. Used correctly, these two could be combined on the battlefield to defeat the guerrillas tactically, if not strategically. The problem from the Mujahideen’s point of view was not so much that they had no airpower of their own, but that their means of striking back at enemy planes and helicopters was restricted to a few outdated SA-7, shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). I will discuss this deficiency, and the air war, in detail in a later chapter but I would make the point here, as it was made to me on my arrival at ISI, that this lack of an effective and suitable anti-aircraft weapon was the most serious defect in the Mujahideen’s armoury. This situation was not to be remedied for another three years.
Discounting at least four helicopter regiments, the air map depicted Bagram Air Base as having the largest concentration with 54 fighter and fighter-bomber aircraft. Next was Shindand in the west with 45, and then Kandahar with 15. These planes were outnumbered by those stationed in the Soviet Union, but which regularly carried out sorties over Afghanistan. At that time our intelligence was showing 195 such aircraft based at Mary North, Karshi Khanabad, Kokayty and Chirchik — this latter being 350 kilometres north of the Amu (see Map 5).
As was explained to me, the Soviet fixed-wing aircraft were being used to attack villages which might be serving as Mujahideen bases. Close air support, that is attacking guerrillas in contact with communist ground troops, was limited. This task was invariably given to helicopter gunships rather than fighter-bombers. Heavy use of bombing in localized areas was a common way of exacting reprisals after a successful guerrilla ambush. Indiscriminate bombing was causing great destruction of villages and inflicting hundreds of civilian casualties. It did not normally do much harm to the Mujahideen, but it was the primary cause of the torrent of refugees flowing into Pakistan. I suppose this in itself was counted as a success by the Soviets, as the refugees became a growing source of discontent in Pakistan.
The Mujahideen feared the helicopter rather than the MiG or the SU-17, because he could not hit back at it. It had become a personal enemy, spitting shells at him from a few thousand feet with comparative impunity. The M1-24 Hind gunship was the Soviet’s battlefield workhorse of the war. Its armaments could include 12.7mm machine guns, 57mm rockets, HE, white phosphorus and incendiary bombs, air-dropped minelet pods, cluster bombs or chemical canisters. By late 1983, working in pairs, they could be seen providing close air support, rocketing villages, flying as convoy escorts and patrolling and destroying whatever they could find moving below them. As a transport helicopter, the Mi-8 or Mi-17 of the Hip series predominated.
[Begin Graphic – Map 5]
Soviet Air Forces Operating in Afghanistan Dec-1983
[End Graphic – Map 5]
They were beginning to be used more effectively to air-land troops into blocking or cut-off positions during the larger sweep operations.
By mid-November I felt more confident that I was beginning to understand the Mujahideen and their enemies. It was time to consult General Akhtar on an overall long-term strategy for the war. We needed to decide priorities, to agree how best to improve the ability of the Mujahideen to defeat a superpower.