The Red Army vs. the Mujahideen, 1980–1989 Part I



Few could have imagined that jihadist insurgents would prove so powerful when the Soviet Union launched its textbook takedown of Afghanistan. The Soviet assault began on Christmas Eve 1979—exactly fifty days after the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran—with more than a division of paratroopers landing at Kabul airport and at the Bagram airbase thirty-five miles away. A day later, on December 25, a Motorized Rifle Division rumbled across the border from Soviet Turkestan and began racing south toward Kabul. Ostensibly these troops were only responding to pleas of assistance from a communist regime that had taken power in a coup the preceding year. The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, as the communists were known, had immediately begun to alienate the population by challenging age-old social customs and landownership patterns. Landlords and mullahs were arrested, women ordered to unveil. Even the color of the Afghan flag was changed from Islamic green to communist red. The government tried to repress the resulting unrest by sending aircraft to bomb civilian neighborhoods and soldiers to massacre entire villages. Such excesses only drew more recruits into a burgeoning holy war. By the end of 1979 more than half of the Afghan army had deserted and 80 percent of the country had fallen out of the central government’s control.

The inner core of the Politburo in Moscow, led by the ailing eighty-year-old general secretary, Leonid Brezhnev, concluded that unless the USSR intervened, a “fraternal” regime would be toppled. They believed that the revolution was particularly imperiled by President Hafizullah Amin, a ruthless communist who had taken power just three months earlier by deposing and killing his predecessor. Amin, who had been educated at Columbia University, spoke English and expressed a desire for better relations with Washington. This led the KGB to suspect him, improbably enough, of being a CIA agent.

On December 27, 1979, KGB commandos wearing Afghan army uniforms and backed by the Red Army were ordered to assault the Tajbeg Palace, on the outskirts of Kabul, where Amin was holed up with 2,500 guards. Ironically, as the assault was about to start at 7:30 p.m., Amin was inside being treated for food poisoning (a KGB plot) by doctors from the Soviet embassy who had not been informed of the plan to eliminate their patient. When told that his palace was under attack, Amin asked an aide to contact the Soviets to save him, only to be told that the attackers were Soviets.

The KGB men were given a few shots of vodka and told “no one should be left alive” in the palace. The assault force encountered heavier than expected resistance from Amin’s guards, who greeted them with heavy machine-gun fire and fought them from room to room. Dozens of KGB officers were killed and almost all of the rest wounded. But, firing automatic weapons and throwing grenades, the commandos finally gained control of the palace and killed Amin. One Russian recalled that “the rugs were soaked with blood” by the time they were done.

Elsewhere in Kabul, other Russian troops were occupying the government ministries, the radio and television stations, and other strategic points. They were aided by embedded Russian advisers who tricked Afghan soldiers into taking the ammunition out of their tanks and the batteries out of their trucks. It was a model takedown not only of the capital but of the entire country—faster and less costly than the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Within a few weeks, eighty thousand Red Army troops were deployed across the country and a new president had been proclaimed: Babrak Karmal, a communist who had been a rival of Amin’s.

Western leaders were afraid that this was only the start of a Communist offensive toward the oil fields of the Persian Gulf. In fact Soviet leaders had no such plans. They were only trying to buttress a shaky ally, and they expected a quick in-and-out operation like that in Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. They had no idea that they had just launched a war that would last nine years, kill 26,000 Soviet soldiers, help bring about the downfall of the Soviet empire, and give a considerable boost to the global forces of jihad.

Perhaps if Soviet leaders had studied the annals of guerrilla warfare more closely—to include the hardships endured by the “bourgeois” British forces in Afghanistan in 1839–42 and 1878–80—they might not have been so confident about the outcome. But even the most thorough survey of history would not have fully prepared them to confront an Afghan enemy far more dangerous than any the British had ever faced. Like their nineteenth-century predecessors, the rebels who were to fight Soviet invaders were inflamed by nationalist and religious zeal. But they were to enjoy advantages undreamed of by Akbar Khan or Sher Ali: namely, the provision of secure bases next door in Pakistan where they could receive arms and training. It would not take long for the Red Army to find out that in Afghanistan’s vast and difficult terrain those advantages counted for more than all the modern weaponry at its disposal. It was in essence the same lesson learned by the American armed forces in Vietnam, and it would prove just as painful.

The Red Army’s education began in the Panjshir Valley, a narrow gash in the towering Hindu Kush mountains. Located forty miles north of Kabul, it is seventy miles long and runs in a northeasterly direction. The valley walls are sheer gray rock, the floor so narrow that at its widest point it is only a mile across. Travel in the 1980s was by a single dirt road, “no more than a stony path,” which ran alongside the “blue-green,” rapidly flowing Panjshir River. Here, before the coming of the Soviets, lived eighty thousand ethnic Tajiks, who scratched out a living raising chickens and goats, apricots and wheat. By 1980 the entire valley was under the control of Ahmad Shah Massoud, one of numerous mujahideen commanders who had taken up arms to resist the Soviet invasion.

Actually Massoud, like many of the “holy warriors,” had begun fighting before the arrival of the Russians. Born in 1952 to an Afghan army officer, he had attended a French high school in Kabul followed by the Russian-built Kabul Polytechnic Institute, where he showed his mathematical ability. Like numerous other university students in the 1970s, Massoud became active in politics, but his politics were not of the secular leftist variety. Rather he became an adherent of the Muslim Youth, a militant movement inspired by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Their activities ran afoul of President Mohammad Daoud, a leftist who took power in 1973 from his cousin King Zahir Shah. (He, in turn, would be toppled by his communist allies five years later.) Massoud had to flee to Pakistan, where the government provided him and thousands of other fundamentalist Afghans with military training. After an aborted foray back into Afghanistan in 1975, he returned for good three years later to fight the new communist regime. He started, noted a journalist, with “fewer than 30 followers, 17 rifles of various makes, and $130 in cash.” Within a few years he had created a force of 3,000 mujahideen. They would become the nucleus of the most formidable guerrilla movement the Soviets had ever faced.

This achievement was all the more remarkable considering that Massoud received considerably less outside assistance than other muj commanders who were based in Pakistan and were close to its Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Moreover in a country that revered age Massoud was not yet thirty at the time of the Soviet invasion. That he was able to thrive largely on his own was a tribute to his shrewdness and charisma. “He had an energy, an intensity, a dignity that was immediate and powerful and had an effect on everyone around,” recalled the journalist Sebastian Junger. “When he was talking, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Something about him was just captivating.”

Massoud was a devout Muslim who prayed five times a day, but he did not display the same dogmatism and extremism as the more hard-line muj commanders. He had “a kind of gentle fragility and a disarming sense of humor,” a tolerance for others, and an interest in poetry and Sufi mysticism. He encouraged women to become educated and treated Soviet prisoners with “such compassion that Soviet soldiers preferred to surrender to him over anybody else”; one of them even became his bodyguard. (Other muj commanders, by contrast, were known for torturing captives.) He won the devotion of his men by displaying a complete lack of pretension and a genuine interest in their well-being. His fellow mujahideen remembered that “he washed his own clothes, even his socks,” prepared his own food, and took his turn on guard detail at night. When he was given a new pair of shoes by a foreign visitor, he handed them to one of his men even though his own “toes were sticking out of one of his shoes.”

The mujahideen were natural guerrillas like Shamil’s Chechens or the Greek klephts—“ornery backwoodsmen” with a strong religious faith who had been fighting foreign interlopers (and one another) for centuries. Massoud was better educated than most, even if he had forgotten most of the French he had learned. He had read the classics of guerrilla warfare—Mao, Che, Giap—even books on the American Revolution, and he set out to apply what he had learned. Hawk-nosed and wispy-bearded, typically seen in a pakol (flat woolen hat) and safari jacket, his visage would soon became almost as famous as the men whose exploits he had studied. Within a few years he would be recognized, in the judgment of the travel writer Robert Kaplan, as “among the greatest guerrilla fighters of the twentieth century.”

He not only used the Panjshir Valley as his base but, unlike other muj, also administered it as a “liberated zone” with its own schools, courts, mosques, prisons, a French-operated hospital, and a military training center. He was among the first of the muj to divide his forces into mobile groups of full-time fighters (moutarik) and a local militia of part-time helpers who would defend their villages (sabet). The moutarik, organized into companies of 120 men, wore olive uniforms and black army boots. They were armed with a motley assemblage of weapons either captured from the Red Army or bought in Pakistan, including AK-47 assault rifles, RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenades, DShK 12.7-millimeter machine guns, and even ZPU-2 antiaircraft guns. They posed a particular menace to the occupiers because the Panjshir Valley ends just a few miles from the Salang highway running from Kabul to the Soviet border. This was the main Soviet supply artery, and Massoud’s men were constantly raiding it. At one point they even hijacked a black Volga sedan destined for Afghanistan’s defense minister. Massoud’s fighters disassembled it, hauled it to their valley, and put it back together for their commander to ride in.

As early as the spring of 1980, the Soviets launched their first offensive against the Panjshir—to little effect. By May 1982 they were preparing for their fifth assault with 8,000 Russian and 4,000 Afghan troops backed by a formidable array of airpower. Thanks to his excellent intelligence network, Massoud got wind of what was coming and staged a spoiling attack against the Soviet airbase at Bagram on April 25, 1982, damaging or destroying at least a dozen aircraft on the ground. This delayed the start of the weeklong bombing campaign that preceded the Soviet ground offensive. When the invasion finally came on May 17, the Soviets put their Afghan allies in the lead. Massoud let the Afghan soldiers proceed unharmed; many wound up defecting. But as soon as a Soviet armored column began entering the valley, his men dynamited the gorges to create a rockslide that blocked its advance. This held back the invaders but not for long. Not only did they break through the roadblock; they also sent forces into the northern end of the valley to catch Massoud in a pincer. At the same time six battalions, some 1,200 men, air-assaulted into the middle of the valley in Mi-6 and Mi-8 helicopters, while MiG-21 fighters and Su-25 ground-attack aircraft pulverized anything that moved.

“From dawn to dusk, they doggedly came,” wrote Edward Girardet of the Christian Science Monitor, who witnessed the assault while embedded with Massoud’s forces.

First, one heard an ominous distant drone. Then, as the throbbing grew louder, tiny specks appeared on the horizon and swept across the jagged, snow-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush. Like hordes of wasps, the dull grey helicopter gunships came roaring over the towering ridges that ring this fertile valley. Soon the hollow thuds of rockets and bombs resounded like thunder as they pounded the guerrilla positions. . . . From one vantage point halfway up the Panjshir we could distinctly see the Soviet and Afghan government forces as they moved in dust-billowing columns of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and trucks along the single dirt road. . . . Through our binoculars, we could distinguish formal rows of BM-21 “Stalin organs,” each capable of firing 40 rockets altogether carrying 4½ tons of explosives, and giant self-propelled howitzers pointing menacingly in our direction.

Massoud was caught off guard by this multipronged assault—but only temporarily. He was an “excellent chess player,” and like all great chess players he learned to analyze a situation dispassionately. A British journalist who spent time with him found that he “never seemed to panic . . . he didn’t seem to lose his cool.” A fellow muj recalled that “he was always smiling” and “you would feel when you saw him smile . . . that we were winning.” That upbeat attitude came in handy when the odds were stacked so heavily against him, as they were in 1982.

Along with most of the valley’s residents, he and his men took refuge in the small side valleys adjacent to the Panjshir. Safe in caves and stone shelters that had been constructed “amid the nooks and crannies of towering bluffs,” they could dash out at any time to strike the immobile army below. The Soviets could not reach their tormentors. They bombed and rocketed one guerrilla machine-gun position all afternoon until only one small tree was left standing. The next day the gun was firing again. “At first the Russians only set up tents on the valley floor,” wrote Edward Girardet. “Later, when mujahideen firing became murderous, they were forced to dig trenches.” By July the trenches were abandoned. The offensive had petered out, and the Soviets had to pull most of their forces out.

By the end of the war the Red Army had mounted nine major offensives, which cost it thousands of casualties, yet Massoud still controlled the Panjshir. His resilience in the face of repeated assaults by superior forces of undoubted skill and savagery was every bit as impressive as that of Toussaint Louverture in Haiti, Francisco Espoz y Mina in Spain, and Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia.

The battles of the Panjshir were typical of the entire war. The Red Army conducted many big, blundering offensives but, as its own general staff later conceded, most “were wasted effort”—“more appropriate for the Northern European plain than the rugged mountains of Afghanistan.” Most of the country, from the towering peaks of the east to the barren deserts of the south, remained forever outside its grasp. The only exceptions were the major cities and the highways that connected them.

Frustrated by their inability to come to grips with the insurgents, whom they called dukhi (ghosts) or dushman (enemy), Soviet troops unleashed their anger on helpless civilians. In 1984 investigators from Helsinki Watch, precursor of Human Rights Watch, went to Pakistan to interview Afghan refugees, Soviet deserters, and Western visitors to Afghanistan. “From our interviews,” they wrote, “it soon became clear that just about every conceivable human rights violation is occurring in Afghanistan, and on an enormous scale.” Former prisoners testified about the interrogation methods of the Soviets and the KGB-trained Afghan secret police, the KhAD—“about electric shocks, nail pulling, lengthy periods of sleep deprivation, standing in cold water and other punishments.” Horrific reprisals for attacks were also the norm. One Russian soldier recalled how in 1982 a captain and three soldiers got drunk on vodka and wandered into a village, where they were killed. The commander of a Red Army brigade, who happened to be the brother of the dead captain, then took his men into the village and slaughtered everyone in sight—approximately two hundred people.

Often their atrocities had no military purpose whatsoever. Russian soldiers were known to steal anything valuable and shoot anyone who resisted. Helicopter gunships even shot up moving vehicles so that soldiers could loot them. Such relentless attacks on the civilian population forced large numbers of Afghans to flee their homes, heading for Iran or Pakistan. Not even these pitiful columns of refugees, clutching their blankets and chickens, were safe. When caught in the open they were strafed and bombed by Soviet aircraft. Perhaps the biggest cause of civilian casualties was the mines that were scattered indiscriminately by the millions around the country. Many were “butterfly” mines dropped from the air that were designed to blend in with the countryside. They would usually maim rather than kill on the theory that a wounded person was more of a burden to the resistance than a dead one. There were also persistent, if unproved, reports of mines disguised as toys blowing the legs and arms off children that did much to mobilize world opinion against the Soviet invasion. Soviet troops even tore apart Korans and bombed mosques or used them as bathrooms—the worst sacrilege imaginable in such a pious society.

The invaders were not totally blind to the need for civil action to woo the populace as preached by generations of counterinsurgents from Lyautey to Lansdale. Between 1980 and 1989 Moscow sent $3 billion in nonmilitary aid to Afghanistan and dispatched thousands of advisers to assist the Afghan government. But much of the spending went to the Sovietization of Afghan society—toward teaching Marxism-Leninism and Russian in the schools—which did nothing to win “hearts and minds” and in fact further alienated the devoutly Muslim population. Even occasional Soviet good works, such as building hospitals and power stations, were drowned in a sea of blood.

The invaders killed more than 1 million Afghans and forced 5 million more to flee the country. Another 2 million were internally displaced. Since Afghanistan’s prewar population was 15 million to 17 million, its scale of suffering, with more than 6 percent of the population perishing, was comparable to Yugoslavia’s in World War II.

Soviet leaders may not have cared from a humanitarian standpoint about all the hardship they inflicted but, like the Germans in Yugoslavia, they would have cause to regret the effect of their policies, which was to drive large numbers of men into the arms of the resistance. At least 150,000 fighters joined the mujahideen. The guerrillas thus outnumbered the Red Army, which never had more than 115,000 men in Afghanistan. The Soviets were aided by 30,000 Afghan government soldiers, mostly press-ganged conscripts of dubious reliability. There were also at least 15,000 Afghan secret policemen who worked closely with the KGB. They were more dedicated defenders of the regime, but they were too few in number to make up for the counterinsurgents’ numerical disadvantage. (By contrast, facing a foe utilizing gentler methods, the Taliban in the post-2001 era were never able to mobilize more than 30,000 men to fight NATO forces, 140,000-strong at their peak, and 350,000 of their allies in the Afghan security forces.) For the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul, the counterinsurgency math—the proportion of security forces to population: in this case 1 to 100—was decidedly not in its favor.

Nor was the composition of the occupation forces terribly advantageous. The United States had learned during the Vietnam War that sending large numbers of conscripts on such an inglorious, dangerous, and long-lasting mission, with little prospect of immediate gains to boost popular support, was a recipe for trouble: commanders would have to grapple with low morale among their own troops and opposition back home. The Soviet government was less susceptible to public opinion than its American counterpart, but it too would learn the folly of fighting a brutal counterinsurgency war with unmotivated conscripts.

Soviet soldiers were told that they were being sent to help a “fraternal ally” resist “U.S. imperialism and Peking hegemonism.” It did not take long for them to see through this propaganda and to conclude, as one soldier put it, “Everyone around us was an enemy. . . . We didn’t see any friendly Afghans anywhere—only enemies. Even the Afghan army was unfriendly.” Soldiers knew that every time they ventured outside their well-protected bases they risked returning home on the “Black Tulip”—the transport aircraft that brought back zinc coffins. Even bases weren’t totally safe: two soldiers who went to an outdoor latrine at Bagram were found with their heads impaled on sticks. After seeing a friend killed, one soldier said, “I was ready to destroy everything and everyone.” Another soldier recalled how two soldiers from his company actually “fought between themselves for the right to shoot seven Afghans who were prisoners.” After one of them shot six prisoners with “bullets in the back of the neck,” the other soldier ran up shouting, “Let me shoot too! Let me!”

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