Afghanistan 1979-89 – What Kind of a War?

Like other counter-insurgency wars, the campaign in Afghanistan was not a war of set-piece battles and great offensives, of victories, defeats, and headlong retreat, and there was no front line. In such a war, there was little scope for generalship in the normal sense of the word. Nor was it a war which lent itself to easy narrative. It was not that the generals were still fighting the Second World War, though there was an element of that too. They had thought long and hard about the conditions of modern warfare, and they believed that they had made the necessary adjustments to fight such a war and win. Their mistake was to assume that if the army was well prepared to fight a major war, it could without too much adaptation successfully fight minor wars as well. The Americans had thought the same at the beginning of the Vietnam War. They had adapted their tactics, but never cracked the problem. Even though they had that example before them, the Soviet commanders had not worked out in advance how to deal with small, lightly equipped, and highly mobile groups of strongly motivated men moving across difficult terrain with which they were intimately acquainted. Until they had gained experience the officers and men of the 40th Army were not very good at this kind of war. And even though many of them adapted well enough, they were in the end no more successful than the Americans at defeating their elusive enemy.

The country in which the 40th Army now found itself could not have been more different from the European plains for which the Soviet army had trained. It might have been specially designed for the conduct of guerrilla warfare, for mountain skirmishes, ambushes along road and tracks, punitive expeditions, occasional massive operations by thousands of Afghan and Soviet soldiers to relieve a beleaguered garrison or smoke out a rebel base, mujahedin raids on Soviet and Afghan government outposts, brief fights around villages or on the outskirts of towns, destruction, retaliation, and great brutality.

The mountains which cover four-fifths of Afghanistan sweep from the Pamirs in the east, where Tajikistan, India, Pakistan, and China join, almost to the frontier with Iran beyond Herat in the west. They divide the country from north to south, and the people into different and often hostile groupings who speak different languages, have different cultures, and for much of history had different religions as well. They are pierced by valleys and defiles, which are negotiable by people on foot: local farmers and shepherds, merchants, smugglers, travellers, tourists, hippies, and guerrilla fighters with their caravans of weapons. Proper roads are a luxury; until the twentieth century there were little more than tracks, passable enough by men and pack animals, but not at all friendly to wheeled traffic.

These mountains are hard enough to fight in at the best of times. The locals know all the paths and tracks, often cutting along the sides of precipitous mountains, easy to ambush, easy to defend, hard to find. But it is worse than that. At sixteen thousand feet, where some of the fighting took place, you can be incapacitated by altitude sickness until you become acclimatised. If you are wounded it can take as many as six of your comrades to get you down to help, often under fire.

Here even quite small numbers of determined men can hold their own against a powerful enemy column. You occupy the overlooking heights, block the front and rear of the column, and then destroy your enemy at leisure. This is what happened to the British ‘Army of the Indus’ in January 1842 on the road east from Kabul through Jalalabad to the Khyber Pass. More than a hundred years later the mujahedin would man the heights overlooking the route of the slow-moving Soviet columns, with their cumbersome lorries and their escorting tanks and personnel carriers. They would knock out the first and last vehicles with a mine or a rocket, and then systematically destroy the remainder.

But if the guerrilla tactic was simple, so was the answer, at least in theory. The British learned to adopt ‘a form of tactics then new to military science in Asia, namely the picketing of flank hills to protect a column on the march through the defiles of a mountainous terrain … [T]he Afridis [Pushtuns] still remember the occasion; it was only when [General] Pollock adopted, as they say, their own tactics, and applied them to the movements of his troops, that he became successful.’ The Russians adopted the same broad tactic as they fought their convoys through the mountain passes and along the desert roads, sending special forces and paratroopers by forced march or by helicopter to occupy the heights before the mujahedin could get there and to block off their line of retreat.

Most Afghans live neither in the mountains nor in the ancient cities, but in kishlaks in the ribbon of low land which fringes the north of the country, swings southward past Herat and then round towards the east, through the desert, until it reaches the mountains again at Kandahar. This sliver of land constitutes about 15 per cent of the total area of the country. But only 6 per cent is actually farmed: livestock, wheat and cotton, fruit, nuts, melons, raisins, and of course poppies.

Patches of lush green punctuate the arid landscape, a ‘flowering, fertile plain’, as the Soviet writer Alexander Prokhanov described it, ‘where settlements built of golden mud bricks spread out among the gardens and vineyards, where cool water filled the hand-made wells, where the young rice showed green in tiny, carefully cultivated fields, where flowering poppy and yellow sunflower flamed and burned’. Two decades later a journalist with the British soldiers in the southern province of Helmand went so far as to say, ‘The narrow strip of fertile meadows, irrigation ditches and mud-bricked compounds lining the Helmand river suggest a tranquillity unmolested by time. It can feel like Tuscany.’

The villages themselves tend to conform to a common pattern. The streets are narrow and the houses have flat roofs, with walls presenting a blank face to the outside world. They are built of mud brick; they age rapidly and it is often hard to tell how old they are. If they collapse, or are destroyed by bombing, the buildings soon melt back into the soil from which they sprang, as if they had never been. If you go there today the ravages of the war are hard to trace.

Alexander Kartsev described a typical village near his guard post: ‘The kishlak was not at all large, about ten fortified buildings and a few others built of mud bricks. The fortified buildings are striking both by their size and by their purpose. For the people of Kalashakhi the fortified buildings are ordinarydwellings, just like any other. They differ from the crowded and dirty Afghan cities completely … Walls up to six metres high, made of mud brick. More than a metre thick. Even a shell from a tank will not always pierce a wall like that. Watchtowers at the corners of the fortification two or three storeys high. On the inner side of the wall one- or two-storey dwellings of unfired brick, usually set out in the form of a [Cyrillic] letter. There are no buildings on the northern side. That is the coldest wall, uneconomic to heat in winter. Fuel is very hard to get here. Only one room has anything like a fireplace. People use kizyaki for fuel – dried and concentrated cow or camel dung. Only the richest can afford to use wood for heating.

‘On the ground floor you usually find the kitchen, and a kind of living room for eating and receiving guests where the floor is covered with matting or sometimes with carpets. A few other rooms are joined to the guest room: people live here in the summer, because the mud brick walls keep out the exhausting heat.

‘On the first floor are the rooms where people sleep and live in the winter. These are usually situated immediately above the kitchen, where there is an open stove for the preparation of food. There is no chimney. Instead a number of small holes in all the internal walls distribute the warm air through the rooms. The houses are like a large and living organism. It is not surprising that the Afghans are so warmly attached to them. In the far corner of the fortress is an enclosure for the cattle. Not far from the kitchen is a large well, called a kyariz … The fortress covers an area of not less than 400 square metres. It is inhabited, usually, by only one family.’

The Soviet soldiers – and the British soldiers who came after them – called the cultivated land around the villages the ‘green zone’, the zelenka in Russian. Despite its beguiling appearance, the green zone was in many ways an even worse place to fight than the mountains. The farmland and vineyards were irrigated with water from springs and rivers, distributed through a delicate and complicated system of surface ditches and underground tunnels punctuated by vertical shafts. Lounging along the roadside there were always men in shirts and long Afghan robes, in turbans and local headgear, armed to the teeth; and there was no way that the soldiers could tell whether they were part of the local self-defence organisation, or mujahedin waiting for a juicy target – or both.

These villages, into which guerrilla fighters could infiltrate, catch their enemies unawares, and then disappear back down the tunnels to evade retaliation, where every house and road might be booby-trapped, where peaceful civilians could suddenly become concealed enemies, were a nightmare for the Russian soldiers. In one incident a reconnaissance battalion incautiously entered a village in the green zone. They emerged two hours later, having lost twenty-five dead and forty-eight wounded. Such incidents were almost always the avoidable result of stupid and undisciplined behaviour.

Although the fighting was messy, piecemeal and confused, the main objective of each side was simple enough: to stifle the supply routes of the other. The Russians brought in all their fuel, their equipment, their ammunition, and much of their food by lorry from the Soviet Union. The mujahedin got most of their weapons, ammunition, and other military supplies over the mountains from Pakistan.

Because it was a battle for roads and tracks and mountain pathways, both the Russians and the rebels used mines in very large numbers and with little discrimination. But in an asymmetrical war mines, booby traps, and roadside bombs are the preferred weapon of the weaker side, and can have a devastating effect on the morale of the stronger, as the Americans discovered in Vietnam. The rebels’ mines came from a wide variety of sources – America, Britain, Italy, China – and they also improvised their own. The largest mines could destroy a tank or an infantry fighting vehicle. The smallest could blow off a foot. The Russians used flail tanks to clear the roads. Sappers used trained dogs, probed for mines by hand – it was no good using a metal detector because the mujahedin often used plastic mines – and defused them, as columns and raiding parties followed at a snail’s pace. As they said, a sapper only ever makes one mistake.

For their part the Russians set mines in a protective belt round their own positions, and along routes and mountain tracks used by the rebels. In principle they kept proper maps of the places where they had sown their mines. In practice maps were inaccurate, got lost, or were never made in the first place, and so the Russians were sometimes blown up on their own mines. The rebels did not bother to make maps.

It was not for nothing that the Russians called it a ‘war of mines’: Afghanistan remains littered with mines sown by all parties both to the Soviet war and to the civil war which followed. There are still casualties as old mines are set off by children playing and by peasants working their fields.

The mujahedin avoided pitched battles and struck from ambush where they had the advantage. Occasionally they went further, attacked garrisons and airbases, and tried towards the end of the war to capture towns. But the Soviet convoys went on running, the main roads remained open, and no town of any consequence fell to the mujahedin while the Russians were still in Afghanistan.

For their part the Russians raided villages suspected of harbouring rebels, struck into the mountains to destroy their bases and disperse their men, mounted counter-ambushes, and mined the routes along which the mujahedin moved. Their operations were supported by transport and battle helicopters, by artillery, by fighter bombers under the command of the 40th Army, and by long-range bombers from the Soviet Union. Quite junior officers – lieutenants and captains in charge of guard posts – could call down artillery support if they needed it. The inevitable result was a heavy loss of life and property among the civilian population.

But to confront the mujahedin and their unorthodox methods of fighting effectively, special skills and special tactics and special troops were needed, troops that could operate in the mountains to ambush and counter-ambush the guerrilla bands, and to cut the routes taken by their caravans. Although the ordinary motor-rifle units took regular part in such operations, the main brunt of the fighting inevitably fell on the elite special and parachute units, and on the reconnaissance battalions and companies in the motor-rifle divisions and regiments. These troops fought very effectively, both in the high mountains and in the green zone. They made up some 20 per cent of the total strength of the 40th Army: according to some calculations, of the 133 battalions in the 40th Army, only fifty-one took part regularly in operations. The rest spent much of their time in their garrisons or escorting convoys.

In addition to these regular army units there were a number of special forces teams set up by the GRU, the KGB, and the Ministry of the Interior. Of these the GRU special forces teams were the most substantial. A ‘special forces group’ was set up in 1985 which eventually consisted of two brigades, each of eight battalions, an independent company, an independent reconnaissance battalion, four regimental reconnaissance companies, nine reconnaissance platoons, and thirteen other units, a total of three thousand men in all. The 15th Brigade was stationed in Jalalabad and the 22nd Brigade in Asadabad in Kunar province on the Pakistani border. The 22nd Brigade was pulled out in the summer of 1988 as the 40th Army began its withdrawal. The 15th Brigade remained behind to cover the final stage of the withdrawal in February 1989.

The main purpose of the GRU special forces units was to block the supply routes of the mujahedin through the mountains. They acquired a formidable reputation as they became increasingly well trained and equipped to fight their elusive enemy. Enduring extreme heat and cold in the harsh Afghan climate, suffering from altitude sickness in the high mountains, backed by helicopters and attack aircraft, they ambushed the guerrillas or were ambushed in their turn, and they did what they could to stop the caravans with military supplies streaming in from CIA and Pakistani bases across the frontier. They achieved some impressive results: in one action in May 1987 they destroyed a large caravan, killed 187 mujahedin, and captured a considerable amount of equipment and ammunition. But in spite of all their efforts, and those of the other elite troops, they succeeded in intercepting barely 15–20 per cent of the mujahedin caravans. No more than the mujahedin did they succeed in their prime purpose: to block their enemies’ supply routes.

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