Opinion

The Russian (Soviet) Experience in Afghanistan

Muslim Holy War against the Red Army

Part 2 of a Series

By Mike Scruggs – Once the Muslim imams and mullahs began preaching Jihad against the Russian infidels and the Mujahidin had some guerilla warfare successes, the People’s Democratic Army of Afghanistan (PDA) began to melt away.

M-24 Russian Gunship (wikipedia photo)

The invading Red Army could no longer count on effective local political and military support. On January 1, 1980, the PDA 15th Division revolted in Kandahar. Three battalions of the 11th PDA Division deserted when the Soviet 201st MRD (Mobile Rifle Division) rolled into Jalalabad. By mid-1980, the once 90,000-strong PDA had melted away by desertion, casualties, and switched loyalties to only 30,000 confused and largely ineffective troops.

In March, the Soviet 201st MRD launched an armored thrust up the Kunar Valley to relieve the remnants of the 9th PDA Division. The Soviets repeatedly came under intense hit and run fire from the heights on both sides of the valley. Several Red Army detachments incurred heavy casualties in short battles where the Mujahidin poured intense fire on soldiers attempting to knock out their gun positions on commanding heights. According to Mujahidin commanders, 1,800 civilians died during the twelve days the Soviet 201st spent in the valley.

In June, the Mujahidin wreaked a terrible revenge on a 201st MRD battalion of relatively new Soviet conscripts. The Russians were ambushed as they ventured into Paktya, on the road from Gardez to Khost near the Pakistani border. The mostly young Russian soldiers apparently stayed inside their armored personnel carriers and fired inaccurately at their attackers until their ammunition ran out. The guerillas then came in for the kill and slaughtered the whole battalion of about 400 men. This was a devastating loss for the 40th Red Army, but their tight press was able to keep the disaster out of the news. The only official reports were the individual death notices sent to the families of each soldier. Nearly nine more years of war and still more casualties would follow.

The Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan from December 1979 to February 1989 was part of the Cold War. That is to say, it was in many respects a proxy war between the Soviet Union and the United States. The most important U.S. ally was Pakistan, which has a long border with eastern Afghanistan and boasts the second largest Muslim population in the world. Because 99 percent of the Afghan people are Muslim, the resistance to Soviet occupation had strong religious overtones and took the form of Jihad, holy war against invading foreign infidels. This brought the Mujahidin resistance considerable financial support from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. This aid in money and arms was largely coordinated through the CIA and the Pakistani ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence Agency).

Beginning in 1980, the U.S. supported the Mujahidin with over $600 million per year in arms and other aid. In addition, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Pakistan, and other Muslim countries, including Iran, supported the Mujahidin. Even the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which has a short border with eastern Afghanistan, contributed to Mujahidin support. These countries provided a total of another $1.2 billion per year to frustrate the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Moreover, a wealthy Saudi, named Osama bin Laden, contributed part of his own family fortune to give training and arms to a fanatic Arab legion dedicated to Jihad against infidel invaders of Muslim lands. This force was never more than 2,000 strong, but a total of 35,000 of these intensely indoctrinated soldiers of Allah served some time fighting the Soviet Union in the course of the nine-year war

The Soviets never intended to occupy Afghanistan for over nine years, but under the Brezhnev Doctrine they would not allow a Soviet sponsored Communist regime to be brought down. They hoped to defeat the Mujahidin and rebuild the crumbling PDA in a few years and then withdraw their troops and support a Communist Afghan government with weapons and advisors. However, the dogged perseverance of the Mujahidin and huge commitments of financial support and arms by the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Communist China prevented the success of this plan.

The first step of the Soviet military strategy in Afghanistan was to secure and occupy the major urban centers, key airbases, and principal connecting roads and infrastructure. Once these areas and highways were secure, they would then go into the rural and largely mountainous areas and clean out the Mujahidin resistance. Meanwhile, they would be rebuilding and retraining the PDA to take over these tasks within a few years. This Soviet strategy did not fully comprehend, however, that the rural areas of Afghanistan had never paid much attention to any government in Kabul and had been governed essentially without interference from Kabul by tribal elders and Muslim mullahs for hundreds of years. Approximately 85 percent of the Mujahidin lived in these rural mountain and desert areas and could operate from an estimated 4,000 small bases.

Military strategy in Afghanistan is dominated by the largely mountainous terrain. The Hindu Kush Mountains, the western end of the Himalayas, extend from Pakistan southwesterly into the center of Afghanistan and are surrounded for the most part by desert areas in the southern and western provinces. Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan is dominated by high mountains. The main route to Pakistan and the city of Peshawar, which was heavily populated by Afghani Pashtun tribal refugees, was through the famous Khyber Pass.

The initial Soviet penetration of Mujahidin dominated areas consisted of roaring down existing roads in tanks and armored personnel carriers and blasting everything in their path with 105mm. cannons and heavy machine-gun fire. In difficult situations, MiG-23s were brought in to plaster the area with 500-pound bombs. But the Soviets’ most feared and effective weapon was the Mi-24 Hind helicopter-gunship. In addition, the Soviets used twin-engine, swept-wing Tu-16 jet bombers stationed in Soviet Turkmenistan for high-altitude carpet-bombing of difficult to reach mountain areas. After the first year, the Soviets withdrew many of their tanks and increased their helicopter force from 60 to 300.

There was no unity of command among the Mujahidin. Their military leadership was divided among various tribal and regional leaders. They were only unified in their tradition of extreme resistance to foreign invasion and the defense of Islam. Although the Mujahidin could field an estimated 1.2 million highly motivated but uncoordinated holy warriors scattered about the country, the most important leaders could muster no more than five to fifteen thousand men with great effort. Most could muster at most three to four hundred. However, they found that massed opposition to the Red Army, especially when supported by the Soviet Air Force, was suicidal. Early demonstrations of Mujahidin strength of more than a few hundred men were quickly obliterated by Red Army firepower, which frequently included horrendous human slaughter by Mi-24 helicopter-gunships. Additional attacks by Soviet Air Force MiG-23 ground-attack bombers, sometimes supplemented by high-altitude Tu-16 carpet-bombing, completed a circle of death that few could survive. With some exceptions, the Mujahidin were forced to operate in small guerilla teams of ten to thirty men.

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