Category: Mike Scruggs' Column
Pashtun Mujahidin aligned with Taliban.
Pashtun Mujahidin aligned with Taliban.

Potential Mujahidin manpower vastly outnumbered Soviet forces in Afghanistan. During the course of the nine-year war, from 1979 to 1989, approximately one million Mujahidin engaged in determined armed resistance to the Soviet Union’s invasion of their homeland. The vast majority were either native Afghans or Afghan refugees living in Pakistan.

Many, however, were from Pashtun tribes that dominated adjacent areas of western Pakistan. The term “Afghan” has two meanings: broadly, one who is a native of the modern nation of Afghanistan; and the original and narrower meaning, a member of one of the Pashtun tribes, as opposed to the Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmen, and other smaller tribal groups. The various Sunni Muslim Pashtun tribes make up 42 percent of the population of Afghanistan.  In addition, about 35,000 Arab Muslims, many trained by Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda, joined the Jihad against the USSR.

Soviet forces never numbered more than 118,000 at any one time. The Red Army and Soviet Air Force, however, had a tremendous firepower advantage over the Mujahidin, so much that en masse Mujahidin opposition to Soviet operations in the field proved suicidal.

Faced with the enormous superiority of Red Army firepower meted out by tanks, helicopter-gunships, long range artillery, and supported by devastating attacks by Soviet Air Force fighter-bombers and high-altitude carpet bombing launched from Soviet Turkmenistan, most Mujahidin warfare was conducted by ten to thirty-man guerilla teams.   Their primary tactics were ambush, sabotage, laying roadside mines, and hit and run mortar and rocket attacks. They also made use of snipers, assassination teams, and bomb detonation teams.

It was normal for the Pashtuns, who have fierce warrior traditions, to own and sometimes carry rifles. In the Anglo-Afghan wars from 1839 to 1919, the Afghan long rifle (jezail) proved more accurate and deadly than British muskets. Few in the Northern tribes, however, were familiar with guns and even fewer possessed them. Massive desertions and defections in the Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Army (PDA) however, soon made AK-47 assault rifles, rocket propelled grenade (RPG) launchers, explosives, mortars, mines, and light machine-guns available.  In addition, the CIA and Pakistani ISI had been funneling weapons into Afghanistan for six months before the Soviet invasion. This quickly rose to more than $1.8 billion in arms per year. By agreement, most of this aid—including Chinese manufactured AK-47s, RPGs, mortars, light artillery, antiaircraft machineguns, handheld antiaircraft rocket launchers, and other infantry weapons—went from the Pakistani ISI to the leaders of seven Afghan political groups headquartered in Peshawar, Pakistan. These groups were distinguished by regional, tribal, religious, and political loyalties. 

The most important of these were the fundamentalist Party of Islam, headed by the young, tough-minded Pashtun leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and the Society of Islam, headed by the brilliant intellectual Tajik leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani.  Rabbani’s principal military commanders in Afghanistan, Ahmed Shah Massoud and Ismail Khan, turned out to be formidable military leaders.  These Tajik leaders would later be associated with the Northern Alliance, a coalition of non-Pashtun parties who allied against the Taliban, an extreme fundamentalist faction of the Pashtun, in 1996.

The U.S. wanted to supply the military commanders of Mujahidin forces directly in the field, but Pakistani President, General Zia-Ul-Haq insisted that going through the Peshawar political groups was much more efficient.  It also allowed Zia to favor one group over another. Both the Pakistanis and the Saudis strongly favored the more militant Pashtun Party of Islam.

The fundamentalist and Islamist-leaning Madrasah schools in Peshawar, Pakistan, were a fertile recruiting, indoctrination, and training ground for Mujahidin warriors. This would have unfortunate consequences for the United States and its Western allies in future years.

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev died in November 1982. He was replaced by Yuri Andropov who died in February 1984. His successor was the grandfatherly-looking Constantine Chernenko who pursued a ruthless policy of attrition against both the Mujahidin and Afghan civilians.  The USSR had been for many years an instigator of guerilla warfare in Vietnam and other places, so his application of counter-insurgency warfare makes an interesting comparison to Mao Zedong’s statement about guerillas being “fish swimming in the water of the people.” Chernenko simply decided to drain the water.

The heaviest fighting of the war occurred near the Pakistani border, northeast of Kabul, in the

Panjshir Valley and in the provinces along Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan. The Red Army launched nine major air-supported offensives against the Tajik leader Massoud’s 5,000 Mujahidin in the Panjshir Valley but failed to dislodge them from the mountains and small side-valleys. Massoud, a gifted 1973 graduate of the Afghan Military Academy with superb linguistic and public relations skills, became a favorite of the Reagan Administration. Despite Tajik defensive victories, however, he told journalist Edward Girardet that the Soviets might win by depleting the population:

“Unfortunately, we are in danger of losing our people. This is where the Soviets may succeed. Failing to crush us by force, as they have said they would with each offensive, they have turned their wrath on defenseless people, killing old men, women and children, destroying houses and burning crops. They are doing everything possible to drive our people away. “

Devastating Soviet firepower and airpower inflicted appalling casualties on both the Mujahidin and their civilian population during the war, causing 3.5 million refugees to flee to Pakistan and another million to Iran.

In the early months of the war, the Soviets packed their initial Afghanistan invasion force with soldiers from their southern Muslim republics. This was a reasonable attempt to soften the cultural impact of their invasion. However, the Pashtun tribes considered Muslims from north of the Oxus River to be their ancient enemies. This was like pouring gasoline on smoldering coals. In addition, the atrocities perpetrated by Lenin and Stalin on the Uzbek, Turkmen, and Tajik tribes in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s were well known by their kinsmen in Northern Afghanistan, many of whom were descendents of refugees.

Even more important, the growing predominance of Muslims in the Red Army force in Afghanistan caused dangerous rifts, distrust, and suspicions of divided loyalties within the Red Army. Within a few months, this situation was remedied by replacement and unit rotation, and thereafter the Red Army in Afghanistan assumed its normal Slavic character.

Afghanistan is a country dominated by its predominantly mountainous terrain. This bedeviled the Soviets more than any other factor and essentially determined not only tactical warfare but also overall strategy. They could control the key cities and main roads around the periphery of the mountains, but they experienced great difficulty establishing any sort of permanent control of hundreds of mountain valleys and any populated areas in rugged terrain. The Mujahidin usually operated in small groups centered on over 4,000 small base camps, usually well dug into caves and positions difficult to reach by Red Army armor and mechanized infantry. From these camps they ventured out to ambush Soviet mechanized infantry and truck convoys and make hit-and-run mortar and rocket attacks on Red Army positions.

Faced with difficult and dangerous ground access to Mujahidin strongholds, the Soviets pursued a strategy of attrition, leaning heavily on Soviet airpower.  Carpet bombing and tactical airstrikes were used extensively simply to kill as many of the Mujahidin as possible. In addition, the Red Army made extensive use of its dreaded Hind helicopter-gunships, often supplemented with the latest Soviet long-range artillery and tanks.  The Soviets made little distinction between Mujahidin combatants and civilians, both of whose casualties were enormous. The Red Army, including the Soviet Air Force, suffered about 14,500 deaths from all causes in Afghanistan. The Soviet-allied PDA lost 18,000. The Mujahidin suffered at least 75,000 combat deaths, and Afghan civilian deaths totaled at least 562,000 out of a total population of 17 million at the start of the war. To be continued.

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