Military history



The Red Army vs. the Mujahideen, 1980–1989

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.5

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,6 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 mujcommanders, 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.7

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.”8 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.9

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.10 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.11

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!”

In a professional army, officers and NCOs are supposed to inspire and discipline soldiers and channel their aggression in a constructive direction. But in the Red Army the officers acquired a reputation as “jackals” who looked out primarily for their own comforts and allowed senior soldiers (thededy, or grandfathers) to bully and beat the new men. Beset by what one soldier called “an all-encompassing moral corruption,” they did little to restrain their frightened, unmotivated, trigger-happy men who acted in complete contravention of the teachings of Mao, Castro, Magsaysay, and other leaders, both insurgents and counterinsurgents, who had instructed their men to respect the populace in order to win its allegiance. All counterinsurgent forces commit some abuses: even the U.S. Army, which by the standards of most other armies has been relatively restrained, has been guilty of atrocities ranging from Wounded Knee to My Lai and Abu Ghraib. But the prevalence and scale of such human-rights violations in Afghanistan was much more troubling, and Red Army leaders did much less than their American counterparts to police their own ranks. Soviet soldiers were told, “Do whatever you want, but don’t get caught.” This became a license for rampant human-rights abuses, which inflicted not only great suffering on the Afghans but also considerable psychological trauma on the perpetrators—and that undermined their war aims.

Morale was not helped by the fact that the Red Army was unable to provide enough food, warm clothing, or heating oil to its troops even though the war was being fought next to its own territory. Some soldiers were reduced to eating rotten potatoes or cabbages. Almost 70 percent of them were hospitalized with serious illnesses, including typhus, malaria, hepatitis, and dysentery, often caught from drinking polluted water. Discipline was so lax that many soldiers sold arms and ammunition to the muj so that they could buy jeans or a cassette player to take home.

So dismal were the conditions that some soldiers shot themselves to get a quick ticket home. Others deserted. Many more took refuge in alcohol and drugs to escape the “sweet-and-sour smell of blood,” which, one soldier said, “turned my stomach inside out with nausea.” Troops got drunk on vodka, moonshine, aftershave lotion. Or they got high on marijuana, heroin, hashish, sometimes provided free by Afghan suppliers who were happy to corrupt their enemies. Said one soldier, “It’s best to go into an operation stoned—you turn into an animal.”12

THE ECHOES OF the American experience in Vietnam—another unpopular counterinsurgency conflict fought, at least in its later stages, by disgruntled draftees—were not entirely coincidental. Just as the Soviet Union had extended aid to the Vietcong, so too the U.S. extended aid to the mujahideen to humble a rival superpower.

Washington had begun sending nonlethal assistance to the muj—radio equipment, medical supplies, cash—even before the Red Army’s arrival. Immediately after the invasion, Jimmy Carter signed a presidential finding authorizing a covert program to supply the resistance with weapons. To keep the U.S. role secret, the CIA bought up Eastern bloc weapons from Egypt, Poland, China, and other sources, and shipped them to Pakistan. Saudi Arabia matched the American contributions dollar for dollar. Distribution was handled by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). It provided arms and training to the seven major resistance factions headquartered in the frontier town of Peshawar. From the border areas of Pakistan, which, in the words of an ISI brigadier, “had grown into a vast, sprawling administrative base for the jihad,”13 the guns were smuggled into Afghanistan on trucks, horses, and mules or on the backs of the muj along what journalists called the “jihad trail.” The Soviets went to great lengths to interdict this supply line but had no more luck than the Americans had had in disrupting the Ho Chi Minh Trail. There were simply too many mountain passes where columns of fighters could slip through. The muj, in one journalist’s words, “could go long periods of time without food and water, and climb up and down mountains like goats.”14

After September 11, 2001, some would argue that the United States had brought these attacks upon itself by arming the very men who now terrorized it. This was not literally true—there is no evidence that CIA or any other American government agency provided aid to Osama bin Laden. But it was true that in the 1980s American aid went to many hard-line Islamists who would one day become America’s enemies. This was a byproduct of Washington’s decision to turn over the disbursement of arms and money to Pakistan’s president, Zia ul-Huq, who was turning increasingly Islamist.

His agents funneled most of the American-supplied weapons to the most extreme groups such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami (Party of Islam). A power-hungry former engineering student, Hekmatyar was widely hated by rival muj who thought, in the words of Robert Kaplan, that “his organization lacked fighting ability and squandered much of its resources attacking other guerrilla factions.”15 Unlike Ahmed Shah Massoud, he spent little time inside Afghanistan, preferring to politic in Peshawar. But he was ISI’s fair-haired boy and a favorite of Saudi intelligence. Even the CIA was partial to him.16 He was also close to Osama bin Laden, who had begun visiting Pakistan after the Soviet invasion.17 The CIA provided some unilateral assistance to Massoud, as did British and French intelligence, but it was a pittance compared with the riches flowing to extremists such as Hekmatyar, who would one day battle American forces in Afghanistan.

This was a particular notable but hardly unique example of “blowback” from the distribution of aid to proxy forces—the European powers had experienced the same phenomenon after World War II when some of the resistance fighters they had equipped to fight the Japanese turned their guns on returning European imperialists.

INITIALLY THE AMERICAN goal was simply to bleed the Soviets. But the Reagan administration shifted the objective from harassing the Soviets to defeating them. Aid increased from $30 million in 1980 to $630 million in 1987, which in effect meant more than $1.2 billion (roughly $3 billion in 2012 dollars) because of the Saudi add-on. In 1986 American officials turned up the pressure still further by dispatching Stinger antiaircraft missiles to the muj. The origins and impact of this decision have been widely misunderstood.

The book and movie Charlie Wilson’s War fostered the impression that a hard-drinking, skirt-chasing Texas congressman was the primary mover behind the Stingers and other aid sent to the muj. Wilson was undoubtedly an influential supporter of the muj but only one of many. And, as even George Crile, author of Charlie Wilson’s War, acknowledged, Wilson was not “directly involved” in the decision to send Stingers. His primary contribution had been to lobby in 1984 for the dispatch of antiaircraft cannons made by the Swiss firm Oerlikon. But since each one weighed 1,200 pounds and required twenty mules to transport, the Oerlikon was not a practical weapon to lug around Afghanistan. By contrast the Stinger weighed only 34 pounds and fired a missile that could lock onto an aircraft’s infrared emissions.

The impetus for sending Stingers came not from Charlie Wilson but from two Defense Department officials—Undersecretary Fred Iklé and his aide Michael Pillsbury, a conservative former Hill staffer. They faced opposition from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the State Department, and CIA, which feared the consequences of escalating the war by sending high-tech, made-in-America weapons. They succeeded, however, in winning over the State Department official Morton Abramowitz, who in turn brought around Secretary of State George Shultz. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and CIA Director Bill Casey, two other skeptics, were also won over. In March 1986 President Reagan formally approved the dispatch of the Stingers.

Six months later, eight Mi-24 gunships were coming in for a landing at the Jalalabad airport at 3 p.m. on September 29, 1986. The Hind was the most feared Soviet weapon of the war, called Shaitan Arba (Satan’s chariot) by the muj. It was equipped with an automatic Gatling gun, 80-millimeter rockets, and bombs and mines, and its heavy armor made it impervious to most machine-gun fire. But that day a band of mujahideen equipped with three Stingers managed to send three Hinds down in flames. The Russian General Staff later claimed that there was “no appreciable rise in the number of aircraft shot down after the introduction of the Stinger.” Even if this was true, its presence on the battlefield forced Russian pilots to fly whenever possible above 12,500 feet—the Stinger’s maximum range—thereby decreasing their combat effectiveness. The Russians’ best weapon had been neutralized.18

While a blow to the occupiers, this was hardly the turning point of the war, as many believe. Even before the deployment of the Stingers, the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, had concluded that the war was unwinnable. On October 17, 1985, almost a year before the first Stinger was fired, he told the Politburo that he would seek a “withdrawal from Afghanistan in the shortest possible time.”19 The actual withdrawal would not be completed until 1989, and there would be much hard fighting ahead (including the biggest Soviet offensive of the entire war—Operation Magistral in 1987), but by 1986 the end was in sight.

FOR THE RUSSIANS, the nine-year ordeal finally ended on the “chilly winter morning” of February 15, 1989. At 11:55 a.m., Lieutenant General Boris Gromov, commander of the Fortieth Army, walked across the Friendship Bridge from Afghanistan to the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, signaling the end of the Soviet combat role if not the end of the war itself.20 Russia’s withdrawal represented its first failure after centuries of colonial expansion and showed that even the most brutal counterinsurgency methods will not necessarily succeed if the occupiers lack legitimacy and if their adversaries operate on favorable terrain and receive outside assistance.

The KGB prevented public displays of dissatisfaction with the war at home; there were no antiwar marches as there had been in the United States during the 1960s. By the end of the 1980s, however, there was no way to camouflage this colossal failure, which undermined the already shaky legitimacy of Communist rule and further dispelled the aura of fear among its opponents. It is not entirely a coincidence that the Soviet Union lost control of Eastern Europe the very year it exited Afghanistan. Two years later the whole state collapsed. Afghanistan is said to be the “graveyard of empires,” but, in point of fact, the Soviet empire was the first one to meet its end there, and even the Soviet collapse was mostly the result of factors that had nothing to do with the war. The British Empire, by contrast, had reached the peak of its Victorian glory following its defeat in Afghanistan in 1842.

IRONICALLY THE AFGHAN regime, ruled since 1986 by a former secret police chief named Najibullah, outlived its Soviet sponsor. This was due in no small part to the chronic disunity of its foes. Najibullah was finally toppled in 1992, after Russian aid had ended, by an alliance of Ahmad Shah Massoud’s Tajik guerrillas and Abdul Rashid Dostum’s Uzbek militia. The new government was dominated by Massoud, its army commander, but he was not as adept at politics as at guerrilla warfare—no Tito he. He could not bring the disparate muj factions together; he could not even stop Hekmatyar from shelling Kabul in an attempt to seize power for himself. Chaos reigned across the country as warlords competed for influence and criminals ran wild.

These intolerable conditions led in 1994 to the rise of the Taliban, an ultra-fundamentalist group of Pashtun students riding Toyota pickup trucks who promised to restore order. Most of them were war orphans who had known no peace and had been educated in Saudi-funded madrassas in Pakistani refugee camps where nothing but jihadism was taught. Pakistan switched its support from Hekmatyar to the Taliban, and in 1996, following a ten-month siege, the Taliban entered Kabul as the new rulers of Afghanistan.

One of their first acts was to castrate, shoot, and publicly hang Najibullah. Massoud pulled back to the Panjshir, blowing up the gorges behind him to block pursuit. Along with his allies from the Northern Alliance, he held out against the full might of the Taliban and its new Arab allies from Al Qaeda for the next five years. He finally met his end on September 9, 2001, when he was blown up by two Al Qaeda suicide bombers disguised as TV journalists. Two days later came the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which alerted the entire world to the dangers posed by Massoud’s foes.21

Actually there had been many warning signs before—not only in 1979 but in subsequent years. Lebanon, in particular, was full of terrible portends if only someone could have read the signs. This was the petri dish where in the 1980s a new style of warfare was developed that utilized suicide bombers to inflict mass casualties—a tactic that Osama bin Laden would later harness with such terrifying ruthlessness.

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