Unconventional Warfare: The Mujahidin of Afghanistan
Resistance is not futile. It was one of the lessons learned from the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan: that any resistance force can counter effectively against a powerful aggressor. Resistance - with the proper tools, strategy, and determination - can countermeasure any unwanted entity. The anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan not only pushed the invaders out of their country, but it helped precipitated the eventual fall of the U.S.S.R. As a world power. The question on the table is: what happened in that poor Southwest Asian country? How did the Soviets lose that war, or how did the mujahidin - the soldiers of God - win? First and foremost, the Soviet political and military leaders made strategic and tactical errors. The Afghan rebels employed unconventional warfare in Afghanistan: it was their only possible means in defeating the Soviets. Eventually, though too late, the Russian troops switched some of their battle tactics to rout out all resistance; however, due to the rebels ability to stage their attacks from the natural rugged and fortified terrain of that country, reinforced with American and Chinese-made weapons and cross the border into Pakistani sanctuaries, they were able to sustain a protracted war that eventually demoralized and defeated the Soviet Armed Forces. It was unconventional warfare that helped the American colonials defeat the British forces in the War for Independence, it was unconventional warfare that helped defeat French then American forces in Vietnam, and it was unconventional warfare that helped the Israelis gain a homeland from the Arabs in the Middle East. We mustn't ever forget that unconventional warfare is effective if the individuals engaged in the activity are determined to think and act outside the box: to toss away the standards and norms of conventional fighting, to harass and frustrate the enemy through useful tactics that are brutal and inflicts pain upon the body and the mind.
When the Soviet forces entered Afghanistan on Christmas Day, 1979, they were unprepared for they were about to encounter. The U.S.S.R.'s political and military leadership had been pursing an invasion since 1973 when the King of Afghanistan was deposed and the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) assumed power. The PDPA was a union of two parties, one primarily Islamic and the other pro-Soviet. Eventually, unrest and civil war erupted. The U.S.S.R. used the internal engagement as an excuse to enter Afghanistan militarily and prop-up their supporters into power. The opponents were forced into the hills and the full-scale Soviet invasion commenced with troops entering the country in armored vehicles or heavy-armed aircraft. The Russians had used this strategy in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in Fifties, and successfully squashed any resistance in a short-amount of time. But things were horribly miscalculated. Soviet troops "in Afghanistan were made up of the following formations: three motor rile divisions, an airborne division, two supply and support brigades, and several separate regiments....These formations were under the command and control of the Fortieth Army....[which] was formed in the Turkestan and Central Asian Military Districts, the number of...Moslem religion was significant" (Sarin and Dvorestky, 87-88). With the added Soviet air force personnel, more than 110,000 troops were posted in Afghanistan. And despite their training to prepare for the conditions within that country, it was still inadequate to the challenges the Soviet troops faced, despite their superiority in firepower and manpower that was deployed in that rugged terrain country. The mujahidin - the anti-Soviet fighters - were " a movement without rhetoric or ideology or a supreme leader....The guerillas had no complexes, no chips on their shoulders regarding the modern world, since they had never clashed with it until the Soviets came" (Kaplan, 17). It was this lack of reference, this inexperience with the outside world that the mujahidin were able to capitalize during the resistance war. Upon appearance, any resistance force seemed doom toward failure to confront one of the world's superpowers but the Afghans have had a heritage in fighting a guerilla-style, unconventional war. A 17th century Afghan epic story, Dasornama by Khushal Khan Khattak, talks about " 'the...guerrilla method of warfare is more effective than a pitched battle. There are two prerequisites for this kind of warfare; good horses (mobility) and good archers (fire power). These two can help a small force to defeat a large enemy....When you fight a smaller enemy detachment you should decisively attack with surprise. But if the enemy receives reinforcement and when you encounter a stronger enemy force, avoid decisive engagement and swiftly withdraw only to hit back where the enemy is vulnerable. By this you gain sustainability and the ability to fight a long war of attrition....A war of attrition eventually frustrates the enemy, no matter how strong he may be...and that gives a chance of victory to a small force fighting against an invading army" (Isby, 99). Three centuries later, this advice was the strategy employed by the Afghani resistance force, the mujahidin.
The mujahidin knew they could not defeat the Soviet forces and pro-Soviet Afghan forces on their terms. They had to fight on their own terms, as they were taught and raised. They were facing "well-trained personnel and modern equipment. Infantry and artillery soldiers and other specialists knew their organic weaponry systems well....They fought in units with great coordination and were well oriented. But...this was true only while operating on flat terrain" (Sarin and Dvoretsky, 93). The Afghan resistance fighters, under the guidance of their Islamic mullahs and provincial warlords, devised effective tactics and strategies to engage the large Soviet and pro-Soviet forces: avoid direct combat with a superior force; use the element of surprise; attack more at night; yield a battlefield to the enemy if it means a large results of death for the resistance forces; conduct terror and disinformation campaigns in enemy-held villages. These soldiers of God would conduct successful ambushes through the course of the war. They would attack small convoys through mountainous routes if they were lightly armed; they would attack larger forces within small valley or ravines by destroying lead and aft position vehicles to cause a jam and create confusion and panic as soldiers; they would disguise themselves as pro-Soviet soldiers and conduct disinformation campaigns in local villages to create disorder and add to the confusion amongst the rumor-mill of the local populace; or they would infiltrate firebases and conduct small raiding parties upon equipment or supplies, destroying what they could quickly, and withdrawing back into the mountains.
It was the mountain terrain of the Eastern portion bordering Afghanistan that gave the Soviets their most trouble. Those mountains were natural havens of caves gave the ad-hoc army a place to build support bases and to strike the enemy from, and to use the hundreds of ancient trade routes that connected Afghanistan and Pakistan to transport supplies for the fighting. This region was "1,000 miles long and 100 miles wide...a deathly volcanic landscape of crags and winding canyons" (Kaplan, 232). Soviet armor could not operate in that terrain, as they could in the flatlands of Western Afghanistan; and helicopters, at low-level, were susceptible to anti-aircraft weaponry and gunfire. But like the Vietcong in the 1960's and the American colonials in the 1770's, these resistance fighters could not have succeeded in the time and manner as they had if were not for outside influence. The Afghani resistance forces received outside support of food, medicine and weaponry from the United States and China, two world powers who did not want to see the Russian Bear extend its sphere of influence in Asia. Early in the war it became clear that the " 'United States is reported to have provides some covert aid, including weapons, to the rebels after the Soviet intervention....[and by 1983 the] CIA spends around $75 million a year supplying the rebels with grenades, KPG-7 rocket launchers and portable surface-to-air missiles, as well as radio equipment' "(Bonosky, 208, 263). One of the greatest weapons the mujahidin used was the Stringer missile launcher. It was a portable weapon that fired a deadly missile that could - and did - bring down many heavily armed attack and transport helicopters.
By early 1982, the Soviet Union knew they were in trouble in fighting this war and there were concerns that the engagement would be protracted. While the Russian forces had gained control of the skies, the principle city of Kabul and the major roads, the ridges and high grounds belong to the mujahidin. The Soviets lacked sufficient patrols and reconnaissance information to actually attack pockets of resistance, and left large portions of their security procedures and items vulnerable. Instead, they used massive firepower to move from firebase to firebase. The mujahidin, being light and small in deployment, managed to outflank and harass the moving troops. While Soviet forces managed to control suspected key villages, they "could not differentiate the mujahidin from the locals and...engage in battles....[so] they...turned against non-combatants, destroying their villages, crops....Indiscriminate destruction" (Kakar, 129). The Soviets did not learn from America's experience in Vietnam, the…