On the Soviet command maps the units and divisions of the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) were always displayed in green – therefore, in everyday practice, the name “The Greens” soon was fixed after the Afghan Army. They were taken as an unreliable and, with rare exceptions, ineffective ally, from whom a shot in the back could be well expected. That is why in studies about the Soviet–Afghan War and its participants’ memories it is much easier to find the information about the Mujahideen than about the DRA Armed Forces. The gap cannot be filled in by one article, but why not try?
The necessary ethnographic digression
Afghanistan is populated by more than 20 nationalities and ethnicities, the major part of them is not and ingenious residents of the country. Almost all of them came to Afghanistan during several conquest waves and accompanying migrations that swept through the Central Asia lands for centuries. The history created a real patchwork quilt out of the ethnic Afghanistan map, moreover some ethnic groups were clearly identified as subordinate to others. By April 1978, when the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) took power in Kabul, about 16 million people lived in the country, according to the handbook “The Democratic Republic of Afghanistan” published in 1981 and the memories of Lieutenant General Viktor Cheremnykh, a Soviet adviser to the Chief of the General Staff of the DRA Armed Forces. Around half of them were Pashtuns, 20% — Tajiks, 10% — Uzbeks, 7-8% — Hazaras, 4-6% — Chahar Aimaqs, 3% — Turkmen. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica as of 1992, the share of Pashtuns was at 38%, Tajiks – 25%, Hazaras – 19%, Uzbeks – 6%.
The main power in the country – both before the Saur (April) Revolution and after that – belonged to the Pashtuns, who in fact, created Afghanistan by their conquest in XVIII – XIX centuries. At the same time, the majority of the Pashtuns were the representatives of tribes, some of which still maintain a nomadic way of life. Traditionally, the Pashtuns had numerous privileges – in particular, Pashtun tribe representatives from the western parts of the country did not pay any taxes and they were not the subject of conscription (about such tradition consequences – a little later).
The Tajiks, who were the oldest settled agricultural population, at the same time formed the most important urbanized layer of merchants, scientists, and state officials. It would be enough to say, that Dari – the Afghan Tajiks’ language – was the language of the state document circulation, the court language and the language of the poets until 1936. But for instance, the Hazaras, although they spoke Dari, were one of the most discriminated groups in Afghanistan and they got the hardest and the most unattractive work.
Ethnic and clan membership is the most important among all the factors that still affect the life of every Afghan man, determine his status, opportunities to make a career and influence in the society. The membership still has a great impact on the prospects of taking a particular post, education access, marriage. It also determines the belonging to a particular Islam branch, to this or that fraternity, and, as we will soon see, to this or that ideology. The Afghan Armed Forces combat efficiency also depended on the ethnic and clan structure – as soon as the core, on which everything was held, was removed – the army collapsed.
The King and the Tribes
The revolutionary PDPA regime inherited the armed forces, that were created during the 40-year reign of the King Mohammed Zahir Shah. That monarch ascended to the throne at the age of 19 in November 1933, when the situation neither inside the country nor in the world in general helped to form a peaceful worldview.at
The first years of the young king’s reign were spent under the circumstances of the clear threat of restoration of Amanullah Khan’s power, who had fled Afghanistan in 1929, but hoped to return with the help of the loyal tribes.
In 1937-1938, it was necessary to run military operations against the Gilzai tribe in Paktika, whose sharp discontent was caused by the attempts to introduce customs duties and disarm the militia that intended to help their brothers in the fight against the Englishmen in British India. In the battles, the Gilzai crashed one of the Afghan Royal Army regiments and took all its weapons. In 1938 in the East of the country, an operation against the Shinwary and Mohmand tribes was conducted, in 1939 against the Durani tribes in the Kandahar region. The Afghan Army could not brag about any special results, and in January 1940, the British envoy in Kabul reported that the King could count on his armed forces neither in the case of a total mobilization of all the Gilzai forces nor in the case of the repeated rebellion of the Shinwary and Mohmand alliance nor in the case of a large riot in Khost. Sir William Kerr Fraser-Tytler found it necessary to add, that “nothing of what we could do is capable of turning the Afghan army into a reliable battle power in less than ten years.” However, the Afghans had been already working on it.
In 1939, the King appointed his cousin Lieutenant General Mohammed Daoud Khan as the commander of the Central Army Corps, stationed in and around Kabul. Apparently, that was the best thing happened to the Afghan Army in the entire XX century. 30-year-old Mohammed Daoud had the extensive experience of interacting with tribes – after his study in France and completing the infantry school course in Kabul, he held the position of the Eastern Province Governor-General and the Vice-Governor of the Southern Province.
The new Central Army Corps Commander was not an anglophile, but at the same time, he had a great respect for Germany, where 108 cannons and 36 mortars were bought, and 72 cannons were received from the Skoda factories in occupied Czechoslovakia. 300 German trucks were the main acquisition, two-thirds of which were given to the units of Mohammed Daoud’s Corps that let seriously increase the mobility of the Afghan Army main strike force. Khwaja Rawash airport was built to the North of Kabul, where light biplane bombers of the Afghan Air Force were located – 24 British Hawker Hinds aircrafts and 12 Italian IMAM Ro.37bis ones. All those forces were tested by a combat already in 1944.
The tribal revolt in the Khost region began on the background of severe crop failure and government attempts to take smuggling trade under control. The rebel detachments outnumbered the stationed in the region troops and the latter soon began suffering heavy losses. At the meeting that the King gathered on the 12th of February 1944, the War Minister Shah Mahmud Khan advocated concessions to the tribes and the settlement of the situation by talks, but Mohammed Daoud disagreed categorically and his point of view won.
Units of the Central Army Corps were directed to the East of the country, where they immediately were pulled into fierce battles. In 1945, in order to remove the threat to Jalalabad, it was even necessary to use all the artillery, aircrafts and armored vehicles – but only the personal Mohammed Daoud’s intervention helped to restore the discipline among the soldiers and officers, who had yielded to panic.
Nevertheless, the warriors of Safi tribes managed to capture and plunder the regional treasury Chaga-Serai (Asadabad) and after that, they besieged Khas-Kunar, where its 400-man garrison had to be supplied by air for two weeks. The Air Force acted especially intensively – as the British military attaché reported to London, during four months from the end of June 1945, 10 Hinds used about 10 000 bullets, 6000 firebombs, one thousand 20-pound bombs, 280 old Russian 15-kilogram bombs and 11 old Russian 24-kilogram bombs… Bomb stacks, except for three hundred 20-pound bombs in Kabul, were exhausted in August.
The combat action against the tribes highlighted the split in the Afghan elites. The older generation of the politicians vividly did not match Zahir Shah’s views and the ones of his coevals that had European education, on efficiency. In May 1946 units of the Central Army Corps were involved into the coup d'etaеt, when the King removed his uncle and the Prime Minister Mohammad Hashim Khan from the power, who had refused to leave his post voluntary. Zahir Shah did not want to rule a backward semi-feudal country, where tribes and their leaders, as before, impose their will on the monarch – he wanted to build a centralized state.
By the end of 1946, the tribes’ resistance was eliminated. Kabul demanded that the defeated return all the weapons, seized from the government troops, hand over the leaders of the rebels, resume the sale of grain to the state at fixed prices, and send the youth to study in the schools of the capital.
The Army that Daoud built
Mohammad Hashim Khan and Shah Mahmud Khan, who succeeded him as the Prime Minister, believed that Afghanistan could not afford a strong modern army, and it was necessary to rely on tribal militia as well as officers from among tribal elders – even if they were incompetent in military affairs. In such a situation, Mohammed Daoud refused to perform the duties of the War Minister and set off to France as an ambassador.
Meanwhile, in 1947 six brigades from the troops that had previously acted against the Safi were thrown to the Pakistan border. They were ready to return with the power of weapon Pashtun’s territories beyond the so-called Durand line – in 1893 the Pashtun populated territory from Quetta to Peshawar were separated from Afghanistan and went under the jurisdiction of British India. The Afghan government did not ever recognize the Durand Line as a state border. In 1949, it went to some border clashes, and in September – October 1950 Afghan troops and tribal militia invaded the Pakistan territory in the Chaman-Spin Boldak area, threatening the railway to Quetta. The Pakistans claimed, after a week fight they were able to remove the enemy from their territory.
Mohammed Daoud was returned from Paris and again appointed as the Commander of the Central Army Corps. On the 7th of September 1953, he became the Prime Minister and the Defense Minister of the country. The issue of the army modernization returned to the agenda, and Afghanistan asked the United States for help, but on the 28th of December 1954, the US State Secretary John Foster Dulles informed the Afghan ambassador, that
“after careful consideration it seems to us that military assistance to Afghanistan can lead to problems that will not be compensated by the advantages created. Instead of asking for arms supplies, Afghanistan should settle the Pashtunistan dispute with Pakistan”.
In such a situation, the USSR of course, came to aid to Afghans – in 1956 a bilateral agreement was signed, according to which, Afghanistan received Soviet military equipment for $32.4 million (around $300 million in 2018 prices). At the first stage, these were T-34-85 tanks, BTR-152 armored personnel carriers, MiG-17 fighters and IL-28 bombers, and since the beginning of the 60s, the deliveries of T-54/55 and BM-13 rocket launchers began. The North neighbor was also of great help in the country’s officer corps training: out of 25 000 Afghan officers, who served in 1960-1979, 3725 were trained in the USSR.
The Prime Minister’s personal attention to the defense issues, army modernization and new weapons arrival all together made the military service a prestigious and promising occupation. The military education was rapidly becoming one of the main social elevators for those, who could not brag about belonging to the aristocracy or some influential layers of officials and merchants.
The new army performed well in September 1960 and in May 1961 during the fights in the s0-called “Tribal Areas” on Pakistan territory. The Afghan Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud repeatedly raised the question of providing “advisory assistance on the organization and conduct of guerrilla warfare on the territory of Pakistan, in the areas, inhabited by Pashtun tribes” to the Soviet military specialists. Marshal Vasiliy Sokolovsky, who came in Kabul in October 1961, categorically refused to support the military solution of Pashtun problem, but in 1962-1963, the Afghans still threw several sabotage groups into the Pakistan territory, who acted under the guise of “national mujahideen of Pashtunistan”.
According to some information, Akhtar Mohammed Khan, the father of the future PDPA General Secretary and the President of Afghanistan, Najibullah, who held the post of consul and trade representative in Peshawar in the 60s, and maintained friendly relations with the most important tribe chiefs, was engaged in the armed uprising organization of the Pashtun tribes in Pakistan.
As for the Soviet assistance in the Pashtunistan question, “a compromise decision was taken: to read a series of lectures on the history of the partisan movement during the Great Patriotic War for a narrow circle of senior and high-rank Afghan officers for a month. At the same time that was spoken beforehand the presentation of the Soviet experience of partisan struggle behind enemy lines would be conducted without any connection to the geographical, political, social, ethnic and other features and specifics of the Middle East region, and, moreover, to the Pashtun problem.”
Inside the country, the troops were used with no less intensity for riot suppression: in 1957 – among peasants in Herat province, in 1959 – among Kandahar residents, incited by sermons of hostile mullahs, in October 1965 – among students in Kabul, in 1968-1969 the army blocked the march of the hungry unemployed from the Northern regions of the country, and in 1970 suppressed unrest in Jalalabad, Mazar-i-Sharif and other towns.
In 1950-1970 the military expenses reached up 40% of the country’s state budget and new types of military equipment came from the USSR – in particular T-62 tanks and BMPs (Soviet infantry fighting vehicles). All this allowed to re-equip regiments and brigades of constant combat readiness, significantly strengthen the guard units and gave a possibility to form a new type of units – Commando battalions. In 1965 the 242nd battalion was formed, in 1966 – the 444th together with 445th battalions. Major Rahmatullah Safi was appointed as the Commander of the 444th Commando battalion, and he had received his military training in the UK and the Ryazan Higher Airborne Command School. In June 1975, namely the commandos, deployed by helicopters, crashed in Panjshir the armed detachments of Islamists, who were supplied and financed by Pakistan and who captured the village of Rukha together with two nearby districts.
By the way, in the 80s, the Soviet and Afghan troops spent at least nine military operations in Panjshir, but they could not succeed in knocking Ahmad Shah Massoud fighters out there. They were compelled to hold a military garrison in Rukha – in different times there were the 177th special purpose detachment, the 682nd Motorized Rifle Regiment of the 108th Motorized Rifle Division as well as a battalion of 32nd Infantry Regiment of the 8th Division of the Afghan Army.
The Afghan know-how
Thus, by the Saur Revolution of 1978, the Afghan army track record was far from being little. Sometimes the effectiveness of its actions left much to be desired (as in the late 60s in Paktia), but many armies of the world could envy the Afghans in terms of the combat use intensity.
The nuance was that after the suppression of the tribal uprising of 1944-1947 the Afghan authorities made a right conclusion – the army, of course, could win a victory over tribes, but chances for success would be much higher if the troops acted together with militia. There was nothing new in it: even the official history of the Third Anglo-Afghan War stated, “the real military power of Afghanistan is its armed population, but not the regular troops”.
The figures confirmed that point: by 1978 the armed forces formally numbered 126 000 people (in reality there were probably a little bit fewer than 100 000), while the armed formations of only Pashtun tribes – from 500 000 to 550 000 people.
In the 1960s, the Afghan government managed to introduce an army organizational structure and military ranks in the militia. Its commanders were enlisted in the armed forces personnel, receiving allowance, privileges and benefits, provided by the law for the officers. A small salary was paid annually to each common militia member.
The know-how was quite simple: the Pashtuns from the tribal militia were involved as light irregular infantry in conjunction with the Air Force and army units, which were commanded by Pashtun officers and which provided the support with aviation, artillery and armored vehicles. The Afghan command was well aware of the low combat capability of its regular infantry and planned combat operations accordingly. In this regard, the experience of suppressing one of the first revolts against the revolutionary PDPA regime is indicative.
Until 1978, natives from Nuristan province occupied all the serious positions in the structure of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Afghanistan that was headed by their fellow countryman Abdul Qadir Nuristani. After the revolution, many of Nuristans were shot or imprisoned and that is why the unrest began in the province. On the 20th of July 1978, the rebels occupied the village (kishlak) of Mano Gai and then the riot seized the neighbor districts – Vaygal, Kamdesh, the Ramgal river valley. In October, the government army posts were taken in Barg-i Matal and Kamdesh, where three decades late, on the 3rd of October 2009, the heaviest battle between the American coalition forces and the Taliban detachments at the time would take place and after that Kabul to act.
The traditionally hostile tribes of Gujar, Mashwani and Shinwari were attracted by the Government on its side with money and weapons. With the support of a battalion from the 30th Mountain Infantry Regiment, they suppressed the Nuristans and by November Kamdesh was again under Kabul control. The troops and the loyal to Kabul militia acted fast, decisively and effectively, strangely showing the very qualities that they would completely lose in less than a year: on the 14th of August 1979 a riot would occur in the 30th Mountain Infantry Regiment. In its course, about 2000 soldiers and officers, led by the commander of the unit, would go over to the mujahideen side and one and a half hundred PDPA Supporters would be shot.
To be continued
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