Originally posted December 2009

Exigencies confronting Soviet military strategists in Afghanistan were multi-faceted and ideologically tempered by historical precedent. As with the earliest conflicts in recorded history, Soviet military historians aver that the success of military operations in defeating resistance organizations are predicated on three-criteria: 1) the ability to maintain the integrity of lines of supply and communications, 2) the interdiction of arms transfers to guerrilla organizations originating from outside sources, and 3) the creation of militia forces, informants, treaty bands, and other subversives from among the local population.[1]

For the Soviets and their Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) allies, notwithstanding that an air bridge had been established connecting the Soviet Union to major cities and population centers in Afghanistan via Kabul, Bagram, Shindand, and Kandahar Airports, a preponderance of food, medical, and war materiel was delivered via road transport. Shortly, as the conflict escalated and was cast as “Afghanistan’s Road War,” the preferred tactic for the resistance became the classic ambush, utilizing anti-tank mines, rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), sniping, and explosives to initiate landslides and therefore made roads impassable. To mitigate supply interdiction and provide security along extended supply lines presented a logistical nightmare for Soviet planners. The two major re-supply arteries in use traversed enormous distances: Highway 13, Kandahar to Herat, represented a 600-kilometer journey, while Highway 2, from Termez to Kabul, spanned an arduous 425 kilometers over difficult topography fraught with hazards (i.e., ill-maintained, precipitous mountain thoroughfares, blizzard conditions, landslides, flash floods, and guerrilla ambush). Of the two, Highway 2 presented more opportunity for resistance attack as it carried two strategic pipelines along its length, one for petrol and the other for kerosene and thus represented a low risk target for sabotage. An additional supply dilemma for the Soviets was the Salang Pass, Tunnel, and Highway portion of Highway 2, which due to its extremely precipitous nature represented the potential for a key choke point for supply convoys originating in Termez, Uzbekistan.[2]

Arms consigned to resistance organizations were obtained from numerous international sources, including the United States, China, Egypt, Israel, and Europe, and flowed into Afghanistan from multiple weapons depots in Pakistan. Weapons were selected on the basis of origin, so as to allow for deniability on the part of the US as providers. Many of the SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles and other weapons systems were acquired during the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1967 and 1973 from captured stockpiles. Distribution of arms to the various resistance organizations was conducted by elements of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI. Transport into Afghanistan utilized thousands of centuries-old smuggling trails that crisscrossed Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan. These were virtually impossible for the Soviets to monitor and/or seal due to rugged terrain and an extraordinary length of 2,250 kilometers.

In October 1987, I personally experienced the standard operating procedure employed for the re-supply of arms and other supplies to the resistance in a far, remote, and mountainous section of Paktia Province. Our group (MAHAZ/NIFA) requisitioned an assortment of ammunition to include RPG anti-tank rockets, 12.7mm “Dashika” ammunition, 14.5mm “Ziqriat” ammunition, and the ubiquitous 7.62 Kalashnikov ammunition from a staging area and weapons depot in Pakistan which were then packed into rope-panniers for transport by camel and donkey. Much of our travel was at nighttime to avoid the ever-present and dreaded MiL-24 helicopter gunships. As we neared the summit of Gomankai Mountain, our destination, we came under rocket and bomb attack from a MiG-23. The surrounding, boulder-strewn terrain, however, provided cover for our caravan, and the MiG’s ordnance went wide of its intended mark.[3]

In addition to aerial attack, other risks were a daily fact of life for arms caravan escorts and requisite animal handlers, i.e., transit routes were littered with mines, the result of aerial and artillery disbursement of literally thousands of PMF-1 anti-personnel devices, unavoidable combat wounds that often resulted in infection and or death due to a lack of proximity to medical facilities, and the unsettling prospect of nighttime ambush from deployed Spetsnaz and KGB Cascade units equipped with night-vision technology along numerous trails.

Yet despite the Soviets’ technological superiority and the presence of 150,000 troops, it was virtually impossible to seal the 2,250 km-long contiguous border with Pakistan, a problem of geography that demanded an alternate approach in order to stem the flow of weapons to the mujahidin. To surmount the insurmountable, Soviet strategists employed a time-tested strategy — the deployment of militia forces and the so-called “Treaty Bands.”[4]

Guerrilla warfare is neither a product of Afghanistan nor peculiar to the Soviet/Afghan War. For centuries, it has been a feature of conflict fought by all classes of men against invader and oppressor alike. From the Soviet perspective, however, guerrilla or asymmetrical warfare demanded a resuscitation of the modality perfected in the Caucasus and Central Asia during the 19th century, a means for combating disruption along supply routes, curtailing arms smuggling, and building a cadre of informants and treaty bands sympathetic to Soviet interests.

During the war of occupation (1979-1989), the intelligence services of the Soviet Union (KGB Cascade Units and GRU military intelligence) and their client agency KhAD, possessed deep and varied experience in dealing with Muslim guerrilla insurgencies. In select examples, pre-Soviet involvement dates to the bloody Caucasian wars of the 19th century against the Naqshbandiya (Sufi) order, the Andizhan uprisings in the Ferghana Valley in 1896, and the Kazakh Revolt of 1916. The Soviets subsequently participated in extended conflicts against Basmachi movements in Central Asia and Muslim insurgents in the mountains of the North Caucasus during the 1920s, and Azeri and Kurdish independence movements of 1945-46. Thus, the Soviet organs were not without a collective know-how concerning the methodology, implementation, and conduct required to confront Afghan resistance.[5]

Soviet intelligence officers quickly became masters of deceit and subversion in Afghanistan. With virtually unlimited resources at their disposal, they easily recruited and persuaded villagers close to Soviet-DRA urban centers or military installation to enter into a truce through intimidation and or bribe. The male inhabitants would then be persuaded to form a highly-paid militia unit to maintain law and order in their respective village area and to deny weapons caravans and mujahidin reinforcements permission to transit areas under their control. In February 1988, in Nangarhar, a NIFA commander was offered large sums of money by KGB Cascade unit agents to interdict weapons consigned to the mujahidin.[6]

Despite herculean efforts, however, attempts to bribe guerrilla commanders had mixed success. When, in 1980, the DRA Minister of Tribal and Frontier Affairs personally carried a previously agreed-upon bribe of $28,000 to a frontier tribe in exchange for monitoring border areas to deny the wounded access to Pakistan for medical attention, and to halt the flow of contraband, the tribesmen killed the minister and his two aides and kept the funds.[7]

Drawing on their lucidity and directness, the memoirs of retired Soviet generals provide invaluable insight for researchers into the workings of the Treaty Bands. And among them, a consensus developed in their respective narratives regarding specific successes in intelligence operations. According to the generals, the most notable success for Soviet intelligence units was the recruitment of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the venerated commander and media-icon of the Panjshir. Beginning in 1980, Massoud signed a series of agreements that spanned the entire decade of war. Line-item details of the agreements reveal that Massoud and his IOAP detachments contracted to allow Soviet re-supply vehicles unhindered passage along the Salang thoroughfare and provide protection for them as they transited the highway, thereby insulating them from attack by other mujahidin groups. According to General A.A. Liakhovskii, Massoud often resorted to violence to deter other mujahiddin groups from attacking Soviet targets. Though uncorroborated, but what could be construed as a reward for honoring his contractual obligations, Ahmad Shah Massoud was considered by Moscow as a possible replacement for Najibullah in 1989, prior to their withdrawal.[8]

In recognition of the difficulty presented with fighting in the precipitous Panjshir Gorge, General Boris Gromov, commander of the Soviet 40th Army, wrote that “Ahmad Shah could have turned the Salang into a Russian graveyard by just throwing rocks.”

The net effect of the Treaty Bands, therefore, was the prolongation of war, an unnecessary loss of life, the re-deployment of Soviet troops to prosecute their scorched-earth tactics in other areas and assuring the integrity of their supply requirements.

Elements of Afghan society (the Northern Alliance Treaty Bands) that had collaborated with the Soviet occupational forces from 1979 to 1989, aided the US invasion in 2001 as a proxy-militia and are currently collaborating with the US and ISAF occupation forces. In addition, many have attained high public office, while others busy themselves with narcotics-trafficking.


[1]. See Vasilly Mitrokhin, “The Offspring of the Cheka,” The KGB in Afghanistan, Working Paper #40, Cold War International History Project, February 2002, pp. 138-48.

[2]. See Graham Turbiville, Jr., “Ambush! The Road War in Afghanistan,” Army, Vol. 38, No. 1 (1988), pp. 32-42.

[3]. See Sergey Vekhov, “Bagram Griffons,” Air Forces Monthly, No. 62 (May 1993), pp. 43-48.

[4]. See Bruce G. Richardson, “Direct Hit on Nari,” Soldier of Fortune, Vol. 13, No. 6 (1988), pp. 44-53, 72-73.

[5]. See Bruce G. Richardson, “Russian Policy in Central Asia and Transcaucasia, Precursor to Afghanistan,” Afghanistan, Ending the Reign of Soviet Terror,1996-98, pp. 1-9.

[6]. See Barnett R. Rubin, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 159.

[7]. J. Bruce Amstutz, Afghanistan: The First Five Years of Soviet Occupation, (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 1986), p. 292.

[8]. See Boris Gromov, Ogranichennyy Kontingent [Limited Contingent] (Moscow: Progress, 1994), pp. 180-88; Aleksandr Lyakhovskiy, Tragediya i doblest’ Afgana [The Tragedy and Valor of the Afghan Veterans] (Moscow: Iskona, 1995), pp. 630-74; Bruce G. Richardson, Afghanistan, A Search for Truth (Toronto: Afghan Post, 2007), pp. 81-92, Bruce G. Richardson; The Barefoot Coarse Cotton Wearers; pp. 63-78, ‘Memoirs of Dr. Muhammad Hassan Sharq, 1931-1991.