The bear went Over the mountain: Mujahideen tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War.

The bear went Over the mountain: Mujahideen tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War. – book review

Ali Ahmad Jalali

Reprinted with permission from The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan, Grau, Lester W., Editor (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1996).


Afghanistan, a multi-ethnic state in southwest Asia, is home to diverse social communities that share common experience through interaction with dominant states, empires, invading armies, trade and cultural movements that traversed the land during their thousands of years of history. The different ethnic groups in modern Afghanistan (Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmans, Persian-speaking Hazaras, Balochis, etc.) straddle the boundaries of the state. However, their national identity is mostly defined by their differences with their ethnic kinsmen across the borders rather than their national commonalities. About 99% of Afghanistan’s over 17 million population are Muslim, of which 85% are followers of the Sunni sect while the rest are Shia. About 85% of Afghans live in rural communities in a land dominated by mountains and deserts. Modern travel is primarily restricted to a highway ring connecting the various cities. There is no railroad network.

Afghanistan has mostly been a loose collection of tribes and nationalities over which central governments had varying degrees of influence and control at different times. The country has been historically known for its remarkable Islamic and ethnic tolerance. However tribal rivalries and blood feuds, ambitions of local chieftains, and tribal defiance of pervasive interference by the central government have kept the different parts of the land at war at different times. In such cases the kinship-based identity has been the major means of the community’s political and military mobilization. Such identity places far greater importance on kinship and extended family than ideology.

Afghanistan stands at a geographic crossroads that has seen the passage of many warring peoples. Each of these has left their imprint on the ancient land and involved the people of Afghanistan in conflict. Often this conflict got in the way of economic development. What has developed is a country composed of somewhat autonomous “village states” spread across the entire country. (1) Afghans identify themselves by Qawm–the basic subnational identity based on kinship, residence, and sometimes occupation. Western people may refer to this as “tribe,” but this instinctive social cohesiveness includes tribal clans, ethnic subgroups, religious sects, locality-based groups, and groups united by interests. (2) The Qawm, not Afghanistan, is the basic unit of social community and, outside the family, the most important focus on individual loyalty. Afghanistan has, at times, been characterized as a disunited land driven by blood feuds. The feuds center on family and Qawm. Yet, the leaders of the various Qawm have resolv ed feuds and held the land together. Village elders can put feuds on hold for a decade or longer and then let them resume once the agreed-on time has expired and the matter is still unresolved. Afghanistan’s ancient roots and strong ties of kinship provide an anchor against progress, but also the means to cope when central authority has collapsed. Historically, the collapse of the central government of Afghanistan or the destruction of its standing armies has never resulted in the defeat of the nation by an invader. The people, relying on their decentralized political, economic and military potential, have always taken over the resistance against the invaders. (3) This was the case during two wars with Great Britain in the 19th century (1839-1842, 1878-1880). This happened again in the Soviet-Afghan War.

The tactics of the Mujahideen reflected this lack of central cohesion. Their tactics were not standard, but differed from valley to valley and tribe to tribe. No more than 15 percent of the guerrilla commanders were military professionals. However, Afghanistan had a conscript army and virtually ever 22-year-old male served his two year obligation. This provided a basic military education which eased cooperation between the various Mujahideen groups. The Mujahideen were true volunteers-unpaid warriors who fought to protect their faith and community first and their nation next. As true volunteers, fighting for their Qawm and religion, the Mujahideen looked down on the professional soldier (asker) as a simple mercenary who was either the victim of a press gang or too stupid to ply any other trade. (4) This disdain did not attach to the professional officer, who enjoyed a great deal of prestige.

Afghanistan was not a guerrilla war ala Mao Tse Tung or Vo Nguyen Giap. The Mujahideen were not trying to force a new ideology and government on a land. Rather, they fought to defend their Qawm and their religion against a hostile ideology, an atheistic value system, an oppressive central government, and a foreign invader. It was a spontaneous defense of community values and a traditional way of life by individual groups initially unconnected to national or international political organizations. (5)

The Great Game (6)

Russian expansionism and empire building in Central Asia began in 1734 and Moscow’s interest in Afghanistan was apparent by the late 1830s. The Great Game described in Afghanistan was apparent by the late 1830s. The Great Game described the British and Russian struggle for influence along the unsettled northern frontier of British India and in the entire region between Russia and India. Afghanistan lay directly in this contested area between two empires. Russia described her motives in the Great Game as simply to abolish the slave trade and to establish order and control along her southern border. The British, however, viewing Russian absorption of the lands of the Caucasus, Georgia, Khirgiz, Turkmens, Khiva and Bukhara, claimed to feel threatened by the presence of a large, expanding empire near India and ascribed different Russian motives. The British stated that Russian motives were to weaken British power and to gain access to a warm-water port. Britain claimed that her own actions were to protect the fro ntiers of British India.

The Great Game spilled into Afghanistan when British forces invaded during the FirstAnglo-Afghan War (1839-1842). Britain claimed that the invasion was supposed to counter Russian influence. After hard fighting, the British withdrew. By 1869, the Russian empire reached the banks of the Amu Darya (Oxus) River–the northern border of Afghanistan. This caused additional British concern. In 1878, the arrival of a special Russian diplomatic mission to Kabul led to another British invasion and the Second Anglo-Afghan War. The British Army again withdrew. In the Anglo-Russian Treaty of 1907, the Russians agreed that Afghanistan lay outside its sphere of interest and agreed to confer with Britain on all matters relating to Russian-Afghan relations. In return, Britain agreed not to occupy or annex any part of Afghanistan nor interfere in the internal affairs of that country. Although the Amir of Afghanistan refused to recognize the treaty, Russia and Britain agreed to its terms and honored them until 1919 when Afghan troops crossed into British India, seized a village and attempted to raise a popular revolt in the area. The British responded with yet another invasion and the Third Anglo-Afghan War. The political settlement resulted in Afghanistan’s full independence from Great Britain.

Afghanistan’s foreign policy from 1919 and 1978 balanced the demands of her immediate neighbors, and external powers such as the United States, Germany and Great Britain. Normal relations with her northern neighbor, the Soviet Union, led to increased Soviet investment and presence in Afghanistan.

In April 1978, a small leftist group of Soviet-trained Afghan officers seized control of the government and founded the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, a client state of the Soviet Union. Civil war broke out in Afghanistan. The putsch installed President Nur M. Taraki, a Marxist who announced sweeping programs of land distribution, changed status for women and the destruction of the old Afghanistan social structure. Disregarding the national social structure and mores, the new government enjoyed little popular support. The wobbly Taraki government was almost immediately met by increased armed resistance as the Mujahideen ranks grew. In 1978, religious leaders, in response to popular uprisings across Afghanistan, issued statements of jihad (holy war) against the communist regime. This was an appeal to the supranational identity of all Afghans–a fight to defend the faith of Islam. The combat readiness of the Army of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan plunged as government purges swept the officer corp s. Soldiers, units and entire regiments deserted to the resistance and by the end of 1979, the actual strength of the Afghan Army was less than half of its authorized 90,000. In March 1979, the city of Herat revolted and most of the Afghan 17th Infantry Division mutinied and joined the rebellion. Forces loyal to Taraki reoccupied the city after the Afghan Air Force bombed the city and the 17th Division. Thousands of people reportedly died in the fighting, including some Soviet citizens.

Soviet Intervention

The Soviet-Afghan War began over the issue of control. The Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) was nominally a socialist state governed by a communist party. However, the state only controlled some of the cities, while tribal elders and clan chiefs controlled the countryside. Furthermore, the communist party of Afghanistan was split into two hostile factions. The factions spent more time fighting each other than trying to establish socialism in Afghanistan. In September 1979, Taraki’s Prime Minister, Hafizullah Amin, seized power and murdered Taraki. Amin’s rule proved no better and the Soviet Union watched this new communist state spin out of control. Meanwhile, units of the army mutinied, civil war broke out, cities and villages rose in revolt and Afghanistan began to slip away from Moscow’s control and influence. Leonid Brezhnev, the aged Soviet General Secretary, saw that direct military intervention was the only way to prevent his client state from disintegrating into complete chaos. He decided to i ntervene.

The obvious models for intervention were Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. The Soviet General Staff planned the Afghanistan invasion based on these models. However, there was a significant difference that the Soviet planners missed. Afghanistan was embroiled in a civil war and a coup de main would only gain control of the central government, not the countryside. Although participating military units were briefed at the last minute, the Soviet Christmas Eve invasion of 1979 was masterfully planned and well-executed. The Soviets seized the government, killed the president and put their own man in his place. According to some Russian sources, they planned to stabilize the situation, strengthen the army and then withdraw the majority of Soviet forces within three years. The Soviet General Staff planned to leave all fighting in the hands of the army of the Democratic Republic. But Afghanistan was in full revolt, the dispirited Afghan army was unable to cope, and the specter of defeat following a Soviet withdrawal haunted the Politburo. Invasion and overthrow of the government proved much easier than fighting the hundreds of ubiquitous guerrilla groups. The Soviet Army was trained for large-scale, rapid-tempo operations. They were not trained for the platoon leaders’ war of finding and closing with small, indigenous forces which would only stand and fight when the terrain and circumstances were to their advantage.

Back in the Soviet Union there was no one in charge and all decisions were committee decisions made by the collective leadership. General Secretary Brezhnev became incapacitated in 1980 but did not die until November 1982. He was succeeded by the ailing Yuri Andropov. General Secretary Andropov lasted less than two years and was succeeded by the faltering Konstantin Chernenko in February 1984. General Secretary Chernenko died in March 1985. Although the military leadership kept recommending withdrawal, during this “twilight of the general secretaries” no one was making any major decisions as to the conduct and outcome of the war in Afghanistan. The war bumped on at its own pace. Finally, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. His first instinct was to order military victory in Afghanistan within a year. Following this bloodiest year of the war, Gorbachev realized that the Soviets could not win in Afghanistan without unacceptable international and internal repercussions and began to cast about for away to withdraw w ith dignity. United Nations negotiators provided that avenue and by 15 October 1988, the first half of the Soviet withdrawal was complete. On 15 February 1989, the last Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan. Soviet force commitment, initially assessed as requiring several months, lasted over nine years and required increasing numbers of forces. The Soviet Union reportedly killed 1.3 million people and forced 5.5 million Afghans (a third of the prewar population) to leave the country as refugees. Another 2 million Afghans were forced to migrate within the country. The country has yet to recover.

Initially the Mujahideen were all local residents who took arms and banded together into large, rather unwieldy, forces to seize the local district capitols and loot their arms rooms. The DRA countered these efforts where it could and Mujahideen began to coalesce into much smaller groups centered around the rural village. These small groups were armed with a variety of weapons from swords and flintlock muskets to British bolt-action rifles and older Soviet and Soviet-bloc weapons provided to Afghanistan over the years. The guerilla commanders were usually influential villagers who already had a leadership role in the local area. Few had any professional military experience. Rebellion was wide-spread, but uncoordinated since the resistance was formed along tribal and ethnic lines.

The Soviet invasion changed the nature of the Mujahideen resistance. Afghanistan’s neighbors, Pakistan and Iran, nervously regarded the advance to the Soviet Army to their borders and began providing training and material support to the Mujahideen. The United States, Peoples Republic of China, Britain, France, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates began funneling military, humanitarian and financial aid to the Mujahideen through Pakistan. Pakistan’s assessment was that the Soviet Union had come to Afghanistan to stay and it was in Pakistan’s best interests to support those Mujahideen who would never accept the Soviet presence. The Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Agency began to funnel aid through various Afghan political factions headquartered in Pakistan. Eventually there were seven major Afghan factions receiving aid. The politics of these factions were determined by their leaders’ religious convictions–three of which were Islamic moderates and four of which were Islamic funda mentalists. Pakistan required that the various ethnic and tribal Mujahideen groups join one of the factions in order to receive aid. Overtime, this provided the leaders of these factions with political power which they used to dominate the politics of post-communist Afghanistan. The Pakistani authorities favored the most fundamentalist groups and rewarded them accordingly. This aid distribution gave the Afghan religious leaders unprecedented power in the conduct of the war. It also undermined the traditional authority of the tribal and village leaders.

The Mujahideen were unpaid volunteers with family responsibilities. This meant that they were part-time warriors and that spoils of war played a major role in military actions. Mujahideen sold mostly captured weapons and equipment in the bazaars to support their families. As the war progressed, mobile Mujahideen groups emerged. The mobile Mujahideen groups were larger and consisted of young (under 25), unmarried, better-trained warriors. Sometimes the mobile Mujahideen were paid. The mobile Mujahideen ranged over a much larger area of operations than the local Mujahideen and were more responsive to the plans and desires of the factions.

The strategic struggle for Afghanistan was a fight to strangle the other’s logistics. The Mujahideen targeted the Soviet lines of communication–the crucial road network over which the Soviet supplies had to travel. The Soviet attack on the Mujahideen logistics was two phased. From 1980 until 1985, the Soviets sought to eliminate Mujahideen support in the rural countryside. They bombed granaries and rural villages, destroyed crops and irrigation systems, mined pastures and fields, destroyed herds and launched sweeps through rural areas–conscripting young men and destroying the infrastructure. The Soviet leadership, believing Mao Tse Tung’s dictum that the guerrilla lives in the population like a fish in water, decided to kill the fish by draining off the water. (7) As a result, Afghanistan became a nation of refugees as more than seven million rural residents fled to the relative safety of neighboring Pakistan and Iran or to the cities of Afghanistan. This Soviet effort denied rural support to the Mujahideen , since the villagers had left and most of the food now had to be carried along with weapons and ammunition and materials of war. The Mujahideen responded by establishing logistics bases inside Afghanistan. The Soviet fight from 1985 to withdrawal was to find and destroy these bases.

Terrain, as any infantryman knows, is the ultimate shaper of the battlefield. Afghanistan’s terrain is varied and challenging. It is dominated by towering mountains and forbidding desert. Yet it also has lush forests of larch, aspen and juniper. It has tangled “green zones”–irrigated areas thick with trees, vines, crops, irrigation ditches and tangled vegetation. It has flat plains full of wheat and swampy terraces which grow delicious long-grained rice. It is not ideal terrain for a mechanized force dependent on fire power, secure lines of communication and high-technology. It is terrain where the mountain warrior, using ambush sites inherited from his ancestors, can inflict “death from a thousand cuts”. The terrain dictates different tactics, force structure and equipment from those of conventional war.

This book is not a complete history of the Soviet-Afghan War. Rather, it is a series of combat vignettes as recalled by the Mujahideen participants. It is not a book about right or wrong. Rather, it is a book about survival against the overwhelming firepower and technological might of a superpower. This is the story of combat from the guerrilla’s perspective. It is the story of brave people who fought without hope of winning because it was the right thing to do.

About the Book

Author Les Grau, regularly travels back and forth to Russia. He received a book from the History of Military Art department at the Frunze Combined Arms Academy in Moscow. The book was intended for students’ classroom use only and, as such, shows both the good and the bad. With Frunze Academy permission, Les translated this book and added commentary before it was published by NDU Press as The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan. Author Ali Jalali, helped in the editing process. “The Bear” showed the tactics of the Soviets, but the Mujahideen tactics were absent. Charlie Cuthbertson and Dick Voltz of the USMC in Quantico agreed that both sides needed to be presented and sent Ali and Lesto Pakistan and Afghanistan to interview Mujahideen commanders for a companion volume.

Author Ali Jalali has the perfect credentials to do this book. Ali was a Colonel in the Afghan Army and taught at the Afghan Military Academy and Army Staff College. His foreign education included the Infantry Officer’s Advanced Course at Fort Benning, Georgia; the British Army Staff College at Camberley; and the Soviet Frunze Academy. Many of Ali’s officer students were key resistance figures. Ali was also a member of the resistance and an accredited journalist during the conflict. Now Ali works as a journalist and has covered Afghanistan and Central Asia over the last 15 years. All is respected by all the factions and has exceptional entre to the Mujahideen.

Ali and Les arrived in Pakistan in September 1996 and were preparing to go into Afghanistan when the Taliban advance on Kabul closed the borders to American citizens. Ali interviewed some 40 Mujahideen during a month in Peshawar, Quetta, and Islamabad, Pakistan. Our colleague, Major Nasrullah Safi, conducted interviews for another two months inside Afghanistan for this book. The interviews are the basis of this book. In those interviews where we have several sources for the same vignette or where we have lots of supporting written reports and material, we have written the vignette in the third person. In those cases where the person interviewed is the primary source, we have written the vignette in the first person. The vignettes are arranged chronologically by type of action. Occasionally, when the actions occur at the same place overtime, we lump those actions together instead of chronologically. We have tried to make the book as accurate as possible, but realize that time and retelling may have altered som e of the facts. We have limited the span of the book from the Soviet invasion until their withdrawal. The war started before the Soviet invasion and continued long after their departure. We plan to write about these battles in a future book.

We used edition 2-DMA series U611 1:100,000 maps from the U.S. Defense Mapping Agency for the final preparation of the material. For those who wish to consult the map sheets, map sheet numbers are given with each vignette. We have numbered each vignette within the chapter and started each chapter with a country map showing the rough location of each vignette. The interviews were long and exhaustive, so many details are available. Many of the interviews were conducted at different times and places, with different people who had been part of the same battle or operation. This allowed us to check and compare details and sequences of events. Map elevations are given in meters. Contour intervals are not consistent and merely show elevation. Place and name spelling is based on Ali Jalali’s best transliteration efforts. Consistency in spelling is difficult when two alphabets are involved–some spellings are different than in other books on Afghanistan. Although the Mujahideen always say ‘Russian’ instead of ‘Soviet’ , we have used ‘Soviet’ throughout unless it is a direct quote.

We use Russian map graphics on the maps. The Afghan Army used the Soviet graphics system and most Mujahideen were familiar with them. Russian graphics are more “user friendly” (flexible and illustrative) than Western graphics. The Russians can show the sequential development of an action by adding times or identifying lines to their graphics. These lines are explained in the legend. A table of Russian map graphics is located in the back of the book. Mujahideen forces are shown in blue and Soviet/DRA forces are shown in red.

Editor’s Note: In mid-October the U.S. House Judiciary Committee met to discuss adoption of the “Patriot Act” and on 26 October 2001 it was approved by Congress. The Patriot Act greatly increases the government’s ability to conduct surveillance and wiretapping operations as well as give it greater authority to detain suspects. The act is controversial, however, in that civil libertarians see the changes as a danger to our personal freedoms. The following items are the key components of the Patriot Act and are included to supplement LTG Noonan’s and Mr. Varhola ‘s articles.

The Patriot Act would —

* Give any U.S. Attorney or state attorney general the power, in “emergency situations,” to install the Carnivore e-mail snooping system without obtaining a court order.

* Allow law enforcement agencies to obtain telephone voice mail messages with a search warrant, which is issued with less court scrutiny than the previously required wiretap warrant.

* Expand the definition of “terrorist” to include non-violent protesters at an anti-war rally.

* Make it easier for the government to tap multiple phones as part of a “roving wiretap” warrant.

* Allow the government to detain legal immigrants for seven days based only on the accusation of terrorist activity.


(1.) Ali A. Jalali “Clashes of Ideas and Interests in Afghanistan”, paper given at the Institute of World Politics, Washington, D.C., July 1995, page 4.

(2.) Ibid, 3.

(3.) Ibid, 4.

(4.) Oliver Roy, The Failure of Political Islam, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), pages 158-159.

(5.) Jalali, 1.

(6.) Section derived from Richard F. Nyrop and Donald M. Seekins (editors), Afghanistan Country Study, Fifth Edition, (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986), pages 22-73; and Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game, (New York: Kodansha International, 1994).

(7.) Claude Malhauret, Afghan Alternative Seminar, Monterey, California, November 1993.

COPYRIGHT 2002 U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group