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Alejandro Nodarse

INTERACTIVE: SOVIET PATROL IN AFGHANISTAN, 1985

You are Soviet army Lieutenant Andrei Sokolov, leader of a patrol composed of a T-62 tank with four crewmen and two BTR-60 armored personnel carriers each transporting an eight-man infantry squad. This morning, March 12, the commander of your mechanized infantry regiment ordered you to lead a patrol along the main highway about 130 miles northwest of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital. This rugged, mountainous region has been a stronghold for guerrilla fighters ever since the December 1979 Soviet invasion to prop up the crumbling Afghan communist puppet regime.

Known as “mujahedeen,” the anti-Soviet guerrillas are mostly Afghan tribesmen and some foreign volunteers from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran. Typically, they carry AK-47 assault rifles but have no heavy weapons, although some mujahedeen have captured Soviet and Afghan army heavy machine guns and mortars. Their main anti-tank weapons are rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). The mujahedeen rely on “ambush and raid” guerrilla warfare tactics and are adept at using improvised mines and booby traps built from battlefield-scavenged Soviet and Afghan army unexploded artillery projectiles, mortar rounds and aerial bombs.

Your patrol has the firepower and cross-country mobility to engage all but extremely large mujahedeen forces that possess heavy weapons. Your T-62 tank boasts a 115 mm main gun, a coaxially mounted 7.62 mm machine gun, and a top-mounted 12.5 mm heavy machine gun Meanwhile, each BTR-60 has a turret-mounted 14.5 mm heavy machine gun, and your 16 infantrymen are armed with 5.45 mm AK-74 assault rifles with 30-round magazines. The patrol carries plenty of ammunition for each of these weapons. Your armored vehicles, although impervious to the enemy’s small arms fire, are vulnerable to the mujahedeen’s RPGs.

Shortly after 1 p.m., as your patrol travels along the highway near the narrow Khinjan Valley, a fusillade of AK-47 and heavy machinegun fire suddenly erupts from near the valley entrance. You react immediately, ordering the patrol to tactically deploy off road and respond to the attack. Soon, you observe about two dozen mujahedeen fleeing on foot along the valley floor, apparently heading for the small village to the north.

Now, you must quickly decide how best to engage these enemy guerrillas.

WHAT IS YOUR DECISION, LIEUTENANT SOKOLOV?

ASSESSMENT OF THE TACTICAL SITUATION

Over the five and a half years that have passed since Soviet forces initially deployed to Afghanistan in strength, the conflict has become a bitter, hard-fought guerrilla war in which Soviet and Afghan central government forces control the cities and major highways while the mujahedeen rule the countryside. Fully 80 percent of Afghanistan is under mujahedeen control, and even when Soviet offensives successfully seize guerrilla territory, the gains are typically only temporary. When Soviet troops leave, the mujahedeen return.

Soviet and Afghan government forces hold an overwhelming advantage in firepower – heavy machine guns, artillery, mortars, tanks, armored vehicles, attack helicopters and total control of the air by Soviet air force fighters and bombers. However, the tactical problem is that the mujahedeen rarely allow themselves to be placed in a position where Soviet firepower can achieve decisive, long-term results. Therefore the war drags on, with Kremlin leaders in Moscow seeing no light at the end of the Afghanistan tunnel. Soviet forces are too strong for the guerrillas to overcome, yet the mujahedeen are too elusive for the Soviets to eliminate.

Your patrol, however, has flushed out a number of these elusive guerrillas and now has a rare opportunity to destroy a sizeable mujahedeen force.

POSSIBLE COURSES OF ACTION

Two possible courses of action spring to mind: immediate pursuit or deliberate attack.

The first option is to launch your entire force in a rapid pursuit, using your armored vehicles’ superior speed, mobility and firepower to overtake the fleeing guerrillas and destroy them. The tank and both BTR- 60s with their infantry squads will race along the valley floor to run down the mujahedeen in the open. If any of the guerrillas reach the village, your infantrymen will dismount and annihilate them before they have a chance to organize a defense.

The alternate course of action is to mount a deliberate attack by seizing the valley’s key terrain and then maneuvering to trap and destroy the enemy. Covered by fire from the guns of the T-62 and BTR-60s, dismounted infantrymen will secure the high ground of the two hills surrounding the valley. They will then advance north to link up beyond the village to seal off that end of the valley, trapping the mujahedeen between them and your vehicles blocking the south end. Finally, using fire and maneuver tactics, your patrol will methodically finish off the trapped mujahedeen.

LIEUTENANT SOKOLOV’S ORDERS

Based on previous experience fighting the mujahedeen, you recognize that the “fleeing” guerrillas almost certainly are trying to lure your patrol into a carefully prepared ambush. If your armored vehicles were to take the bait and race headlong into the valley’s narrow confines, their advantages in speed and mobility would be neutralized and they would become easy targets for the enemy’s RPGs. Undoubtedly, the guerrillas also have filled the valley with deadly mines and booby traps. You will not fall for such an obvious trap.

Shouting into the radio, you order, “Tank commander and BTR-60 drivers, take position in the south valley entrance and commence covering fire! First Squad leader, dismount your men and secure the hill to the east; I’ll lead the other squad to secure the western hill. Once that’s accomplished, our infantrymen will link up north of the village, trapping the entire enemy force between them and our armored vehicles to the south. Upon my command, we will then use fire and maneuver tactics to engage and destroy the guerrillas.”

 

Colonel (Ret.) John Antal’s latest must-read book is “7 Leadership Lessons of the American Revolution: The Founding Fathers, Liberty and the Struggle for Independence” (Casemate, 2013).

HISTORICAL NOTE: This story is based on a battle that occurred in Afghanistan in 1985 and resulted in a Soviet victory. The mujahedeen, however, ultimately were victorious in the nearly decade-long Soviet War in Afghanistan (December 1979 to February 1989). The war’s debilitating impact on the USSR proved to be a pivotal Cold War event that helped accelerate the Soviet Union’s collapse. Soviet losses totaled 14,453 dead, 53,753 wounded and 312 missing, while Soviet-supported Afghan army forces lost 18,000 killed. Mujahedeen losses were estimated at 75,000 to 90,000 killed and more than 75,000 wounded. Tragically, it is also estimated that nearly 850,000 to 1.5 million Afghan civilians died in the war that is often referred to as the “USSR’s Vietnam.”

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