How Afghanistan Became the Soviet Union's Own "Vietnam War"

How Afghanistan Became the Soviet Union's Own "Vietnam War"

When the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan in December 1979, it set the stage for a decade-long quagmire, similar to the American War in Vietnam.

The valley was also home to the mujahideen’s most feared commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud. Born in 1953 in Herat, Massoud was part of Afghanistan’s minuscule educated class, having attended the French-run Lycee Istaqlal and the Russian Polytechnique Institute (both located in Kabul) where he studied engineering. Massoud was an accomplished athlete, voracious reader, and spoke French, Pashto, and Dari. During his time in Kabul, he became politically active, joining the Jamiat-e Islami party. When Mohammad Daoud seized power in 1974, Massoud fled to Pakistan, where he underwent military training and studied the art of war, particularly the campaigns of Mao Zedong, Che Guevara, and North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap. He returned to Afghanistan in 1978 and began operations in the Panjshir Valley, quickly gaining a cadre of tough, loyal followers who waged a guerrilla war against DRA forces.By 1980, Massoud controlled the entire valley.

The Ambitious “Panjshir V”

Massoud’s rebel army was a pan-Afghan force numbering more than 3,000 Tadjiks, Pashtuns, Turkmen, and Uzbek fighters. He divided the valley into 25 field commands, each defended by a small unit called a sabbet. These were supplemented by a number of moutariks, or mobile companies. Each moutarik numbered about 75 men and was subdivided into platoons of three. Moutarik fighters received extra rations and a welfare benefit for their families back home. Each unit had in its arsenal three machine guns, three RPG-7 grenade launchers, one mortar, and a ZPU-2 antiaircraft gun.

Panjshir V, as the Soviet operation was called, was ambitious. At the valley entrance, the Soviets deployed the 103rd Guards Airborne Division, the 66th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade, one regiment from the 108th Division, one regiment from 201st Division, the 345th Parachute regiment, and elements of the 866th and 181st Separate Motorized Rifle Regiments. There were also significant DRA forces, four infantry regiments, and parts of the 37th Commando Brigade. Under the Soviet plan, heliborne troops from the 103rd Guards Airborne Division would seize villages and hilltops throughout the valley and pin down mujahideen fighters. At the same time, Soviet/Afghan motorized forces would advance along both banks of the Panjshir River. In this way, the Soviets hoped to bring Massoud’s army to battle and destroy it in detail. To mislead Massoud as to the actual target, a diversionary attack would be launched against the Ghorband district to the north.

This article first appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons