In many ways the initial invasion and the Special Forces operations that supported it were the most successful part of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. The existing Communist regime was overthrown without much serious
We start with a series of internal coups, which began when King Mohammed Zahir Shah was deposed by his cousin Mohammed Daoud Khan in 1973. He was in turn overthrown by his temporary allies in the Afghan Communist Party in 1978, and Nur Mohammed Taraki took charge. He was then overthrown by a rival from a different wing of the party, Hafizullah Amin, in September 1979. Ironically it was the rise of an officially Communist party to power that worried the Soviet leadership. They had enjoyed a reasonable relationship with the King, and with Daoud’s republic, but the new regime was proving to be embarrassingly unstable. The new Communist regime’s attempts at agrarian reforms also triggered the first armed resistance in the countryside, the birth of the mujahideen. In a picture that is still familiar, the government controlled Kabul and a handful of other cities, but had little influence across much of the country. The Soviets made the fateful decision to overthrow Amin and replace him with someone more moderate, Babrak Karmal.
This book focuses on one part of the resulting Soviet operation - the Special Forces operation designed to capture Amin at his heavily defended palace outside Kabul. This was a well coordinated operation, with troops coming from several different units,
This comes across as one of the easier Special Forces operations of it type. Although the Soviets were outnumbered about 5-1 by the Afghans, most of the defenders were pinned down some way away from Amin’s Palace, helping to reduce the difference in numbers. Some of the Soviet attackers were actually part of the Palace’s defence force, so were based inside the defended perimeter. Soviet officers had full access to the Palace and were able to make detailed notes on its defences. There were Soviet advisors with every Afghan unit, who were able to carry out sabotage before the attack began – in one case removing the batteries from most of 30 T-62 tanks that were part of the Palace garrison. That isn’t to say it wasn’t a well planned operation, and the individuals involved clearly performed well, showing an impressive level of training and an ability to improvise. Only nine Soviets were killed during the operation, a very impressive achievement.
One clear lesson here is that a successful operation can still end in long term failure. A key part of the Soviet plan was the assumption that the Afghan Communist Party would be able to rally under a less divisive leader, take on the mujahideen and stabilise the country, ideally without any major Soviet involvement. A new leader was indeed found, but proved to be just as divisive as Amin, and the Soviet Union ended up drawn into a decade long war that ended with their retreating from the country and the Communist regime crumbling.
This is an interesting account of a skilfully conducted operation.
Author: Mark Galeotti