Soviet Afghan War

Operation MAGISTRAL – the late success, October 1987 – January 1988

Soviet Afghan War Operation Magistral was the largest and probably the most successful army-level operation of the Soviet-Afghan war, executed formally from November 23, 1987 till January 10, 1988 (in reality it took over 3 months to prepare and complete the mission).

The operation was initiated by a new Afghan leader Mohammad Najibullah and had a clear geo-political target to prevent the mujahideen forces led by Peshavar Seven, backed by Pakistan and supported by US and Saudis, to separate the Khost province from Afghanistan and create an independent Islamic state.

The secondary objective (mainly presented as primary) was unblocking Gardez-Khost road and lifting of the blockade on Khost that lasted for many years with some interruptions. Soviet commanders with Gen Boris Gromov in the lead were not very keen about it, especially looking forward to the closing withdrawal from Afghanistan but Michael Gorbachev insisted to help the “fresh Afghan democracy”. 

Gardez-Khost road via Satukandav Pass (2009)

Gen Boris Gromov just became commander of the 40th army and this should have been his first large scale operation. This was his third tour in Afghanistan and he was considered a very experienced, skillful and wise officer. He was very sensitive regarding unnecessary losses and demanded a very profound approach to any activity.

Besides his position was – “let them mind their own business first”, e.g. he wanted Afghans to fight at first and get Soviets to support them and not vice versa. Gen Gromov was an advocate of large scale usage of special forces (Spetsnaz) and well-trained mobile recon units, and probably the operation Magistral was an apogee of it. In any case, despite a huge number of Afghan troops taking part, the operation was planned and prepared by the Soviets secretly with very limited local personnel involved (mostly KHAD – Afghan secret service). 

There were several challenges that Soviets had to tackle.

The area of operations was very unfriendly – Satukandav Pass with rough mountains (some over 3000m) or vast “green” areas with a dense vegetation that hosted up-to 13,000! Muj forces led by Jalaluddin.

The proximity to Pakistan (Khost province located close to Pakistani border) gave Jalaluddin literally unlimited resources in terms of manpower and weaponry especially taking into account that there was no Soviet troops in Khost and around.

R-381T Taran radio-intel complex

His inventory included light artillery, mortars and rocket launches including BM-21, and even some BMPs captured from Afghans. He totally ruled the area establishing about 300 small and large strongholds and destroyed every convoy moving to Khost through the Satukandav Pass.

The only communication was done by air to Khost airfield and came under constant mortar and rocket fire. Afghan government for several months tried to negotiate the armistice but with no result as his was heavily backed by Pakistan and pretended to be in superior position. The next challenge led before Gen Gromov was a total lack of reliable information about the enemy as Khost province was under the responsibility of Afghan army and they never were very good in intel.

At first Gromov demanded to focus on two directions – intel and cutting the rebels from supplies (in many cases these tasks were combined). All types of intel-collecting platforms were involved – space, aerial and electronic. MTLB based radio-intel complex Taran was widely used for eavesdropping in Khost province and well inside Pakistan (Taran was developed in late 70s and began to appear in Afghanistan in 1985).

Unfortunately it was not enough. Numerous scout groups were dropped by helicopters to recon enemy locations and cut the supplies. They were using seismic tracing to monitor possible caravan routes and destroyed them mostly by themselves but sometimes with the aid of aviation and artillery. Before the operation began there were 116 Soviet recon collections and over 60 artillery targeting posts along the Satukandav Pass.

All the big and small mujahedeen strongholds were pinpointed beginning with the Jawara base – the biggest stronghold on the Pakistani border consisted of over 40 caves connected with tunnels.

Besides pure military value it was used for PR activities hosting politicians and journalists. Eventually the base was taken by the Afghan army supported by Soviet paratroopers during a very costly operation in spring 1986 but then it was abandoned and left for the fighters of Jalaluddin.

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General Gromov decided to maximize the mobility of the units giving the major priority to paratroopers and special forces to take the key high ground ruling the Satukandav Pass.

All the troops got special mountain training to operate at heights over 3000m. The armored motor-rifle units would have pushed from below thus squeezing the enemy or pushing it towards killer-boxes prepared for aviation and artillery. The latter used all available means from D-30 howitzers and BM-21 to the mighty 152mm 2S5 Giatzint (Hyacinths) and 240mm 2S4 Tyulpan (Tulip).

The Soviet force consisted of paratrooper segment (345, 350 and 357 regiments, 56 brigade plus additional units), motor-rifle segment (180, 181, 149, 191, 395 regiments and 66 brigade), Special Forces (781, 783 recon battalions and 15th Spetsnaz brigade – 334 and 668 units). Artillery was mainly represented by the own assets of relevant units and the 1074 regiment. In total over 5500 men, 28 tanks, 300 APCs and 130 pieces of self-propelled artillery and rocket launchers.

soldiers of 783 recon battalion during operation Magistral

The Afghan force included units from several divisions and brigades with a total manpower of over 20,000. In reality there were much less as many local regiments were highly underpowered having on some occasions as low as 120 men. Besides, many of the local soldiers were not keen to fight and tried to avoid the operation by all means. The most reliable units were those of 37, 230 airborne brigades, 56 airborne regiments and KHAD.

The Afghans tried to negotiate with Jalaluddin once again but with no response. Meanwhile all the Soviet troops took initial positions and all the mobile scout groups prepared to attack their targets. The operation began on November 23, 1987 with multiple simultaneous attacks by the scouts mujahedeen strongholds in the mountains. The effect of this was so devastating that mujahedeen began to panic and retreat leaving tons of weapons and ammo.

The Afghan army cleaned the plains near Gardez and approached Satukandav Pass while Soviet paratroopers and Special Forces landed at the high ground. But the advance stuck due to heavy artillery and machine gun fire from well prepared and hidden positions. Gen Gromov decided to drop paratroopers to attract enemy fire and reveal the positions.

General Boris Gromov, May 1988
The paras were actually sand-filled dummies.

On morning twilight, November 28, about 15 sand-paras descending with clearly visible white parachutes (that can be observed even from Gardez – about 30km) provoked fierce fire. Recon airplanes pinpointed the targets and provided the data to attack aviation that hammered them instantly followed by 4 hours of artillery barrage. By the end of the day Satudakav Pass had been overrun by Soviet troops.

After the fall of the Pass, Afghans tried to negotiate with Jalaluddin once again. In order to make him more “friendly” Soviets deliberately leaked the info about negotiations to Pakistanis but this did not work as well.

The operation continued with one Soviet airborne battalion and Afghan brigade heli-landed near Khost and started to move towards the mountains clearing the “green” zones. Meanwhile Soviet forces continued to secure the mountains along the Gardez-Khost road with Afghans clearing the lower ground.

Mujahedeen infrastructure was severely hit and they had to turn back to partisan tactics. Nevertheless Soviet motor-rifle units slowly pressed towards Khost and on December 30, 1987 the blockade was lifted-off and the first convoy started its trip from Gardez to Khost.

Jalaluddin fighters supported by Pakistani forces continued to attack Soviet strongholds. One such attack occurred on January 7-8, 1988 at mark 3234 controlled by 39 paratroopers of 9th company of 345 airborne regiment.

After the heavy mortar and rocket fire, a force of up to 300 Muj tried to capture Soviet positions, but was backed off. During the next 10 hours there were 12 attacks but with no success. Soviet artillery proved to be very effective in supporting paratroopers as well as superior commanders who timely sent much needed reinforcements (4 groups of scouts). This episode became widely known due to the modern Russian blockbuster “The 9th company”.

According to the witnesses, despite being numerous on paper, most Afghan army units were unable to accomplish their tasks leaving the majority of work to the Soviets. The fighting continued until the end of January when Soviet motor-rifles and paras finally pushed the majority of the Muj force into Pakistan. As for casualties, Soviet losses were extremely low – 20 killed and 68 wounded. The Afghan army believed to lose about 100 men. As for Muj, the numbers are not known and will never be.

Soviet estimates count up-to 3000 killed and captured. The armor losses are not known but believed to be low as well mostly attributed to IEDs and mines. This operation was the first one during the Soviet-Afghan war, openly presented to a mass audience and promoted in the media. General Boris Gromov considered this operation as a tentative success due to inability to solve the problem peacefully. Besides he was charged for improper use and wasting the equipment – those 15 chutes of “sand-paras”.

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