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Group of Soviet Forces in Afghanistan

One month after the invasion there were as many as 40,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan, and during the first year the occupation forces were reorganized. Some 10,000 of the troops such as the support forces of the 40th Army, its artillery and SA 4 brigades, several FROG battalions, and a tank regiment were useless in a guerrilla war and were sent back to the Soviet Union in mid 1980. These heavy units were replaced by infantry units, more helicopter gunships, and other light forces more appropriate for guerrilla warfare. United States estimates were that there were about 85,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan by late 1980 and about 100,000 by the end of 1981. The Soviets could not reduce troop strength any more than this without risking control of key points in Afghanistan because they could not rely on the Afghan army.

In the early days of the occupation the Soviets limited combat to the minimum needed to maintain their hold on the major cities and towns of Afghanistan. During this period the Afghan army itself, approximately 25,000 in number, was a major obstacle to Soviet aims, and the Soviets felt compelled to use heavy weapons against the army whose government they were presumably supporting. It was only at significant cost in casualties that the Soviet occupation forces subdued major mutinies by the Afghan 8th Infantry Division fn January 1980 and by the 14th Armored Division in July 1980.

Major guerrilla activities also harassed the Soviets only a few months after the occupation began, and the Soviets sent task forces as large as a division against the guerrillas in the Panjsher Valley in February 1980, Jalalabad in March 1980, and Herat in September 1980. There were also heavy bombardment and artillery attacks in 1981 against the latter two cities and Qandahar. Guerrilla strength in the Panjsher area was especially threatening, for it menaced the major Soviet supply line from Kabul to Mazar a Sharif through the Salang Tunnel, and this area was the scene of several Soviet assaults. Early Soviet battle tactics in Panjsher and elsewhere were notably unsuccessful. A Soviet reinforced motorized rifle battalion in Paktia, for example, left the main road and appears to have been virtually destroyed when its inexperienced troops panicked and hid behind their vehicles until they ran out of ammunition and were killed. This and other incidents convinced the Soviets that small unit tactics, as well as individual marksmanship standards, had to be improved immediately.

After the first few months the Soviets began to move toward decentralized support, such as ensuring that reinforced units had their own artillery, engineer, and helicopter support. New tactical units were also created, such as an air assault brigade, and new rifle battalions possessing integrated helicopter mechanized capability.

A major Soviet problem in the early days of the occupation resulted from the use of motorized rifle divisions from the Turkestan Military District. These units were low readiness formations and had only been brought up to combat strength by the addition of recalled reservists. These Central Asian soldiers not only fraternized with soldiers of the Afghan army but also with guerrilla forces, especially Tajiks with whom they had ethnolinguistic ties. Concerned about this problem, Soviet leaders eventually replaced most Central Asian soldiers with troops from other areas of the Soviet Union.

According to Soviet prisoners of war (POWs), most conscripts served six month tours in Afghanistan. Many of the other ranks were given no special training before their tour of duty, and some servicemen were sent to Afghanistan only a few weeks after being called up. NCOs were sent to a training division for six months before being posted to Afghanistan. A large number of the NCOs in the occupation forces, plus some enlisted men, were trained in Ashkhabad in Turkestan Military District, where there were large battle training areas.

The most significant units of the Soviet force in 1980-81 were the elite Guards Airborne regiments, elements of the 103d, 104th, and 105th divisions. These units established initial control around Bagrami Air Base at the time of the invasion, and in the next two years they were also stationed at the air bases at Kabul, Herat, and Shindand. These elite units, each with its own armor, were entrusted with the principal tasks of protecting the leaders of the new Afghan regime and controlling key urban centers and adjacent areas.

To improve coordination between the army and the Air Assault Brigades, the Soviets began to construct permanent communication facilities to replace mobile field communications used in the early months of the occupation. This emphasis on centralization was inappropriate to the guerrilla war Soviet forces were fighting in Afghanistan, in which decentralized command would have been more effective. According to military analysts, decisions that would be made by a senior officer in conventional operations had to be made by junior officers, or even NCOs, in a guerrilla conflict. According to David C. Isby, the NCO/junior officer group was the weakest command level in the Soviet occupation forces. There were few NCOs with extensive service experience, and junior officers were frequently not competent to undertake the tasks they faced. Commanders began to comment in Soviet military journals on the need to improve the capacity of junior officers, warrant officers, and NCOs to make independent decisions.

Attempts were made during the first year of the Soviet occupation to rebuild the depleted Afghan army, first by such inducements as pay raises and reenlistment bonuses and then by such measures as more stringent conscription laws and impressment. None of these efforts was successful, not only because the regime itself was unpopular but also because the warfare in which potential recruits would be engaged was repugnant to most Afghans, i.e., a brutal guerrilla war against other Afghans. Intensified efforts in 1980 81, such as lowering the draft age and recalling discharged soldiers, were generally fruitless. According to the United States Department of State, press gangs were sent into Kabul to capture youths as young as 15 years of age, although that was under the legal draft age: At the end of 1980 Afghan military strength was estimated at 20,000 to 30,000.



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