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Operation Magistral-The last Soviet Offensive of the War

Soviet cogitations: 782
Defected to the U.S.S.R.: 25 Nov 2004, 17:44
Post 02 Mar 2005, 00:06
Operation Magistral-The last Soviet Offensive of the War

By 1987, the mujahideen felt little need to accept conditions that constrained their operations, and were enjoying renewed success in the eastern border areas. In May, the mujahideen defeated a combined Soviet and DRA effort aimed at interdicting supplies entering Afghanistan through the border province of Paktia. During a 24-day joint Soviet and DRA campaign, the mujahideen used SAMs and land mines to negate Soviet advantages in airpower and tactical mobility. The Soviet and DRA forces withdrew in mid-June having failed to stop the flow of supplies, and leaving the area once again in the hands of the mujahideen. Soviet and DRA forces would, however, return to Paktia in late 1987 in an attempt to break the siege of Khost.

The major Afghan garrison in the city of Khost was under an increasingly debilitating siege by mujahideen forces in October 1987. The city is approximately 80 miles southeast of Kabul and within 10 miles of the Pakistani border, and dominates a major supply route between Afghanistan and Pakistan. By November, between 9,000 and 20,000 mujahideen surrounded the city with its 40,000 civilian inhabitants, 8,000 man DRA garrison, and several hundred Soviet advisers. The insurgents had essentially severed the city’s supply by road, and it appeared that the garrison would soon fall to the mujahideen. One report indicated that the Soviets were airlifting up to 50 tons of supplies per day into the city by the end of November. However, mujahideen rocket attacks on the airfield at Khost threatened to cut the garrison’s one remaining lifeline.

Both the Soviets and the DRA government recognized the importance of maintaining the garrison at Khost. Its primary purpose and its military significance lay in its ability to threaten the insurgent supply lines into Paktia province. In addition, the loss of the garrison would constitute a disastrous blow to the prestige of the Afghan army already demoralized by the impending Soviet withdrawal. The selection of General Boris V. Gromov, the head of the 40th Army, as the commander for a planned Soviet-DRA effort to break the siege demonstrated the importance attached to “Operation Magistral.”

In preparation for the operation, the DRA assembled parts of five divisions and auxiliary forces for a total of at least 8,000 men. This was in fact a relatively large DRA force. Despite the use of press gangs and extended enlistments, DRA regular forces never exceeded 40,000 during the entire period of the occupation. Soviet forces for the operation included approximately 10,000 paratroops from the elite 103d Guards Air Assault and the 56th Air Assault Brigade as well as an estimated 6,000 men from the 108th Motor Rifle Division. The force was further reinforced by mechanized and armored vehicles as well as 70 jet fighters. Sarin and Dvoretsky state that Gromov and his planners carefully studied the surrounding terrain and known defensive positions of the mujahideen. In addition, they assert that the planners “compared this operation to similar campaigns in the Caucasus and the Carpathians against the Germans during World War II.” The stage for the last large-scale Soviet ground offensive of the war was set.

The offensive began on November 18, 1987, with Afghan ground forces pushing down the 122 kilometer-long highway from Gardez towards Khost. DRA ground forces spearheaded the offensive with Soviet forces occupying the flanks in overwatch positions. These forces immediately ran into stiff resistance, and required Soviet airpower support in order to continue forward. In fact, Soviet aircraft operating out of Bagram airfield expended an average of 400 tons of ordnance per day during the offensive. In addition, Soviet artillery fired new “beehive” antipersonnel rounds containing thousands of dart-like flechettes in support of the advance. DRA forces once again demonstrated their continuing dependence on Soviet aerial and artillery support.

Soviet airpower proved to be the key element in supporting the slow but steady advance of Afghan forces into the Shamal valley, 20 miles to the west of Khost. The DRA assault on the village of Kot included an airborne drop of 900 Afghan paratroopers in support of an armored thrust on 30 November. The total DRA losses in the assault included 80 KIA, 260 captured paratroopers, and the loss of five tanks. By December 4, DRA forces pushed into the Zadran valley, losing another 37 KIA and seven tanks.

The mujahideen counterattacked on December 9, and by December 12, they had destroyed another 13 tanks. Strikes by Soviet jets proved key in blunting the insurgents’ counter-offensive. Additionally, Soviet airborne troops entered the fray on December 19, during the last major push towards Khost. Soviet airborne troops and aviation operated as a combined arms team, in the by now familiar air assault attack. The
final push included the use of the classic air assault formula with troops occupying the heights by leapfrogging forward, and Mi-24 Hinds providing fire support for the advancing columns. The Soviets supplemented the standard air assault formula with at least one example of tactical innovation and deception at the Satekundav Pass. As the advance neared Khost, the combined Soviet-DRA forces faced a difficult tactical situation in moving through the Satekundav Pass. The mujahideen, recognizing the value of the position, had constructed a strong defensive network of obstacles and camouflaged firing positions throughout the pass. The Satekundav Pass had constituted a major concern for Gromov during the operational planning stage for the offensive. Gromov’s plan for the capture of the pass included an airborne drop followed by a massive artillery and air bombardment of the insurgents once they identified their positions by opening fire. In a postwar interview, Gromov described the operation:

The paratroopers were carried to the drop zone in the vicinity of the Satekundav Pass by aircraft of the military transport aviation. A gust of fire fell on them. Anti-aircraft machine guns and cannons fired on them. And at that moment the firing positions of the mutineers were revealed for the blows of Soviet and Afghan attack aviation. Then this was followed by an artillery attack. In the course of an hour the entire system of fire of the mutineers was destroyed.

Gromov’s willingness to accept the sacrifice of airborne troops in an exposed operation in order to fix the mujahideen firing positions appears at first reckless, if not irresponsible. However, in a classic example of maskirova the airborne drop involved “dummy” paratroopers, and not their human counterparts.

By December 30, Soviet and DRA forces pushed into Khost with 4,500 tons of supplies, effectively breaking the siege. In an effort to capitalize on their success, the VTA dropped 7,000 Soviet airborne troops 60 kilometers to the north of Khost in an attempt to encircle the retreating mujahideen. Another 1,500 airborne troops deployed in the hills surrounding the city. Despite the audacity of the airborne plan, the mujahideen avoided the trap and the Soviet net remained empty.

Operation Magistral had succeeded, but the cost was high. The DRA forces lost an estimated 1,000 killed, 2,000 wounded, and 346 captured. DRA equipment losses included 110 mechanized vehicles, of which 47 were tanks. Soviet forces lost 320 killed and 600 wounded. In contrast, the mujahideen lost between 150 and 300 killed. In addition, seven Soviet aircraft were lost, including three helicopters. The victory at Khost did not come cheaply for a force that was already committed to withdrawal. In fact, Soviet casualties in Magistral constituted 32 percent of the entire combat losses for Russian forces in 1987. Soviet and DRA forces had earned a hard-fought victory, but it was at a cost that neither was willing or able to afford over the long run.

Magistral proved to be the last major Soviet offensive undertaken before the Russian withdrawal. The operation again demonstrated the important role of the VVS in not only providing fire support, but in its ability to move troops rapidly with both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. The expenditure of 400 tons of ordnance per day also highlighted the key role of the VVS in supporting its own and DRA forces in the field. In the future, without Soviet ground forces in the field, the DRA would come to rely even more heavily on Soviet air support during the last full year of Russian involvement in the war.The emphasis on airpower complemented a Soviet move to “Afghanize” the war, by shifting ground operations to DRA forces.

The emphasis on airpower complemented a Soviet move to “Afghanize” the war, by shifting ground operations to DRA forces. On December 19, 1987, Soviet television showed its first-ever coverage of current fighting in Afghanistan by highlighting the DRA’s role in the offensive on Khost. Prior to 1984, the Soviet press avoided any discussion of combat operations in Afghanistan. British historian Mark Galeotti noted that Soviet actions in Afghanistan “could not be discussed freely in the press” even in the early glasnost period between 1985 and 1987. During this period, reports focused on the heroic efforts of specific individuals, and not the strategic situation within the country. In contrast, the report concerning the Khost operation emphasized the DRA’s combat capabilities in the ongoing operation, and signified the Soviet shift towards a policy of DRA self-sufficiency in ground operations. This television report clearly constituted a Russian attempt at the “Vietnamization” of the war against the mujahideen. After Magistral, the burden of ground combat operations rested squarely on the shoulders of the DRA.
Soviet cogitations: 1791
Defected to the U.S.S.R.: 11 Dec 2004, 11:58
Party Member
Post 02 Mar 2005, 06:10
There's not much point creating another thread just for this, so i'll add it in here:

Twenty-five years ago, on Christmas Eve, Soviet troops marched into Afghanistan with the aim of restoring order in a few months. Nine years later they withdrew amid continued violence. In their wake, civil war erupted and the Taliban rose to power, providing a haven to Al Qaeda.

Critics of the U.S. military effort in Iraq often cite the Soviet experience in Afghanistan as evidence that using foreign troops to put down an insurgency is bound to fail. But that "lesson" is misleading because it depends on a depiction of the Soviet-Afghan war that is downright inaccurate.

When Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan, they initially failed to protect their logistical and communications lines. But Soviet commanders quickly corrected these mistakes and brought in better troops, including helicopter pilots trained for mountain warfare. From mid-1980 on, the Afghan guerrillas never seized any major Soviet facilities or prevented major troop deployments and movements.

When Soviet generals shifted, in mid-1983, to a counterinsurgency strategy of scorched-earth tactics and the use of heavily armed special operations forces, their progress against the guerrillas accelerated. Over the next few years, the Soviets increased their control of Afghanistan, inflicting many casualties — guerrilla and civilian. Had it not been for the immense support — weapons, training, materials — provided to the Afghan guerrillas by the United States, Saudi Arabia, China and Pakistan, Soviet troops would have achieved outright victory.

Even with all the outside military assistance, Afghan guerrillas were often helpless when facing the Soviet military machine. Raids conducted by Soviet airborne and helicopter forces were especially effective. In late 1985 and 1986, guerrilla units sustained heavy losses in the Kunar Valley and Paktia province and retreated from large swaths of strategic territory. The previously ineffective army of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul provided valuable support, launching fierce artillery barrages and huge armored assaults. In a long study of Soviet military progress as of mid-1987, a leading Westren military expert concluded that Soviet forces were proving "devastatingly effective against the Afghan resistance," were "presently winning in Afghanistan" and were "very close to crushing the resistance."

The announcement in 1988 by then-Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev that forces would be withdrawn from Afghanistan within a year was a political and diplomatic decision, not a military one. The "bleeding wound" that Gorbachev described was not primarily Russian but Afghan. During the nine years of fighting, more than 2.5 million Afghans (mostly civilians) were killed or maimed; millions more were displaced or forced into exile. By contrast, 14,453 Soviet troops were killed, an average of 1,600 a year. This was not a trivial number, but certainly sustainable for the Soviet army, which numbered more than 4 million.

When the last Soviet troops left Afghanistan in February 1989, the situation on the ground was relatively favorable to Moscow, in part because the Soviet air force conducted sustained bombing raids to cover the withdrawal. Aided by huge inflows of Soviet weaponry, Kabul's staunchly pro-Soviet regime led by President Najibullah remained in power for the next three years. The regime's durability represented a notable success for the Soviet war effort. Only after the Soviet Union collapsed and the new Russian government cut off military aid to Afghanistan did Najibullah fall.

What relevance does the Soviet-Afghan war have for U.S. military operations in Iraq? Very little. Soviet troops did not invade and occupy Afghanistan to oust a brutal dictator or promote democratic elections. They simply aimed to install a friendly communist regime in Kabul. The number of Soviet troops never exceeded 120,000 at any time, but they eventually laid waste to the entire country.

A dearth of training and equipment hampered the Soviet war effort. By contrast, U.S. soldiers in Iraq are much better trained, equipped and motivated than their Soviet counterparts were in Afghanistan.

The Soviet-Afghan war's main relevance to the U.S. campaign in Iraq is operational. The Soviet experience underscored the crucial importance of intelligence in fighting an insurgency, an advantage the U.S. continues to lack in Iraq. It also highlighted the enormous potential of attack and transport helicopters that can strike deep in enemy territory, and it reaffirmed the value of small, flexible units of heavily armed special operations forces that are capable of carrying out rapid strikes.

Most important, the Soviet war demonstrated that the Afghan guerrillas were not invincible and that well-designed counterinsurgency operations can inflict grave damage on, and spread turmoil among, the enemy.

Looking back 25 years later, many observers have been tempted to assume that the Soviet military effort in Afghanistan was hopeless from the start. That's a distortion. An accurate appraisal of the Soviet military experience in Afghanistan is essential if we are to avoid drawing spurious lessons for current U.S. policy in Iraq.
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