Mujahideen launch a mortar attack on Shigal Tarna garrison, Kunar Province (1987)
THE OPERATIONAL STRUCTURE OF JIHADI GROUPS
by Hassan Rizvi
The entire Jihadi fighting force was united under the banner of Islamic Unity of Afghanistan Mujahideen, which was an alliance of seven Afghan parties fighting against the Soviets : Islamic Party (Khalis), Islamic Party (Hekmatyar), Islamic Society (Rabbani), Islamic Union for the Liberation of Afghanistan (Sayyaf), National Islamic Front for Afghanistan (Gailani), Afghanistan National Liberation Front (Mojaddedi), and Revolutionary Islamic Movement (Mohammadi).
Although the alliance took its formal shape in the 1985, it had de facto existence as a political bloc since May 1979, when the Pakistani government decided to limit the flow of foreign financial aid, mainly from USA and Saudi Arabia, to the said seven organizations, thus limiting infighting amongst numerous smaller groups-while simultaneously cutting of the flow to doubtful and undesirable groups.
The seven parties between themselves controlled a number of affiliated commanders –the highest operational rank amongst the Jihadis. Significant commanders typically led 300 or more men, but there were many commanders with lesser number of fighters. Each commander controlled several bases to dominate a district or a sub-division of a province. Some of the legendary commanders of the Afghan war were:
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar the favored warlord of the ISI and CIA. Casey was said to be particularly fond of him as both shared a goal of extending the fighting beyond Afghanistan into the Soviet Union itself. He was a ruthless fighter, who also led several raids into USSR territory. He was also a major drug trafficker. Almost half of all the covert weapons directed at Afghanistan were sent to his group.
Another ISI and CIA favorite was Jalaluddin Haqqani. In the 1980s, he was cultivated as a “unilateral” asset of the CIA, helping to protect Osama bin Laden, who was building his own militia to fight the Soviet forces.
Originally a member of the Hezb-i-Islami, he was the first resistance leader to capture a city, Khost, from the Najibullah government. After the fall of Kabul to the Mujahideen in 1992, he was appointed justice minister in the first Mujahideen government. He attracted generous support from prosperous Arab countries compared to other resistance leaders.
Haqqani was not originally a member of the Taliban. In 1995, just prior to the Taliban’s occupation of Kabul, he switched his allegiance to them. In 1996-97, he served as a Taliban military commander north of Kabul, and was accused of ethnic cleansing against local Tajik populations. During the Taliban years in power, he served as the Minister of Borders and Tribal Affairs and governor of Paktia Province.
The GID’s (Saudi Intelligence Agency) favorite was Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a Pashtun warlord. He was a member of Akhwan-ul-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood), founded in 1969 by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Dr. Syed Burhanuddin Rabbani, which had strong links to The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Fluent in Arabic, his tenure as an Ustad (Professor) at the Shariat faculty in Kabul ended in 1973 when he fled to Pakistan after an unsuccessful plot to overthrow President Daoud Khan . Sayyaf then headed the Islamic Union for the Liberation of Afghanistan, and fought against Soviet occupying forces in Afghanistan during the 1980s, forming a close relationship with Osama bin Laden .
Together in the Jalalabad area they established a training camp network, later used by Al-Qaeda personnel, with bunkers and emplacements. In 2001 he was the only Pashtun leader allied with the United Front (Northern Alliance) –and therefore the US – in its war against the governing Taliban prior to the fall of Kabul. In this period though wielding little clout as a military leader, he was able to maintain a small army paying men under his command with donations he received from his Arab benefactors. He is also the one who trained the dreaded Abu Sayyaf terrorist group of the Philippines.
Ahmed Shah Massoud of the Panjshir valley north of Kabul, was one of the most independent, charismatic and effective of Mujahideen commanders. He was also the most well read and certainly the most militarily proficient amongst them all. His tragedy was that in a land over which all sorts of powers vied for control he dreamed of a democratic and free Afghanistan, with the result that he was always relatively poorly supplied.
Opposed to both Russian as well as Pushtun domination, he is credited by some western writers of having caused over 60% of the Russian losses-but found little favour with the ISI or Saudis. By the end of the war he was leading at least 10,000 trained troops-the only semblance to an army amongst Mujahideen commanders- and had expanded his political control of Tajik dominated areas to Afghanistan’s northeastern provinces. His Northern alliance later also provided the base for the US invasion of Afghanistan. After the Russian withdrawal he remained the lone obstacle preventing Taliban and Pakistani domination of the country. However in this final stage, he was being supported by the Russians, Iranians and the Indians-and perhaps covertly even by the US.
The fighters under the warlords operated through over 4000 bases spread all over Afghanistan.
The bases served as sources of supply and control. Hierarchies of organization above the base level were attempted, but the results varied depending on regional, ethnic and sectarian considerations. In the Pashtun areas of the east, south and southwest; tribal structure, with its many rival sub-divisions, provided the basis for military organization and leadership. Mobilization depended on the traditional fighting allegiances to quickly raise a tribal lashkar (fighting force). In favorable circumstances such formations could quickly reach more than 10,000.
Normally they could be formed to besiege towns, but because of the independent nature of Pashtun , the Lashkar durability was necessarily short-and most sieges ended in failures. Despite the proven ability to cause fearfully unacceptable attrition in hit and run missions, such troops were woefully inadequate for purposes of capturing or holding any major cities and bases in operations against trained troops.
Mujahideen mobilization in non-Pashtun regions was very different. The Persian and Turkish speaking regions of Afghanistan lacked strong political representation in a state dominated by Pashtuns. Prior to the invasion, non-Pashtuns possessed very few firearms and little military tradition upon which to build an armed resistance. Here the leadership for mobilization was found from amongst pious learned or charismatically revered pirs (saints).The military leadership being closely tied to Islam helped avoid the infighting common amongst the Pashtun and led to some of the most effective mobilization during the war.
Thus Ahmed Shah Massoud of the Panjshir valley north of Kabul, one of the most charismatic and effective commanders, rose from within their ranks. By the end of the war he was leading at least 10,000 trained troops-the only semblance to an army amongst Mujahideen commanders- and had expanded his political control of Tajik dominated areas to Afghanistan’s northeastern provinces. His Northern alliance later also provided the base for the US invasion of Afghanistan.
The Mujahideen leaders were skilled at sabotage operations. They concentrated on both civilian and military targets, knocking out bridges, closing major roads, blowing up power lines, pipelines, radio stations, government office buildings, air terminals, hotels, cinemas, ambushing patrols, attacking convoys, disrupting the electric power system and industrial production, and attacking police stations and Soviet military installations and air bases. From 1985 through 1987, an average of over 600 “sabotage acts” a year were recorded. The Mujahideen would often launch 800 rockets per day. Between April 1985 and January 1987, they carried out over 23,500 shelling attacks on government targets. They also made heavy use of land mines.
MUJAHIDEEN ATTACKS WITHIN THE USSR
In 1985, the CIA, MI6 (Britain’s intelligence agency), and the Pakistani ISI agreed to launch guerrilla attacks from Afghanistan into then Soviet-controlled Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, attacking military installations, factories, and storage depots within Soviet territory. The task was given to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
According to, Mohammad Yousaf, a high-ranking ISI officer at the time. the attacks on the Soviet Union actually began in 1985:“These cross-border strikes were at their peak in 1986. Scores of attacks were made across the Amu (River)… Sometimes Soviet citizens joined in these operations, or came back into Afghanistan to join the Mujahideen. That we were hitting a sore spot was confirmed by the ferocity of the Soviets’ reaction. Virtually every incursion provoked massive aerial bombing and gunship attacks on all villages south of the river in the vicinity of our strike.”
THE SOVIET WITHDRAWAL
By 1987 the USSR decided it has had enough! Its Politburo decided that the Soviet-Afghan War must end “within a year” and by November 1987 both the CIA and the ISI were aware of this.
As a result of an agreement signed in Geneva, between Afghanistan and Pakistan the Soviet Union pledged to withdraw all of its troops from Afghanistan by February15, 1989. On that exact date the last of its soldiers were out of Afghanistan.
But they left a Soviet backed Communist regime holding the fort at Kabul. None of the players – including the USSR – expected this regime to survive for more then three months. Yet even though it was acceptable to neither the Mujahideen fighters nor even their principle backers – it would survive for three years!
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