The Lion of Sabray
- 1 - A TRIBAL WARRIOR IS BORN
When the late Lieutenant General Mikhail Kalashnikov made the final refinements to his universal assault rifle back in the 1960s, he became a patron saint of revolution. In the decades following the new production lines for the AK-47, the sixty-year-old Mikhail armed just about every disgruntled terror group on the planet.
From half-educated jihadists and the armies of rogue states to crazed Far Eastern dictators and jack-booted communist secret police. The “Kalash,” as the Russians call it, has armed millions of malcontents, from Red China to the Congo, from North Korea to Baghdad, from Beirut to Tehran and back.
Of course, it also armed the Red Army, and it was the mainstay
of the army of Afghani Patriots, the mujahideen, whose country was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1979.
In the past, everyone was drawn to the AK’s gas-driven rotating bolt rifle, the cyclic six-hundred-rounds-per-minute firing rate, the four-hundred-meter range, and, of course, its famous reliability, durability, and availability. The old Soviets would sell that weapon to anyone.
The rifle was heavy. With its sturdy wooden stock, it weighed almost ten pounds with the magazine loaded, but it had a back-kick like an angry mule, which often resulted in bullets being sprayed around all over the place by would-be warriors with weak wrists—men who could scarcely hit a barn door at point-blank range.
But complaints were few. And even the genuine gripe of the home guerilla army in Afghanistan, fighting the invading Russians in the deep valleys of the Hindu Kush, quickly accepted that Mikhail’s masterpiece had a flaw: it was utterly unsuitable as the weapon of choice for the youngest mujahideen recruits, who were often around eight years old. The fact was, it was too heavy, too much of a handful, too much gun.
The mujahideen treasure their boy soldiers, the armies of the future. And local commanders expected everyone to be battle-trained by the time he reached the age of twelve. And, of course, the first great skill they needed to learn was to shoot straight.
With no birth certificates, this was all slightly hit-or-miss when assessing the kids for active infantry duty against the Red Army.
When he was eight, Gulab was taken away from his village to fight the Russians. He was small for his age and could hardly lift the Kalashnikov.
He struggled to raise it while peering down the adjustable iron sight. He pulled the trigger fast, just in case he dropped it and killed one of his own side. That rifle slammed against his shoulder and knocked him flat on his back.
The 7.62-millimeter bullet could have gone anywhere, and before he climbed back to his feet, one of the junior commanders gave him a sharp slap across the face, presumably for military incompetence. It was some years before they ordered him once more to carry the standard mujahideen assault rifle.
This was not, however, a problem to be solved by sending him home to his village, back to school, or to his studies of the Koran. Gulab was here on the battlefield, the younger brother of one of the mujahideens’ finest commanders, and if he was too small for the Kalash, they’d find him something else to fire on the enemy. Age was not an issue.
To a Westerner, it does seem cruel to hear of children being recruited for a ferocious and historic tribal army pledged to fight to the death for its hilly homeland. But fighting is just a way of life in their culture, and Gulab will confirm endlessly that it was not strange for him, nor for his family. And at the time, they were at war with invaders. There was no other life. Gulab comes from a Pashtun tribe. Mountain men and women. His tiny village, high in the Himalayas, has always been under attack, from gangsters, smugglers, thieves,
warlords, and, more recently, Al Qaeda, the Taliban sect who covet the seclusion, and other rival factions who covet the lush, timbered slopes and relatively prosperous way of living.
Gulab speaks thoughtfully about his own birthplace. “Sabray is just a little village,” he says. “And I suppose a Westerner might consider it a primitive place. There are only two houses which have an iron stove in which to bake our bread, and this we share every day. Our electricity supply is limited to one generator, and water comes from a mountain river.
“Sabray is built on a steep gradient, well over three thousand feet above sea level in the Hindu Kush range, with peaks towering many thousands of feet above us all. Sounds echo across the valleys, bouncing off the walls of the mountains.”
The village stands slightly north of the world’s 33rd parallel, in Central Asia, in a time zone nine and a half hours ahead of the East Coast of the United States.
It’s close to the Pakistan border, and 135 miles from the Afghan capital of Kabul, which lies across high mountains and seems like half a world away if you’re walking, as most Afghanis do.
For centuries, the people of Sabray have fought like lions for what they owned. There was a family Kalashnikov always ready in the main room of every house, magazine clipped and loaded. Everyone carries a tribal knife. Thieves are likely to meet a quick end.
If the men are away working, the women are equally dangerous. The chances of any thief getting out of any house with his life intact are remote. The Pashtuns traditionally shoot to kill and, if
necessary, deliver the precision slash to the throat from an Afghan tribal knife.
“Every house and family in the village is similar,” says Gulab. “The citizens of Sabray are renowned throughout Kunar Province as fighters, fearless soldiers, skilled in the art of war. Men from Sabray have long been considered the very heart of the mountain armies. It is often said that a hundred thirty warriors from Sabray will seem like ten thousand to any enemy.”
US Special Forces will confirm how these mountain men move swiftly, silently, and ruthlessly. They are experts at moving over every inch of those rocky, barely charted escarpments. They have never cared for outright confrontation with the fire and steel of any occupying army, like those of Great Britain (nineteenth century), the Soviet Union (1980 to 1989), or the United States (now). Their specialty is ambush. And no one is too young to learn that.
Which is, more or less, why young Gulab was marched off to war at such an early age and why such high expectations were leveled upon him.
He still recalls the moment when he was flung to the ground by the kick-back of that AK-47. “The incident ran close to a family disgrace,” he said, frowning at the memory. “I was not aware of it at the time, but I was aware of the immense reputation of my brother, Commander Nazer Gul, a very, very dangerous man.
“Eighteen times he’d been wounded in battle. And eighteen times, he fought back to resume his command. Gul is a trained killer, once jailed for twenty years for ending the life of a tribal enemy. In fact,
they let him out after only five years, on the simple condition that he immediately raise a mujahideen army of Sabray fighters—men everyone knew would follow him into hell.”
His mission was to train them and join in the mujahideens’ fight against the occupying Russians. By the time Gulab arrived on those treacherous high peaks, Gul was one of the senior officers.
“I’m not sure he ever knew his kid brother had been flattened by my own rifle,” says Gulab. “But I do know an order came down from very high up that I was to be inducted immediately into guerilla warfare using a more manageable weapon.”
For this the Afghanis chose the heavy, lethal Soviet machine gun the DShK-38 (the Russians call it the dushka), with its huge 12.7-millimeter cartridge, two-thousand-meter range, fifty-round ammunition belt, armor-plated shield, and heavy-wheeled mounting. The gun alone weighed seventy-five pounds and, once, handled erratically by the Irish Republican Army, knocked a six-ton British army Westland Lynx helicopter clean out of the sky and dumped it on the shores of the Cashel Lough in County Armagh.
The eight-year-old Gulab could not believe the size of it when they led him to the machine gun station. The good news was that he did not have to lift it. The bad news was that he could not reach it to look through the crosshairs.
The DShK-38 was in a fixed firing position, its three-prong stand jammed into the ground, and they had to get Gulab up there somehow. Huge, flat stones were collected to build a platform for him to stand on and start blasting away with one of the most
deadly large-caliber weapons in the world. It shook like hell, but it did not kick back like the Kalash. And Gulab remembers enjoying himself, banging away at distant rocks and trees. His teachers were right: it was a lot easier to handle than a Russian infantry assault rifle.
What led to Gulab being attached to that machine gun were the momentous events of December 25, 1979, when the Red Army marched into Afghanistan from the north and attempted to subjugate the people to the unwanted purposes of the Soviet Union, under the leadership of President Leonid Brezhnev.
Gulab was about six years old at the time and not aware of the significance of that invasion. In fact, it took some time for the nation to understand precisely what had happened and what it might mean. But there was a very definite sense of consternation, and there were meetings of the village elders and a call to arms was issued by the mujahideen.
It was the first time Gulab ever experienced mass tension in the village. He knew that his brother Haji Nazer Gul was “away” but was never told he was in jail for murder. And he does recall his return, liberated by the authorities in order to lead the men of Sabray into battle. He scarcely understood that the mujahideen would fight, and keep fighting, until the Russians marched right back out of Afghanistan and stayed out.
At the age of six, Gulab might not have been totally focused, but he understood the word enemy—and everyone knew there was an enemy close by. They did not know exactly what he wanted, or
why he was there, but they did know he worshipped a different God and therefore was an infidel. Abstractly, the villagers knew that the tribesmen would, in time, defeat the Russians and drive them away. Equally vaguely, every young man in the community understood that he would be required to fight in the not-too-distant future.
The daily prayers in the village mosque contained a heightened awareness of the battles that loomed ahead, and they recited the eternal cry of the Islamic creed: “La Ilaha ill Allah Muhammadur-Rasul Allah”: “There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”
Other new but ancient words also echoed throughout the village, and that translation read: “Oh, God. Please make us successful in our fight. Please help us to kill the infidel. May God bless us.” The learned men drilled it into those very young minds.
The words were simple, and they were part of the prayers offered five times a day, beginning at dawn and right through to sundown. And every single time, when the gathering turned to face Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, the village elders and the learned men prayed with the Imam; prayed for a just victory over the intruders from the North.
This was the mantra for Islamic life, even for those so young. The senior men frequently went to war and frequently came back. But not always. Gulab understood swiftly that friends had lost fathers and brothers in the Russian conflict. They all knew the dangers and understood the risks. They knew that the children, too,
would one day follow them out onto the steep, dusty slopes of guerilla warfare, where they would kill to survive, as their ancestors had always done.
For the people of Sabray, the tradition of “blooding” boy soldiers to join the line of battle in the Hindu Kush was as timeless as life itself. It’s entirely foreign to Western culture. But Gulab found nothing strange in it. The right to fight and kill an invading enemy is instilled in Pashtun culture.
Every young boy was taught the last great triumph of the tribal warriors of Afghanistan: how the bearded Islamists had destroyed the British army in the infamous retreat from Kabul in January 1842. Everyone was taught how the English major general Sir William Elphinstone, attempting an orderly retreat out of Afghanistan, was wiped out in the mountain passes. Out of sixteen thousand men, only one made it home to the garrison in India. The last stand of the British was made in the Gandamak Pass along the road from Kabul, when those renowned veterans of Waterloo, the Forty-Fourth Regiment of Foot (the Fighting Fours of Essex), were annihilated by Afghan warriors, fighting from the heights.
The Afghanis were the supreme exponents of ambush combat. One hundred fifty years later, Britain’s Spectator magazine described that combat as an “almost perfect catastrophe.” As it was then, so it will always be: the ancient Afghan promise of “You try to conquer us, in the end you die.”
That British retreat is known in the Hindu Kush as the Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army. And it should be said that the Forty-Fourth
Regiment fought back with great gallantry to the last man, refusing to surrender despite British losses of 4,500 troops and almost 12,000 civilian workers, family members, and camp followers.
All nations are formed by their history and their heroes of the past. And the Pashtuns were most certainly created by theirs. From their earliest years, the village teaching was simple: We may be attacked, we may even be conquered, but we will always fight back, and we will never give up. . . . We battle, if necessary, until there is no one left. If we run out of ammunition, we will use our rifles as clubs, and if we run out of rifles, we will resort to our tribal knives, and night after night we will cut the throats of our enemies, until they leave our territory.
Gulab became very confident with the Russian dushka, and in the coming eight years of warfare, he was recognized quickly as a master gunner, firing the mounted heavy machine gun with precision. The very young learn very easily. In Afghanistan, that’s especially important.
Back in the village, they heard the outbreak of the Russian war from the sustained gunfire out of a deep valley, about eleven miles away across the mountains.
The sounds of that first battle had a pattern: long, drawn-out gun bursts, short and sharp at first; and then louder, more serious, as the mujahideen commanders switched to the heavy machine guns, firing on the Russians from the high walls of the valley. In the end, there would be, possibly, four massive explosions, like detonating a mountainside, and then a strong, shuddering, lingering aftershock. Then silence.
Long before his eighth birthday, Gulab knew what those sounds
represented, though it took him several weeks as a junior machine gunner to understand the most important part of mujahideen strategy. This occurred in the hours of profound silence that preceded an Afghan opening attack.
These were the hours when the mujahideen commanders ordered battle lines into position. The ambush site had been selected, always above a valley being approached by a large Russian convoy. The mountain warriors moved swiftly and quietly up to the heights, crossing their native ground, utilizing the “dead spots” behind rocks and trees, from where they could not be seen from the valley below.
The first time Gulab saw them, it was like watching shadows: these brave, fearless tribesmen moving across the shifting shale escarpments, leaving scarcely even a footprint and certainly not causing any sand or rock to slip down the steep slopes. He once told me, somewhat sardonically, “Anyone can do it like us—after about two thousand years of practice!”
No enemy of Afghanistan has training like the natives. Certainly not the Russians, nor the Brits nor the Americans. Those mountains are the mujahideen training grounds; all their lives are spent moving across them, making no sounds, because of the endless dangers. Gulab remembers his first battle. It took many hours to prepare firing positions, and then they waited, high above the valley floor, with no one making a sound.
“Mostly,” he told me, “I remember my brother Haji Nazer Gul. Sometimes he was the only man moving, making signals, checking
ammunition belts, adjusting aim-and-fire placements, always with his big Russian rifle slung over his shoulder.
“When, at last, he was finished, we could see him above us, in conference with the senior commanders, while our lookouts—positioned high on the rocks—stared down into the valley, searching for the dust cloud, which swirled inevitably above the Russian convoy.
“As soon as they came rumbling into the valley, with no escape, neither to the left nor right, our orders were simple. Upon the command, we would open fire on the armored vehicle drivers and commanders—those we could see clearly. They could not, of course, see us, since we were ducked down behind huge boulders a long way above them.”
Mujahideen strategy was to level sustained fire down on the enemy, concentrating on the rearguard, and thus driving the leaders forward to the end of the valley. And there the Afghanis finished them with their biggest bombs, planted in booby-trap order, sometimes in the valley floor. Often there were few survivors.
Once, in a summer ambush, Gulab was in a strange quietness from the shattered convoy. And then, as the commanders walked down to finish off any still-breathing Russians, he recalls a huge black cloud rising from the bodies, way up into the sky, blotting out the sun. This was a flock of crows—looked like millions and millions of them—feeding off the corpses. It was absolutely horrible.
And for the first time in his young life, he thought war was a really terrible business. “Up till then,” he said, “I thought it had something to do with heroism.”
The Russians considered those ruthless ambushes barbaric, but the mountain men don’t really go much for subtlety. They go for death, especially to the infidel. And if the Russians did not like it, well, perhaps they should have thought about that before they invaded the ancient Islamic homeland of the Pashtun people.
It worked against the earlier British invaders and it would work again against the Russians. The mujahideen were perfectly willing to face death. And they could melt into those mountains, invisible in an instant. Pursuit was impossible.
The war had been going on for about a year when Gulab was first called to the front line. The timeline began on the Christians’ holy day of December 25, when the Russians staged a massive military airlift into Kabul. It involved nearly three hundred transport aircraft and more than twenty-five thousand men, and after a savage battle in the city, they took the Tajbeg Palace. Kabul fell.
Simultaneously, Russian tanks rolled out of the ancient Uzbekistan city of Termez, which was no stranger to war, having been conquered by Alexander the Great in 329 BC, and then, more than 1,500 years later, destroyed by Genghis Khan. In that wild northern territory, the Amu Dar’ya River divides the two countries, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. The bridge across those swiftly flowing mountain waters is called the Friendship Bridge, but it should have been renamed. In the decade after the Soviet attack, more than a hundred thousand Russian soldiers marched out of their Termez military headquarters and over that highway, heading south into hostile Afghan mountains.
Whatever Mr. Brezhnev said about supporting the Kabul government, there was nothing friendly about his armies. And their ultimate fate was sealed very early in 1980.
The mujahideen, the historic jihadist army, declared that the Russian invaders had defiled both Islam and Afghani culture. And they immediately declared jihad, citing the literal meaning of that old Arab word: “struggle.” And they vowed to go on killing the Soviets until they left.
This was a holy war, and they conducted it fiercely, in the name of Allah, reviving the nineteenth-century creed of the iron-souled mujahideen tribesmen who massacred the forces of General Elphinstone.
Communications in the valleys of Kunar Province were limited, but in the ancient ways of the Pashtun tribes, the call to arms flashed through the high peaks, man to man, village to village, like a kind of tribal bush telegraph. Gulab was not yet seven years old, but he still remembers the men of Sabray gathering their rifles and leaving together, many of them led by his own brother.
It was fitting somehow that the conflict’s very first battle was fought in a valley not eleven miles from his village. He was always told the mujahideen won it, but even at his tender age, he already understood that the men of Sabray would never admit defeat no matter what the outcome really was.
And from that moment, in the opening days of the Christian New Year, the Russians would meet ferocious resistance all along the main Kunar road that runs along the river. In fact, the Russians
ran into heavy-handed opposition whenever they ventured out of their city strongholds and into the countryside. And they probably never understood why the men of the mujahideen fought with such venom.
The truth was, they had to win those early skirmishes for one practical reason: the mujahideen needed to grab the Russian weapons and the explosives. There was no way to buy them, so they had to be stolen in battle. And the tribesmen did not care how many of the enemy they killed—anything to get those rifles, machine guns, hand grenades, rockets, and bombs.
They never took tanks or armored vehicles, because they were useless in the steep-walled valleys, and anyway, the mountain men were not sure how to work them. They usually just blew them up with the Russians’ own high explosives, on the basis that if the tribesmen couldn’t use them, neither could the occupying army.
The mujahideen stuck rigidly to the strategies of guerilla warfare: ambush and surprise attacks, plus murderous assaults on the enemy guards and young officers in the dead of night. No training was needed for this.
Gulab estimates that he was called in 1981. By that time, the Russians had taken some bad losses and in many ways were already on the run, especially out in the wild country, where they were hit hard over and over. Once he had recovered from being flattened by the AK-47, Gulab moved up onto his platform of mountain granite and began work as a gunner.
This was his first job, and once he mastered the terrific vibration
of the dushka, he was able to aim it pretty well. After a three-day walk from Sabray, they positioned themselves high up over a valley, on both sides. The heavy machine guns were already in place, the barrels aimed down at the road through the central pass. Behind just one of them, the flat stones awaited him, and they made camp up there in the hills and waited.
They waited maybe for two days until the lookouts signaled that the Russian convoy was coming. There was huge excitement, but no one spoke. The commanders moved among the gunners, checking ammunition supplies. Gulab kept very still up there; at one point, his brother came by and told him to fire steady when the time arrived.
Everyone saw the leading Russian tanks and trucks come rumbling into the valley, and the mujahideen commanders let them get well entrenched between the rock faces before ordering the Afghan riflemen to open up, pouring volley after volley into the convoy.
They could see the armored vehicles swerving, trying to get away from the fire. But then Commander Haji Nazer Gul ordered the dushkas to start shooting. “For the first time,” said Gulab, “in the anger of battle, aged eight, I hit the trigger.”
Gulab recounts that opening action of the Russian war:
I could tell my big shells were slamming into the vehicles I aimed at, but very quickly a great cloud of dust was surrounding them, and I thought I’d better stop wasting ammunition, since I could no longer see what I was shooting at.
That was one of my earliest military errors. There was a sporadic
return of fire from Russian troops, who had got free of their tanks, and I could tell there were bullets hitting the dusty terrain around me and ricocheting off the rocks.
Up on the higher slopes, where a line of our machine gunners worked, there were several big explosions, with shale and sand being hurled down over our heads. Nothing hit me, but I was covered in dust and feeling a bit bewildered.
But right then, Haji Nazer Gul yelled at me to get behind the iron shield on my dushka and keep firing no matter what: “Fire into the dust cloud! Don’t let them think they have cover! Keep banging away until there’s no one left alive!” And that’s what I did. If something or someone moved, I blasted it—I knew my high-caliber bullets could cut a man in half, and I just kept blazing away into the melee below.
“Keep firing, kid! Hold your position!”
By now, I had learned the chilling battle cry of the mujahideen, a loud, echoing roar, which sounded like a scream from the mouth of hell. It was designed to strike fear into the hearts of the enemy, and from all accounts, that’s what it did. I loved it, and even though my voice had not yet broken, I could still do it, and I thought it sounded like everyone else. I also used to practice it in my village, very loudly and very often, until several people told me it was not absolutely necessary.
Spurred on by my brother, I fired that dushka until the barrel glowed hot, yelling and blasting—that was my new life. And soon I would see the remnants of the Russian convoy trying to go forward, as if they’d given up on the wounded and abandoned
the burning vehicles. All of them were just revving, skidding, and swerving along the road, desperate to get out of the hellhole we’d created.
And then I saw the biggest explosion I’d ever seen. The lead Russian armored vehicle was blown into the air and the one behind it, and when they crashed to the ground, they burst into flames. That was our booby traps, and within a couple of minutes, just about every vehicle was in flames, and I could see the Russian troops fighting to get out of them.
I remember I just stood there, gaping at this scene of destruction, until, right behind me, I heard Haji Nazer Gul bellowing at me, “Keep firing! Cut them down! We want their equipment—kill them all!”
And then he patted me on the shoulder and told me I was doing great, but always to remember: “If we don’t kill them, they’ll kill us. Come on, kid, let’s finish them.”
Just then there was another huge blast from the exit end of the valley, and a rockfall came smashing down into the road, and now no one could get out, and no one ever would, not in this life.
Finally, I understood what my Islamic teachers meant by “Death to the infidel.” And never again would I wonder exactly what Haji Nazer Gul meant when he said, “Gulab, they should have thought about all this before they tried to conquer us and insult the name of the Prophet and the glory of Allah.”
Later that evening, when we began to pile the spoils of war onto our mountain mule carts, the air still smelled of gunpowder and
death, and black smoke still wafted upward from the shattered Russian convoy.
The scene was still one of horror, but we nevertheless turned to face Mecca that evening. And there on that hillside, prostrate on our prayer mats, we thanked Allah for our great victory—for there is no other God but Allah, and God is great.
Looking back, that was probably the day Gulab grew up. No one could have lived through that much carnage and remained a child. He couldn’t read, and he couldn’t write. He knew nothing of the world beyond his mountains, and he knew little history.
But he did know the Prophet had been not only the holiest of men but also a warrior, and that he, Gulab, was already following in those hallowed footsteps. Haji Nazer Gul told him they’d all fought together that day, and that Allah stood alongside them, protecting them and helping them to victory.
Gulab believed him implicitly. He still does.
Later, however, he learned that first encounter with the enemy had not been quite so pristine perfect as he’d imagined. They had apparently wiped out two thousand Russian troops, destroyed their tanks and armored vehicles, and stolen a large amount of weaponry and ordnance.
But the men from the high villages had losses, too. Those explosions right behind Gulab had blown many of his comrades off the mountain, killed and maimed many mujahideen warriors being blasted by great hunks of rocks ripped off the mountain walls.
At the time, Gulab was, of course, unaware of how this happened.
He soon found out, however, that this was the professional work of the Russians, who, if they could climb out of their tanks and vehicles, went quickly into action with their RPG-7’s, launching rocket-propelled grenades.
These are fired from portable shoulder-launchers, which weigh about fifteen pounds and can hurl a powerful grenade a thousand yards and make one hell of a bang when they hit home. The true purpose was always as an antitank missile, but the Soviets found it was just as good at splitting Afghan rocks and causing havoc among their mujahideen enemy.
That’s what did the damage in the first battle. The launcher is reloadable, and an enemy using it against you must be stopped—thus Haji’s yell to keep firing no matter what.
The RPG-7, with its telescopic sight, fires at a high standard, and its missiles are often heat-seeking, some of them fitted with infrared sights. It works with a gunpowder booster charge, and when the missile leaves that hot steel tube, it’s clocking 350 feet per second, stabilized by two sets of fins. You have to be quick to see it coming. Two additional qualities made it vital to the mujahideen: it was relatively simple to use, and it could take out tanks.
Gulab remembers that when they swooped down to grab the remaining hardware from the defeated Russians, those launchers were top priority.
With the Russian war seriously under way, and throughout the following years, the youth of Sabray would be called to the front line every two or three weeks.
This location was never disclosed, and they all kept walking, destination unknown. It took three or four days, crossing the mountains through these ancient fighting grounds, until they reached the valley to which the Soviets were heading.
Even on the walk, the Sabray cadets were an armed military force. And they were careful not to leave tracks or disturb the ground. No Russian spy could track like they could, and they stuck to the old tribal standards, moving through the shifting shale on the hillsides and sticking to areas where they could swiftly find cover on the heavily forested slopes.
Their escape routes were always upward, because once they reached the higher slopes where the rocks were huge and tightly packed, no enemy could locate them. And if anyone tried, he would die.
By the time the mujahideen battalions arrived for an ambush, they had usually been joined by other small mountain armies, and commanders were already prepared for the forthcoming theater of war.
While media reports often suggested that the native Afghani army was disorganized, undisciplined, and mostly a bit lucky, the opposite was true. The Afghanis were brilliantly organized, with excellent intelligence, and efficient commanders, especially Gulab’s older brother.
When any Russian convoy moved toward an ambush valley, it was already in enormous trouble. The mujahideen explosive was placed meticulously, snipers settled into perfect firing positions, heavy machine guns in the most destructive possible formations, swiveled to face the oncoming tanks and armored vehicles.
“I learned to select my target early,” Gulab says, “and to follow it through the machine gun sights until the order came to open fire. I rarely missed, and I knew how to hit a tank crew, keeping my gun sights trained on the top part of the turret. If we don’t kill them, they’ll kill us.”
Gulab is, in many ways, a wise historian about his own nation. He accepts that Afghanistan is a land of misconceptions and that the world has never figured out how it remained unconquered for all those hundreds of years. This didn’t happen by some kind of a fluke. Mujahideen tribesmen, to this day, remain masters of guerilla warfare and masters of ambush.
They may have few sophisticated weapons, and may be too poor to buy them. But they know how to get them. They know how to engage and defeat enemies. And once they seize an advantage, they know how to finish them.
“Above all,” says Gulab, “my mountains breed warriors. And these are not tribesmen as popularly conceived in Africa, an uncontrolled rabble, shouting and jumping and firing their weapons in the air, butchering women and children. Our tribesmen are born to military combat. And we breed superb commanders, tacticians, and strategists; they are men who comprehend mountain contours. Our leaders do not even need maps because of their mastery of the moon and the stars, and the great shadows of the sun. It’s our enemies who need maps and charts. Up against us, they are facing the ultimate warriors: men of valor, who are born for battle. And who are unafraid to die.
“I grew up watching our field commanders in action. And in later
years, I learned of great generals from other lands. I’ve always had one thought, however: that a top Afghani battle commander could equally direct troops from any other nation.”
Nonetheless, the misconceptions remain that the mujahideen defeat their enemies simply because of the terrain. Gulab admits the mountains help them, but you don’t win wars because of narrow roads.
The terrain of Afghanistan is another misconception. Beyond those dusty borders, people envision a barren land, a kind of landlocked moonscape covered in dust, sand, and boulders amid towering rock faces; and perhaps a few flat places at high altitude, suitable only for growing drugs.
That could scarcely be less accurate. The glacial history of Afghanistan is a story of great walls of ice, sometimes a thousand feet high, cleaving through the mountains, grinding up the terrain, and leaving behind a cover of fine silt. It is called khaki, and that’s its color. It blows all over the place, forming a large part of the soil. It makes Afghan soil extremely fertile, rich growing earth.
There is good rainfall in many parts of the Hindu Kush, and mountain rivers rushing past are usually full of snowmelt from the high peaks of the western Himalayas. Afghani farmers need only to add water to that silt-laden earth, and they can grow melons with full orchards of fruits and nuts. They also grow large crops of potatoes, squash, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers, as well as wheat, barley, cotton, flax, rice, and sesame.
Visitors to Afghanistan often run into either searing summer heat
or blasting winter cold. They are apt to look at the dusty plains, barren mountain slopes, and deep caves and wonder where people once lived. This might give the impression of a land where life is only borderline possible; where the population is essentially Stone Age in outlook and achievement. But this is not so.
The culture of Afghanistan stretches back more than two thousand years, and it’s always been a land of poetry, philosophy, and art. The world’s first oil painting was discovered in Afghanistan, and the wisdom of ancient proverbs rivals those of Confucius, or a Zen koan, or Mark Twain.
Afghanistan’s traditional religious beliefs have remained unaltered. That is not a misconception.
They follow Islamic traditions, and right across the nation, they celebrate the same holidays. They dress the same, eat the same food, enjoy the same music. Most of the country is multilingual, except for mountain warriors like Gulab. And all of them fear Allah and try to obey the words of the Prophet. In the northeastern mountain range, the men fear only Allah. No one else.
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Gulab took part in many of the crushing defeats the mujahideen inflicted on the Russian armies in the terrain around Sabray. His small size may have contributed to the fact that he was never hit or even wounded throughout the campaign.
He was never moved from his position of master gunner, and where that dushka went, so went Gulab, trusted by the
commanders to strip it down, clean and oil it, and then put it back together. He was subjected to inspection, like all gunnery personnel, but he swiftly learned to do the job properly.
Much of the mujahideen weaponry, especially the rockets, was provided by their friends, the Americans and the British. Everyone preferred their battle equipment, and the Afghan commanders were grateful for it. From the United States, they also received guns, money, data on battle locations, and tactical instructions. To their modern allies, it seemed that a mujahideen victory was paramount.
Sometimes US fighter jets overflew the mountains, and the population would always hear them coming. American pilots reported local people shouting and waving at their great benefactors, high in the sky, all the way from the other side of the world. Gulab now knows that there were US air bases all over the place, and they flew in from Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey. But it didn’t really matter where they came from. The fact that they were there, helping Afghanistan, was all that mattered.
In the Hindu Kush, no one knew anything of the Cold War and nothing of the Soviet construction of the Wall across the middle of Berlin in 1961. Gulab had never heard of the Iron Curtain, and never caught anything on any news broadcast when the Americans told the Soviets to “tear down this wall.” When President Ronald Reagan described the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” Gulab and his fellow mujahideen did hear about it eventually and came to think of him as an all-powerful friend and ally in their fight against the marauding Red Army.
No one, however, had any idea how deftly the USA would seize the chance to hit the Russians through the mujahideen in Afghanistan. They provided the sledgehammer, and the mountain men swung it. Remote as they were, it was a real comfort to know that the Americans were their friends.
Certainly the first American president involved in that war, Jimmy Carter, made his outrage clear. Immediately after the Russians attacked, he gave the Soviets exactly one month to get out of Afghanistan, or else the US would boycott the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow. Brezhnev refused, and sixty-four other nations joined the USA and refused to participate in those Games. But, boycott or no boycott, the war proceeded for Gulab under the guidance of his brother and his fellow commanders, all of whom were wounded, some killed. By the time he was twelve, he was, by any standards, a veteran.
The Afghanis kept that Soviet army bottled up inside its bases, attacking whenever possible. It was not easy, because they were hit with air strikes that destroyed mujahideen bases. There were many, many civilian casualties. And it was a time of great sadness in those mountains. But no one even considered giving up the fight.
The women of the villages were proud of their fighting men, husbands, sons, and other relatives. Indeed, if any man decided not to join the mujahideen in their holy struggle, women would ask, “What’s wrong with you? Why do you not go to war?”
At the age of fourteen, it was decided that Gulab should get married, since the six-year veteran master gunner no longer felt
comfortable attending school with children and helping around the house when he came home from combat.
His marriage was arranged by the family, and they chose for him a very beautiful young girl from the nearby village of Suriak. Both families knew and trusted each other, and in Islamic rural culture, that matters. They do not leave matters of such importance to the whims and excitements of the young.
“When I first saw her, I was very happy,” recalls Gulab. “At our first meeting, she shone like a bright light for me, and she still does. Down all the years, I have remained delighted with her, and we have ten children: six boys and four daughters. Our oldest son is Gul Mohammed, named after my brother.
“He’s been a young warrior for many years now. And he was, like me, entrusted with the family Kalashnikov since the age of twelve. If I was ever asked again to lead troops in holy combat, I would immediately make him my second in command. I trust Gul Mohammed with my heart, and he’s ready to accept the highest responsibility.
“I’ve been teaching him all of his life, as I myself was taught. In those years between 1981 and ’89, I became a hardened regular soldier. I was still only fifteen or sixteen when the Russians finally pulled out. I had seen some terrible things, but they no longer seemed so.
“War had been my life, and since I had the experience, I was generally regarded as a junior field commander. My book learning was so little, but book learning only takes you partway. You need men who have done it before. Men who have seen mistakes made by others and will not allow them to happen again.
“That was me. And my opinion was often sought and listened to, despite my youth. Anyway, I did not feel much like a youth; more like Genghis Khan. The joy of conquest had risen up within me.”
Before Gulab reached his approximated fifteenth birthday, the mujahideen army knew that it was winning. The Russian troops and the Afghan government forces who marched with them already recognized the trouble they were in whenever the mountain warriors came raging into battle.
Gulab recalls a hesitation among the Russian soldiers before they began to disembark from their vehicles. The young gunner could see there was a mood of defeat among them, and it was obvious for many months that the Russian army simply could not stay there being systematically wiped out. And it was equally obvious that nothing it inflicted on the tribesmen had the slightest effect in terms of their willingness to fight on.
One such moment occurred right down on the road along the river that Gulab was defending after a Russian convoy had been decimated. Suddenly the Russians were no longer firing back. They were just working in teams, unloading their vehicles and tanks, chains of troops passing out packing cases.
At first, Gulab’s commanders thought they might contain big bombs or rockets, and were considering ways to blow them right now. But then they realized the enemy was unloading weaponry, ordnance, crates of Kalashnikovs, ammunition, and RPG-7s—and throwing them into the river.
Then it dawned on them that the Russians were scared to death
that if they tried to run from the battlefield, the mujahideen would most certainly shoot them down and take everything they had left behind. They must have understood now that the mujahideen army was armed with weaponry stolen from them in the first place—the spoils of victory. They were getting killed with their own guns and rockets.
The Pashtun people had once, long ago, burned their homes and contents and fled before the onslaught of Alexander the Great. Now the Russians were doing the same thing—denying military material to their enemy.
Every junior warrior in Sabray had been taught that the British general Elphinstone must have been spectacularly stupid, and that now, 140 years later, the Russians were not much better. The Soviets were endlessly clumsy and dedicated to close air support, which invariably killed many, many civilians. Which, in turn, made the entire Afghan population hate them unreservedly.
Whenever Gulab’s legions hit them, the Russians switched instantly to massive-scale operations, utilizing up to fifteen thousand troops and hundreds of aircraft—the doctrines, techniques, and operational procedures of a European or Chinese theater of war.
Much worse, they underestimated totally the resolve of the Pashtun people, and very quickly the Soviet’s enemy was not just a well-trained and elusive band of mujahideen warriors but an entire nation.
And the Russians could not even achieve surprise. Every time they moved, they left a gigantic footprint as they mobilized
thousands of troops and hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles. It was all very predictable, and the mujahideens’ intelligence network caused word to flash from village to village, across the high pastures and into the mountain garrisons: “Russian military formations on the move.”
Tactically rigid and amazingly slow, the army from the north was absolutely vulnerable to the mujahideens’ brand of warfare.
Gulab was taught that the Russian army advanced to Germany’s Rhine River at about twenty-five miles a day during World War II. He now confirms:
I know for a fact they made only two miles per day up the Kunar Valleys in 1985. And this doggedly slow advance meant they rarely caught even a sight of us. They usually had massive firepower, and nothing much to aim it at.
We, of course, knew precisely where they were at all times, as did anyone else within a hundred-mile range. Praise Allah, they made a noise. And the mujahideen guerillas were always waiting. Our silent, skilled tribesmen plagued them from the beginning of that war to the end.
By 1986, we had some very fine modern gear, the most important of which was the FIM-92 Stinger, a portable infrared homing surface-to-air missile. It was provided by the CIA, after a historic political decision by our friend President Reagan.
The Stinger weighed thirty-four pounds loaded. It was handheld, and it changed the course of the war—the last straw for a
Soviet army which had already taken a severe battering from us. Our best estimates claim we fired 340 missiles in Kunar Province and knocked down 269 Soviet aircraft, most of them helicopters.
We’ve since been told that was the first time America had provided weapons for someone else to hit a Soviet army. I helped with the tactical training of our missile men: showed them how that FIM-92 could lock on and then collide with an incoming Russian Hind helicopter gunship head-on and destroy it.
To this point in missile warfare, heat seekers like the Stinger had always needed to get astern of an airborne target and blast into the hot tail exhausts. Not anymore. We just had to fire it late, at a three-mile range, incoming.
It carried a seven-pound penetrating hit-to-kill warhead with an impact fuse. Once launched, the missile quickly accelerated to more than sixteen hundred miles per hour—over twice the speed of sound. It did not take us long to realize that when this thing smashed head-on into an enemy gunship, that ended the discussion. The Russians found that out, too.
And it really upset them. Because before the arrival of the Stinger, that incoming Russian Mi-24 Hind gunship forced us to take cover. It was a “flying tank,” with armored fuselage, eighty-millimeter S-8 rockets, mounted machine guns, and thousand-pound iron bombs, and it made world-record speed over the ground at more than 220 miles per hour.
But the Stinger changed everything, and we were no longer scared. We could knock that Hind out of the sky at will. Before that
US missile arrived, we hardly ever won a set-piece confrontation with the Soviets. After it arrived, we never lost one.
The mujahideen retained a treasured record of the day when the world changed: September 25, 1986, when a tribesman, an engineer named Ghaffar, fired the first Stinger at a Hind gunship and knocked it clean out of the sky near Jalalabad.
They gathered up that first Stinger tube and made a crate for it, which was sent to the US Embassy in Kabul. It was addressed to Congressman Charlie Wilson, the ex–US Navy gunnery officer from Texas who almost single-handedly persuaded the US government to get behind the mujahideen in the fight to expel the marauding Russians.
Charlie Wilson was probably the best friend from the West they ever had. He talked the CIA into providing the mountain men with those Stingers, and they rewarded him with victory over the Soviet Union. It was the most successful foreign operation the CIA ever had.
The Texas congressman believed in the Afghani cause. He had hundreds of tons of military ordnance shipped to them. And that Stinger launch tube hung on the wall of his office until his death in 2010. Without him, the task of the tribesmen would have been much, much more difficult.
Gulab is aware there are some who claim the Stingers made little impact. “But,” he says, “that is absurd. They changed the world. And I speak from a rarified observation point, on the inside, on the
mountainside, hunkered down against the blast of the flying rubble and shrapnel, praying for Allah to protect me.
“The mere knowledge that we owned a weapon which could blow the gunships to smithereens completely altered our mind-set. It gave us renewed hope, renewed courage, and renewed faith.
“At last we could fight a modern war, backed by this wonderful man from East Texas. Little did I know, as a teenager at the time, I would one day meet another man from there, a fellow warrior who lived about twenty-five miles from Charlie Wilson’s home.
“After 1987, the war intensified, and we fought battle after battle, killing many Russians. But we suffered far fewer casualties ourselves, because their gunships never made it close enough to pound our mountain strongholds.
“The Soviets were losing two thousand troops at a time in regular battle against our two hundred. Their aerial bombardment was falling short, and thanks to Charlie Wilson, we now had sophisticated radar to spot those flying tanks in time and to obliterate them.”
The Russians had had enough. With aircraft wrecks littering the mountains, they announced they were pulling out. This was cause for some elation in the villages, but the mujahideen did not trust the Kabul government. It had told the Afghan people lie after lie about the need for Communist troop support, and the mountain warriors did not believe in this Russian surrender.
The mujahideen high command ordered its battalions to keep fighting until the last Russian troops had returned from whence they came. Even when the invaders were in retreat, preparing to get out,
the mujahideen hit them over and over to remind the Soviets precisely what they were dealing with—and also as a reminder that they should think very carefully before attacking a mujahideen army ever again.
Victory over the Russians was a great moment of glory for the Pashtuns. When the dust cleared, the tribesmen of the Hindu Kush were still standing tall, having confirmed yet again that no one conquers Afghanistan. Allah is great, and may He bestow His blessings upon Charlie Wilson.
For Gulab, it was a hard road to becoming an adult. He had to do everything very early in life, but looking back, he thinks it was probably worth it. And he recalls his pride when his elder brother first handed him command of his troops. Haji Nazer Gul was wounded at the time, and he made it clear that for the following weeks, Gulab’s commands were his. At fifteen, Gulab was bigger now, and vastly experienced, and Gul’s words gave him high respect.
Up there on those mountains, helping with troop formations, he’d become a real warrior; a battlefield commander. No one knew much more about it than Gulab did, because, in truth, he knew little else. Just war. Gulab’s nickname in the village was already the Lion.
There were several mujahideen commanders who rejoiced in this honor. But there was no greater form of military recognition. The lion is the national symbol of Afghanistan, and has been for centuries. The first postage stamps ever issued there in 1871 (1288 on the Islamic solar calendar) were known as the lion stamps. No human image appeared on the stamps until 1937.
There was an enormous amount of work to do after the Russians left, not just “house cleaning,” but also gathering up the vast array of weaponry and matériel left behind by the retreating Soviet forces. The mountain commanders utilized everything they could claim, particularly remaining transports, armored vehicles, regular vehicles, and the occasional tank, as well as rockets, grenades, ammunition clips, rifles, heavy machine guns, and launchers, not to mention bombs and land mines. They acquired only a small percentage of the prize, but it was sufficient to equip mujahideen armies long into the future.
They still had their superior ground-to-air missile gear, and that was always kept in a state of instant readiness, since no one ever knew when the nation would come under attack again. However, the bulk of the spoils of war went to the defeated Afghan government forces, and, in a way, this was partly the mujahideens’ fault.
Because those mountain warriors did not fight the war for gain. They fought it for religious principle, to drive out the infidels who had defiled Islam. Thus, when the Soviets gave up, Pashtuns considered their task done, and they returned in peace to their villages. For them, it was always a Pashtun holy war, jihad, and they were ill-prepared for a voracious grab-what-you-can ending.
Equally, the Afghan government army, which fought against them behind the Russians, was absolutely ready to claim the Soviet weapons, and it knew that the owners were on the way out long before the tribesmen from the hills did. The army also knew the storage locations of the matériel, and it had access. So when the surrender
whistle blew, they came in like a pack of jackals, into the 184 abandoned Soviet garrisons, seizing thousands of tons of military reserves, ammunition, food, and fuel. Gulab reflects:
When the last Soviet troops left, I was an eight-year veteran of many battles, many victories, and witness to a total of twelve hundred dead Pashtuns. I was a master machine gunner by trade, aged sixteen years—I think.
As a field commander, my opinion was sought but not always listened to during the reconfiguring of our future arsenal. We would never trust our most valuable assets in identifiable military or civilian buildings, and instead we opted for our network of high caves and underground mountain passages. These secret granite warehouses and command rooms had served us well for centuries.
The route to these was always upward and always impossible for vehicles. We thus did much heavy lifting, hauling the weaponry up to the heights using timber-hauling gear. We took everything into places where no foreign invaders would ever find them.
Our needs were not so great as the government army’s, which planned to patrol the entire country. And they received three thousand trucks from the Russians, which would always be largely useless in our part of the world. Our own victorious army would quietly fade out of sight until the next would-be conqueror ventured into our mountainous territory.
I do remember those final days of the Soviet occupation, and even I could tell, as a teenager, there was confusion among the village
elders. The Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan was negotiated by a Kabul government whose forces had been defeated by the mujahideen. My commanders found this very strange, since our military policy was to fight and kill the infidels until they were gone. And whether or not Kabul had some kind of agreement with Moscow, the infidel was still here. That we understood.
Our continuing strategy remained unaltered. We would hit them whenever and wherever we saw fit. We would not recognize the Afghan government’s agreement to allow them safe passage out of the country. The warrior tribes of Kabul answer only to Allah.
I have no doubt that others will point out that Russia’s exit from my country was a masterpiece of military strategy: that they were not really defeated, and left in a coordinated, deliberate, and professional manner, while leaving behind a functioning government and a stronger military.
But that’s only a point of view. They left because they could not stay, because in the end, we would have wiped them out—all of them. By 1988, they were confined to city garrisons, and they dared not set foot in the mountain ranges of the northeast.
I suppose they left in some kind of order, but it should not be forgotten that they lost over five hundred more men on that retreat, all of them under mujahideen attack, and almost all of them in the steep passes of Kunar Province.
The Soviet retreat began in May 1988, with fifty thousand troops taking the same two northern routes out as the ones they’d used to
come in. The western road was from Kandahar, in the far south, up through Farah Rud and Herat to the Turkmenistan border town of Kushka. The eastern one began in Ghazni, Gardez, and Jalalabad, and on to Kabul, where the main road swung north, up past Bagram and into the mountains.
This was the dangerous part, where the mujahideen waited all along the road to the border and the Friendship Bridge connecting Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, over the Amu Dar’ya River. The first phase went reasonably well for both sides, but the second phase of the withdrawal, which took place along the eastern corridor in the dead of winter between January 2 and February 15, 1989, was difficult for everyone.
The bulk of the Soviet Fortieth Army, thirty thousand men, traveled through ice, snow, and fog to reach the bridge. Their armored vehicles held up, with hundreds of them deployed into a steel corridor designed to keep the mujahideen at bay.
In those final days, the men from the mountains killed the last forty enemy troops of this war, firing, as ever, from the high escarpments, while watching those lines and lines of armored Soviet BTR-80 armored personnel carriers rumbling north, bound for their old military headquarters in Termez.
Gulab never saw them cross the bridge, but his commanders positioned unseen observers to record the historic victory: photographing from afar the men of the great northern superpower, who had fought and lost.
The last commander of the mighty Soviet Fortieth Army, the long-serving Colonel General Boris Gromov, finally marched out
of Afghanistan, north across the bridge, alone, behind his defeated men. The general was a holder of the Gold Star Medal, and a Hero of the Soviet Union.
“I am told,” says Gulab, “the general bore his humiliation bravely.”
Back in the villages, they realized slowly that there was a new regime governing the Soviet Union. Listening to their little radios, sometimes connecting to the BBC World Service, the tribesmen finally learned how traumatic the 1980s had been for the Soviets.
Leonid Brezhnev, the veteran leader they blamed for the invasion of Afghanistan, died in 1982. His successor, Yuri Andropov, died two years later. Konstantin Chernenko lasted only thirteen months and died in 1985, and the doyen of foreign ministers, Andrei Gromyko, was leader of the Supreme Soviet for only three years. He retired in 1988, and died the following year, within weeks of his defeated army leaving Afghanistan.
The new man was Mikhail Gorbachev, and he seemed far less unpredictable than the rest of them. The Pashtuns’ friend President Reagan seemed to like him, and the new American president, George H. W. Bush, was working with him when the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989.
Russia seemed to be a less threatening place now, and the mujahideen came to believe they had a lot to do with that. Mr. Gorbachev taught his people to concentrate on trade and prosperity rather than on warfare. No one really knew how much they were affected by the damage the tribal army had inflicted on them.
“We showed,” says Gulab, “that a skilled, determined army can
bring down the armed forces of a superpower. If we’d been given even half of the modern equipment the Soviets possessed, we would have beaten them in a couple of years. They weren’t bad fighters, but they were nothing like as good as we were.
“They lasted so long because they were ten times better equipped than us. When President Reagan and Charlie Wilson provided the Stinger missile and we could at last attack their air power—well, the game was over for the Soviets. Military superiority does not guarantee victory.
“We, in turn, discovered once more that triumph over adversity is better than succumbing to it.”