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Before the Deployment of Soviet Troops to the DRA: The Abortive Operation Against Amin

 Inside the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and the Seizure of Kabul, December 1979

By Alexander Antonovich Liakhovsky

Translations by Gary Goldberg and Artemy Kalinovsky January 2007

A special group of generals and officers from all branches of the Armed Forces worked in the General Staff’s Main Operations Directorate (GOU), where I served in 1979. It supported the deployment of the 40th Army to Afghanistan. It is this group which prepared the draft directives of the Soviet Defense Minister and Chief of the General Staff for mobilization and to support the deployment of troops to the DRA; planned and implemented the movement of troops, equipment, weapons and materiel to the Afghan border; carried out organization measures; and also constantly kept track of the military-political situation in Afghanistan, making analyses…And although the “insiders” [posvyashchennye] worked “behind closed doors” many General Staff officers knew about their work.

Therefore the deployment of Soviet troops to the DRA was no surprise to them. Can it be verified whether CC CPSU Politburo members and candidate members knew nothing about this, as they stated then?

At the beginning of December reinforcement in the form of a special purpose KGB “Zenit” detachment arrived in Bagram. According to their cover story, they were a technical group of the “Muslim” battalion. The newly- arrived group was headed by Colonel Aleksandr Golubev. By the start of December the strength of “Zenit” in Afghanistan was about 130 men. Overall command was exercised by Col.Aleksey Polyakov. The main complement of the detachment was housed in three villas in Kabul rented by the Soviet Embassy.

At the same time the accelerated insertion of small military subunits into Afghanistan was begun. Other subunits headed by its commander Lt. Col Nikolay Serdyukov were added to the battalion of the 345th Parachute Regiment already in Bagram. In particular, the 9th Company of Sr. Lt. Valeriy Vostrotin was inserted on 1 December. On 7 December Babrak Karmal and Anahita Ratebzad arrived in Afghanistan illegally on a Tu-134 aircraft; they remained among the Soviet paratroopers under the protection of officers of Group “A” of the USSR KGB 7th Directorate headed by Yuriy Izotov. According to Izotov:

At the beginning of December I was summoned by the deputy chief of the group, Mikhail Mikhaylovich Romanov; at that time our commander Gennadiy Nikolayevich Zaytsev was in the hospital. Romanov said that I was to go on an assignment for three days and there would be three people with me – Golovatov, Kartofel’nikov, and Vinogradov. Afterwards they put us in a car and we went to the First Main Directorate. Robert Ivanovich Ivon said that we were going on an assignment in three days. They drove us to a First Main Directorate dacha where [KGB Deputy Chief] Vladimir Aleksandrovich Kryuchkov talked with us. He brought two people to us, very dark- complexioned, a man and a woman, and said: ‘Yuriy Antonovich, the responsibility for them is on your head. If a single hair falls from their head you will lose yours’. Then he introduced them – Karmal, Anahita. He introduced me to them – Major Yuriy Antonovich Izotov. Where were we flying to? Unknown. They drove us to Vnukovo and put us in the Tu-134 of Yuriy Vladimirovich Andropov. We flew to Tashkent and were quartered in the dacha of CC CPSU Politburo member Rashidov. We spent a day there and they flew to Bagram. Where we were just meters from landing the lights at the airfield were turned off and the pilots landed the aircraft blind. We landed safely. An Embassy representative met us and then escorted us to a hard stand where mud huts had been constructed. Anahita and Babrak lived in one and we in the other. The next day they took us to a warehouse where we received military uniforms. We were in Bagram for two weeks. Two men stood at a post for two hours then rested for two hours. It was –25 Co at that time because this was a mountainous region, the Hindu Kush mountains. There were very primitive conditions – they delivered food to us from the airborne battalion - a pot of buckwheat kasha. The truth is, the sometimes brought either jars of honey or Pakistani jam from the Embassy. The thing is that when we planned for the flight I decided with Mikhail Vasil’yevich Golovatov to take food with us. We took 100 rubles from Mikhail Mikhaylovich Romanov and bought food – cheeses, sausages, and canned goods. We also fed Karmal and Anahita with this food.

Another group of special forces headed by Valeriy Shergin guarded other Afghans - Nur Ahmad Nur, Aslan Muhammad Watanjar, Said Muhammazh Gulyabzoy, and Asadulah Sarwari.

According to Gen. Nikolay Guskov of the Airborne Forces Operations Group General:

 When the aircraft was coming in for a landing and was already at the first beacon the lights suddenly went out at the whole airfield. As a rule, military transport and combat aircraft landed at Bagram, but this was a Tu-134. The aircraft landed in complete darkness. True, the plane’s landing lights were on. The aircraft commander was forced to deploy the drag chute but the aircraft rolled almost to the very edge of the runway. Even I began to worry.

Then the aircraft’s passengers were placed in bunkers at the airfield. By the way, B. Karmal and Anahita took the bunker which I had previously occupied. They lived there three days. Of course, we did not then know who he was; no one told me about this officially. Andropov and Ustinov had just said to take steps to provide security. But they warned me secretly that he was the future replacement of Amin.

According to Mikhail Golovatov, an officer of Group “A”:

There was an instruction at one of the suburban First Main Directorate facilities. Initially Kryuchkov instructed us and then presented our wards. We were told that we were flying out for three days. When we were flying into Bagram the illumination at the airfield was turned off, including on the runway. The pilots made a “blind” landing of the plane. It almost went off the runway. After the plane stopped we got out and took up a defensive position around it; we were ready to go into battle if necessary.

Whey did they bring Karmal to Afghanistan? The thing is that in the middle of December it was planned to implement an action to remove Amin from power with two battalions and a KGB special detachment; therefore the new leadership had to be in the DRA by that time. This operation was prepared very secretly. A strictly limited circle of people knew about it. From the memoirs of Vadim Kirpichenko: “The mission was assigned – support the Parchamists with everyone at our command in order to carry out a coup and ensure that they came to power because Amin had become dangerous.”

According to a statement of the Chief Military Adviser Sultan Magometov, when he talked with Ustinov via special (secure) communications, the latter was interested in this: “How are preparations going to implement the plan to remove Amin from power?” This question put Magometov into a corner since he was completely uninformed of what this plan was. Then Ustinov told him to get all the details from Lt. Gen. Ivanov. However when the Chief Military Adviser turned to the KGB representative about this plan the latter replied that he did not have the slightest notion about it. Magometov started to argue that it was necessary to act together and that CC CPSU Politburo member Ustinov had called him about this…Some time later Ivanov, having obviously conversed with Andropov, invited Magometov back and showed him the plan of operations developed by KGB officers. The Chief Military Adviser then became indignant, saying that this was not a plan but a “worthless scrap of paper,” so they postponed the operation at his insistence.

Numerous highly-placed KGB representatives having worked in Kabul, the Chief of the Airborne Troops Operations Group, the Chief Military Adviser in the DRA, and officials of the military attaché’s office ended up in a difficult position. They were in no position to carry out the assigned mission with the men and equipment they then had in Kabul. A cable to Moscow was sent over the four signatures of the Soviet representatives with an evaluation of the situation in Afghanistan and the conclusion that they could not remove Amin from power with the forces available in Kabul and they would not vouch for the success of the coup without military support. In case of failure Afghanistan would be lost to us forever and the Soviet Embassy destroyed (this danger was confirmed 15 years later – author’s note). They requested reinforcements to carry out the operation in Kabul and were promised such reinforcement.

According to Kirpichenko’s statement this telegram was the fruit of collective work and the result of a comprehensive analysis and calculations.

According to information provided by “Zenit” officer Major Yakov Semenov it is known that on 11 December in Bagram Deputy Commanding General of the Airborne Troops Lt. Gen. N. Gus’kov assigned the “Zenit” troops the mission of seizing “Objective Dub [Oak]. A company of the “Muslim” battalion was to operate with the “Zenit” troops. As was explained later, “Objective Dub” was the codename of Amin’s residence in the center of Kabul. There was no plan of the palace or its defense system. It was known only that the place was defended by about 2,000 guardsmen, too many for 22 “Zenit” troops and a company of the “Muslim battalion”.

 The radio and television building guarded by a tank company, four infantry combat vehicles [BMP], and four DShK [machine guns] were to be seized by a platoon of Sr. Lt. Vladimir Sharipov’s company and a small group of “Zenit” forces led by Anatoliy Ryabinin. One squad headed by a sergeant was selected to seize the security service building. Similar forces were selected to seize other objectives in Kabul. Each commander knew only his own combat mission.

Preparatory organizational measures were held for two days: information was acquired, scouting was done, plans and diagrams of building security were drawn up, and coordination issues specified… At 1530 on 13 December subunit commanders were summoned to the command to receive the combat mission –the order for combat operations had arrived. They were to advance from Bagram to Kabul and seize Amin’s residence and other objectives by storm according to a schedule. It is not hard to guess how all this adventure would have ended. I think it would have been a complete failure; they would have only sacrificed people in vain. Fortunately, a “stand down!” order followed at 1600.

On 14 December a second battalion (commanded by Major Tsyganov) and a reconnaissance company (commanded by Sr. Lt. Popov) of the 345th Parachute Regiment were transported to Bagram. They also were to participate in the operation. By way of illustration, the reconnaissance company was assigned the mission of blockading an artillery brigade. But the operation was postponed. According to some information supposedly a leak had occurred and Amin had quickly left his residence. By unanimous opinion if the operation had begun on 14 December without the support of the airborne units it would have inevitably failed.

According to what “Zenit” officer Valeriy Kurilov said about preparations for the operation:

On the evening of 11 December Yasha Semenov ran into our tent. He had been an instructor in tactics among us at KUOS [Advanced Officers’ Training Courses] but was now the commander of our detachment. He was short and strong with an Oriental face, a very pleasant and sociable guy.

He said that we needed to go to the command tent for a meeting. When we arrived there officers from the “Muslim” battalion, senior officers of our subgroups, some military people we didn’t know, and some airborne officers were already sitting there on folding aluminum chairs.

Yasha started to describe to us the plan of combat operations in which we were to participate. When the question touched on the worst imaginable, quite specific things, we all became somewhat sick. According to the plan he described, tomorrow or the day after we were to climb into the armored personnel carriers [BTR] of the “Muslim” battalion, cover the distance to the Afghan capital in a night march, and rush into Kabul. There we were to split up into small groups, and attack and seize all the vital government facilities.

Supposedly local people were anxiously waiting at these facilities for us to show up; all of them there would surrender to us and come out with hands raised. They ought not to even shoot.

Moreover, all the people were ready to rise up then and there to fight the Amin regime; we needed only to appear at the outskirts of the city and we would be joined by huge masses of people ready to throw out the rotten tyrant and his henchmen. Everything had been looked after and arranged.

The most difficult building was assigned to “Zenit” and a platoon of the “Muslim” battalion who were to seize Amin’s residence in the Arg Palace in the center of Kabul.

According to plan we, operating on five armored personnel carriers, were to remove the front of the palace gate using armor, quickly neutralize the two tanks (which were reportedly dug into the earth up to their turrets) and two or three BMPs standing inside the gates with grenade launchers, then divide right and left along narrow paths along a four-story barracks where the guards were housed, and blockade them. An interpreter was to climb onto the armor and announce into a megaphone (the megaphones were delivered later) that the anti-popular regime of bloody Amin has fallen, suggest the guards surrender, and come out of the barracks without their weapons with hands raised. According to available information the guards would not offer resistance…

We needed to display maximum friendliness, goodwill, and smiling and if someone tried to make unnecessary noise and shoot, if someone’s nerves failed him, then they would investigate the guilty party with all the severity of the law! For we were on the territory of a friendly country and any accidental shot or carelessly tossed word could serve as a cause of an international scandal.

The longer I heard Yasha the more the conviction grew in me that something was wrong here. Rather, everything was wrong. Or I had lost my mind and was inappropriately evaluating reality and what Semenov said; or was it HE who was out of sorts? Everything that he had said was so divorced from reality that I somehow couldn’t even find the words to comment on this plan. This was complete adventurism, elementary ignorance of the situation, and the most complete incompetence…

Of course this was not something that was Semenov’s idea. Some big boss had drawn up the plan. Yasha had already told me then that the high command had put him, the chief of our entire group, in a foolish position and in a practically hopeless situation: here’s your plan of operations – fulfill it…

In principle the opinion of all the “Zenit” troops was the same: the proposed plan was an absurdity born of an ignorance of the situation. An obvious dilettante had drawn up the plan. But no one then talked openly aloud about this. Everyone understood that this was a decision of some high command unknown to us. It was not precluded that our Party advisers here had also had a hand. By the way, the bespectacled briefer who was explaining to us about Amin the usurper, judging from his manners and smooth speech, completely looked like a representative of the latter [trans. note: the Party advisers]…

A day later it was explained to us in the morning that we were going to Kabul at night. However the standdown was given at noon. The adventurist version of the plan had been scuttled. Well, thank God!

The snipers from the special KGB subunits did not manage to kill Amin. “Zenit” officers Vladimir Tsvetkov and Fedor Yerokhov set the sights of the sniper rifles at Bagram at 450 meters, chose positions along Amin’s usual route of travel, set up a watch, and specified withdrawal routes to the Soviet Embassy, but each time, before they passed a reinforced guard was set up along the whole route and the vehicles moved at enormous speed and the “Zenit” troops could not carry out the mission.

Through inertia, for three more days (14-16 December) work continued in Bagram to prepare to seize the palace in the center of Kabul with the forces of the special services and the “Muslim” battalion (scouting, working out the details of the assault, coordination – down to the smallest details), but this was preparation for operations which had been proposed to begin in the event of the success of a new subversive action against Amin.

However the next attempt against him on 16 December ended in failure. They tried to poison Hafizullah Amin but his nephew Asadullah Amin, the chief of the counterintelligence service, drank the Pepsi Cola with the “contents”; he was sent to the USSR for treatment with a very serious attack of hepatitis. Soviet doctors saved him but after the change of government in Kabul he ended up in Lefortovo Prison where attempts were made to learn from him the circumstances of the murder of Taraki and other information. However Asadullah Amin conducted himself worthily and firmly at interrogations and said nothing. He was then deported to Afghanistan and executed there by the new regime.

An An-12 aircraft urgently flew in from Fergana for the members of the future Afghan government headed by Babrak Karmal and they again left for the USSR.

According to Yuriy Izotov, an officer of Group “A”:

We had to return to Tashkent again when the operation did not come off; it was not cancelled, but postponed. We met there with future members of the CC PDPA Politburo whom Valentin Ivanovich Shergin and his guys were guarding. I noted that the Afghans were unhappy about the inactivity and I suggested they throw knives. I led them out to the street, set up the boards, and began to train. Then I led Anahita to work in the dacha where we had been fishing with her. I had to disperse them somewhat to keep dark thoughts from them. But then they seated us in the plane which was loaded with kerosene and saxsaul [Translator’s note: a local plant] and we again arrived in Bagram.

Meanwhile measures continued in the Turkestan Military District to deploy and prepare troops for their deployment to Afghanistan.


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