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Getting Ready for the Invasion

By Alexander Antonovich Liakhovsky

Translations by Gary Goldberg and Artemy Kalinovsky January 2007

On 12 December the 108th Motorized Rifle Division was placed on alert and its 180th Motorized Rifle Regiment was moved out to cover the border. It was proposed to conduct mobilization deployment and preparations at garrison locations but this could not be done. Mobilization was done at training centers. The leadership of Uzbekistan and the Surkhandar’inskaya Oblast gave the command of the division much help.

The USSR Ministry of Defense Operations Group (OG MO SSSR) headed Akhromeyev was formed on 13 December. It included generals and officers of the General Staff and also representatives of all branches and troop arms of the USSR Armed Forces (VS SSSR), and main and central directorates of the Defense Ministry. At 2200 14 December the OG MO SSSR was already in Termez, on the Soviet-Afghan border, and began to coordinate operations to deploy troops to Afghanistan. However soon afterwards Akhromeyev became ill and command of this group was entrusted to First Deputy USSR Defense Minister Marshal Sergey Leonidovich Sokolov, who was recalled from leave in this connection. It was Sokolov who had to exercise overall command of Soviet troops during their preparation for and deployment to Afghanistan.

The OG MO SSSR did a great deal of organizational work at the initial stage of the Afghan campaign. It oversaw the regrouping, mobilization, and deployment of troops to Afghanistan and also the implementation of measures to remove Amin from power and install the Karmal regime. In succeeding years the largest military operations were carried out under his command and also the most complex issues of a military-political nature were decided.


USSR Ministry of Defense and General Staff Operations Groups in the DRA16

…During the entire period Soviet troops were in Afghanistan from time to time various operations groups [OG] of the Ministry of Defense [MO] and USSR Armed Forces General Staff operated there. The first, headed by Deputy Commanding General of the Airborne Forces, General- Lieutenant N. N. Gus’kov, arrived in Bagram at the beginning of December and rebased to Kabul on 23 December 1979. From 25 to 27 December it exercised leadership of the transfer from Bagram to Kabul of airborne units, their housing, and operations during the overthrow of H. Amin’s supporters.

On 3 January 1980 a USSR OG MO flew into Afghanistan from Termez headed by Marshal of the Soviet Union S. L. Sokolov (General of the Army S. F. Akhromeyev became his deputy), which was located there until November of that year. Then from time to time this group went to the DRA to coordinate the combat operations of Soviet and Afghan troops when conducting the largest operations (for example, in Panjshir) for up to six months.

Beginning with the last half of 1984 the leadership of the OG MO of the USSR and DRA was entrusted to General of the Army V. I. Varennikov, at that time a First Deputy Chief of the General Staff. At the very beginning he periodically visited Afghanistan, but beginning 2 January 1987 until the conclusion of the withdrawal of Soviet troops he was in Afghanistan permanently. The generals and officers of the USSR OG MO systematically worked in units and formations of the 40th Army to give practical aid to their commanders and staffs in preparing and carrying out combat operations, organizing combat training, considering accumulated experience, and also coordinating operations and maintaining coordination with the Afghan army. Aid was given to the advisory staff  in planning combat operations, increasing the combat ability of the Afghan armed forces, and resolving various problems of combat activity. In addition, this group decided the most varied problems, both of a military, as well as of an economic, political, and social nature.

16 [Translator’s note: Previosuly published in Lyakhovskiy’s “Plamya Afgana’ (“Flame of the Aghanistan veteran”) and previously translated]

In connection with the fact that the first time the USSR OG MO was in Afghanistan was only on occasion, mainly to lead large operations, in March 1985 a group of representatives of the General Staff was sent to Kabul (five men in all), headed by the general for Afghanistan-related special assignments of the Chief of the USSR General Staff, Major-General B. V. Gromov (March 1985-May 1987) and Major-General V. S. Kudlay (May 1987-January 1989).

Operations groups were also sent to work among the [40th] Army’s troops from the Turkestan Military District HQ.

With the start of the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1988 a special Operations Group of the USSR Armed Forces General Staff under the command of Lieutenant-General A. G. Gaponenko began to work in Afghanistan; it dealt with creation of a three-month emergency supply for the Afghan armed forces in key areas of the country (Kandahar, Jalalabad, Ghazni, Gardez, etc.) and at guard posts.

On 16 December the order was given to mobilize the field HQ of the 40th Army. The First Deputy Commanding General of the Turkestan Military District General-Lieutenant Yu. V. Tukharinov was appointed the Commanding General of the Army.

A plan for deployment of troops to Afghanistan had not previously been developed in the General Staff and therefore an overall directive for the mobilization of troops and their control organs was not issued. Formations and units were brought into readiness after the corresponding verbal orders, for Ustinov.

The formation of an expeditionary contingent of troops for deployment to Afghanistan began in mid- December at an accelerated tempo. Formations and units deployed in the Turkestan Military District which almost all had been cadre-strength and filled out constituted its backbone. They were brought up to strength using local resources from the reserves. Considering that as a rule the representatives of the Central Asian republics served in construction units and motorized rifle units their training was low. Troops were brought into readiness administratively, on the basis of individual instructions of the General Staff. A total of more than 30 such instructions were issued in three weeks.40 Evidence of the rushed nature of the deployment is that there were no specific plans to send Soviet troops to the DRA in the USSR Defense Ministry before the middle of December.

On the evening of 17 December the “Zenit” troops and the “Muslim” battalion were given the task of moving into Kabul, into the Dar-ul-aman area where the DRA leader had relocated his residence. According to the plan the next act against Amin was to be carried out after he moved to Taj-Bek. The “Muslim” battalion and a “Zenit” group were concentrated in the designated area by the close of 18 December. On the evening of that same day Col. Vasiliy Kolesnik received an order in Moscow from the Chief of the General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate, General of the Army Petr Ivashutin – fly to Afghanistan in civilian clothing to carry out a special government assignment. They sent Lt. Colonel Oleg Shvets with him. Having quickly filled out the documents necessary in such cases  (they brought the foreign passports to them right at the plane) they departed Moscow’s Chkalovskiy Airfield at 0630 on 19 December on an An-12 aircraft for Bagram via Baku and Termez. KGB officers Major-General Yuriy Drozdov and Captain 2nd Rank Ehval’d Kozlov and also a military commissary official flew with them.

According to Maj. Gen. Yuriy Drozdov, Chief of the USSR KGB Directorate of Illegal Intelligence: On 18 December 1979 at the end of a meeting Chief of the 1st Main Directorate Vladimir

Aleksandrovich Kryuchkov said that KGB Chairman Yuriy Vladimirovich Andropov was summoning both of us to his office by 1900 regarding an important issue. Inasmuch as it was not acceptable to ask clarifying questions about the upcoming conversation but the management documents requiring Andropov’s attention had been reported to Kryuchkov I thought that that more detailed information about the content of the documents being reported was being required.

 The KGB Chairman warmly greeted us and offered some hot tea with lemon. He quickly examined the urgent documents regarding the activities of illegal intelligence and started to talk about the situation in Afghanistan. Concluding the conversation, Yuriy Vladimirovich Andropov asked me to fly to Kabul for several days, familiarize myself with the situation on the spot, and look at what the officers of the Directorate who had arrived there in November were doing. In conclusion he said: “The situation there is complex, serious events are impending, but you’re the only one of us who has really fought.”

I asked, when should I fly? Yuriy Vladimirovich looked at Kryuchkov, who had been included in the conversation, and said: “Tomorrow morning at 0630, Chkalovskiy Airfield.” Proceeding from the content of the conversation I asked our representative in Kabul to be informed about my flight and the nature of the assignment. Andropov said this would be done by Kryuchkov and warmly bade me goodbye.

Having returned to Directorate ‘S’ I called and Captain 2nd Rank Ehval’d Kozlov to my office and said to him that early tomorrow morning we were flying to Kabul for several days.

Kozlov replied in a naval manner, “Aye-aye”, without asking a single question. They followed the situation in his department in a crisis center and it was clear without words what needed to be done before the flight. As Aleksandr Vasil’yevich Suvorov used to say, “Soldiers’ meetings are short.

They harnessed the carriage and went.”

I returned home late that day. I replied to the inquiring and alarmed look of my wife that early tomorrow morning I was flying out to Afghanistan for several days and was confident that I would return before New Year’s. She said nothing in reply, but just looked at me with increased alarm.

On the morning of 19 December sitting in the car along the road to the airport I recalled everything that I knew about Afghanistan. It needs to be noted that our predecessors regarded this country quite seriously as a region of possible operations of the Russian Army. What awaited us…

Kozlov was given an attaché case at the airfield in Moscow to hand to the KGB officer who met him in Afghanistan.

They only arrived at Bagram late at night. Drozdov and Kozlov were met by Kostromin, an official of the KGB residency in Kabul, to whom the attaché case was handed. Having spent the night in a mud hut at the airfield, the next morning they went to Kabul with embassy security officer Bakhturin. The special representative of the KGB in Afghanistan Lt. General Boris Ivanov greeted Yuriy Drozdov with a question: “Why did you fly in?” He replied there should be a cable from Vladimir Kryuchkov about this. Afterwards it was proposed that they familiarize themselves with the situation and the location where the group of “Zenit” troops were deployed. Then Ivanov asked Kozlov about the attaché case. When the latter replied that the case had been handed to Kostromin and left at the mud hut at the airfield Ivanev changed expression. Kozlov had to quickly go back to Bagram. Fortunately the attaché case was laying where it had been left – in the mud hut. As later became clear, it held a cassette with a recording of an address to the people by Karmal. If it had gotten into the hands of the Afghans the operation would have been ruined. And there were many such misunderstandings but luckily for us they all ended up well and did not influence the preparations for the operation. The truth is, Karmal also made a recording of his address while he was in Bagram.

Vasiliy Kolesnik, who had spent the night in the first hardstand they found with Oleg Shvets, also went to Kabul on the morning of 20 December where they were presented to the Chief Military Adviser Col. Gen. Sultan Magometov, Vladimir Pechenko, and Col. Aleksandr Baranayev, the Military Attaché to the DRA…

After receiving the assignment and studying the situation Kolesnik and Shvets went to where the battalion was located, near the Taj-Bek Palace, in an unfinished building with windows without glass. Instead they had ponchos drawn over them and “bourgeois” heating stoves had been installed, and cots in two circles. The Afghans gave them overcoats of camel’s hair. The winter in Kabul was very severe that year and the temperature at night fell to –20o C. They bought food in the bazaar. In general, they were satisfied. Major Dzhamilov, the deputy for logistics to the battalion commander, displayed wonders of resourcefulness and diplomacy in order to feed the personnel in such difficult conditions and keep them warm.

Before Amin changed his residence in Arg he moved to the Taj-Bek Palace and ended up under the “wing” of the “Muslim” battalion. In Daud’s time the HQ of the Central Army Corps was located here.

The security system in the Palace was carefully thought out. It was organized under the supervision of our specialists from the KGB 9th Directorate headed by Yu. Kutepov. A personal guard consisting of relatives and especially trusted people was on duty inside. They wore a special uniform distinct from the others: there were white bands on their caps, white belts and holsters, and white cuffs on the sleeves. They lived in direct proximity to the Palace in an adobe structure next to the building where the HQ of the security brigade was located. A second line of defense was formed by seven posts, each of which had four sentries armed with a machine gun, grenade launcher, and automatic weapons. They worked two hour watches.

Outside the security ring were the deployment locations of battalions (three motorized infantry and one tank). They were situated a short distance around Taj-Bek. Three T-54 tanks were dug in on one of the commanding heights and could fire on the area adjacent to the Palace from [their] cannon and machine guns in a direct line of sight. There were a total of about 2,500 men in the security brigade. In addition, there was a regiment not far away whose weaponry included anti-aircraft artillery (ZPU-2) mounts and also a construction regiment (about 1,000 men with rifles). There were also other army units in Kabul: two divisions, two tank regiments, “commandos”…

On 21 December Col. Kolesnik and Major Khalbayev were summoned to the Chief Military Adviser from whom they received an order – reinforce the Taj-Bek Palace security with subunits of the “Muslim” battalion. They were ordered to take up a defense in the space between the guard posts and the deployment line of the Afghan battalions. They immediately began to carry out the mission.

They quickly established contact with the security brigade commander Major Jandad, an aide-de-camp of Amin’s, and coordinated the location of defensive positions and all issues of cooperation with him. Jandad presented them with a miniature Japanese radio for communications with him. The brigade commander himself spoke Russian tolerably well (although he concealed this) inasmuch as he had studied in the USSR, initially in Ryazan’, at the Airborne School, and then at the Frunze Military Academy [trans. note: This is where promising mid-level ground forces commanders study]. According to the cover story Colonel Kolesnik was “Major Kolesov”, the Deputy for Combat Training to the Battalion Commander and Lieutenant Colonel O. Shvets was “Major Shvetsov”, an officer of the Special Department [trans. note: This department is responsible for counterintelligence and was subordinate to the KGB]. One of those in the group (Drozdov) became “Captain Lebedev”, Khalbayev’s Deputy for Technical Affairs. The Afghans still expressed surprise at the fact that he was that old and still a captain.

After coordinating all the issues they got to work on practical measures. They planned combat operations and assigned missions to the companies. The scouted withdrawal routes and the positions of the subunits…In particular there was a natural obstacle along one of the routes – an irrigation ditch. They built a small bridge together with soldiers of the brigade – they laid concrete girders and then put slabs on them. This work took two days. On the evening of 22 December they invited the brigade command to a comradely dinner.

On 22 and 23 December Ambassador Tabeyev informed Amin that his request for Soviet troops to be sent to Afghanistan had been granted in full in Moscow. They were ready to begin deployment on 25 December. Amin expressed gratitude to the Soviet leadership and gave instructions to the DRA Armed Forces General Staff to give assistance to the deploying troops.

Meanwhile new subunits arrived in Bagram; in particular a special KGB group, “Grom” (30 men), was transferred there, manned with officers of the elite “A” (“Al’fa”) subunit. According to Major Mikhail Romanov, commander of the “Grom” group:

At that time I was deputy commander of the antiterror subunit, “A”. Our commander, Colonel Gennadiy Nikolayevich Zaytsev, was in the hospital and the command entrusted me with forming a group from the subunit’s officers which could fulfill a special mission of the Soviet government in Afghanistan without fail.

 They told [us] about it on the morning 22 December, I formed the group during the day, and the next morning we flew out.

No one knew anything in [our] families when we left for there. Only my wife knew, perhaps. She was a KGB employee, now a retired major. But she is a creature of habit and a brave woman. And, too, then there was still no feeling of danger yet…

In the second half of 23 December Kolesnikov and Khalbayev were summoned to the Soviet Embassy. The commander of a “Zenit” subgroup, Semenov, arrived with them. There they initially reported the results of the work which had been done to Col.Gen. Magometov and then went into the office on the 2nd floor where the KGB mission was located. Generals Vadim Kirpichenko and Boris Ivanov there were interested in how security at Taj-Bek was organized and examined the Palace security plan. After Col. Kolesnikov reported the solution to the security plan, they suggested that he think about alternative actions in case they suddenly had to not guard it but seize it. They added in this context that part of the battalion personnel could perform one mission but they would attach a company of paratroopers and two KGB special forces groups to them. In short, they said, go ahead and think and tomorrow come and report your ideas. The adviser to the security brigade commander Col.Popyshev also received a mission to develop his own alternative plan of operations as a person who knew the Palace security system well. And with that they parted.

They made decisions all night. They calculated long and meticulously. They understood that this was a real mission and the reason that they were here and came to the conclusion: if they take two companies and one company (less a platoon) out of the battalion, which Gen. Kirpichenko warned about, then they could not seize the Palace, even considering his reinforcements and the factor of surprise. The correlation of men and equipment was 1:15 in favor of the Afghans…All the men and equipment of the battalion needed to be in action although they were obviously also insufficient. There were 520 men in the battalion plus a company of paratroopers (80 men), and also two groups, “Zenit” and “Grom”, of 24 men each. According to various estimates the Afghans had more than 2,500 men alone active in Palace security. And next to them were located an anti-aircraft artillery regiment and a construction regiment. The chief reliance was made on the surprise and the daring of the operations. A plan was developed proceeding from this [calculation]. The battalion chief of staff Ashurov entered this plan on a map with an explanatory note.

On the morning of 24 December Col. Popyshev was first to report. From his very first words it became clear that he had approached his mission only perfunctorily according to the “what would you like?” principle, since it was not he who had to carry out the mission. He argued that that the men and equipment allotted were sufficient but he could not confirm his statements with figures. Then Col. Kolesnik reported the decision to seize the Taj-Bek Palace. He justified the necessity for the entire battalion with all the attached men and equipment to take part in the assault and described the plan of operations in detail. After long discussion they told the battalion command: “Wait”. They had to wait quite a long time. The leaders of the operation did not know then whether there would be promised reinforcements or not. Gen. Kirpichenko called Kryuchkov in Moscow and was interested in how this issue was being decided. The latter assured him that an airborne division would arrive as reinforcement.

According to Sergey Popov, an officer of group “A”:

Part of the guys of our antiterrorism subunit had gone to Afghanistan earlier but the principle of secrecy held and we did not know much about this. When the mission was given to our group to fly to Afghanistan the leaders of the subunit selected the candidates for the trip themselves. Gennadiy Zudin should not have flown but they convinced Robert Petrovich Ivon to include him in the list.

We warned relatives that we were going to Yaroslavl’ Oblast for exercises and possibly we would not be in Moscow for New Year’s. We received special forces summer uniforms, winter fur [uniforms], equipment, and attaché cases with weapons. An entire day was spent in assemblies. We arrived at the airfield the next morning. When we climbed the ramp to the plane we were photographed. Having noticed this the representative of the Special Department took the camera from the photographer and exposed the film. An order was given that we were should fly inconspicuously. The issue of secrecy remained very rigid.

 When we crossed the Soviet border in flight we heard an order to prepare our weapons and be ready for any surprises on landing; possibly we would have to go into combat immediately.

We landed at Bagram at night. We were met there by our guys from the groups of Yuriy Izotov and Valentin Shergin who were guarding the new government of Afghanistan in hardstands…

Only in the second half of 24 December was Kolesnik informed that the decision had been approved and that the battalion would carry out the mission in full strength with the reinforcements. But none of the leaders in Afghanistan at that time had signed this plan. It was obvious that already the vicious practice was formed of leaders giving verbal orders and then denying their own words. They simply said, “Act!” Thus they had to go into battle without a written order. Such “activity” acquired its widest usage in Gorbachev’s time.

Major Khalbayev began right away to carry out the first-priority measures of preparing for the assault while Col. Gen. Magometov and Col. Kolesnik were summoned for talks with Headquarters [trans. note: Moscow]. What caused the delay became clear only much later.

The problem was that Marshal Ustinov was holding a meeting of the command staff of the Defense Ministry at this time in Moscow at which he announced the decision made by the CC CPSU Politburo to deploy troops to Afghanistan. At the meeting were deputies to the Minister, the commanders-in-chief of the branches of the Armed Forces and the Commanding General of the Airborne Troops, and several chiefs of main and central directorates. The Defense Ministry issued the order to deploy an airborne division and an independent airborne regiment of the Airborne Troops, a motorized rifle division of the Turkestan Military District, and an independent motorized rifle regiment of the Central Asian Military District to Afghanistan. At the same time the order was given to bring a number of formations and units of the Ground Forces into full combat readiness as well as aviation units of military districts bordering the DRA for a possible increase in the size of the grouping of Soviet forces in Afghanistan. On the copy of the points of the speech at this meeting preserved in the General Staff Archives there is a notation in red pencil made by Ustinov: “Special importance and secrecy.”

By that time a total of about 100 formations, units, and installations had been deployed, including the HQ of the 40th Army; a composite air corps; four motorized rifle divisions (three in the Turkestan Military District and one in the Central Asian Military District); artillery, surface-to-air missile, and airborne assault brigades; independent motorized rifle and missile artillery regiments; and signals, intelligence, logistics, and repair units. An airborne division, an independent airborne regiment, and airfield technical and airfield support units were brought up to full strength.

More than 50,000 officers, sergeants, and soldiers were called up from the reserves to bring units up to strength and about 8,000 vehicles were sent from the economy…Mobilization measures of such scale had never before been conducted in the Turkestan and Central Asian Military Districts. Accordingly, local governments, directors of enterprises and farms [khozyaystva], draft boards, and military units turned out not to be prepared for them.

For example, during the first days of mobilization no one paid attention to the quality of the specialists filling out the subunits – everyone was confident that the usual inspection was being done and everything would end after reports of its conclusion. But when the commanders and draft boards were notified about possible further operations there began an emergency replacement of reservists already called up and sent to units. A keen shortage of scarce specialists (tank and BMP driver-mechanics, anti-tank guided missile and radar operators, and gunners [of artillery pieces]). Such a situation is explained by the fact due to poor knowledge of the Russian language soldiers from the Central Asian republics, as a rule, served out their draft obligation in construction or motorized rifle units where they could not acquire the required specialties.

A great number of the reservists were not found because of poor recordkeeping in draft boards, violations of the residential passport system, confusion in street names…Many reservists avoided receiving [call-up] notices under various pretenses, fleeing their places of residence [or] presenting false certifications of illness. Many reserve officers never had served in the army and had no practical skills in military specialties – they had trained in military departments of higher educational institutions. In short, the troops encountered a whole series of serious problems in their first months in Afghanistan and during the war this was always fraught with unforeseeable consequences.

 But all the same, in spite of difficulties, by the end of 24 December the main forces of the 40th Army were somehow prepared for deployment to Afghanistan. The formations and units designated to operate as a reserve force continued to be formed. For example, the 201st [Motorized Rifle] Division stationed in Dushanbe (commanded by Colonel Vladimir Stepanov) began to mobilize only on the evening of 24 December. Having received their mobilization equipment over the period of three days and completed a march, by the end of 28 December it had formed up in Termez. The decision was made to bring the division’s personnel up to strength from units of the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany and the Central Group of Forces. The registered reservists [pripisnoy sostav] were replaced during January and at the end of the month the 201st MSD was deployed to the northern regions of the DRA.

Here is the opinion of Yevgeniy Chazov:

It seems to me that the only mistake he made and did not recognize until the end was the Afghan war. A poor politician and diplomat, as a representative of the old Stalinist “guard” thought that all issues could be decided from a position of strength. While I saw how Andropov rushed about in connection with the Afghan war and who understood his mistake in the end, Ustinov always remained imperturbable and evidently was convinced of his correctness.

Varennikov also thinks the Defense Ministry played the leading role in making the decision to deploy troops to Afghanistan. It should be said that the attitude in the army toward Ustinov was ambiguous in military matters. [While] admiring his services in organizing and running the defense industry, they had a skeptical attitude toward him as a military leader. Is it possible that the Defense Ministry wanted to demonstrate his resolution by this action?

Directive Nº 312/12/001 signed by Ustinov and Ogarkov and sent to the field on 24 December 1979 enumerated specific missions for the deployment to Afghanistan. In particular, they explained:

The latest appeal of the government of Afghanistan has been favorably considered considering the military-political situation in the Middle East. The decision has been made to deploy several contingents of Soviet troops stationed in the southern regions of the country to the territory of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan in order to give international aid to the friendly Afghan people and also to create favorable conditions to interdict possible anti-Afghan actions from neighboring countries…17

[Translator’s note: Previously published in “Plamya Afgana, Iskon, Moscow, 1999, p. 153 and previously translated]

The troops were further given the missions of marching to and accommodations in Afghanistan. Participation in combat operations was not envisioned. Specific combat missions to suppress rebel resistance were given to formations and units only a bit later in Defense Directive Nº 312/12/002 of 27 December.

Having familiarized himself with the Directive, Marshal Sokolov told a Deputy Chief of the General Staff’s Main Operations Directorate, Lt.General German Burutin: “Eloquently written, it says nothing; everything in it is in order but it doesn’t say WHEN you can use weapons.”

Very little time was devoted to carrying out all the measures associated with the deployment of troops to the DRA – less than a day. Such haste could not have failed to have subsequently had a negative effect. Much turned out to be unready and not well thought out, which led to additional losses.

…S. Magometov and V. Kolesnik were summoned to the government communications telephone by Akhromeyev. They arrived at the field telephone station which had been set up in the “Klub-eh-Askari” Stadium not far from the American Embassy. It was the evening of 24 December. They entered the government communications telephone booth and started to call S. Akhromeyev. The operator refused to connect Col. Kolesnik for a long time because “he was not on the special lists” but then she connected them all the same, apparently having asked Akhromeyev beforehand. Akhromerev ordered them to report their decision. Having heard them out he began to ask questions about its justification and estimates. He was interested in the smallest details. In the course of the conversation he made comments and gave orders. Then Magometov talked with Akhromeyev. He was given the mission of reporting the decision by the morning of 25 December over two signatures (his and Kolesnik’s). When they were leaving the telephone booth Magometov said to Kolesnik: “Well, Colonel, this will now make you or break you.”

17 Ibid. f. 48, op. 3570, d. 6. [Translator’s note: Previously published in “Plamya Afgana, Iskon, Moscow 1999, p. 253 and previously translated]

They wrote the report right there and the cable was sent by 0200. They went to the embassy together but then Kolesnik hurried off to the battalion. He had to prepare to carry out the combat mission…He had been appointed commander of the operation by the Defense Ministry which gave it the codename “Shtorm-333.”

Command of KGB special subunit operations had been entrusted to Gen. Yu. Drozdov, the Chief of the Directorate of Illegal Intelligence. Yuriy Andropov and Vladimir Kryuchkov pointed out to him by government communications telephone the necessity of thinking everything through down to the details, the main thing being to ensure the safety of the participants of the operation. In reply to Kryuchkov’s question: “Can someone else be sent?”, Andropov replied, “We’ll handle it ourselves.” But Lt.General Boris Ivanovich, who was present at the conversation, asked that Col. Grigoriy Boyarinov, the Chief of the Advanced Officers’ Training Courses, command and coordinate the operations of the special forces groups, which was also done.

According to Valeriy Yemyshev, an officer of group “A”:

After the first group led by Valentin Shergin was sent to Afghanistan at the beginning of December there was some tension in the group; many thought that the matter was not limited to this, but no one knew anything specifically.

On the morning of 22 December Robert Petrovich Ivon called me; he was then the acting subunit commander since Colonel Gennadiy Nikolayevich Zaytsev was in the hospital. He turned to me as secretary of the Party organization and said that a team of 30 men were needed to carry out a mission in Afghanistan. They had to fly out the next day; the specific mission would be given on the spot. Major Mikhail Romanov was the commander of the group being sent but he himself would remain on site.

I went to the subunit right away. Part of the people had already gathered there. They were coordinate the list. They began to prepare for the flight. They prepared all night and in the morning they flew to Afghanistan from Chkalovskiy Airfield [outside Moscow] on a Tu-134 which, I was told, was Andropov’s personal aircraft. They first landed in Gur’yev and then Tashkent to refuel.

Upon arrival in Bagram they quartered us in hardstands and tents. We met there with our guys who were guarding the future rulers of Afghanistan. Yuriy Izotov requested three men of our group.

Romanov gave him Chudesnov, Vinogradov, and Savel’yev. They spent the night in Bagram and in the morning they put us in busses and went to Kabul.

Soldiers from the “Grom” group were setting the sights of their weapons; still, there were the mountainous conditions and a new climate. They brought up the gear, bulletproof vests, and helmets. They had sewn additional pockets into the Afghan uniforms in order to put grenades and weapons magazines [in them] more comfortably.

According to Romanov, commander of the “Grom” group:

They moved to the Embassy in Kabul, where they stayed until the evening of 24 December.

I received a specific mission – relocate to the area where Amin’s external security force was and remain there for further instructions.

We ended up a kilometer from the Palace and could see it well. A convincing structure with strong walls. A real fortress standing on a high ground…

They joined up with the “Zenit” special forces group which was located in another place, next to the Palace. This was also a Committee [KGB] subunit, formed through First Main Directorate channels. Good guys. I became good friends with the commander of the group, Yasha Semenov. We had a password then: “Yasha” – “Misha”, and the response “Misha” – “Yasha”. There were not many of us – about 25.

And according to “Grom” officer Sergey Golov:

In Kabul they quartered us in an unfinished barracks next to the Taj-Bek Palace. We started trying to equip the place somehow because December is a quite severe month in the Afghan capital although this is a southern country. For example, in order to wash ourselves in the morning we had to first break ice in rubber basins.

Then they issued us Afghan uniforms of coarse camel’s hair wool fabric. Neither I nor Lesha Bayev could get a uniform of the right size at first, but then they stretched it (it stretches well) and we were barely able to put them on. We got acquainted with the guys from the “Zenit” group; we then had to attack the Palace together.

…Having returned from the Embassy at 0300 25 December to the battalion’s location, Col. Kolesnik supervised preparations for the combat operations to seize the Palace. Lt. Col. Shvets gave him active assistance. The operations plan envisioned seizure of the defensive sectors by three companies at the designated time (initially the operation was scheduled for 25 December; the assault on the Palace was then postponed to 27 December); they were not to permit Afghan battalions (three infantry and one tank) to advance toward the Taj-Bek Palace. The company of Sr. Lt. Kurban Amangel’dyyev was to act against the infantry battalion situated south of the Palace. The company of Capt. Ismat Kudratov covered from the north (tank and infantry battalions were located here); the paratrooper company of Sr. Lt. Valeriy Vostrotin was to act from the east. Also, a “Fagot” anti-tank guided missile platoon and an AGS-17 grenade launcher platoon were arrayed against the [Afghan] tank battalion. The operations of these companies were supported with the fire of two “Shilka”’s [anti-aircraft guns]. Lt.Col. Shvets was designated the one responsible for this sector. One more company of the “Muslim” battalion (commanded by Vladimir Sharipov) and the platoon of Lt. Rustam Tursunkulov were designated to support the direct assault on the Palace. The special KGB groups “Grom” (led by Mikhail Romanov) and “Zenit” (led by Yakov Semenov) were to act in concert with them.

They, too, were supported by two “Shilkas.” Part of the men of the “Muslim” battalion were supposed to seize and disarm the anti-aircraft and construction regiments located not far from Taj-Bek. They also provided for security and reserve forces.

One of the most important missions was the seizure of three Afghan tanks dug in south of the Palace which held all the approaches to Taj-Bek in their sights. A group of 15 men (including tank specialists) were allotted for this mission headed by deputy battalion commander Capt. Makhmud Sakhatov. It also included four snipers from KGB special subunits. The success of the operation depended on these actions to a large degree. They began first. The battalion command well knew that the mission could be carried out only if surprise and military stratagems were employed. Otherwise, no one would come out alive.

According Gen. Yuriy Drozdov the paratroopers were distinguished by their bearing, smart appearance, organization, and discipline. I want to especially talk about Valeriy Vostrotin himself. There were many legendary commanders, sergeants, and soldiers during the “Afghan” war who were examples of bravery, valor, and comradeship. Vostrotin is one of the best. He fought three times in Afghanistan. At first he was a company commander. He was seriously wounded in July 1980. He commanded a battalion. He was wounded again. At the concluding stage of the “Afghan” war he commanded an airborne regiment. He was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union for displaying courage and heroism.

But this was much later. Then, in order not to provoke suspicion prematurely, they developed a diversionary scenario of events. They started to carry out decoy operations: shooting, going on alert and occupying designated security sectors; deployment… At night they shot off illumination flares. They warmed up the armored personnel carrier and BMP [infantry combat] engines on schedule and moved them from place to place. At first this caused concern from the command of the Palace security brigade. For example, the first time the flares were launched the battalion’s position was momentarily illuminated by the searchlights of the anti-aircraft regiment and Major Jandad arrived. They explained to him that routine combat training was going on, they were practicing guarding the Palace and they were illuminating the area in order to preclude the possibility of a rebel attack.

The Afghans subsequently regarded such actions more calmly but requested that the engines not “make so much noise” as it was disturbing Amin’s sleep. The battalion commander and “Major Kolesov” themselves visited the brigade commander more than once and calmed him down. But the “maneuvers” of the battalion continued on the 25th, 26th, and the first half of the 27th of December. They thus ensured the surprise of the special forces personnel’s operations.

 Only Kolesnik, Shvets, and Khalbayev in the battalion knew the new mission. The KGB special subunits were also preparing to assault Taj-Bek. The signal to begin the operation in Kabul was the demolition of the “communications lines conduit.” According to Aleksey Polyakov, who headed the “Zenit” group in Kabul:

The responsibility for sabotaging the lines of communications was entrusted to me personally by KGB Chairman Yu. V. Andropov. There were 15 reconnaissance saboteurs and KGB officers in the diversion group besides me.

[Translator’s note: The Russian root “divers-“ can apply to both sabotage and diversionary operations and is translated here as best suits the context]

In starting to carry out the mission we first of all tried to identify the place in the Kabul communications system which was most vulnerable and easily accessible and also would not require much time to place an explosive device to obtain a great effect from the diversion.

A Soviet communications specialist was found through security officer Bakhturin with whose aid we managed to determine the location of the central line communications center. The long-distance and local communications lines were laid out from this center which had their source in a specially-constructed bunker or, to put it more simply, conduit. The entire communications system in Kabul had been organized under the supervision of West German specialists and therefore the arrangement of this conduit and the principle of the cable distribution in it were a mystery to us.

They began with scouting this conduit. It was situated 5-6 meters from the communications center building right on a sidewalk but the entrance to the center was on the opposite side. Opposite the conduit, across the road, was an Afghan bank and 30-50 meters away at a street intersection was a traffic control post, but in front of the conduit, along our travel route, was a hotel (about 100-120 meters [away]). There were no other residential structures near the conduit. However the conduit was under constant observation by the communications center security post. This imposed additional difficulties.

A brief visual survey gave this result: the conduit hatch was covered by a rectangular concrete slab about 10 cm thick with four holes which initially appeared to us that they should go all the way through. But it turned out in fact the holes in the slab did not go through. In the process of further surveillance they had to use an elementary method such as depicting smoke around the conduit. In this regard I took a handkerchief with Afghan coins from my pocket along with a lighter. With the set of coins I determined the diameter of the openings, their depth, and, what is interesting, the holes were not strictly aligned vertically but at an angle of about 15 cm from one another.

There was a guy in the detachment nicknamed “Kulibin” [Valeriy Volokh] – author’s note).

On arrival at the villa I summoned him and told him about the situation. “Kulibin” did not let us down. On the second or third day he brought in two tongs which he had fashioned in the Soviet Embassy repair shop. We had to test them in action. We needed to find an analogous conduit in Kabul to do this. Such a conduit was soon found on the edge of the Afghan capital.

The entire diversionary group actually drove to the site of the conduit’s local in the dark in three UAZ [military transport] vehicles. Unexpectedly two taxis formed up with us in the center of Kabul and started to follow persistently. We figured: surveillance was sitting on our tail. What were we to do?

Along the route near the conduit in question was a small store near which we stopped under the pretext of buying vegetables or fruit. The taxi drivers also stopped and approached us. We purposely spoke loudly in Russian and distracted the taxi drivers while the reconnaissance personnel tested the tongs. They turned out to be necessary. After testing our “diversionary” instrument we made further plans for the diversion and began to implement them. First and foremost, they closely studied all the routes of approach to and withdrawal from the target, the presence of military units and institutions, fixed security posts, traffic control posts, mobile patrols, and also level of vehicle and cart traffic along the way in daytime and nighttime. Then they calculated the time to approach along the routes studied.

At the conclusion of the preparatory measures I reported our readiness to carry out the diversion at the assigned target.

New unforeseen circumstances unexpectedly appeared. First, a stationary two-man police post appeared around “our” conduit and second, we received information from the Soviet specialist that there was water in the conduit but its depth was not known.

They began to calculate the required quantity of explosives for assured destruction of the conduit but then on the recommendation of Ehval’d Kozlov they decided to use the entire 40 kg of explosives available. To forestall attempts by the Afghans to remove our charge from the conduit in case they noticed it we planned to lower a smoke grenade with tear gas into the conduit together with the charge. Thus all the verification and preparatory measures for the diversion were finished.

Simultaneously with the work on “our target” we were searching for cable communication lines laid out on the surface in the direction of Amin’s residence and the Afghan Army General Staff. Soon the Army communications cable line was discovered. Moreover, we found a metal box about 0.5 m x 1 m through which this cable passed…



How it began…

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