- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 3, 2001

When I read in the newspapers that U.S. special forces units are on the ground in Afghanistan, I can't help but have this deja-vu feeling of "been there, done that."

And it all comes back to me: Dark nights in the mountains of the Hindu Kush, the angry roar of helicopter engines in thin air, deafening bursts of automatic fire and hand-grenade explosions in narrow canyons and among packed mud walls of Afghan villages, the exhausting dash back toward the pickup area Soviet Spetsnaz (special forces) at war in Afghanistan.

As if through the mist of time, I see the faces of my comrades, dead and alive … Maybe their experience will help those who now have to defend the United States in the fight against terrorism in that obscure part of the world.

The involvement of Spetsnaz in Afghanistan began in 1980, soon after the deployment of Soviet army troops there. The Soviet command quickly realized that mechanized infantry units are not so effective against the guerrilla tactics used by mujahideen.

The Spetsnaz were called in as the only unit capable of fighting the enemy on his own terms. Surprisingly, even these crack units initially lacked mountain-warfare training. In the event of an all-out war, their mission was to hunt and destroy NATO's headquarters, command and communications centers and mobile missiles launchers in the European theater.

In Afghanistan, they had to learn a lot, and learn it fast, to meet new challenges.

Through the years of the Soviet Afghan war, Spetsnaz forces developed effective tactics for helicopter assaults, ambushes, mine warfare, and for destroying enemy supply convoys or depots.

Helicopter tactics

It may help to keep the following in mind: Helicopters deployed for landing a special forces team in enemy territory should make several landings, but leave the team at only one location and only at night, of course. This will complicate search and pursuit by the enemy: Instead of one place, they will have to search several places, which in turn will disperse their forces.

The helicopters must drop the unit two to three miles beyond their target, so that instead of going deeper into enemy territory for the attack, the group will be moving toward its own base. If the enemy undertakes a search, it is more likely to look in front of the asset than behind it.

Returning to base after inserting the team, the helicopter must use a different route.

To conceal the deployment of a special forces team, create other air force activity in the area, including limited air strikes, but not too close to the team's objective.

Hitting enemy convoys

During the years of the Soviet Afghan war, the mujahideen developed effective ways to bring arms and ammunition-supply convoys into Afghanistan. There is no doubt that under complete American air domination, these tactics will be employed again by the Taliban.

The methods most used by Spetsnaz to destroy such convoys were helicopter assaults and ambushes en route. If there was intelligence about a big weapons and ammunition convoy leaving Pakistan for Afghanistan, Spetsnaz sometimes used helicopter raids especially in Baluchistan, inside Pakistan, which has considerably flat terrain.

Hiding behind hills and along dry river beds, the helicopters would fly nine to 12 miles into Pakistan and then turn back toward Afghanistan, following the favored convoy routes. The mujahideen felt quite safe and comfortable on Pakistani territory, traveled in daylight and would usually take the helicopters for Pakistani aircraft. The next moment the choppers would open fire and occasionally even land a Spetsnaz team to finish the work and take trophies.

Timing was the key. The whole operation would take 20 to 30 minutes, and Pakistani air defense usually did not have time to react.

The general rule for intercepting and destroying weapons and ammunition convoys is: The closer to the enemy's base or main camp that you intercept them, the higher are the chances that convoy security will not be on full alert, and the convoy will be together. After arrival at a distribution area, the large convoy will be met by representatives of different field commanders and tribes and divided into small units that are harder to find.

Don't concentrate too much on collecting and bringing back trophies: The desire is understandable, but it can kill you. After you have finished your work destroying a military facility, camp, convoy, etc. you have very limited time before enemy reinforcements arrive. Also, carrying a lot of trophies will complicate your movement to the pickup area if helicopters can't land close to where you are. Instead, take pictures for reporting results, and if you need it, a body count.

Divide your team in two groups: One should take up positions to provide observation and cover, the other should destroy the captured facility or supplies.

Use explosive materials always found in captured supplies mines, artillery munitions to destroy weapons so that you don't have to carry a lot of explosives with you. Do not destroy supplies that are less important but still attractive to the enemy, like food or even small-arms ammunition; instead, booby-trap them.

If you destroy an animal convoy and some animals are alive and still have loads on their backs, booby-trap the animals using a hand-grenade with a half-pulled safety pin as a fuse for one or two extra explosive charges attached to the bags on the animal's back by a short piece of cord or rope.

Learn the locale

Try to use the same special unit for operations in a particular area on a repeat basis. In Afghanistan, where knowledge of the terrain and local features is crucial and maps are often outdated and lack details and recent changes, the use of the permanent team for a permanent area will help. It will give the team members an opportunity to learn the roads and routes used by the enemy and the specific local tactics it employs in the area; it also will help the team members figure out sources of water, best places for ambushes, etc.

Soviet experience shows that using Spetsnaz teams "specializing" in a particular area brings better results, while using a special forces team without much experience in that area increases the chances of casualties.

In addition to helicopter assaults, raids into enemy territory and standard ambush tactics were employed. In many cases, Spetsnaz tried to pass as mujahideen to set up traps and intercept convoys.

As all Soviet military bases were closely monitored by the enemy, Spetsnaz used the following tactics to slip out of their locations undetected: Trophy vehicles (make sure not to use a vehicle captured in the same area), usually favored by mujahideen, like four-wheel drive Toyota and Iranian-made Simurg pickup trucks, were loaded into large vehicles with tarpaulin covers such as Soviet-made KRAZ and ZIL trucks. Spetsnaz personnel, clad in local garb, would also hide inside.

A convoy of three to four such vehicles accompanied by two to three armored vehicles would leave the base and move to an outside post or another military unit located nearby without attracting much attention, not like a large number of armored vehicles leaving the base.

On the way, the trucks would stop at a place offering limited observation such as a dry gully or a ruined village. Using thick planks, pickup trucks would be unloaded from the transport vehicles and taken to their destination, while the rest of the convoy would drive on and return to their base later.

Even if you speak the local language and dress like natives, don't count too much on passing as a local: Even the way you walk is different, there are too many tribal dialects and dress-specific features the manner of donning a head dress for instance, or the manner of carrying weapons and the like.

Still, depending on the mission, it can make sense to dress like locals if you dress correctly for that part of the country. It may fool the enemy for a while, giving you the privilege of the first shot.

After the Persian Gulf war, I remember reading an article about a U.S. Special Forces team operating in Iraq. The team members were detected by a shepherd boy, but they could not "neutralize" him. Of course, the boy informed the Iraqi troops, and the U.S. team was captured.

Well, very pathetic, but not professional. By sparing the boy, the team leader jeopardized not only his own life but also those of other team members as well as the mission. They were hunting Scud-missile launchers. How many American troops could be killed by one undetected Scud missile?

And Afghanistan is less forgiving of such errors than Iraq. Of course, every captured American soldier will be an asset for the Taliban, but the militia's command structure is very decentralized, and field commanders are the final decision makers. Most of them have never heard of international treaties on the treatment of POWs. For them, you are just infidels invading their land.

Thus, with due respect to the feelings of special forces personnel, it must be said that while operating on enemy territory, it doesn't matter who detects you a child, a shepherd, a woman, an old man the first thing they will do is report you to the enemy. This has to be kept in mind, and an appropriate decision must be taken.

One last tip: In enemy territory, hide your used toilet paper. Most rural Afghans use small stones and pieces of dry clay for this purpose.

Remember: The success of your mission will determine the future of this battered land and the future of its people, and will stop the spread of terrorism in the world. It is an honorable mission.

Timothy Gusinov served two tours of duty in Afghanistan, nine years in all, with Russian military advisers, Soviet troops and Spetsnaz units. He speaks Farsi and Dari. He was wounded twice, awarded a number of medals including the Order of the Red Star and promoted to the rank of major at the age of 28. He currently lives in the United States.

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