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The Soviet Nadir: Cataclysm at Zhawar, Afghanistan-April 1986

Updated on September 30, 2009


In April, 1986, the Soviets made a concerted effort to destroy the Mujahideen cave complex at Zhawar (Paktia Province), a few kilometers from the Pakistan border. The complex was responsible for 25% of the Mujahideen’s supply. The base, nestled in a canyon, contained over 40 caves and at least 11 major tunnels (some 500m in length) and defended by 800 well armed men, BM-12 MLRs, and two T-54s. On the nearby heights, some 9 AA machine guns protected the base The base defense approaches were further defended by well trained National Islamic Front and Islamic Revolutionary Front battle tested troops. The base commander was the admired Jalauddin Haqani. The operation comprised of troops from the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) and Soviet combat forces, who had received orders that the DRA would now be responsible for conducting combat operations. Thus, in the first large DRA military operation, the Zhawar redoubt would be its proving ground. The DRA would commit its 7th division/2nd Corps, 8th division/1st Corps, 14th and 25th divisions/3rd Corps, 38th Commando brigade, and 666th Air Assault regiment. However, these units were in name only, the divisions of the 1st and 3rd Corps had a combat line strength only 300-400 men. The 38th Commando brigade some 350 men (and untrained in air assaults). The Soviets would send some five battalions. The total force was around 6,600 men.

The operation began on April 3rd with the landing of the 38th Commando battalion (350-400 men) being dropped 15 km away from the planned area, some landed 5 km inside Pakistan. Most LZs were in and around the Zhawar base. The 800 defenders of the base did not wither away from relentless Soviet artillery and airstrikes, but instead, attacked the LZs. More reinforcements also arrived from Pakistan onto the Spin Khwara plains where the LZs were. By end of the first day, all of the LZs cease to exist and so did the 350-400 defenders. The Soviet SU-25s used smart missiles and carefully guided them into several of the caves. The net result was some 150 enemy soldiers being entombed. Of the 32 helicopters used to lift the commandos, only 8 managed to survive the enemy AA fire. It was not a good way start an offensive (this is the subject of the game). The DRA 7th and 14th divisions attempt to link up with the stranded LZs, however, after three days of trying had consumed all of their ammunition. They had to withdraw by the 9th to replenish. The DRA attempted to penetrate through the mountain passes at Many Kandow for 10 days, all to no avail. Embarrassed, the Soviets were forced to commit their troops and the DRA added more men into the offensive. Soviet troops quickly changed the complexion of the failure and by the 19th they had seized Zhawar. Many of the enemy had fled the base and the Soviet engineers were only allowed five hours to destroy the complex to avoid in being surrounded. Suffice to say, it was back in full operation within two weeks. The Mujahideen had lost 300 KIA, the DRA and Soviets some 500 KIA and 15 helicopters.

Zhawar continues to be a target in 2002, this time, from the Afghans and elements of the US 101st, trying to destroy the Taliban. It continues to be a difficult task!


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