Talking Proud Archives --- Military

Special Forces ODA 3336 deep in the Hindu Kush, gallantry and courage

By Ed Marek, editor

March 16, 2009 re-published February 26, 2018

A historical perspective

I've always looked at Afghanistan as a distant and backward place having little meaning to the world in which I live. It's far-flung and largely backward. But, as you explore her history, you learn that she has great meaning and has had such for a long time.

I want briefly to look at the three great empires that once ruled most of Asia, in order to give you a historical and cultural perspective: the Ottoman Empire of modern-day Turkey, Persian Empire of modern-day Iran, and the Manchu Dynasty of China. Together these three empires controlled most of central Asia from Turkey all the way to China’s eastern coastline excluding India. I then will look a little more closely at two later empires, the Russian and British.

I'll introduce the first three empires to you traveling from west to east.


The colored areas shows the Ottoman Empire at various stages of evolution from 1300 through 1683. Starting roughly in 1683, the empire would steadily diminish in size until it ended up as the Republic of Turkey in 1923. This was largely a Muslim empire. Unlike the Ottoman Empire, the Persian Empire was a product of the ancient world. As with most empires, it was a succession of various empires ruling the Iranian plateau and extending into western, central and southern Asia and the Caucasus. The first Persian Empire began in 728 BC. By the period 550-330 BC it would be the largest empire of the ancient world. As you'll see, the Persians in ancient times held much of what later evolved into the Ottoman Empire


This is a view of the Persian Empire at its height. It's tough to see, but look at the small globe lower left to grasp the full extent of this empire. I have placed a red box over the area that very roughly approximates where Afghanistan is today. The point is there has been a tremendous Persian, and now Iranian, cultural influence over Afghanistan since the years before Christ.


As an aside, there was a time when Alexander the Great, a Greek king of Macedonia, held most of this region as well. This map displays what is called the Macedon Empire of Alexander the Great, 336-323 BC.


This map depicts what many experts refer to as "Greater Iran." This is a cultural map and shows the area where there is a significant Iranian influence that grew from the Persian Empires of the past. You see Afghanistan squarely in there.


The Manchu Empire, perhaps more properly known as the Qing Empire (1800-1910), grew out of the Tang (700 AD) and Yuan Empires (1279-1368), and finally ended up as modern-China. It extended to the far northeastern portions of modern Afghanistan. This is an interesting map because it introduces you to a major point to be made about Afghan history, which is that you see the pressures on the Qing Empire that came from Russia, Britain, France, the Dutch and Japanese. Russians and British interests in this region would impact Afghanistan. As has happened throughout history, empires come and go. As they go, other peoples seek to fill the vacuum. This most certainly happened throughout Asia in the 17th and 18th centuries. Much of the lands controlled by all these empires were coveted by the British, Russians and to some degree the French. During that time, Russia and Britain were building their own empires.


The Russians held what is colored in light green by about 1796. Russia fought and defeated Persia and Turkey by 1829. They then moved southward around the Caspian Sea and added that land shown in tan by 1855. Then by 1914, they had moved into Manchuria in the east and into the rest of central Asia, shown in the darker green. It's worth noting that the Russians did not go into Iran. To get your bearings, Bukoro in the lower left quadrant of the map is modern-day Dushanbe, Tajikistan, just north of Afghanistan's northeast border. More on this in a moment.

The British Indian Empire, 1909. Presented by wikipedia.

The British Empire was global and largely associated with commerce by sea. This map shows one half the world in their empire at one time. Let's talk a bit about the British empire as it involved India, better known as the British Raj.


Britain’s East India Company drove the development of Britain's empire in India. It began trading in India in the early 17th century and completely controlled all India by 1857. The British government took over the company in 1857 taking 750,000 square miles of India with it. They then expanded even more and held India as a colony until 1947. In 1947, India was partitioned into two states, the Union of India which became the Republic of India and the Dominion of Pakistan which became the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.


This is a most interesting map to explain Afghanistan's situation. The yellow and tan reflect the extent of the western reach of the Qing Empire, right up to Afghanistan's doorstep. The purple covering India shows how the British came right up to her eastern doorstep. The light rose colored stripes show how Russia came from the north right up to her northern door. The remnants of Persia were on her west. In short, Afghanistan was in the middle of powerful competing empires each having their own interests. The British and Russians would butt heads in Afghanistan, and, as you recall, Persian culture had great historic influence on Afghanistan. An intense rivalry developed between the Russians and British centered on Afghanistan. Britain's number one interest was India. Her intention was to hold and defend India at all costs. The British saw Afghanistan as a buffer between India and Russia. The British meant to keep the Russians out of India. For her part, Russia's main interest was to make her way to the warm water ports on the Indian Ocean, which meant moving through Persia, Afghanistan and/or India. Protecting India from Russia was so important to Britain that her military forces invaded Afghanistan three times. She didn't want Afghanistan as a colony; she simply wanted her as a buffer. Each time the British invaded, they installed a government to their liking and then pulled their military forces out. British withdrawals were often conducted under fire and British forces were frequently going back and forth into and out of the region. Throughout, Russia kept moving southward toward Afghanistan. The Afghans didn’t like either the Russians or the British, but they seemed to worry more about the Russians than the British. The Afghans thought they could secure a deal with the British to draw up boundaries that would secure the definition of British India’s western border.


The British did agree to a boundary on India's western border in 1893. It was called the Durand Line which stands today as the border with Pakistan though it remains controversial. In effect, this line divided the Pashtun ethnic people, leaving some in Afghanistan and some in India. That divide remains a problem to this day. At the same time, mid-19th century, the ruler of Afghanistan, Abdul Rahman, installed by the British, used the Durand line and the agreement to solidify his holdings eastward up to that line. He also imposed Islam on the country as part of his vision of centralizing power over Afghanistan. Tensions between Russia and Britain in this entire region remained on the front-burner until 1907, when the two came to an understanding about their respective spheres of influence. Russia agreed that Afghanistan was outside her sphere, but agreed that she remained within the British sphere. In return, Britain agreed to stay out of Afghanistan’s internal affairs, though she remained mightily involved in her foreign affairs nonetheless. The Russian Revolution of 1917 effectively nullified many of the deals between Russia and Britain with regard to Afghanistan’s ruler. As a result, Amanullah Khan, the country’s ruler at the time, declared Afghanistan independent. Afghan forces conducted a surprise attack against the British. Britain and Afghanistan were now at war yet gain, for the third time. Afghan forces managed to cross the Durand Line and get into India. But they were no match for the British. British forces conducted effective air operations against Afghanistan that forced an armistice. However, Britain, with WWI on her plate, had little zest left for a prolonged battle on the ground in this area. An armistice was reached in 1919 through the Treaty of Rawalpindi. Afghanistan obtained her independence under terms largely dictated by the British. The British wanted to maintain control over Afghan foreign policy but that proved almost impossible. Following the 1917 Russian Revolution and WWI, the newly formed Soviet Union wanted to establish good relations with neighboring Islamic lands. Russia also wanted to confront the British. The British opposed the introduction of communism in the Soviet Union. Russia developed plans to invade and occupy Afghanistan. As a first step, in 1921, Russia concluded the Kabul-Moscow Agreement in which the Russians, now the Soviets, provided aid and military equipment and even posted some aircraft inside Afghanistan. The tensions between the British and Soviets increased. It is at about this point that one must invest a life's study in tracking the ups and downs of Afghan politics. Afghanistan’s internal politics through several decades after this treaty were marked by popular uprisings, abdications, assassinations and all the upheaval that goes with those. Russia did not invade, and Britain had her hands full with India. About all I wish to say here is that between 1929 and the 1970s, Afghanistan struggled mightily to obtain some semblance of internal order. The Soviets invaded once in 1930 but were pushed back. There were efforts to improve road construction, develop diplomatic relations with other countries, build a banking system, do some long-range economic planning, build an army, much of which was done without outside help. But the country's leader was assassinated in 1933 by a disgruntled man. This leader's son took power and became the country's last king. He would serve until 1973. For the first 20 years through 1953 the country actually showed some forward motion. The US recognized Afghanistan in 1940.

We are now into WWII. Reza Shah Pahlavi moved Iran closer to Germany and the Germans had their eyes on the Trans-Iranian Railway to move supplies to their forces up from the Persian Gulf and on the British operated oil fields. Reza Shah rejected please from the Allies to expel German nationals and prevent German use of the rail. As a result, the Soviets and British invaded Iran with significant force in August 1941, took over, and forced Reza Shah into exile. The Allies also demanded all Axis diplomats leave Afghanistan. Initially Afghanistan said no, but agreed following the Soviet and British invasion of Iran.
The Iranians asked US President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) for help but FDR refused. British and Soviet occupation of Iran opened supply lines to the Soviets from the Persian Gulf and to the Mideast for Britain

Reza Shah was replaced by Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi in October 1941. He signed a Treaty of Alliance with the British and Soviets in January 1942, the new Iranian leader threw out the Germans, the British and Soviets sort of withdrew, and Iran declared war against Germany in September 1943.

Following WWII, the British left Iran completely. Soviet troops remained in Iran's northern provinces. The Soviets formed puppet states of Azerbaijan and Kurdish People's Republic from these provinces, and then withdrew in 1946. But the stage was set for the US to move close to the Shah and assemble military plans to defend Iran against a Soviet invasion. He is known to most Americans as the Shah of Iran, a favorite of American policymakers, a man overthrown by the Iranian Revolution of February 11, 1979.

In any event, the US moved close to Iran following WWII and American relations with Afghanistan began to improve as well. The US provided financial aid. Pakistan took form as an independent country. Pashtuns now lived in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. This would become a major political problem for Kabul.


This is a map of Pakistan and her provinces. Today we hear a lot about the Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, abbreviated NWFP, and highlighted by the black arrow. The NWFP was a British invention, drawn from India's Punjab. In 1947, the British held a referendum to establish whether the North-West Frontier should be part of Pakistan or India. The people voted it to become part of Pakistan. But boundary disputes arose and Pashtun tribal attacks occurred from both sides of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Soviets saw opportunities and signed an important trade agreement with the Afghans in 1950. This agreement essentially neutralized Pakistani threats and attempts to stop the movement of important goods such as oil into Afghanistan. The Soviets filled the void. The net result was that the the Soviets now were providing significant aid to Afghanistan as a counter-balance to what the US was providing. Afghans were allowed to freely transport their goods through Soviet territories. The Soviets had the advantage of being in the neighborhood, the Russians had long wanted to be in Afghanistan, while the US was far away and deeply involved in post-War Europe and Japan, the Cold War with the Soviets, Communist China, and the Korean War supported by the Soviets and the Chinese. Afghan politics, however, once again began to fall apart, caused by efforts to liberalize and government actions to crack down. Western-educated leaders tried to balance relations with the US and with the Soviets, but the rivalry with Pakistan caused the Afghans to lean toward the Soviets.


The Soviets began building and improving some 11 air bases in Afghanistan at Herat, Shindand, Farah, Qandahar, Kabul International Airport, Bagram, Jalalabad, Mazar a Sharif, Konduz, Ghazni, and Pol a Charkhi, all marked by red dots. These were not trivial air bases. Six of them could handle long-range, heavy transports. They were all upgraded to all weather, jet air bases though Jalalabad was designed especially for helicopters. The Soviets considered Bagram and Shindand to be the most important. Maintenance and support were concentrated at them. Afghans were not even allowed on Shindand. Afghanistan and Pakistan severed relations in 1961. The Americans chose relations with Pakistan as more important than having influence with Kabul. US relations with Pakistan have been tumultuous over the years. During the Cold War, the US worried about Soviet expansion while Pakistan needed aid to protect herself against India. Amidst continued internal political turmoil, the Marxist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) held its first congress in 1965, military units loyal to it killed the president and installed a PDPA ruler. Afghanistan now was effectively a communist state. As we get closer to talking to ODA 3336's mission in the Shok Valley of Nuristan, we will focus more and more on that province. Nuristanis were the first to rebel against the communists in the 1960s. As a result, the government invited the Soviet Army to come in. The Soviets had many misgivings about doing this, for a wide variety of reasons. For several years they dribbled in and out piecemeal. Political turmoil in Afghanistan really had long been a hallmark. As she moved through the 1960s and 70s the political situation in Afghanistan became increasingly tenuous. A coup occurred in December 1979 against the PDPA which involved the deaths of several PDPA leaders and the establishment of a dictatorship led by H. Amin. PDPA supporters and people openly sympathetic to the Soviets were repressed and murdered. Amin hinted he wanted to tilt to the US. At the same time, political turmoil remained a hallmark and an anti-Amin did begin to form. Throughout all of this, the Soviets feared the spread of Islamic revolution into the Soviet Union.


Soviet tanks entering Afghanistan in late 1979. [Source: Banded Artists Productions]

All this and much more led the Soviets to decided to invade in 1979 and occupy the country employing the 40th Army, 80,000 strong at the start, increasing over time to 152,000. The Soviets took over the government and executed Amin. They entered through two main routes from the north, Turkmenistan leading straight to Kabul, the other leading along a main road on the west side to the south and then turning to the east.


The Soviet invasion. Note that the darker gray reflects what the Soviets were able to hold and control through most of the war. Presented by This was among the worst fears of the US --- Soviet expansion. The US immediately viewed Pakistan as a front-line ally against even more expansionism and as a front-line ally in making the Soviets pay a dear price for their invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Many in Afghanistan, and many outside, including US, opposed the Soviet occupation. As a result, war ensued between Afghans supported by the US and others. The US used Pakistan as a key transit route for arms supplies to the Afghan resistance and convinced Pakistan to take in Afghan refugees. Pakistani intelligence, along with the CIA, worked closely with the Afghan resistance. There is plenty of information available to indicate the US lured the Soviets into this war as payback for Soviet support to the North Vietnamese during the US Indochina War.


Soviet forces in northern Afghanistan during the beginning of their withdrawal. Presented by The Soviets fought it out through 1989 when they threw in the towel and left. Once the Soviets were out, political instability resumed and in 1992 a civil war began. A new government took power. The Taliban movement formed in 1994 at the grassroots level in the villages and in 1996 led another civil war. One of their major victories was to defeat Gulbuddin Hikmetyar, at the time Afghanistan's most powerful warlord. Keep that name in mind. It is central to our story about ODA 3336. The Taliban succeeded in their efforts, forcing the president and his government out of Kabul. The Taliban remained in control until the US invasion in 2001. Debate continues to this date over the identity of the Taliban --- what is it, who are they, what is their guiding philosophy etc. Kamal Matinuddin, writing The Taliban Phenomenon: Afghanistan 1994-1997, suggests that it is first of all an Afghan phenomenon, with Pakistani participation at levels argued to this day. He submits a large number of seminaries were organized in Pakistan in the 1980s supported financially by Pakistan and the Arab oil states. In 1997 some 220,000 students were enrolled. With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, many Afghan refugees registered with the seminaries. He says that these Afghans organized the Taliban movement, though some Pakistanis also joined. The word "Taliban" is Persian for "the Koran students," students of the Islamic Koran. Its members are largely Sunnis drawn primarily from the Pashtuns, who you will recall are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and lived both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, divided by the Durand Line. They are fundamentalists seeking a strict Islamic code of justice. They say they want to create a moral society, they have no regard for national borders, and cannot be considered nationalists. They are anti-Shia, which creates friction with Iran. Some argue that they also have roots in the revolutionary fervor of Marxism-Leninism and they weave in a missionary-like moralism toward the poor rising from Chinese Maoism. When the Communists took over Afghanistan, they swung toward a Maoist culture and employed Maoist methods of warfare against the Communists, at the expense of their Marxism-Leninist beliefs.

All that said, they are also known to include former mujahadeen warriors who fought against the Soviets and were at one time supported by the US CIA. The Taliban are led by Mullah Mohammed Omar. He is a recluse, and there very few photos of him. In this one, provided by BBC, is standing to the left.

The US-led invasion of 2001 evicted the Taliban from government and drove its fighters into Pakistan and into the high mountains of eastern and southern Afghanistan. Since its removal, Afghanistan has experienced a US-led NATO occupation, adopted a new constitution, held presidential elections, and it is now governed by President Karzai. The US and some NATO partners continue to fight against the Taliban and provide the bulk of Afghanistan security, at the same time rebuilding the Afghan Army and Police forces.

Before we can go on to describe ODA 3336's battle in the Shok Valley of Nuristan,
we need to better understand the geography.