Posted by: Christian | July 24, 2007

Captain Zakharov: A COIN All-Star in Afghanistan

July 24, 2007.

While the Soviet-Afghan War more often than not provides the NATO/US forces with lessons on what not to do, occasionally it provides an excellent example of counter-insurgency skill.

I came across a few pages in the late Russian journalist Artyom Borovik’s book The Hidden War about a young Soviet officer who gained a reputation as a COIN specialist:

His name is known in every kishlak [village] in the province of Kunduz. Zakharov is a legend. […] Zakharov, who turned twenty-eight on May 27, came to Afghanistan a year ago. He spent the first four months exploring the territory and learning the customs and traditions of the local peasants. It’s impossible to fight the dukhi [literally: ghosts] successfully without such knowledge. [page 29-30]

Captain Zakharov’s relations with the locals was surprisingly good. Zakharov shared supplies and fuel with them from resources that were meant for his unit. Unlike Soviet forces elsewhere, he refused to mine the trails and small roads that are used to reinforce the mujahideen for fear of killing or wounding non-combatants. He checked with local farmers regarding planting and harvesting schedules so that his combat operations did not interfere with their livelihood. And his refusal to engage the local mujahideen commander Gayur under certain circumstances was remarkable. Zakharov commented on this strategy when Gayur intentionally tried to bring about civilian casualties:

“Then the rascal thought of something else. As a way of forcing the peasants [who were friendly with Zakharov] to leave Afghanistan, he began to fire at my position straight from the neighboring kishlaks [villages] in an effort to draw our return fire. The provocations were repeated every day, but our guns remained silent. I refused to fire on peaceful civilians.” [page 30-31]


Pic: Captain Zakharov under the camo.

Aside from putting a large price on Zakharov’s head and failing to bribe Zakharov himself, Gayur also attempts to feed Zakharov malicious intel through his agents. Zakharov thanks these “well-wishers” for their very valuable information and then checks with his own sources:

“I checked the information quickly through other channels. I have many friends among the local population, so there are people to ask. I get along well with the peasants who live in the kishlaks here. Never do I deceive them…” [page 28]

Zakharov was kept quite busy since his post was on both a strategic northern transport corridor for weapons from Pakistan and on a gas pipeline from the USSR. However, Zakharov met every challenge from the mujahideen thanks to his intel and counter-intel capabilities. One one occasion false intel was provided to Zakharov about a convoy of weapons that would be passing 5Ks from his position. Zakharov vetted this intel with the locals and found it to be false. So at dawn his sent out his main force to ambush the non-existent convoy. And then under cover of darkness the men from the ambush force returned to base. Of course a large force of 600 mujahideen attacked the base expecting to find very few men left behind. Zakharov’s full force met them head-on and forced Gayur to retreat all the way to Baghlan.

Gayur then retried the same tactic in reverse, feeding intel to Zakharov about an imminent attack on the base. But instead of sitting and waiting for a non-existent attack, Zakharov went out with his main force and destroyed a Mujahideen weapons convoy that included about a hundred pack animals and a dozen Toyotas.

When Artyom Borovik left Zakharov’s base Zakharov was contemplating a strategy to counter Gayur’s tactic of punching holes in the pipeline and lighting it up:

“Now its been done for sure. They hope to divert my forces into distinguishing the fires while they try to lead another caravan to Gayur. So let’s postpone our talk…” [page 31]

The Soviets later inflict heavy casualties on Gayur’s forces. Gayur then spreads false rumours of his own death. And so on and so forth…..

My comments: You may be skeptical of an account by a Soviet journalist. However, Artyom Borovik is no blind follower and almost the rest of the book is severely critical of Soviet tactics and strategy. He seems to give credit were credit is due and he certainly does not seem like someone who can be manipulated by any one source or entity.

Obviously there are major differences between the Soviets fighting mujahideen (Hizb-i Islami? Ittihad? Jamiat/Shura?) in Kunduz in the later 1980s and US/NATO fighting the Taliban in the South and East now. So a direct comparison is not totally fair. However, Zakharov’s intel and counter-intel capabilities, particularly his relations with local sources and his cultural awareness, seem to provide a model that many engaged in COIN should aspire to.

Capt. Zakharov’s opposite? That would be Col. Antonenko.

Further reading can be had in the Russian army’s self-critique that was translated into The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan or in the description of mujahideen tactics in The Other Side of the Mountain: Mujahideen Tactics in the Soviet Afghan War.


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