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Afghan role of 'Muslim Battalions'

Twenty years on from the Soviet Union's pull-out from Afghanistan, the BBC's Rayhan Demytrie looks at the role soldiers from the Central Asian nations played in the conflict.

Undated image of soldiers from one of the Muslim battalions, courtesy of Vladimir Sharipov
Men from several Central Asian nations fought for the Soviets in Afghanistan

In the almost 10 years that Soviet forces battled Afghanistan's Mujahideen, hundreds of thousands of soldiers from across the USSR took part in the conflict.

The troops included soldiers recruited from Afghanistan's mainly Muslim northern neighbours, who shared culture with their Afghan cousins.

They were involved in the fighting from the very beginning.

On 27 December 1979 - in an event that effectively marked the start of the Soviet-Afghan war - Soviet special forces stormed the Tajbeg Palace in Kabul and killed President Hafizullah Amin.

The troops included members of the 154 Special Operations Detachment, also known as the Muslim Battalion.

Dressed in Afghan army uniforms, Muslim Battalion soldiers took part in the seizure by providing cover for KGB officers.

"The idea was to put together a unit of Soviet Central Asians who looked like Afghans," said Colonel Vladimir Sharipov, who was in charge of one of the Muslim Battalion units during the operation.

The first Muslim Battalion was formed in Chirchik, near the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, and was drawn from ethnic Uzbek, Tajik and Turkmen recruits.

Soviet authorities believed that these troops, coming from traditionally Islamic backgrounds with similar customs and, most importantly, similar dialects to those spoken in Afghanistan, could be used for covert operations.

"We were trained to provide security for President Taraki of Afghanistan. But when he got killed the Muslim Battalion was on hold for some time. Finally the order came to go to Afghanistan in early December 1979," recalled Col Sharipov.

"The new president, Hafizullah Amin, wanted to use our detachment for his own security. I personally had a pass to the president's external guards unit," he added.

Second unit

A second Muslim Battalion, or Musbat, was formed in 1980 in Kapchagai, near Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Undated image of Sergei Mahashev in Afghanistan (Image: Sergei Mahashev)
Sergei Mahashev fought with Musbat 2 in the Panjshir Valley

"The unit included around 300 Uighurs who had originally been drafted in to help build sites for the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow," said Major Sergei Mahashev, who was the battalion's intelligence commander.

Uighurs were assigned to Kazakhstan to join the battalion and in October 1981, its 500 soldiers crossed the Soviet-Afghan border.

They ended up in the Panjshir Valley, the stronghold of Mujahideen commander Ahmed Shah Masoud and a region that had famously resisted the Soviet military.

By the spring of 1982, Soviet troops had suffered heavy losses there.

"Military action in Panjshir was ineffective," said Sergei Domnin, an Almaty-based journalist specialising in the Soviet-Afghan war.

"Afghan communist leader Babrak Karmal announced that there was no longer any point keeping the troops in the valley."

Undated image of Muslim Battalion 2 entering the Panjshir Valley (Image: Sergei Mahashev)
Musbat 2 spent months in the valley's mountainous terrain

Ahmed Shah Masoud, said Maj Mahashev, swore that within a month not a single Soviet soldier would be left there.

So the Soviet command decided to leave Musbat 2 in Panjshir for a month to prove a point.

"We managed to survive there for eight months," recalled Bahitjan Jatakpaev, who was in charge of one of the Musbat 2 units.

The Panjshir operation ended in a ceasefire after the Soviet command ordered a deal to be done with Ahmad Shah Masoud.

Radicalised

The Muslim Battalions were soon dispersed and renamed. The first battalion was sent back to Tashkent after the storming of the Tajbeg Palace.

The division re-entered Afghanistan a year later but it no longer consisted solely of Central Asians.

The same applied to Musbat 2. Most of the Central Asian reservists were withdrawn within 12 months of their commitment and replaced by new conscripts.

Some of the Soviet Central Asians were affected by their service in Afghanistan. Many were struck by the religious dedication of their enemy.

There were cases when Central Asian soldiers who were taken prisoner joined the Mujahedeen. In other instances soldiers were radicalised by their experiences.

One example is Uzbek paratrooper Jumaboi Khojayev, who established a radical Islamist group in the city of Namangan in north-eastern Uzbekistan after he returned from Afghanistan.

He escaped the Uzbek authorities and in 1998 formed the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan from exile in Tajikistan. The militant group has been associated with the Taleban.

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Timeline: Afghanistan
06 Jan 09 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Kazakhstan
07 Aug 08 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Uzbekistan
30 Jul 08 |  Country profiles


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