Storm-333, the operation to seize Kabul and assassinate Afghan leader Hafizullah Amin, was at once a textbook success and the start of a terrible blunder. It heralded the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which quickly devolved into a gritty ten-year counter-insurgency that Moscow was never able to win. Nonetheless, Storm-333 was a striking success, and despite initial concerns that it would be an impossible achievement, it saw a relative handful of Soviet special forces drawn from the KGB and the military seize the heavily defended presidential palace, neutralise the city's communications and defences, and open Kabul to occupation. In today's blog post, Mark Galeotti recounts his experience meeting Kostya and Grisha,two ex-paratroopers who had been part of the wider operation to seize Kabul, their experiences during the raid and briefly details the operation as a whole.
I never met any of the commandos who carried out Storm-333, the operation to kill dictator Hafizullah Amin that kicked off the ten-year Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but I did get to know other Soviet soldiers who were in Kabul that fateful night. This is one of the reasons I was especially pleased to write this book in the Raid series, and another Afghan-set book due later in the year, a Campaign one exploring the battles for the strategic Panjshir Valley. I did my doctorate, in the dying days of the Soviet Union, on the impact of the Afghan war was having on this decaying superpower.
Part of this meant meeting and talking to veterans, and as this was in the pre-internet era, that meant unreliable Soviet phone connections, even more unreliable postal services. But set against this was the extraordinary network amongst the afgantsy, the veterans, who had formed a wide range of organisations to argue their case and encourage mutual assistance. It was through one of the local organizers in St Petersburg – then still known as Leningrad – that I got to meet two ex-paratroopers who had been part of the wider operation to seize Kabul, while a combined force of KGB and GRU (military intelligence) Spetsnaz and paras took the presidential palace.
Kostya and Grisha, the two I met, were in the 345th Independent Airborne Regiment’s reconnaissance company, and were backing up a team of operators from Zenit, a special team drawn from the KGB’s elite sabotage and assassination school, known as KUOS, who had been tasked with seizing the state TV and radio centre. It was defended by a platoon of 4 Afghan army tanks, a mechanised infantry platoon mounted in BMP infantry fighting vehicles, and four emplaced DShK heavy machineguns, each in their own sandbagged position.
Nonetheless, the Soviets relied on speed, skill and surprise. The paratroopers, mounted in their pint-sized BMD IFVs, crashed through the building gates, and unleashed a fusillade of rockets from RPG-18 Mukha launchers that in the first salvo destroyed or disabled three of the tanks and one BMP. While the paratroopers engaged the rest of the defenders, covered by a ZU-23 anti-aircraft gun in direct fire mode, the Zenit commandos burst into the building, neutralising its guards and seizing the crucial TV studios before any damage could be done to them – after all, they would be needed to broadcast messages reassuring the Afghan people that Amin had been ‘sentenced to death at a revolutionary trial for crimes against the state’ and a new age of peace and harmony had arrived.
The operation took twenty minutes, and as Grisha put it, ‘one of our guys was scratched, and one burnt his hand on a hot gun barrel.’ Not one Soviet soldier was killed.
Indeed, the whole night’s work was extraordinarily efficiently done. Only a single Soviet soldier was killed in the seizure of Kabul and its thousands of defenders, a Zenit operator who fell when his team and two platoons of paratroopers were taking the Interior Ministry, which was being guarded by fully 350 Sarandoy security troops. Meanwhile, some 560 Soviets took on more than 2,500 elite Afghan troops guarding Amin, the defenders being equipped with everything from emplaced tanks to artillery, and accomplished their mission with only nine losses. They took so many Afghan prisoners that most were simply disarmed and set loose.
In some ways, this was a textbook Soviet operation. It was rigorously planned, but when – as inevitably happens – the plans went awry, they improvised. The Soviet troops deployed in this tip-of-the-spear operation were all elite forces and, unlike most of their peers, were willing and able to show initiative. The bulk of the book is a detailed, sometimes minute-by-minute of the complex operation to seize the Presidential Palace, with 12 separate ‘combat groups’ conducting their own missions as part of a wider plan, acutely aware that if only one failed, the whole mission was at risk. It was not just the skill and determination of the attackers that carried the day, but their capacity to respond when everything seemed to go wrong.
But the operation as a whole likewise epitomised the arrogance of the late Soviet Union and the failure of the old men in the Kremlin to understand the pride and the passions of the Afghan people. The seizure of Kabul was meant to be the hard part: then Soviet troops would just march into Afghanistan, quickly quell the rising jihadist insurgency which so worried them, and march out. The idea was that this would perhaps take six months. The trouble is that the Afghans weren’t willing to play ball.
It proved the start of a ten-year war which the Soviets didn’t technically lose – reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who had had no part in the decision to invade, simply decided it was not worth fighting – but they undoubtedly didn’t win. A million Kostyas and Grishas cycled through Afghanistan, and 15,000 of them never came home, or came back in zinc boxes. One can legitimately ask whether it might have been better for everyone had Storm-333 actually failed.