‘The Soviets wouldn’t come up here with less than a battalion,” says Tim Lynch, a retired Marine Corps officer driving us down the two-lane blacktop that crosses the Shomali Plain, one of the largest and most fertile agricultural regions in Afghanistan. Alexander the Great founded the ancient city of Bagram on this plain, which opens up just north of Kabul, widens through Parwan Province, and finally dead-ends at the Salang and Panjshir rivers. Centuries later, Afghanistan’s Communist government would choose the same locale for a major air base, which today hosts the U.S.-led Coalition’s logistics-and-transshipment hub, Bagram Airfield. The Macedonians, the Soviets, and now the Americans: All have found their way to the Shomali Plain.
“This area is primarily Tajik,” Lynch says. “The Tajiks fought the Soviets harder than the Pashtuns, but don’t seem to mind Americans that much.” There are pockets of Pashtuns, but the Tajik predominance makes the drive up the highway, through the plain, and over the ragged road through the mountains to Bamiyan relatively safe for three Americans and a Hazara interpreter/fixer. If a group of Soviet travelers had ventured up here in their day, the mujahedeen would have killed them within an hour. Once in the Hazarajat area, Westerners can mostly roam around freely. The greatest risk in Afghanistan, according to Lynch, is disease or illness. “The second-highest risk is car wreck,” he says, a fact you might pick up from watching him drive in the traditional Afghan style: like a maniac. “Way down on the list is the Taliban,” he says.
There are attacks on U.S. forces on the Shomali Plain and in the surrounding valleys, but they pale in contrast to the Soviet experience. During the Soviet war in Afghanistan, there were nine separate major expeditions into the Panjshir Valley. On the seventh campaign, 15,000 Soviet troops and 5,000 Communist Afghan troops moved over the Shomali Plain in an attempt to take the valley, and at one point an entire Soviet division and Afghan corps were dedicated to clearing out mujahedeen here. They failed. By way of comparison, the U.S.-led Operation Anaconda, launched in March 2002 in Paktia Province, involved 1,700 helicopter-borne troops, 1,000 Afghan militiamen, and several smaller special-operations units. The recent Operation Moshtarak in Helmand Province included a mix of about 4,000 Coalition ground-combat troops and 4,000 Afghan National Army (ANA) troops, and is the only Coalition operation comparable in size to the various Soviet Panjshir expeditions.
For the Soviets and the mujahedeen, the Shomali Plain and the Panjshir Valley were what Sun Tzu termed “desperate ground” — terrain that must be defended or captured. It is certainly storied ground: “Panjshir” in the Dari language means “five lions,” a reference to the legend of five devout brothers who protected the valley from intruders.
In the war against the Soviets, a new lion emerged — Ahmed Shah Massoud. An ethnic Tajik and a sophisticated mujahedeen commander, Massoud was educated at Afghanistan’s national military academy and studied engineering at Kabul Polytechnic. He trained his fighters in the use of advanced weapons and developed a logistics pipeline from China. At the peak of his power, he may have led as many as 50,000 fighters, and his well-honed publicity machine ensured that he became known as the “Lion of the Panjshir.” After the Soviets were forced out, Massoud’s party dominated the short-lived mujahedeen government of Afghanistan. In 1994, Massoud and his army returned to their home field in the Shomali and Panjshir, fighting the Taliban to a draw until Massoud was assassinated by al-Qaeda shortly before 9/11.
There is no current equivalent to Massoud in the Shomali and Panjshir now. The Tajiks, with the exception of a few rent-a-fighters and day-labor Taliban, have no quarrel with the Coalition. Many of Massoud’s lieutenants have taken up positions in the current Afghan National Army, working side by side with U.S. forces.
One of them is Col. Zalmat Nbard, commander of the 1st Battalion, 111th Division, southwest of Kabul. Nbard was an effective enough fighter of Soviets that he was commissioned as a colonel by the interim mujahedeen government. He commanded Tajik fighters during the civil war and fought the Taliban until the U.S. invasion in 2001. He was trained in Massoud’s academies and rose through the ranks to become a commander. There is little doubt that he has more combat experience than all his NATO and U.S. advisers combined, and all agree that he is a seasoned leader of Afghans. That Nbard is on the side of the Coalition at all, rather than stirring up trouble in the neighborhood, is telling. The major fights in Afghanistan are in the south and east, the Pashtun areas, not in the northern Tajik ones.