Battles of Zhawar

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The Battles of Zhawar were fought during the Soviet–Afghan War between Soviet Army units, and their allies of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan against Afghan mujahideen groups. The Soviets' objective was to destroy the Mujahideen logistic base situated at Zhawar, 3 kilometers from the Pakistani border.


The Zhawar caves in 2002.

The Mujahideen base at Zhawar, situated in Paktia Province, served as a storage facility for supplies and equipment being transferred from neighbouring Pakistan to the various guerrilla groups operating in the region. It also served as a training and command facility. The Mujahideen had dug tunnels up to 500 m into the Sodyaki Ghar mountain, with accommodations including a hotel, a mosque, a medical point and a garage to house the two T-55 tanks that had been captured from the DRA in 1983.

The troops defending the base numbered 500, and they were armed with a D-30 howitzer, several BM-21 multiple rocket launchers and five ZPU-1 and ZPU-2 heavy machine-guns for air defence. Additionally, other Mujahideen groups were active in the area, and they participated in the defense of the base when necessary. These groups were part of various movements including the Hezbi Islami, the Hezb-e Islami Khalis, the Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami and the Mahaz-e-Melli, though all in theory came under the authority of regional commander Jalaluddin Haqqani.

The first battle[edit]

First Battle of Zhawar
Part of the Soviet–Afghan War
DateSeptember–October 1985
Result Mujahideen victory
Afghanistan Afghanistan
Soviet Union Soviet Union (air support)
Flag of Jihad.svg Afghan Mujahideen
Commanders and leaders
Afghanistan Shahnawaz Tanai,
Afghanistan Qalandar Shah
Jalaluddin Haqqani, Yunis Khalis, Fathullah Haqqani (killed in action)
Casualties and losses
Unknown, presumably heavy (mainly DRA) 106 killed and 321 injured

The first offensive was launched in September 1985 by elements of the 12th and 25th DRA divisions, supported by Soviet airpower, at a time when the major Mujahideen commanders were absent, including Haqqani, who was performing the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.

The DRA forces first attacked from Khost, and succeeded in capturing the village of Bori, to the northeast of Zhawar. They then ran into heavy resistance and had to pull back.

The main attack came on September 4, and was at first successful, capturing the village of Lezhi and killing a Mujahideen commander. Very soon the attack was halted at the Manay Kandow pass, that had been heavily fortified by the Mujahideen. For 10 days the defenders held out, but were finally forced to withdraw, under heavy airstrikes by Soviet aircraft. This enabled the DRA forces to cross the pass and capture the Tor Kamar position, overlooking Zhawar, from where they could direct artillery fire at the Mujahideen base.

At this point the Mujahideen launched a counter-attack, led by their two T-55 tanks. The DRA were caught by surprise, as they had not expected to meet armour, and they fell back after sustaining heavy losses. The DRA commander tried to renew the assault, but by that time the Mujahideen had received reinforcements from Pakistan, and they were able to repel further attacks.

Finally after 42 of days fighting, the DRA units withdrew to their bases. This victory considerably boosted the morale of the Mujahideen.

The second battle[edit]

Second Battle of Zhawar
Part of the Soviet–Afghan War
DateFebruary 28 – April 19, 1986
Result DRA-Soviet victory and withdrawal
Afghanistan Afghanistan
 Soviet Union
Flag of Jihad.svg Afghan Mujahideen
Commanders and leaders
Afghanistan Nabi Azimi, later replaced by Soviet Union Valentin Varennikov Flag of Jihad.svg Jalaluddin Haqqani
Casualties and losses
Unknown number of killed and injured, 530 captured (DRA) 281 killed and 363 injured[1]

The second offensive was conducted on a larger scale, and eventually involved 12,000 troops, including 2,200 Soviets, led by DRA General Nabi Azimi, with Soviet General V. G. Trofimenko serving as advisor.

The offensive began on 28 February 1986, a short while after General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev had announced the decision to withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Thus the Soviet units were initially confined to supporting the Afghan offensive.

The opening moves were conducted by DRA ground troops attacking from Khost and Gardez who made very slow progress, due to bad weather and harassment by the Mujahideen, reaching the approaches to Zhawar only one month later.

The second phase of the offensive was to be an airborne assault carried out by the Afghan 38th Commando Brigade. The initial assault group, transported by Mi-8 helicopters, departed on 2 April, but they got lost in the darkness and accidentally landed on the wrong side of the Pakistani border. This force was quickly surrounded and taken prisoner. The main airborne assault came in the immediate vicinity of Zhawar, and was supported by precision airstrikes by Soviet Su-25 attack aircraft. These attacks caused some losses among the Mujahideen defenders, even trapping 150 of them, including Haqqani, inside a cave that had been targeted by a missile. Haqqani later escaped and led 700-800 Mujahideen in a series of counter-attacks against the DRA landing zones, that they overran one by one. After three days of fighting, the DRA 38th Brigade had ceased to exist as a fighting force, and 530 commandos had been captured by the Mujahideen. The DRA also lost 24 helicopters. This fiasco prompted the Soviets to take over the operation, whose command was given to General Valentin Varennikov. The DRA force was strengthened with Soviet units, and the aerial bombardment of Mujahideen positions was intensified and pursued round the clock.

Eventually, on April 17, the offensive was renewed. After several unsuccessful attempts, the DRA/Soviet force managed to capture the strategic Dawri Gar mountain. At a crucial moment, a Hezbi Islami unit drew back from their positions without fighting. At the same time, Jalaluddin Haqqani was injured in an airstrike, causing rumours of his death to spread rapidly among the Mujahideen, and their forces abandoned the defense of Zhawar, that was overrun by government forces.

The Soviet engineers tasked with destroying the base had very little time to do so, as the Afghan troops were intent on withdrawing as soon as possible, fearing a Mujahideen counter-attack. In the end they tried to do as much damage as they could by detonating explosives inside the caves, and laying seismic mines before withdrawing hurriedly.

Aftermath and Losses[edit]

The Soviet and DRA losses remain uncertain, but were presumably heavy. The Mujahideen claimed to have destroyed 24 helicopters and 2 jets, and captured 530 prisoners, for a loss of 281 killed and 363 injured. Of the 500 Afghan prisoners, 78 officers were tried and executed by Haqqani and Khalis, including the commander of the 38th commando brigade, Colonel Qalandar Shah.

The Afghan government celebrated their victory, and though the success had proved costly, it served to alleviate the pressure on Khost, that was then under siege. However, Zhawar was quickly retaken by the Mujahideen, who repaired the damage, and strengthened their defenses.


  1. ^ 281 killed and 363 injured are losses reported by the mujahideen. Gregory Feifer reports that the mujahideen suffered one thousand casualties in this battle. See The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan, by Gregory Feifer, HarperCollins, 2009. ISBN 978-0-06-173557-8


Further reading[edit]

  • Youssaf, Mohammad and Adkin Mark(1992), The Bear Trap: Afghanistan's Untold Story; Leo Cooper