Push and hold

The Unknown Intelligence Service. Pathways of Afghanistan

For a long time little had been written about the activities of the Soviet Intelligence Service in Afghanistan in 1979 – 1989. To the press this theme was under lock and key. I remember many years ago I talked with an intelligence officer, who was a member of the  famous  operation “Storm-333” to seize the palace Taj Beck in Kabul. During that meeting  I did not manage to hear from him any details of the assault. Interlocutor firmly stood his ground: “I gave a pledge of secrecy.”

Since then a lot of time has passed and a lot of secrets have become public. In particular, it has been reported that among the participants of the assault there were employees of the Special Service from Ukraine Volodymyr Piddubnyi who for this operation was awarded the Order of the Red Banner,  Volodymyr Makarov, who received the Order of the Red Star. Recently I saw the veteran of the Ukrainian Foreign Intelligence Service, retired Colonel Henadiy Lobachov’s book  “The Team “Karpaty-1”, dedicated to the events in Afghanistan. Communication with the author of the book and other veterans of the Intelligence Service on the eve of the Day of Participants of Combat Actions in Foreign Countries highlighted some little-known pages of the Afghan epic.

Creating the “Karpaty” Team

when it became clear that the military presence would drag, when the Army began suffering losses, and the inability of troops to conduct combat operations in unusual circumstances was becoming apparent, it was decided to send Special Forces Teams there, united in a common system, codenamed “Cascade”. It was assumed that because of the nature of their training, they should play a decisive role. The overall leadership of the formation and training of such Special Forces Units was carried out by the Special Directorate of the Intelligence Service of the KGB of the USSR. In peacetime, such units in the “live” did not exist, they were only documented on paper. Real were only the Commander, the Chief of the Staff and a small group of officers from among the staff of specially trained intelligence and counterintelligence officers. The rest plied their direct operational work, periodically being trained in special courses and in case of announcement of the  “Alarm” signal, had 48 hours to arrive at a specific point of the Soviet Union for special training to perform a special task.

These Special Forces were created to be used mainly during war to penetrate deep behind enemy lines to eliminate intercontinental missile launching sites and warehouses with nuclear weapons, to disrupt communications, communication systems and systems of public administration, command posts, and to organize partisan and national liberation movements and so on. Each Team in the “Cascade” received its name by the main mountain range in the region of its formation – “Ural”, “Tibet”, “Caucasus”, “Altai” and others. The Team,  created in Ukraine and Moldova, was called “Karpaty” (“Carpathians”). Its Commander was Mykhailo Kovalyov,  and Deputy Commander-  Henadiy Lobachov, who at that time served as heads of operational units in the 1st Directorate (Intelligence) of the KGB of the USSR.

Literally on the eve of the departure to Afghanistan, the Special Task Team which consisted of 16 operational and combat groups and included 130 staff officers and 120 military service reserve, was divided into two. H. Lobachov became Commander of “Karpaty-1” with the task of establishing operational work in Shyndandu district and in the province of Farah. The other team was responsible for the provinces of Herat and Gur. These very mobile and well-trained teams were engaged in collecting intelligence on places of dislocation, plans and intentions of the armed groups that opposed the government of the Republic (including those operating from abroad), exposing the channels of arms supplies, assisting in creation and organization of work of the national intelligence and counterintelligence agencies and fulfilling other tasks.

The Operation “Boomerang”

One of the operations carried out by “Karpaty-1” was codenamed “Boomerang” and was later described by Marshal of the Soviet Union  S. Sokolov in the textbook of tactics of fighting armed gangs for higher military educational institutions.  It all started with a confidential meeting with the leader of a small but pretty mobile and uncatchable armed group,  Sattar – says Henadiy Lobachov. – His men were in the area of ​​responsibility of our Team, they did not create any problems, but always were in the way of our groups going on operational and combat tasks, ignored the official authorities and thus contributed to the destabilization of the situation. At some point there was a need to immediately decide how to deal with that formation and what to expect from it. In other words, it was necessary to meet Sattar face-to-face and to cross the “t”s and dot the “i”s.  At last, the meeting took place. From the very beginning, he tried to show that he was  the master of the situation, mentioned all his posts and ambushes around and demanded to hand over personal weapons. To which demand I calmly showed him our masked men holding his men on gunpoint. After that Sattar said he was convinced once again that he was dealing with professionals and had nothing against our team because our attitude to the locals was normal.

According to H. Lobachov, during the meeting they realized that they had to do with an ordinary self-defense unit, which had no particular political views, but merely wanted to ensure normal life and order in the region. That is why Sattar expressed his willingness to cooperate and to prove his loyalty, he reported that in a few days a caravan would be passing nearby, with weapons, foreign instructors and fighters trained in foreign camps. Some of them allegedly had taken part in the robbery of kishlaks(villages) he was taking  care of. That is, among other things, he wanted to avenge on his old offenders. There was no time for checking  the information, so we started preparing the operation at once.

- We decided to use the already known to us enemy’s tactics – procrastination it into the “bag”, followed by blocking all exits – continues H. Lobachov. – To strengthen the group, we took an Army’s  Reconnaissance Battalion, but that was a mistake as we had not  found out the morale state of its soldiers. The matter is, a month before they were caught in the same mujahidin ambush and lost half the personnel and nearly all their commanders. Therefore the feeling of revenge clouded their common sense directly during our operations, resulting in killing all the members of the armed gang. We were going to capture alive as many as possible. Unfortunately, we only got the documents, training and propaganda literature, various weapons. And of course,  the  instructors and advisors with European appearance   could have told many interesting things.

On the strategic direction

In mid-October 1980 the team “Karpaty-1” without any explanations was withdrawn from the area of dislocation, placed in Shyndandi and set a task to pay all the attention to combat and operational training of the personnel. The Center did not explain anything. But everybody understood: they were being prepared for some special mission. Later everything became clear.

This is what military servicemen of “Karpaty-1” looked like during fulfillment of special tasks. The intelligence officer Borys Kopachynskyi

- At the time, Iran’s Islamic leadership began supporting the forces in Afghanistan – says H. Lobachov – which were capable, according to them, to overthrow the government of “infidels”. There were statements about readiness for more active participation in Afghanistan’s internal events until the Iranian troops’ enter. Moreover, there were supplies of arms, propaganda literature, in specially created camps, instructors and separate groups were trained for combat actions. Our team had to carefully monitor the situation in the border region, with its, so to speak, eyes and ears on the adjacent territory. Besides, we had to be ready for any development, up to the first strike.

- Why was it you who had been chosen for this? – I ask H. Lobachov.

- There are several explanations. Our team was located near the Iranian border, had already explored the area, had some operational positions among local inhabitants, high mobility and experience of acting  in a combat situation. Besides, we were based at the airfield Shyndand, one of the few that could receive heavy transport aircrafts, which allowed to quickly engage our team in landing anywhere in the region.

At that time Moscow closely watched the Iran-Iraq armed conflict, analyzing the movement of the American fleet in the Persian Gulf, simulating situations with possible landing of American troops in Iran and planning its own operations.  But even Commanders knew nothing about this in the camp of “Karpaty-1” team. Only after their return home,  they were told that they had fully accomplished their  mission. The team played a major deterrent role in the sharp  foreign policy confrontation.

98 out of 100

The team “Karpaty-1” had a lot of high professionals, specialists in setting operational contacts, analysts, experts in mine and blasting business. Impressive was Valeriy Hrebenkin’s phenomenal memory. In his past civilian life he was Candidate of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, employee of the Odessa State University, and in the team he was Chief of Communications and a cryptographer. The received encryptions (they were groups of five figures) he sometimes read as they say, straight off the sheet,  doing all mathematical operations in his mind. It seemed that he knew all encryption tables and codes by heart.

Regarding the professionalism of Doctors and nurses, General Boris Gromov said, that if the team “Karpaty-1” had done nothing in Afghanistan, the work of its medical specialists alone would have justified its staying there as they saved many people’s lives and cured lots of locals.

Of course, the most valued were their being able to quietly infiltrate into armed gangs’ location and to collect important information,  to make valuable sources from the opposite camp cooperate or to save from punishment persons who were in danger. In one of such operations, even before the introduction of the limited contingent of Soviet troops,  participated commander of operational and combat group of the team “Karpaty-1” Volodymyr  Piddubnyi. It happened in the autumn of 1979. As part of the special task unit of the KGB “Zenit”, he flew from Moscow to Kabul to fulfill an extremely important and secret task: to rescue three Ministers from Taraki’s previous government from repressions by Amin, who had just come to power. In the military transport plane he brought the truck GAZ-66, which was carrying wooden boxes the size of a coffin with mattresses and oxygen bags inside. There the Ministers had to be hidden and smuggled across the border.

- When with the “valuable cargo”, we were returning back to the airport – recalled V. Piddubnyy – we noticed a surveillance by representatives of local security services. Before departure from Kabul, the surveillance car overtook us, stopped at the checkpoint, an officer jumped out of it and gave the command to close the gate. Clarifying of all the circumstances began through an interpreter: who we were, where we were going, what we were carrying and whether we had weapons. “We are peaceful people, experts, going on vacation,” – explains our interpreter. We are sitting in the cargo body covered with canvas, observing all this through the tiny gaps, with guns ready and praying God not to let it come to serious fighting, otherwise we would have to kill all the guards. The matter is we had been ordered, that under no circumstances the Ministers had to fall into the hands of representatives of the current authorities. Meanwhile, the senior on the checkpoint came up to the back of our truck, turned up the canvas and looked inside. And here he sees wooden boxes with armed special task soldiers in their uniform sitting on them. One of our officers stamped a boot in his hand, put the automatic weapon to his head, quietly put his finger to his lips and showed “Shhh!” He seemed to have soberly estimated the situation, turned around, gave the order to lift the barrier and went to the booth without even paying attention to some objections from the representative of the surveillance. We pulled away like a bat out of hell and then at full speed boarded the plane, which almost immediately went to take off.

Many members of the team “Karpaty-1” were masters of using personal weapons. The Commander could hardly be outclassed in shooting a hand gun.  Once,  already many years after returning from Afghanistan,  H. Lobachov during a business trip to Austria was a guest at the  Austrian militaries’ national competitions in shooting. Having learned that he had served in the Soviet “spetsnaz”(special task forces) in Afghanistan, the hosts offered him to shoot too. What a surprise it was to all the present when without trial he hit 98 out of 100 points. As a result, he had to be handed the cup, a diploma and a cash prize for the third place (the competition was won by the Olympic Champion with a score of 99 points).

The Captured Weapons – to the Plant “Bolshevik”

Recently Henadiy Lobachov celebrated his 70th birthday. A peculiar gift for the “round” date was the book “Karpaty-1”, published with the support of his companions-in-arms. Signing a copy of the book for the museum exposition of the Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine, Henadiy Serhiyovych wrote as follows: “Let the staff of the  current Ukrainian Foreign Intelligence Service never need our experience”.  At the request to give some other materials  for the museum, the veteran  said that photographing was  strictly forbidden in Afghanistan, as well as bringing back home any other evidence of participation in armed actions there. However, there was an episode in the  history of the Team with delivery to  Kyiv of captured weapons that frightened the leadership and made it  give an order to destroy the trophies.

Veterans of the Foreign Intelligence Service Henadiy Lobachov and Oleksandr Mushchenko are laying flowers at the monument to soldiers who fought in Afghanistan

Before returning home, – says Henadiy Lobachov – we decided to take with us our military trophies. Given the fact that we had a special flight to fly, i.e. without customs checking, there was no doubt that everything else would be brought  without problems, too.  Among the trophies there were American rifles M 1, M 14 and the known to everybody M 16, a Chinese automatic gun with changeable barrels, an English large caliber hand gun “Boers”,  simplistic (”Afghan”) variant of mortar, various pistols and revolvers, plastic mines, grenades, ammunition of Mujahideen and many other things. All that could be used for training of young employees, fighters or anti-terrorist units,  in cognitive purposes and as museum exhibits. The exhibition of the trophies was attended by the leadership of the KGB of the USSR, everybody was looking with great interest at samples of weapons, asking questions about their effectiveness in a combat situation. But then all of a sudden the Chairman of the Committee Colonel- General V. Fedorchuk ordered to destroy the weapons. Nothing could convince him otherwise. He obviously  did understand that it was pointless, but Moscow’s  order   to silence everything that was somehow connected with Afghanistan, prevailed. The trophies were taken to the plant “Bolshevik” and melted down to scrap.

Remembering the bygone events and reflecting on the Day of Combatants in other countries, Henadiy Serhiyovych at the end of our conversation pointed out:

- For us, veterans of the Foreign Intelligence Service, this day is very special. Because not a single such mission abroad could do without the Intelligence Service’ s  participation. Our representatives directly or indirectly, with or without arms, always were in the thick of things, performing specific important tasks, getting information on which depended quick resolving of  armed conflicts and avoiding  casualties. The role of intelligence in these events is extremely high. And whatever is said today about  the past armed conflicts and military operations in other countries, no matter how rethought those events  are,  participation  and role in them of our  intelligence officers will always be estimated  and characterized by the highest scale of professionalism and efficiency. And not of intelligence officers alone.


Oleksandr Skrypnyk

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