Staunton, October 16 – Now that Vladimir Putin has opened the way for the use of Central Asian gastarbeiters in Russian forces fighting in Syria and perhaps elsewhere (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2017/10/moscow-to-send-central-asian.html), Central Asians are recalling the last time Moscow established and used “Muslim battalions” in this way.
Most historians talk about the use of national or even Muslim units in the Soviet military only during the Russian Civil War or World War II. At all other times, it is almost universally assumed, Moscow did what it could to prevent the formation of any unit, no matter how small, dominated by non-Russians in general and Muslims in particular.
But in fact, the Soviet government created precisely such a unit in 1979 to fight in Afghanistan. A rare discussion of that unit was posted online several months ago (russian7.ru/post/gde-voevali-musulmanskie-batalony/), but it has been given new prominence today by the CentrAsia portal (centrasia.ru/news.php?st=1508140380).
(This Russian discussion is based on a 2012 article by Jiayi Zhou, a RAND research, entitled “The Muslim Battalions: Soviet Central Asians in the Soviet-Afghan War,” The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 25:3 (2012): 302-328.)
On March 18, 1979, Nur Mohammed Taraqi, the Afghan strongman, telephoned Aleksey Kosygin, the chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR, and asked him to send soldiers of the indigenous nationalities of the Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union to defeat a 400-man unit of Iranian soldiers dressed in civilian clothes who had penetrated Herat.
“We want,” Taraqi said, “that you send to us Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Turkmens … since all of these nationalities exist in Afghanistan. Let them put on Afghan clothes, Afghan insignia, and no one will recognize them. This will be very easy work, in our view. The experience of Iran and Pakistan shows that this work is easy. It serves as a model.”
The Soviet prime minister reportedly wasn’t enthusiastic about this idea, but five weeks later, on April 26, 1979, the Soviet general staff issued special directive No. 314/2/0061 about the formation of just such a special detachment of the GRU “which later received the name, the Muslim battalion.”
This unit, the 154th separate detachment for special assignment within the GRU consisted of 538 Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Turkmens. To recruit it, Soviet officers interviewed more than 5,000 soldiers, a possible indication of the difficulty of finding soldiers from Muslim nationalities to fight against their co-religionists in Afghanistan.
After its formation, the special Muslim detachment was give training quite typical for the Soviet forces at that time, the sources say. Eduard Belyaev, a Russian author who has studied this unit, says that its members do not correspond to the stereotypes about Muslim troops as portrayed in the Soviet film, “The Ninth Company.”
The battalion’s training and enthusiasm are said to have been good, but Moscow did not hurry to send them to Afghanistan. Finally, by a decision of the Politburo, they were sent from a base near Tashkent to the Bagram field in Afghanistan on the night of December 9-10, 1979, shortly before the full Soviet invasion began.
A little more than two weeks after arriving in Afghanistan, the Soviet Muslim battalion took part in the storming of the Taj-Bek palace where Afghan leader Amin was living. Initially, that task had been assigned to the KGB, but it was unable to achieve the goal – and Moscow sent in the Muslim battalion. It then became a regular GRU unit and was joined by a second Muslim battalion.