KABUL — With a collective belch of black smoke, the line of old Soviet tanks rattles to life. No two vehicles have the same fading paint scheme, and some still feature the insignia of Afghanistan’s communist government of the 1980s.
Fenders are bent and rusted. In the treads of one tank are the tangled coils of the last barbed-wire fence it drove through. Amid the haze and the clanking of metal tracks, the hulking machines barely look ready to drive around the block, let alone fight a war.
Once a common fixture of the Soviet invasion and, later, the civil war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, tanks are now only rarely used in today’s unconventional war in Afghanistan.
But from a base on the outskirts of the capital city of Kabul, a few hundred Afghan soldiers still ride rusting museum pieces into battle against the Taliban.
Here at the 111th Division’s base, the Afghan National Army’s lone tank battalion has about 44 T-55 and T-62 tanks that are in some kind of working order. About 20 to 25 can actually be started and used at any one time. In early July at least eight tanks were deployed against Taliban forces in nearby Kapisa province, officials said.
“These tanks are useful for the terrain of Afghanistan because Afghanistan is mostly a mountainous country,” said Col. Ali Reza, commander of the division’s quick-reaction force. “And if the enemy is stationed in the higher areas, these tanks are quite useful to eliminate them.”
The T-55, first introduced in the early 1950s, was a mainstay of Warsaw Pact forces through much of the Cold War. Its simplicity, reliability and powerful 100 mm gun also made it popular with Third World armies that found it difficult to maintain and operate more sophisticated machines. The T-62, a development of the T-55 with a smoothbore 115 mm gun, followed in the 1960s.
Afghanistan operated hundreds of each variant during the 1980s and ‘90s.
But the country has not acquired any new tanks since the civil war that toppled the Soviet-backed regime and led to the Taliban takeover, Reza said. After the Taliban were pushed out by the U.S.-led coalition, international military aid has largely supplied lighter armored vehicles rather than tanks.
Troops with NATO’s International Security Assistance Force often cite maintenance and logistics as one of the greatest failings of the Afghan military. But the mechanics who have kept the Soviet-era rust-buckets of the tank battalion running with nothing more than scavenged parts give an indication of what Afghan forces can do.
Still, it’s a war of attrition. There are only so many leftover tanks to raid for spare parts, and even ammunition is running low, battalion officers said.
“In this latest operation we were only able to send eight of our tanks to Tagab district,” said Col. Mohammed Nawroz Hidayat, the tank battalion commander. “Over there the enemy is holding the strongest strategic points in the highest places, and the Humvees and the military vehicles provided by the international community are not strong enough to reach out there so we have to send as many tanks as we can, but haven’t been able to send more anywhere else.”
While not widely considered to be a particularly useful counterinsurgency weapon, when the army wants to use the tank forces, they are often hamstrung by the lack of new parts. The tanks are kept running by cannibalizing parts from the dwindling pile of other old tanks.
“We don’t get any new spare parts for these tanks, we only use from other tanks, the damaged tanks,” said Lt. Dur Mohammed, who oversees much of the battalion’s maintenance.
That forces Afghan mechanics to get creative, pulling old engines from tanks that look like they long ago should have been cut up for scrap. The fact that the vehicles are almost entirely mechanical and lack complicated modern electronics makes them easier to be patched together.
While the armored force relies on the rusting pile of Soviet-era vehicles for parts, all of the ammunition for the large guns also comes from aging government stockpiles that date to the early 1990s.
“That ammunition is [decreasing] because we don’t have any supplies,” Hidayat said.
The decades of wear, the recycling of parts and the old ammunition can make for an unreliable weapon.
“We can’t guarantee that they will work perfectly in battle because they have been used for three decades of war,” he said.
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.