Maj. Gen. (Retd) Syed Ali Hamid

The U.S. Army has updated its field manual FM25-7 on ‘Pack Transportation’. According to an article ‘Riding High’ published in the New Yorker, the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Centre, now runs a course in using mules in war. The training centre sits at the base of the Sierra Nevada, a terrain similar to the Hindu Kush. In this age of laser guided bombs and UAVs, the U.S. Special Operation Forces and Marines are using mules in the mountains of the Hindu Kush. But the Tennessee Mules were here 25 years earlier and probably played an equally if not more important role than the better known Stinger in defeating the Soviets.

It is commonly believed that the turning point in the war against the occupying Soviet forces in Afghanistan was the Stinger surface-to-air missiles. They were supplied in sizeable number in 1986 onwards and three of the dreaded Soviet MI-24 Hind helicopters were shot down on the first day of their use in Afghanistan. Why did the U.S. decide to supply the Stinger, something that the CIA was against? At the strategic level it was a consequence of a directive issued by Reagan in 1985 which stated that the CIA was to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan “by all means available”. At the tactical level it was a consequence of the change of strategy by the Soviets. In the initial five years the Soviets targeted centres of resistance and rarely attacked the supply lines. The Soviet’s concern was that operations against the supply lines could extend into Pakistan and draw the U.S. into the war. However in one of those coincidences of history, Gorbachev also directed the Soviet Army in 1985 to end the war within a year and a concentrated effort was launched against the supply lines.

In the words of Maj Kinnunen, an ex-Soviet Spetsnaz Officer, “Helicopter inspections normally involved two gunships and two lift ships. We Spetsnaz were in the lift ships…... When we found a caravan, we would inspect it from a very low altitude to determine its size and probable cargo. If the caravan's personnel behaved in a hostile manner, the gunships destroyed the caravan. If they behaved peacefully, the lift ships would land in front and behind the caravan and we would conduct a detailed search. The gunships would circle overhead, and if necessary, support our evacuation and withdrawal. We had a lot of success with this technique.” These raids had a significant impact on the Mujahideen’s supply lines which needed to be protected by the Stingers.

But the problem did not end there. Not only were there major casualties in the camels, ponies and donkeys used to transport the supplies, the charges for these animals increased substantially. While some factions had their own transport, the bulk of Mujahideen supplies were carried by contracted teamsters and muleteers. A group with a reputation of getting ambushed was hard pressed to find willing teamsters. An urgent call was made to the CIA headquarters to supply mules and donkeys. Early shipments from Brazil were a disaster. One shipment arrived in Pakistan with all the mules dead. The first major contract with the Egyptians for donkeys and mules fared no better. In the next contract on the insistence of the ISI, the Egyptians provided 2500 animals with vaccination certificates. But they went one better and even gave each animal a name and a ID Card. This was a big joke for them but at $1500 per animal, cash on delivery, it was worth the effort. However they pulled disease ridden and emaciated animals off the streets and many perished. Mountain bred donkeys from China and Turkey could not take the punishing conditions of the mountains of Afghanistan nor could horses from Argentina. Finally CIA turned to their own.

Hubert Reese Jr was a third generation mule trader who ran America’s largest mule’s Sales and Auction Company. He did not breed mules himself but knew where to source them from Tennessee and southern Kentucky. He sold them to a company under contract to the U.S. Agency for International Development and they arrived in Pakistan as humanitarian relief material for Afghanistan. The Pakistan Army has mule battalions of their own and the experience to handle and transport the animals to the border regions where they were passed on to the main Mujahideen groups. A mule is a sturdy animal that can carry a load of 300 pounds, 7-9 hours a day for twenty days and consumes 30% less rations than a horse.

While trucks, pickups and camels remained the work horse for supplies to southern Afghanistan, in the mountain regions it was only caravans of Tennessee mules supplemented by local donkeys and porters which carried tons of arms and ammunition. The Soviet’s tracked the buildup and move of these caravans with "Omsk Vans" which were sophisticated mobile, integrated communication centers that intercepted Mujahideen communications. After the Geneva Accord, information of these buildups on the Pakistani side of the border was provided to the UN Observers who monitored implementation of the Accord. A Pakistani Liaison Officer detailed with the Observer Group recounts how an Observer Team helicoptered into the mountains of Chitral for a surprise inspection of a site where a large caravan was reported to be assembling. Their arrival at the camping ground was sufficiently ‘delayed’ for the caravan to disappear but what could not be concealed was the dropping of over a thousand Tennessee mules and local donkeys spread over a large mountain meadow.

The mules initially performed well. Many died in the line of duty some through enemy fire and others through natural causes. While the Tennessee mules could withstand extreme temperatures they were unaccustomed to Afghanistan’s altitude, food, water, and local equine diseases. They were also certainly not that well looked after by their Afghan handlers. However the lifespan of a mule is 30-40 years and some old and hardened survivors of the 1500 shipped to Pakistan may still be trudging the torturous mountain paths hauling supplies for the Taliban. It is also possible that in an ambush by U.S. Special Forces, these old mules may meet up with their brethren more recently arrived from Tennessee.





©Jules Stewart 2010