I spent some time working with an ANA sergeant, call him Bridgeh Abdullah. He was one of the small handful of truly professional soldiers in the ANA that I ever encountered. Enthusiasm alone is hard enough to come by with the ANA or ANP; the confluence of spirit, ability, and experience is a rare thing indeed.
Abdullah is now weathered and grey, though in the rough approximation that the caveman in all of us offers up by way of estimation, I wouldn't fight him.
Afghans have been renowned for essentially forever for being some of the most physically tough people on Earth. There are reliable accounts of the men of the hills walking for days over the harshest mountains with no water, of trekking the dasht-i-Margo without a horse, of feats of strength unheard of outside of fairytales and myth. They seem to be made of hickory, getting tougher and denser with age, drying and curing in the heat and the cold until they are more forces of nature than mortals.
The weak, of course, die young. They are winnowed out by drought, famine, season, and war.
Bridgeh Abdullah got his start fighting the Soviets when he was about twenty five years old. Like many and perhaps most Afghans, he doesn't know exactly how old he is, or even his birthday except for the sign of the Zodiac under which it fell.
He was part of a group that spent several years harassing Soviet detachments to the North of Kabul. They were not aligned with any of the larger factions opposing the Soviets, and were mostly displaced farmers, merchants, and laborers. Near as I can tell, they were even mostly apolitical, not much caring for the power struggles and inter-faction strife and sticking mostly to fighting the occupiers.
Abdullah was shot twice in three years; once with an AK-47, and again two years later with the then-newly developed AK-74.
His wound to the leg was illustrative of the problems the Soviets had with the Ak-47. Originally developed for combat against large-framed Europeans and Americans, the bullet it fires is a large, heavy, stable projectile that with later refinements to account for the body armor of the time, was designed for maximum penetration.
This became a problem when fighting against the smaller, wiry Afghans. Quite simply, the bullets tended to punch straight through, leaving a relatively small, clean hole that was easily patched with even limited medical attention, and in the case of a flesh wound, relatively easy to keep fighting through. There are accounts from Soviet soldiers that eerily resemble the accounts of the subjugation of the Philippines and during the Moro rebellion, with tribesmen shot multiple times continuing to fight.
The difference of course is that the ammunition used in the latter were weak handgun cartridges, and in Afghanistan, a full-powered rifle round.
So, when Bridgeh Abdullah was shot in the thigh, the bullet passed through, missing the bone and the femoral artery by a thumb width. He was still able to climb up onto the hood of the Soviet gun truck, kill the driver, and turn one of the mounted machineguns on the trailing gun truck. Bridgeh Abdullah is not at all modest about his involvement in the resistance, and I later partially corroborated his story with one of his contemporaries. What you've just read is what I was able to confirm, though that does not necessarily cast doubt on the rest of Abdullah's stories. He is a remarkably and scrupulously honest man, discounting the occasional claim that he saw Israeli flags painted on some of the Soviet equipment.
The Soviets, realizing that the 7.62x39 tended to "pencil" through their Afghan opponents, developed a new round, the 5.45x39. It was partly inspired by the ballistics of the relatively new round used by America in Vietnam (the now-ubiquitous 5.56 NATO), and has a novel construction.
The cartridge was smaller, faster, and lighter; allowing for both a lighter load for the individual soldier, but also a lighter rifle with lower recoil and better accuracy. The new rifle, the AK-74, was a refinement to the AK-47 though to the unaware, appears to be nearly identical.
The bullet used in the cartridge is ultimately what inspired fear and awe. It was both novel, and effective. It was fully jacketed, but the lead core did not extend to the tip of the jacket, leaving a pocket of air. The bullet was also designed to be "barely stabilized", meaning that the bullet was only exactly as stable in flight as necessary to preserve its accuracy to a relatively short distance; it tends to tumble after a few hundred meters, bleeding velocity and veering off course.
The trade-off in effective range was for incredible wounding ability on impact. The hollow nose of the jacket would instantly deform on impact, ripping the jacket away from the bullet in pieces, causing huge wound cavities and leaving shrapnel inside the body even if the lead core punched through. Even if a manufacturing defect or oddity of ballistics or anatomy interfered with this function, the bullet would immediately destabilize, having no surplus in that department, and tumble wildly as a single piece.
After the AK-74 was fielded, most Afghans came to believe that the bullets themselves were actually explosive, like miniature artillery shells.
The second time Abdullah was shot, he took a 5.45x39 bullet to the neck. He survived by what is unanimously credited to the direct intervention of Allah himself. Indeed, even looking at the scars thirty five years later it's not clear that he could have lived even with immediate and modern medical attention.
He is known to his very close friends as Tukhey Saheb, because of his distinctive voice.
"I used to be a very good singer," he told me. "I would sing songs at night in the camp. Now, I can't even shout when I'm angry."
That said, the amount of respect for Bridgeh Abdullah is immense. He simply doesn't need to shout when he's angry. The fire in his eyes is enough to command silence from even the most reluctant and recalcitrant ANA soldiers, and even Afghan officers are reluctant to risk his ire.
"I think that if I made him too angry, it would be the death of me. He would rise up from the grave and put me in his place."