Afghan Air Force in the late 1970s
The history of flying in Afghanistan is very long: the first military aircraft arrived in the country from Soviet Union already in 1921, and the first air force was officially established only three years later. This young service was completely destroyed in a revolution of 1929, and it was not before 1937 that a new Afghan Air Force was established.
During the 1920s and 1930s most of Afghan aircraft were of Russian origin, and this remained very much so in modern times, especially since the Soviets became more even influential in Afghanistan, in 1973. During the 1970s the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan Air Force (DRAAF) was developed into a relatively powerful arm, and by 1978 it boasted strength of some 180 combat aircraft, including 80 MiG-17 and MiG-15UTIs, 35 MiG-21s, approximately 20 Su-7BMKs, and 30 Il-28 light bombers. Furthermore it operated a total of around 19 Mi-4 and Mi-8, as well as 12 newly-delivered Mi-24 helicopters, which in mid-1979 were reinforced by 18 Mi-25Ds. The DRAAF had several well-developed airfields, including major installations at Baghram, Kabul IAP, Shindand, Kherat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Jalalabad, and Qandahar, as well as minor airfields in Ghurian, Farah, Zaranj, Ghazni, Kunduz and Bazai-Bumgaz.
Major combat units of the DRAAF were the 321. Fighter-Bomber Regiment, equipped with Su-7BMKs and based at Shindand, the 322. Interceptor Regiment, equipped with MiG-21MFs and based at Baghram AB, 393. Fighter-Bomber Regiment, equipped with MiG-17s and based in Mazar-e-Sharif, the 355. Bomber Regiment, equipped with Il-28s and based at Shindand, as well as two helicopter units, one of which was the 232 Regiment.
The few available reports from Russian sources indicate that Afghanis were excellent fliers, but terrible and undisciplined pilots and officers that would not care very much about tactics or weapons parameters. Certain is that after a series of coups and purges of the DRAAF during the 1970s the air force was weakened to a degree where it needed serious Soviet support in order to properly function. Nevertheless, the DRAAF apparently never lacked qualified fast-jet pilots.
|Up to 80 MiG-17Fs and MiG-15UTIs formed the backbone of the DRAAF through the 1960s and 1970s. Operated by the 393 Fighter-Bomber Regiment, with main base in Mazar-e-Sharif, a sufficient number of MiG-17s survived to be seen with new national marking, applied since 1983. Overall, however, the MiG-17 proved to have insufficient capability and manoeuverability for fighting what was essentially a COIN-war against the light and highly mobile Mujaheddin in Afghanistan. The last Afghan MiG-17Fs were retired in the mid-1980s, being first replaced by MiG-21s in the 393 FBR, and then by L-39s in training units. (All artworks by Tom Cooper)|
|For long times reports about deliveries of Su-7s to Afghanistan remained unconfirmed. In fact, the DRAAF received some 24 "Fitters" (ASCC-designation) already in the 1970s, and the 321 Fighter-Bomber Regiment (based at Shindand) operated them well into 1980s. This Su-7BMK was seen after an - apparently very hard - belly landing in Baghram AB, sometimes in the mid-1980s; the type was subsequently replaced by a considerable number of Su-22Ms, Su-22M-2Ks and Su-22M-4Ks - which formed the mainstay of the Afghan air force in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Early on DRAAF Su-7s were not camouflaged, but left in "bare-metal" overall, and wore serials in the range 401 thru (at least) 420, applied in orange and outlined in black. This camouflage appears to have been applied during a major overhaul in the USSR, and then "modified in the field" by fresh sprays of yellow, subsequently getting dirty and washed-out in the hard Afghan sun. |
In late December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in response to what Kremly saw as a danger of a pro-Western regime coming to power in Kabul. In the context of the Cold War, this move initially caused a considerable surprise and excitement in the West, as it was seen as an indirect threat for the situation in the Persian Gulf, especially after the US lost their most important ally in the area, the Shah of Iran, which was overthrown in February of the same year. Immediately afterward, however, except for diplomatic protests, no direct actions were undertaken by Western powers against the Soviet Union, and it was on the Afghan people to organize a resistance against the aggressor.
Initially, Pakistani military was very concerned about the Soviet move, but subsequent analysis of the deployments of the Soviet forces showed that there was no imminent threat for Pakistan. Instead, for the first years of the war in Afghanistan, Soviets were predominantly engaged in establishing bases and keeping urban areas under control.
A total of four units of the V-VS (Voenoe Vazdushny Sily - Air Force), one each equipped with MiG-21s and Mi-24s, as well as two with Mi-8s, were put under direct command of the 40th Soviet Army (HQ at Termez, in Turkmenistan Soviet Republic), and deployed in Afghanistan. In fact, the Pakistanis were swift to learn that the pilots flying with the 40th Soviet Army were authorised only to fly combat sorties inside the Afghani airspace, and do not approach to less than 15km from the border to Pakistan. Instead, Soviets in Afghanistan were initially concerned by a possible Iranian intervention and this was also a reason for them deploying strong air defence units in the area.
However, after establishing their positions, they placed their forces in defensive positions, holding only the most important cities and main communications, in turn offering the rebels - which were active already since 1979 - a brilliant chance to start a serious insurgency. Very soon, it became clear to Pakistan, that there was not only no conventional military threat from the USSR, but that instead Pakistan was now in a position to mount a campaign against the Soviets without any fear of serious consequences by organizing and equipping the Afghani rebels - the so-called "Mujaheddin" - for fighting against the invader.
|Dozens of DRAAF and Soviet An-24s, An-26s, and An-32s flew every day over the dangerous skies of Afghanistan. Their supply-flights were instrumental for the survival of several government garrisons around the country. From late 1986 they started to suffer heavily from the FIM-92A Stingers delivered to the Mujaheddin from the USA via Pakistan. This An-26 spots the older version of DRAAF markings, as used during the late 1970s. (Tom Cooper collection)|
From early 1981 onward the number of flying units detached to the 40th Soviet Army was increased, and their aircraft and helicopters began patrolling along - or even behind - Pakistani borders on search for Mujaheddin. Initially, reconnaissance operations were flown, but very soon first attacks against camps for Afghani refugees on Pakistani soil were undertaken, as these were places where Mujaheddin used to pull back for rest and training, and where Pakistani military services recruited fighters for the war in Afghanistan. Immediately, Pakistan turned to the USA with a request for modern armament, including new aircraft (foremost LTV A-7 Corsair IIs), SAMs, radars, as well as ECM- and ELINT-equipment. Recognizing a chance of turning Afghanistan "Soviet Vietnam", the Pentagon responded by offering Northrop F-5E Tiger II and Fairchild A-10A Thunderbolt II fighter bombers to the Pakistani Air Force (PAF). Sensing that such "low-technology" was insufficient for them to counter the Soviet threat, the Pakistanis turned this offer down, instead attempting to launch new negotiations. Namely, at the time the PAF was equipped foremost with Chinese and French fighters - such like simple Shenyang F-6 interceptors (Chinese-copy of MiG-19S), and Dassault Mirage III/5s - and neither the F-5E nor A-10A could offer any significant increase in its capabilities.
By late 1981, the situation changed in so far, that the Pakistani military services became directly involved in organizing, supporting and „managing“ the Afghan Mujaheddin. Over the time the USA joined Pakistan in supporting this effort. Initially, the US were supplying arms, ammunition and equipment to different Mujaheddin commanders. Very soon, however, the control of all the US "aid" was given to the CIA, which in turn was channeling every shipment to the Pakistani "Inter-Service Intelligence" Service (ISI), the "Afghan Bureau" of which was effectivelly running the uprising in Afghanistan from 1984 onward, and supplying it to preferred Mujaheddin commanders at own discretion.
Meanwhile, the V-VS began operating over the Pakistani borders more aggressively, and eventually a decision has been brought to re-supply the PAF with General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters. In December 1981, a letter of agreement between Pakistan and the USA was signed, preparing the way for the Pakistani Air Force to purchase 40 F-16s fighters. The USA originally offered 32 F-16As and eight F-16Bs to Pakistan: however, concerned by possible future training needs the PAF then changed the order to 28 F-16As and 12 F-16Bs (all to Block 15 standard). By October 1982, the first two F-16As and four F-16Bs were ready for delivery to their new owners, while the first group of Pakistani pilots was finishing its training with the 421st TFS, at Hill AFB, in Utah. The jets were flown to MacDill AFB, Florida and then over Atlantic, via Azores to Dhahran, in Saudi Arabia. There, American pilots were replaced by Pakistani, which delivered them to Pakistan.
|F-6s of the 15 Sqn PAF in flight (Peter Steineman)|
First Cautious Engagements
While the acquisition of new aircraft was underway, the PAF and the Pakistani Army were already engaged organizing their positions along the Afghani border, which was a particularly problematic task considering the rugged terrain and problematic movements of units and supplies. It took some time until proper sites were selected and a satisfactory net of radar stations as well as detection and observation posts, needed for gaining a better control of the airspace, was established. Finally, two early warning radar stations, #4084 and #4102, were posted at Landikotal and Aravali, while additional radars - belonging to the 483 Squadron - were deployed in the area between Swat and Miranshah, together with several mobile low-level radars and units of mobile observers. These stations, together with two other PAF radars positioned near Machlak and Khojal, were not only to monitor movements of Soviet and Afghani aircraft but also to guide PAF interceptors, forward deployed at Peshawar and Samungli air bases.
The Peshawar AB initially housed F-6s of the No. 15 Squadron, deployed there already since the late 1979. This unit flew numerous - but not very intensive - Combat Air Patrols (CAPs) along the border in the early 1980s. However, as at the time the PAF still have had problems with detecting and tracking Soviet and Afghani aircraft (but also because most incursions into the Pakistani airspace went no deeper than two or three kilometres, while the Pakistani high command was very careful not to provoke Soviets) they operated under very stringent rules of engagement. According to Pakistani reports between 1981 and 1986 PAF pilots never got a permission to engage or fire at intruders, but only to escort them out of the Pakistani airspace. Actually, in most cases, PAF F-6s hardly even came close to their opponents: namely, although having a fair thrust to weight ratio and being more manoeuvrable, F-6s were slower than most of the types they encountered. Nonetheless, on 1 March 1980, two F-6s intercepted a Russian Il-76 and escorted it back into Afghani airspace.
|Two MiG-23MLDs being readied for a patrol and armed with R-24 air-to-air missiles. (Avijatsija & Vremja)|
The No. 15 Squadron was soon followed by the 23rd Sqn, which was initially based at Samungli. In turn, in May 1983 the No. 23 Squadron was replaced by 17th Sqn, and in October 1984 the No. 26 Squadron arrived, also equipped with F-6s. By that time, the PAF control of the airspace was much better, but the Soviets and Afghanis were also much more aggressive, and numerous confrontations - albeit without any firings - followed. All these units simultaneously provided also detachments to Minhas/Kamra AB, but the situation still remained so, that the PAF higher command was reluctant to permit its units to engage either Soviet or Afghani aircraft. Due to the problems with detection and early warning over such rugged terrain as along the border with Afghanistan, at the time, the PAF was not able even to timely intercept DRAAF aircraft, flown to Pakistan by defecting Afghani pilots. In such cases, like on 20 November 1983, when a DRAAF Su-22 crash-landed at Dal Bandin AB, or on 25 March 1984, when one MiG-17 crash-landed at Mushcab AB, or on 16 July 1984, when an Afghani crew landed their Mi-25 behind the Pakistani border, near Miranshah, PAF interceptors were nowhere nearby.
Arrival of Mirages and F-16s
The situation changed during November 1985 considerably, as - meanwhile - the war in Afghanistan reached its peak with several Soviet offensives, in which Soviet and Afghan units tried to destroy rebels in the Paktia province. These operations were heavily supported by tactical aircraft, and Mujaheddin came under severe pressure, loosing one position and base after the other. Even an intervention of the Pakistani Army, which deployed a small unit armed with Blowpipe MANPADs couldn’t help the situation, as Blowpipes showed very problematic to operate under given circumstances. During only one engagement, at least a dozen of them were fired without a single hit, and several Pakistani officers were injured in the Soviet counterattack.
Nevertheless, the V-VS and the DRAAF also suffered considerable losses, as no less but 15 aircraft and helicopters were claimed shot down by Mujaheddin in two days of fighting in early November 1985, and four helicopters on 13 November. Even such experienced fliers, like Col. Leonid Fursin, Commander of the 190. IAP (equipped with MiG-21s) were shot down during this period. Nevertheless, simultaneously with badly damaging the system of rebel supply bases along the Pakistani border the Soviets executed a series of attacks in the area adjacent to Miranshah, Parachinar and Peshawar, and increased the number of attacks against camps inside Pakistan.
Until that time, the PAF actually operated according to peacetime air identification/engagement procedures, its aircraft always remaining within the Pakistani airspace, and having an order to first identify any foreign aircraft inside the Pakistani airspace, and then ask for permission to engage. Such requests would then go up the chain of command, over the Sector Commander, the Northern Air Command PAF, to the Deputy Chief of Air Staff. Of course, due to this procedure, lots of precious time was lost, and no successful engagements of Soviet or Afghani aircraft were possible. Operating under such conditions was both frustrating and problematic for Pakistani pilots and officers, especially as the number of Soviet and Afghani incursions into the Pakistani airspace increased, while there was a considerable public pressure to do something against this. Finally, the situation detoriated to the point, where the PAF was compelled to deploy Mirages to Kamra, and F-16s to Samungli and Peshawar, in February 1986, and to adapt its RoEs in so far, that they now permitted more freedom of operation for both the tactical operators at local GCI-stations, as well as for pilots. Soon, numerous serious incidents were to follow.
Before either Mirages or F-16s could arrive, however, the F-6s continued to carry the brunt of CAPs, and on 11 February 1986, they had their first serious engagement. Two F-6s, flown by Flt.Lt. Anwar Hussain and Flg.Off. Amjad Bashir were on a CAP, when the GCI advised them of two contacts NE of Parachinar. Hussain and Bashir were vectored in the area, and they soon detected four MiG-23s. Closing at a speed of Mach 1, two F-6s were swiftly positioned right behind Soviet aircraft which turned around and re-entered the Afghani airspace. The GCI advised Hussain and Bashir to turn around as well, but the leader of the formation ignored the order to continue the pursuit until a moment when four additional MiG-23s appeared. Both F-6s immediately turned around, and returned to their base at high speed and low level. This short engagement certainly hasn’t had any effects on the Soviets, then on 19 March 1986, several waves of Afghan Su-22s, escorted by MiG-23MLDs of the 120. IAP bombed Pakistani border posts. These attacks were a prelude for the next offensive of Soviet and troops of the Afghan Army, initiated on 2 April, the target of which were rebel supply bases around Tani and Zhawar. By the 10 April 1986, Soviets and Afghanis reached Tani, and subsequently Su-24s and Su-25s flew a series of strikes using laser-guided bombs. Mujaheddin were forced to organize a frontal defence and fight under circumstances for which they lacked the training and firepower.
Regardless of these developments, the PAF was still held back, and the next serious engagement followed only on 12 April 1986, when the GCI vectored three F-6s, flown by Gr.Capt. Shahid Kamal, Sqn.Ldr. Rahat Mujeeb and Sqn.Ldr. Khalid Chaudry, to intercept two contacts in the Parachinar area. Gr.Capt. Kamal successfully closed into the range of his AIM-9P missiles and fired one Sidewinder, but no hit was observed. Meanwhile, both the targets and the whole Pakistani formation turned around towards west, and the GCI advised the pilots, that the enemy still hasn’t noticed them. Thus, Kamal closed again and fired another Sidewinder, which missed again. The lead handed over to Sqn.Ldr. Chaudry, who identified the targets as two Su-25s and fired one AIM-9P. The missile initially guided perfectly, but then turned into the sun and missed. Subsequent reconstruction of the engagement showed, that Grp.Cpt. Kamal fired both of his missiles outside the envelope for targets which were flying away from him.
|GD F-16A 82701 was the first Fighting Falcon produced for and delivered to the PAF (P. Steineman)|
Air Battles with Bounded Hands
By early 1986 the engagements between Pakistani, Soviet and Afghani aircraft clearly showed, that the F-6s of the PAF were outclassed by most modern Soviet types. Consequently, during the spring 1986, Mirages of the 5th and the 18th Squadrons, stationed at Kamra, took over. Not much about operations undertaken by these units is known, but, according to press reports from that time, they scored their first kill - one MiG-21 of the DRAAF - on 16 April 1986, followed by another MiG-21 on 10 May. The PAF never confirmed any of these claims. Considering the circumstances at the time, it is possible that these engagements have happened, but, that - due to RoEs, influenced by the politics - the PAF was not ready to confirm kills of aircraft whose wreckage fell inside Afghanistan. The - probably - third engagement of Pakistani Mirages happened on 14 May 1986, around 11:00AM, when At 11:00AM of 14 May 1986, Sqn.Ldr. Ro Qamar Sulemany and Flt.Lt. Nawaz of the 18th Sqn were on a CAP SE of Parachinar, when the GCI vectored them towards several slow flying targets closing at the border. Closing at high speed, both Mirage pilots experienced a dilemma of many fast-jet fliers when confronting heavily armed but slow attack helicopters. Turning several times around their targets, Sulemany finally acquired a lock on and attacked from a distance of 1.4 kilometres, pressing the trigger at a distance of 900 meters. The guns didn’t fire, and Sulemany made place for this wingman. Nawaz also tried to open fire from a distance of 800 to 900 meters, but his guns wouldn’t fire again. Finally, both Mirages returned straight to their base. Subsequent inspection showed, that the gun circuit breaker of Sulemany’s aircraft popped out because of short-cut in the gun pack, while his wingman forgot to remove the gun trigger latch before firing. Technical problems and inexperience of Pakistani pilots thus deprived them of scoring two kills.
By that time, after intensive training and preparations, two units of the PAF became operational with the F-16s. The elite No. 9 Squadron, led by Wg.Cdr. Abdul Razzak, had 16 pilots and was to take a burden of operations, flying over 2.200 sorties during the following four years. From time to time, also the PAF F-16 OCU, the No. 11 Squadron, was to deploy to the area and start combat air patrols if needed. The reports about engagements undertaken by this unit are different, however: some say, that the unit had several engagements, but none of these were successful, because of the lack of proficiency with the newly acquired AIM-9L all-aspect Sidewinders. There are other reports, however, indicating that the pilots of the No. 11 Sqn also scored at least one kill. The third unit, the No. 14 Squadron, led by Wg.Cdr. Amjad Javed, was to deploy to Kamra in September 1986, and fly over 1.800 sorties by 1989.
Under conditions of such intensive operations inside Afghanistan as undertaken by Soviets in the early 1986, and because of laxed RoEs, it took not long until the F-16s scored their first kill. In early May 1986, the aircraft of the V-VS and the DRAAF flew a series of strikes against the Mujaheddin bases in the Panjshir Valley, and on the early morning of 17 May also camps inside Pakistan were bombed. Shortly after the first strike, however, two F-16As, flown by Sqn.Ldr. Hameed Qadri and Sqn.Ldr. Mohammed Yousaf, reached their CAP-station over Parachinar, when the GCI advised them of two aircraft nearing that area at over 500 knots and already almost ten kilometres inside the Pakistani airspace. While closing to engage, Pakistani pilots made several radar sweeps in order to assure, that no other Soviet or Afghani aircraft were nearby, then prepared their missiles and attacked. Closing to a distance of six miles, Qadri achieved a lock-on on one of the opponents, and immediately got a signal, that the missile tracked. Shortly afterwards, he fired one Sidewinder, which missed. Passing by the enemies, both F-16s initiated a hard 180° turn and engaged again: „I watched my No. 2 cross to my right side and called a visual as well as tally. I called 'engaged' and quickly locked on one of the Sukhois. I got all parameters right on one of them, uncaged the missile seeker head and fired my second AIM-9L missile. With the plume of fire and smoke, the missile from my right rail raced in a wide semicircle to the right. Taking tremendous lead, it soon reversed towards the target in a series of corrections and exploded on impact with the turning Su-22.“ Qadri then looked back to clear his tail, while continuing to keep the second aircraft in his sight and asking his wingman to keep his tail clear: „I fumbled with my switchology while attempting to select AIM-9L on Stores Management System and HOTAS. The silhouette of the first aircraft was visible. The other aircraft was in a left turn. His radius of turn and my energy state gave me enough confidence that I could easily achieve kill parameters both with missile and guns. During the turn, I found myself hitting the fringes of AIM-9P missile. I pulled a high yo-yo as I was in a totally offensive position. My target was now in a nose-down and heading towards Afghan territory. After apexing, I quickly rolled back and fired a three-second burst on the exiting Su-22. I stopped firing when a trail of smoke and flash from his aircraft confirmed a lethal kill. Through a split 'S', I headed east of Parachinar.“ For his successful engagement and achievement Qadri was subsequently awarded the Sitara-i-Basalat.
The Soviets subsequently confirmed the loss of one of DRAAF Su-22M-3Ks, but their reaction was swift, foremost because of concerns, that PAF F-16s could try to intercept some of Tu-16 bombers, which now regularly operated over NE Afghanistan and relatively close to Pakistan. All operations behind the Pakistani border were cancelled, while the 120. IAP, equipped with 29 MiG-23MLDs (armed with R-24R as well as R-60M AAMs) and five MiG-23UBs was deployed to Baghram AB, north of Kabul. While Soviet pilots were not permitted to engage in any kind of air combats, except in self defence, the first encounter followed very soon. On 19 June 1986, the 9th Squadron PAF was tasked to establish a CAP to NW of Zirat, in the Quetta area and monitor enemy activity, but not to approach the border any closer than approximately 50 kilometres. Two F-16As, flown by Sqn.Ldr. Hameed Qadri and Sqn.Ldr. Yousaf, were on station for almost 40 minutes, when the GCI vectored them to intercept two contacts inside the Pakistani airspace. The targets turned back, however, and Qadri abandoned the attack, only to subsequently be vectored towards new contacts. This time, the engagement was fast: Qadri successfully intercepted and entered the envelope behind two Soviet MiG-23MLs. However, while closing, he was not able to jettison his left drop tank due to a technical malfunction, which also prevented him to fire any of his AAMs. Consequently, Qadri ordered Yousaf to engage and attack, but, as he was outside the envelope, and both MiG-23s were now flying back into the Afghani airspace, the attack was abandoned and both F-16s turned back to their base.
|DRAAF Su-22 photographed from the ground during an attack pass against targets in the Panjshir valley. This was also how many Afghani refugees saw the type during attacks flown against their camps in Pakistan. (Tom Cooper collection)|
Lots of Claims, no Explanations
For the rest of 1986, no additional air-to-air engagements were reported. Considering the fact, that there was not much activity on the ground, as well as that the Mujaheddin were now supplied with FIM-92A Stinger MANPADs, the V-FA and the DRAAF were at the time rather engaged with the fighting inside Afghanistan. In October and November 1986, no less but 200 FIM-92A Stingers were deployed with Mujaheddin inside Afghanistan, and the losses of the Soviet and Afghani air forces became almost catastrophic. The 200. SchAE, equipped with Su-25s, for example, lost two pilots and four aircraft within two days in the Khost area, a MiG-23MLD and an An-12B were shot down on 19 November, and one of last remaining airworthy Il-28s of the DRAAF was also downed on 29 November over Bagram. On 19 December 1986, a group of Mujaheddin attacked aircraft directly over the Kabul Airport and shot down one An-12B. By 21 January 1987, when the Su-25 of the Lt. Pototschkin was shot down, the 200. SchAE lost additional three planes. Subsequently, the Soviets and the new Afghani government under Dr. Najibullah, realized, that no large-scale offensive operations could be undertaken any more, because no effective air support could be guaranteed. Instead, both the V-VS and the DRAAF were now committed to interdiction operations against rebel supply routes. Thus, with the end of the winter 1987, Soviet and Afghani aircraft became very active over the Pakistani border, flying hundreds of bombing and mining attacks.
In a vain attempt to pre-empt the oncoming Mujaheddin spring offensives, from 23 March 1987, the DRAAF and the V-VS started a number of strikes in the Zhawar area. One of the first missions undertaken on that day, was flown by 12 MiG-21s of the DRAAF against targets in the Terrimangal and Angoor Adda area, but, by the end of the month, the rebels claimed no less but 50 aircraft and helicopters. Additionally, the PAF now operated more aggressively, and - according to Russian sources - its F-16s even started to intercept Afghan and Soviet transports in the Khost area. On 30 March 1987, for example, Wg.Cdr. Abdul Razzak and Sqn.Ldr. Sikander Hayat were vectored towards two slow speed objects, which the GCI believed to be ELINT-recce aircraft closing towards the radar station near Parachinar. Wg.Cdr. Razzaq lost no time in intercepting the enemy, which was actually an Afghani An-26 transport, underway to Khost: „The vector given by the controller started the flow of adrenaline. All the preparatory actions were over in less than 30 seconds. The bandits were reported close to Parachinar; another 30-40 miles had to be covered. Soon the controller reported that now only one bandit was violating the border. The second had turned away. When I bought the target into the TD box at 3-4 NM, I realized that it was a slow moving, larger aircraft. I asked for permission to shoot, which was quickly given. With an overtake rate of well over 200 knots and a low IR signature; the minimum range cue was lying close to 4,000 feet. Effectively, I had no more than a 1.5 second firing window available. Everything worked as advertised and with a press of the button, the missile was on its way. As I was breaking off, I saw the missile impact the target. My wingman also released another missile, which also impacted the target. The enemy aircraft crashed on snow-clad mountains below.“ According to Russian sources, all 39 people aboard the An-26 were killed.
Hardly two weeks later, after several engagements without any fighting, the next short air battle followed. On early morning of 16 April 1987, two F-16As of the 14th Squadron, flown by Sqn.Ldr. Badar-us-Islam and Sqn.Ldr. Khalid Pervaiz Marwat were on a CAP near Thal. Several minutes after they reached the station, the GCI reported enemy aircraft inside the Pakistani airspace, and pilots were vectored to intercept. Coming out of the sun and at a high speed, Badar acquired the opponents - several Su-22s of the DRAAF - visually from a distance of seven miles and attacked: „Although faster, we were also climbing and had to chase the targets for a little while before they came into missile range. During the chase, I asked my wingman to keep an eye on the other two aircraft we had previously seen. The moment I got the missile reticle, I fired my first AIM-9L missile. It was a unique experience. I had never fired a missile before. As the missile left the rail, it caused a slight yaw. I kept looking at the missile in some awe, but then lost it and started to look towards the target. In a couple of seconds, there was a big red flash around the aircraft that I was targeting. It started to spiral towards the ground in a left-hand turn. I locked on to the next aircraft and fired a second missile. The controller informed us that we were getting close to the border and that we should break off and head back. As soon as my second missile left the rail, I broke left and asked my wingman to do the same. During the process I looked over the canopy railing and saw another big flash in the area where my second target was. I dived down and headed towards Bannu and started to look for my wingman and returned to base.“ In his post-mission report, Sqn.Ldr. Badar-us-Islam claimed to have shot down two aircraft. However, after examining all the evidence the PAF awarded him only one, possibly because the second Sukhoi crashed behind the Pakistani border: the Afghanis later confirmed, that their Lt.Col. Abdul Jameel successfully ejected and landed safely inside Afghanistan, but said nothing about any other plane being lost on that day.
|A V-VS Su-25 "Grach" seen armed with bombs and unguided rockets while rolling at Baghram AB. The type proved highly successful during the operations over Afghanistan, but started suffering losses to Stingers and Pakistani interceptors in the time between 1986 and 1988. Despite many reports on the contrary, no Su-25s were ever delivered to the Afghani Air Force. (Avijatsija & Vremja)|
Loss of a PAF F-16A
By that time, first small groups of Mujaheddin - organized by Pakistani military - were operational inside the Soviet Union! Soviets clandestinely warned the Pakistani government, not to go too far, and such operations were discontinued. The situation in the air over the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, however, remained very tense, especially as Pakistani pilots became bold and flew apparently deep inside Afghanistan. In April 1987, the Commander of the DRAAF, Lt.Gen. Abdul Kadir reported, that in the same year, Pakistani fighters crossed no less but 30 times into Afghani airspace. Pakistan denied these claims, but many reports confirmed them, especially the next engagement, which happened on 29 April 1987. On that morning, four MiG-23MLDs of the 120. IAP, lead by Lt.Col. Pochitalkin, were on a mission of mining pads used by Mujaheddin for transporting supplies from Pakistan in the Djaware area, when two F-16As from the 9th Sqn PAF intercepted them. The MiGs flew particularly high and fast and dropped their CBUs from a shallow dive. According to Pakistani sources, while MiG-23s were dropping their bombs the F-16s came closer and fired one Sidewinder. However, the whole MiG-23 formation subsequently did a post-strike turn and started to climb, and - according to Pakistani sources - following this turn the #2 of the Pakistani formation, Flt.Lt. Shahid Sikander, flew in front of his leader and directly in front of the AIM-9L which re-locked and scored a direct hit.
According to Russians, while turning his formation, Lt.Col. Pochitalkin took a look around and saw an airplane in flames, falling towards the earth. He called his comrades and all responded to be still underway and well. Meanwhile, Flt.Lt. Shahid Sikander ejected relatively from the F-16A “85-720” deep over Afghanistan, but landed safely in the area controlled by Mujaheddin and was subsequently returned to Pakistan, together with a wing of his F-16 and one Sidewinder, still attached to its rail.
|Pair of PAF F-16As during the training flight (note blue-pained AIM-9L-training rounds). The pride of the Pakistani Air Force, the F-16s proved invaluable during the operations over the Afghani border: they were the only factor that prevented the Soviets and the Afghanis from flying even more attacks against the targets inside Pakistan. (Peter Steineman)|
According to Russians, it is very likely that one of their pilots downed the F-16A in some sort of air combat but never claimed it as such because combats with Pakistani aircraft were prohibited. The problem with this version is, that the MiG-23MLDs were not equipped with any air-to-air missiles when flying such missions, and that in no Soviet, Russian, or Ukrainian account of this battle is there any indication of the MiG-23-pilots having any clue - such like RWR-indications - about the F-16s before they saw one of the PAF fighters going down in flames. Other sources indicate, that the F-16 flew into the „cloud“ of cluster bomb units dropped by MiGs, and hit some of the mines/bomblets dropped by MiG-23s. The problem with this version would be, that CBUs are not deploying at the height at which the F-16s operated at that moment, but only when coming much closer to the ground.
The fact remains, that this episode is definitely a pretty murky one: even according to laxed PAF RoEs for that period of time, F-16s have not had anything to do inside the Afghani airspace. Indeed, subsequently such flights were not permitted again. But, the two F-16s were obviously there, and thus - despite several very authoritative Pakistani sources claiming something else - the whole story indicates, that PAF interceptors operated frequently and aggressively inside the Afghani airspace.
One question remains open: what should the #2 of the Pakistani formation do in front of his leader (even if this happened during some manoeuvring) which is "pad-locked" (i.e. engaging enemy aircraft)? The PAF F-16s operated in "loose duce", so one had nothing to search in front of the other. It might have happened that the leader of the F-16-pair had some problems with his equipment, thus he left his #2 go for an attack in front of him, then solved his problems, locked on the wrong target and fired. Theoretically, this "version" might be confirmed by press reports from that time, in which Pakistanis first denied any F-16 losses, but claimed one kill against a MiG-23; then confirmed a loss, confirmed one kill and confirmed one fratricide; while the final version is one fratricide, no MiG-23s shot down...
Although, according to unconfirmed reports, PAF F-16s have also shot down two additional An-26s and four Mi-8 helicopters in the Khost area during the same month, and their operations so far were very successful, subsequently, the Pakistani higher command prohibited any further incursions into the Afghani airspace. Consequently, after this loss, RoEs for engagements of Afghani and Soviet aircraft were again limited to interceptions of only those aircraft, which operated deeper inside the Pakistani airspace. Nonetheless, in August 1987, the Government of Afghanistan claimed, that Pakistani F-16s had shot down another An-26s, this time one with civilians aboard, near Khost. Until today, however, Pakistan never confirmed this claim, and it remains unknown if anything similar happened. Any way, much time was to pass until the next engagement between Soviet or Afghani aircraft and Pakistani interceptors.
By late 1987 the situation for Soviets in Afghanistan was detoriating rapidly. A large number of FIM-92A Stingers available to Mujaheddin made the operations of the Soviet air power a tricky and risky business, compelling its fliers to remain high, or operate by night. Without efficient air power, and at the pace they lost aircraft to Stingers, however, the Soviets could neither effectively control rural areas of Afghanistan, nor assure constant flow of supplies to several isolated garrisons along the Pakistani border. As if this was not enough, unrest spread in the DRAAF and a series of defections or direct attacks against Afghani officials followed. On 3 October 1987, two Afghani crews flew their Mi-4 helicopters to Pakistan and landed near Chihal. Although both helicopters were returned to Afghanistan, their crews were granted political asylum. Shortly after, one Su-22s of the DRAAF tried to bomb the Presidential Palace in Kabul. As the MiG-23MLD interceptors of the 168. IAP, which reinforced the 120. IAP in August 1987 (bringing the total of MiG-23MLDs stationed inside Afghanistan to 46) and were also stationed at Bagram AB, were deemed not enough to stop any similar attacks in the future, the V-VS was forced to deploy the 115th GvIAP, equipped with MiG-29s, to Termez AB, in the then Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan, the sole task of which was the air defence of the Afghani capital. This measure proved effective: several weeks after MiG-29s arrived in the area of operations, no less but four Su-22s flown by Afghani pilots tried to attack the residency of the President of Afghanistan, but were intercepted by Soviet MiG-29s and all shot down within minutes.
When in late 1987 Mujaheddin put Khost under a siege, the V-VS also deployed the 185. BAP, equipped with Tu-22M-3s to Marry-2 AB. Squadron-sized formations of this regiment flew a series of attacks, dropping up to 200ts of bombs at once at rebel position, and using even 3.000kg heavy FAB-3000 bombs. Because the bombers operated continuously very close to the Pakistani border, four Tu-22PDs of the 341.DBAP, usually based at Ozernoye, were deployed to Mary-2 AB. Tu-22PDs were equipped with powerful jamming equipment, which proved successful, as no Pakistani interceptors were either encountered or even registered near the areas where Tu-22s operated.
By the spring of 1988, the situation in Afghanistan remained practically the same: Khost was still under a siege, but the rebels were not capable of taking it, and sporadic - but heavy - Soviet air raids continued, until the pull-out of Soviet forces was initiated. The first garrison to go was that in Barikot, which was - on 23 April 1988 - evacuated to Jalalabad. The Soviets hoped, that their retreat could be executed in well organized and peaceful manner. But, the rebels started a series of fierce attacks against Jalalabad which only caused even more losses. During May, additional Soviet contingents pulled back from southern and south-western Afghanistan, but, instead of going straight back home, a good part of them was now engaged in new fighting in the Jaji area, where a sizable group of Mujaheddin became active. On 24 June, a group of rebels executed a well organized attack against the Kabul airfield, destroying eight Su-25s there, and in the following days, Bagram also came under repeated rocket-fire. The Soviets, however, initiated a massive re-supply operation for the regime in Kabul, and hundreds of tons of weapons, ammunition and other items were flown to Afghanistan during the following months. Also, from late July 1988, Soviet aircraft also started a new series of raids against camps inside Pakistan. One of these missions, however, ended in another catastrophe.
On the late afternoon of 4 August 1988, a section of Su-24s was underway to attack an Afghan refugee camp near Miranshah. Half an hour before sunset however, they were detected by Pakistani radars, and two F-16As of the 14th Squadron, flown by Sqn.Ldr. Ather Bokhari (on F-16A 85-725) and Sqn.Ldr. Taufeeq Raja, were scrambled to intercept. Reaching a position over Hangu the Pakistani pilots were advised that the enemy turned back towards Afghanistan. Thus, the F-16s slowed down and started what seemed to be another several-hours-long CAP during the early evening. Sqn.Ldr. Bokhari then continued the story. „I was vectored on a heading of 300 degrees, and the controller reported the target 30 degree left, 15 NM. I turned left and called contact. The GCI controller clearly told me to go ahead and shoot the target. I achieved a head-on IR lock on one aircraft at 7 NM flying high. He started to turn right at 6.5 NM, putting me on at 3.5 NM. I engaged burners and closed to less than 2.5 NM from the target before the desired launch zone (DLZ) started to flash. As all parameters were met, I fired the missile and saw it go towards the target in the TD box on the HUD. I next saw a ball of fire in the TD box. I broke left to 120 degrees, descended to 5,000 feet, and dispensed chaff and flares. On looking back at the 8 o'clock position, I saw flares at about 3-4 NM and mistook them initially for missiles. It all but stopped my heartbeat but my controller reassured me that there were not other aircraft in the vicinity. I then took a safe passage home.“
According to Russian sources, upon being attacked by an F-16s, the leader of the Su-25-formation, Col. Alexander Rutskoy initiated a hard, 6.5G turn into the threat. Nonetheless, it seems Rutskoy subsequently lost the sight of the opponent which pulled an even harder turn behind him in the darkness and was shot down by an AIM-9L. Upon impact the Su-25 broke in two, and the wreckage was found the following morning, but the cockpit was empty. Thus, the Pakistanis organized a search operation, and the next evening Rutskoy was caught by local people, which handed him over to the authorities. Interestingly, the Russian pilot subsequently explained, that he was surely hit by a radar-guided missile, fired from the forward hemisphere, and declined to believe, that Bokhari used only one AIM-9L, fired from the rear hemisphere. However, it remains unclear why the Soviet formation continued their attack after being intercepted by F-16s: the target was not worth the danger they faced, and their RWRs should actually have warned them of the threat. But, considering the fact, that remaining three members of Rutskoy’s formation were far closer to the Afghani border, it seems possible, that the Colonel tried to defend them by engaging the F-16 and thus buying some precious time. The loss of Rutskoy and his Su-25s, however, was not the only bad news for Soviets in that month: hardly four days later, another Afghani pilot defected with his MiG-21 to Parachinar, in Pakistan. Equally, the tactic - or better said, the almost complete lack of any defensive manoeuvring - displayed by Rutskoy’s formation remains unclear as well, especially in the light of the next engagement between Soviet and Pakistani aircraft, which followed hardly one month later.
|F-16A 85-725 was the plane with which Sqn.Ldr. Ather Bokhari shot down the Su-25 flown by Col. Rutskoiy, on 4 August 1988.|
Shaheens on the Prowl
At 06:06AM of 12 September 1988, two F-16As of the 14th Squadron, flown by Sqn.Ldr. Khalid Mahmood (on F-16A 85-728) and Sqn.Ldr. Anwar Hussain took off from Kamra AB in order to set up a CAP over the Nawagai area. Around 06:40AM, they were vectored by the GCI to intercept two contacts which were closing the Pakistani border at high level in eastern direction. Both F-16s were soon in proper position, but the contacts then turned to the north flying parallel to the border. In fact, there were not only two, but a total of 12 MiG-23MLDs of the 120. IAP in the air that morning, eight of which were loaded with bombs and have got the order to attack certain targets in the Kunar Valley, while four - split in two pairs (Lt.Col. Sergey Bulin with Maj. N. Golisienko, and Maj. S. Petkov with 1st Lt. V. Danchenkov) - acted as escorts. Detecting four additional contacts, the GCI swiftly turned the F-16s towards the new threat, and Sqn.Ldr. Mahmood acquired a total of six contacts, of which four in the forward formation were trailed by additional two coming from behind. The only problem for Pakistanis now was, that the F-16s were still at the level of 3.500 meters, while their targets flew at more than 10.000 meters, and the rear pair of the targets was flying much faster than the first four aircraft. Indeed, the Soviet GCI detected Pakistani F-16s, and advised Petkov and Danchenkov to block them, while the rest of the formation was to turn back towards West. But, the Pakistanis were faster: closing to a distance of 12km, Mahmood achieved a radar lock-on, but his Sidewinders failed to track the target, as the Soviet pilots engaged their IR counter measures. Mahmood started no less but three attempts to acquire, but failed to do so and, after closing to a distance of less than three kilometres, tried for a fourth time. Finally, he was successful, and fired one AIM-9L from a low-to-high/left-to-right conversion attack and 135° aspect angle. His target was MiG-23MLD „Bort 55“, flown by Capt. Sergey Privalov, which engaged his IRCM. The Sidewinder closed, however, and exploded over his aircraft, sending dozens of hot splinters into the wings and the fuselage. The whole Soviet section executed a turn to the West now, with Privalov in tow and Petkov and Danchenkov joining the formation without - as it seems - trying to engage F-16s with their R-24s, while Bulin and Golisienko closed from the north and certainly tried to acquire a lock on. However, Mahmood was already executing a hard port turn underneath the enemy formation, rolling out directly behind it and in a perfect attack position behind no less but six MiG-23MLDs! His radar immediately achieved another lock-on, but Mahmood rejected the lock and switched over to an auto-lock, which automatically selected his two AIM-9P missiles, considered better for stern attack. Closing to a distance of three kilometres, the Pakistani fired another missile at the MiG-23MLD flown by Maj. Petkov, when the GCI warned him of two Soviet aircraft directly behind. Mahmood broke hard into the threat, but found nothing there, only to - upon a turn back to the west - realize that the rest of the Soviet formation was already too far away to be intercepted and almost over the Afghani border. For two F-16 pilots there remained nothing else but to return back to their base.
According to Pakistani reports, this warning of two Soviet aircraft behind Mahmood and Hussain was caused by a radar controller, Sqn.Ldr. Irfan-ul-Haq, misinterpreting a clutter on his scope. In fact Lt.Col. Sergey Bulin and Maj. N. Golisienko were closing from that side, however, their Sapheer-23ML radars were not able to pick-up the lower flying F-16s (probably due to a ground clutter), thus denying them a chance to attack with R-24 missiles. Subsequently they turned towards the West and joined the rest of the formation. Privalov’s MiG-23MLD „55“ managed it back to Bagram (albeit it overshoot the runway and was badly damaged when the nose-leg collapsed), just like Petkov, whose aircraft was not damaged at all. Nonetheless, after an analyze of the HUD-film and radar bands, the PAF and a team of American experts claimed, that in all probability, both Sidewinders fired by Mahmood found their targets. Subsequently, a pretty massive search for the wrecks of both MiGs was started, supposedly finding one of them on the Pakistani side of the border, and another inside Afghanistan. Reportedly, the recovery of the wreck that fell inside Afghanistan was not possible, because it was scattered over a large - and mined - area, while one missile pylon was recovered from the aircraft that fell inside Pakistan. Thus, Sqn.Ldr. Khalid Mahmood was credited with two kills (and the pilot claimed he would have shot down all the six MiG-23s he engaged, if there was no warning based on falsely interpreted radar picture), while the Russians say they haven’t suffered any losses at all, and, according to their descriptions the whole situation rather looked like a try to set up a trap for Pakistani fliers, which functioned, but remained empty, because of the inability to acquire the enemy properly. The height at which the Soviet aircraft operated certainly indicated that this might have been truth, because operations at such heights might have lowered the problems with the ground clutter the Sapheer-23ML have had.
The wish of the Soviets to catch at least one of Pakistani F-16s was perhaps influenced by several Iraqi claims, that their MiG-23MLs have shot down Iranian Phantoms, Tomcats and Tigers. The Soviets certainly wanted to show their capabilities and were eager to engage. A good illustration of this was the case when on 26 September 1988, Maj. Vladimir Astahov and Capt. Boris Gavrilov intercepted two Iranian AH-1Js some 75 kilometres south-east of Shindand, and shot both down, supposedly using R-24 missiles. However, this was also to be the last engagement of Soviet interceptors during the War in Afghanistan. By this time, the Soviets troops were already pulled back from most of Afghanistan, and the DRAAF was now alone to fight against Mujaheddin, which took one city after the other. Under such circumstances, the government in Kabul was rather careful not to provoke the Pakistanis even more. Nonetheless, on 3 November 1988, two F-16s of the 14 Squadron, flown by Sqn.Ldr. Ehtsham Zachariah and Sqn.Ldr. Khalid Mahmood (on F-16A 85-717), were on a CAP over the Kohat area, the GCI informed them of six contacts closing towards the border, three of which subsequently entered the Pakistani airspace, while three - probably escorting MiG-21s - remained over Afghanistan. Both F-16s were swift to engage, closing upon the enemy, when their contacts suddenly executed a 180° turn and flew back towards Afghanistan, apparently after being warned by their GCI. Closing to a range of eleven kilometres, Zachariah acquired the target visually and recognized it as a Su-22, flying at a level of almost 6.000 meters. While both F-16s were still in a climb, the Sukhois were already underway to the west, but then, one of Afghanis turned back into the threat at the same time when Zachariah experienced some difficulties with his Sidewinders. The Su-22 corrected his route towards the leading F-16, but Mahmood was quick in countering this move and firing one AIM-9L from a range of approximately five kilometres in a head-on-pass. The missile impacted, blowing several pieces off the Sukhoi, but the aircraft continued to fly. While Zachariah manoeuvred for a gun-attack, Mahmood fired another Sidewinder, this time from a 150 - 160° aspect angle. The second hit broke the Su-22 in two and the wreck fell some 18 kilometres inside Pakistan. The pilot. Capt. Abdul Hashim, ejected and was captured by Pakistani Army.
|DRAAF Su-22M-4K seen on landing at Baghram AB sometimes in 1986. The Type proved popular with Afghani pilots because of its good payload and range, and baceme also the main fighter-bomber of the DRAAF. Nevertheless, it was not nimble enough for battling the highly mobile Mujahedding down between the mountain ranges. (Avijatsija & Vremja)|
Generally, this was the last serious air-to-air engagement over the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, even if several other interceptions were undertaken by Pakistani interceptors afterwards, and a number of Afghani pilots defected to Pakistan. For example, in the night from 20 to 21 November, Sqn.Ldr. Ather Bokhari supposedly intercepted one Afghani An-26 near Khost, when the transport suddenly exploded in mid-air and crashed. On 8 December 1988, a DRAAF pilot defected with his MiG-21MF to Miranshah, in Pakistan, and on 31 January another An-24 crashed in the Khost area, after being intercepted by Sqn.Ldr. Khalid Mahmood. At that time, despite at least two additional air raids undertaken by Soviet Tu-22M-3s, the future of the Afghani government was sealed, as it basically remained only in control of the area around Kabul. Just like many of remaining ground units, numerous defections hit the DRAAF afterwards: on 3 July 1989, a crew of an Mi-24 defected with their helicopter to Pakistan and landed near Kica, three days later another pilot flew his Su-22M-4K to Peshawar, and on 29 October 1989 a MiG-21 followed him to the same Pakistani air base. For all purposes, however, the direct Soviet involvement in the war in Afghanistan ceased by the end of 1989, and subsequently, this conflict developed into a pure „civil“ war, with different Afghani fractions battling each other.
|DRAAF MiG-21MF and Su-22M-4K seen at the Pakistani Peshawar AB, in October 1989, after both planes were flown there by defecting Afghani pilots (US DoD via Tom Cooper)|
Special thanks to Mr. Tom N., Arthur Hubers, and Troung, for sharing precious information from their files and their help in completition of this article.
Except for research of our correspondents and ours - largely conducted with help of immigrants and refugees from Afghanistan living in Europe - following sources were used as reference for this feature:
- "Afghanistan: The Bear Trap; The Defeat of a Superpower", by Mohammad Yousaf & Mark Adkin, Casemate, 1992 & 2001, ISBN: 0-9711709-2-4
- "Afghan Wars; Battles in a Hostile Land, 1839 to the present", by Edgar O'Ballance, Brassey's 1993 & 2002, ISBN: 1-85753-308-9
- "Air Wars and Aircraft; A Detailed Record of Air Combat, 1956 to the Present", by Victor Flintham, Arms and Armour Press, 1989, ISBN: 0-853368-779-X
- "Armour of the Afghanistan War", by Steven Zaloga, Wojciech Luczak & Barry Beldam, Concord Publications Company, 1992, ISBN: 962-361-909-X
- "Heisser Himmel über Afghanistan", by Waleri Markowski (German translation by Dipl-Ing. Dieter Stammer), Tehnika-Molodoschi, Moscow 2000
- "Pakistan Border Battles", World Air Power Journal Volume 10, Autumn/Fall 1992, ISBN: 1-874023 17-4
- "Russia's War in Afghanistan", by David Isby (Colour plates by Ron Volstad), Osprey, Men-at-Arms Series No.178, 1986, ISBN: 0-85045-691-6
- Website of Peter Steineman, top aviation photographer:
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