WWII gear in Afghan use: Part II – uniforms

Prior to the 1973 revolution which overthrew the king, and then the December 1979 Soviet intervention, the Royal Afghan Army’s personal gear was a mixture of German and British influences.

OrderOfTheSun(Order Of The Sun, a pre-1973 medal of the Royal Afghan  Army.)

1920sgeneralAbove is the cut of the Royal Afghan Army officer’s uniform used during the WWII era, when Afghanistan remained neutral. It shows influences of WWI-era British army styling.

M18The German-made M18 stahlhelm entered Royal Afghan Army use in the 1930s and was still in use in the 1970s.This was just a basic steel combat helmet. It came to become symbolic of the pre-1973 era in the country. The black-red-green “triple triangle” symbol on the stahlhelms was used successively by the pre-1973 royal army, the 1973-1991 communist DRAA (Democratic Republic of Afghanistan Army), the Northern Alliance during the 1990s, and the current post-2002 Afghan National Army. Each user rearranged it a bit; for example the DRAA flipped the black and green vs the Royal Army example shown.

guardThe shoulder patch on this soldier’s uniform is the Royal Household Unit, an elite infantry formation dedicated to guarding the king’s palaces in Kabul.

1950sCAbove is the uniform used during the 1950s. The helmet is the German-made M18 stahlhelm. The long greatcoat and polished leather jackboots definitely show Wehrmacht influences. During the early nazi era, German military observers were fairly impressed with the Royal Afghan Army, calling them “Prussians Of The Orient”.

The photo was taken on 15 December 1955, when Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev made a state visit to the country, along with Nikolai Bulganin, who had been Stalin’s deputy commander of the Soviet army during WWII. Bulganin was most interested in extending a large military sales credit to Afghanistan. After the visit, the still-neutral Royal Afghan Army began it’s shift from British-made to Soviet-made weapons.

1950sBIn the above photo, Afghan troops stand at attention at Bagram airbase on 9 December 1959, when President Eisenhower made a state visit, the first ever by an American president to Afghanistan. The soldiers are wearing M18 stahlhelms.

MiG23MLDThe above photo is off-topic but interesting. Taken at Bagram during the 1980s, it shows Soviet MiG-23 Flogger jets preparing for action against the mujahideen. In the foreground on the runway service vehicle access road is a fading USA-style stop sign in English. It was erected just prior to Air Force One’s arrival in 1959.

eisenhowervisitAn Afghan solider stands under Old Glory in his M18 stahlhelm during Ike’s visit in December 1959.

KingZahir1963The above photo is King Zahir in 1963, showing the newer design for officer’s dress uniform.

The Royal Afghan Army’s band, around the 1969-1970 timeframe. What is most interesting is that some of the soldiers are wearing not the M18 stahlhelm, but rather the M40 stahlhelm, of WWII German fame. The numbers of M40s imported are unknown but small; it never replaced the M18. There are several stories of how the M40 ended up in post-WWII Afghanistan years after the war ended. One version says that they were not true M40s at all, but rather modified M35s sold to Afghanistan by China after that country phased it out. Another version is that they were sold by the USSR from their stockpile of WWII-captured M40s, while still another version claims that Afghanistan bought the M40s surplus from the postwar West German Bundesgrenzschutz (border guard) which used “de-nazified” refurbished M40 stahlhelms in the 1950s. Any of the explanations are plausible.

The stahlhelm and uniforms after the end of the monarchy

Once the king was deposed in 1973, the Afghan army (now the DRAA) rapidly abandoned the stahlhelm. I have not been able to locate any photo of a stahlhelm in use during the communist era. In the mid-to-late 1970s, the DRAA imported some WWII-era SSh-40 helmets from the USSR; these were quickly replaced after the 1979 Soviet intervention when the DRAA switched to the postwar SSh-68 to be standard with the USSR’s 40th Army. A few postwar “non-standard” helmets were also donated from Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and even East Germany.

During the post-2001 period when American troops were in the country, it was not at all uncommon to see rusty M18 stahlhelms for sale at local bazaars. In the 2005-2010 timeframe, they typically sold for between $60-$100 which is not really a bargain, as many were in terrible condition from a collector’s standpoint. Below is a M18 stahlhelm brought back by an American serviceman.

helmetA curious sidenote is that some Afghans took rusty old stahlhelms and soldered on random pieces of tin and aluminum for a “barbarian” appearance; these were then peddled as “relics of Alexander The Great’s invasion of Afghanistan” to uninformed buyers. (The same trick was also tried with ex-Soviet SSh-68s which were abandoned en masse when the USSR withdrew in 1988.)

One American soldier said that he saw in a Kabul bazaar a rusty stahlhelm painted white with a red stripe. In communist armies, this was usually the mark of the Commandant’s Service, a sort of military traffic police. This may indicate that at least a few stahlhelms served on past the 1973 communist takeover in secondary units. Or, it may have just been random redecoration by the 2000s merchant.

In the 1970s, the DRAA rapidly switched to east bloc-style uniforms. Some legacy Royal Afghan Army articles remained in use, in particular more expensive ones like greatcoats. Below is a photo of a traitorous DRAA unit fighting for the mujahideen in the 1980s, with a heavy mortar they captured (or more likely, just walked off with when deserting). One of the soldiers is wearing an old style greatcoat.


uni-afAbove is a Soviet propaganda poster showing the flags of 1980s communist Afghanistan and the Afghan communist party. By then, the war against the mujahideen was in full swing and the Royal Afghan Army was already just a fading memory.

Part I of this series looked at WWII-era firearms used by the Afghans. Part III will look at WWII-era tanks and artillery.

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