A rustic Afghan village in a dry, rocky terrain. The villagers look up to the sound of jet airplanes, explosions rock the hillside and buildings and a group of three tanks approach, firing and destroying more of the village. People and goats run for their lives. An Afghan man fires an anti-tank round but misses. Women pelt and hammer a tank with stones until a yellow smoke canister is deployed, the poison gas drives off the Afghans. The gas-masked soldiers get out and continue to ransack the village.
Major Daskal (George Dzundza) a tank commander exits and fires his machine gun at another tank being attacked. Koverchenko (Jason Patric) runs to aid the other tank. An Afghan elder is captured and dragged to Daskal's tank and placed under the tread. An interpreter, Afghan tank crewman Samad (Erick Avari) demands to know where the mujaheddin are. As the women wail the village elder is crushed.
The three tanks depart but Maj Daskal's tank misses a left turn and heads into an area surrounded by high ridges. Back in the village the menfolk return to see the destruction. Taj Mohammed (Stephen Bauer) is distraught and laments to his uncle Akbar (Kabir Bedi). A group of modern rebels arrive on motorbikes, led by Taj's cousin, Moustafa (Chaim Girafi) with his Ray-Bans, AK-47 and cigarettes. Moustafa reports the tank is lost in the valley of the jackals. Taj is now the village Khan as it was his elder brother who was crushed. His sister-in-law-to-be Sherina (Shoshi Marciano) brings out an old rocket propelled grenade (RPG) launcher to help avenge the deaths.
The lost Russians stop to get their bearings. Major Daskal's map is partially burnt and doesn't have all the details. Koverchenko and Samad chat and Samad admits he doesn't believe in Muslim paradise. Suddenly the tank is attacked by the Afghans on the ridge, the Major fires a round close to the mujaheddin as the tank moves away. Moustafa fires the RPG but misses by a mile. Taj is angry and demands the RPG as the rebels squabble. Uncle Akbar has a leg wound but the Afghans continue to follow the tank.
Hot and thirsty the Afghans approach a waterhole, one of them bends down to drink, Taj finds an empty poison box but it is too late and the drinking man suffers an agonizing death. Hidden in bushes not too far away the tank aims at the group by the waterhole. The round misfires and the men quickly evacuate. Maj Daskal suspects Samad had something to do with the misfire. The Major and Koverchenko enter the tank to clear the round. The shell is placed on the ground with a grenade booby trap. The tank continues on it's way.
An Afghan finds the tank shell and blows his arm off when he moves it. Taj tells the others to leave the man food and water but Moustafa puts the badly injured man out of his misery. A pack of dogs and the village women arrive at sunset to bury the man.
The walking Afghans come up to a man chanting by a large bonfire. He thinks Taj is David come to slay Goliath, the tank. The Russians have camped for the night and Koverchenko and Samad play chess and talk. Samad explains the Afghan philosophy of nanawatai, where anyone, even a sworn enemy can request sanctuary which the Afgans are obliged to provide. Golikov (Stephen Baldwin) and Kaminski (Don Harvey) fight and Maj Daskal discovers Kasminski has been drinking the brake fluid (alcohol) in his canteen. The Major also rips the last page from Koverchenko's diary.
A grenade drops down and the Russians take cover. In a wild firefight the panicky Russians manage to get in their tank and drive away blindly. They stop again some distance away, Golikov has a face wound from shrapnel. Once again Maj Daskal is suspicious of Samad. They do a 360 degree sweep with all weapons as they fire tank rounds, flame thrower and machine gun after the perimeter security devices indicate intruders. Samad is sent to investigate. All he finds is a dead goat.
At a river Daskal prevents Samad from his prayers and forces him to check the riverbed by walking into the water. While waist deep the Major kills him with a burst from the turret machine gun. Koverchenko is enraged and records the incident in his diary. Daskal rants about giving to the motherland, he fought as an 8 year old against the Germans in WW2 and was called "Tankboy". The three younger tankers start to discuss mutiny. Koverchenko reports they now have no food or water and running low on gas and leaking oil. After another argument Koverchenko is tied down and left on a slab rock with a grenade under his head. Koverchenko pleads with Golikov to let him loose to no avail.
Uncle Akbar notices Sherina and the other women are following. Sherina has some C4 and grenades. The dogs find Koverchenko and nip at his heels, as he moves the grenade falls and goes off but Koverchenko is unharmed.
Taj expresses doubts to his uncle as he leaves the injured older man behind. Motoring down a wide open area Daskal sees the Kandahar road up ahead in his binoculars. The Russians rejoice! But they have to stop, a large deep chasm blocks the way forward.
Koverchenko bakes in the sun, now the Afghan women find him and start to stone him. Desperate, Koverchenko pleads for Nanawatai and the women stop. The men arrive and Taj grants the sanctuary and wonders why the Russians left him. At mealtime the Afghans prepare food and allow Koverchenko first dibs. The RPG is damaged and using simple language and gestures Taj gets the Russian to repair the launcher. Koverchenko also agrees to help destroy the tank.
A Russian helicopter lands near the tank. The two young men are happy to board the aircraft but Major Daskal demands they get off, they are "tankers" and have to drive back. The pilot provides some jerrycans of fuel and says they have to go back the way they came. Golikov and Kaminski are stunned as the helo flies away in a cloud of dust. Hiding in rocks the Afghans are happy to see the tank come back. Taj lays out a plan to attack.
The tank travels thru the night, Kaminski reports the engine overheating in the morning. At the waterhole the helo is there on the ground. The pilot and crew are all dead, not knowing the water was poisoned. In the distance the Afghans approach, Major Daskal sees Koverchenko running with the mujaheddin. The tank won't start, dead battery. The machine gun is out of ammo. Daskal begins a manual turret traverse cranking a handwheel. The tank fires an anti-tank round over the Afghan's heads, Koverchenko gestures and tells them to spread out. The tank starts up and moves away before Koverchenko can get a shot with the RPG. The Russian notices an oil trail and races after the tank. The tank has to follow a winding path in the canyon while the pursuing Afghans can take a straight line shortcut over the hills. Daskal notices them following and shoots at the ridges, finally the main gun runs out of ammo.
Taj and Koverchenko get ahead of the tank and try to aim the RPG. Koverchenko fumbles but gets a shot off, a direct hit on the muzzle of the main gun. The tank continues to the Pass and apparent safety. Taj appeals to Allah and an explosion above sends a rockslide down onto the tank. It is stopped. Sherina and her women look down from above. The tank is disabled as the right tread is broken. Noticing leaking fuel, Koverchenko sends a firebomb that explodes under the tank. Golikov and Kaminski panic and Daskal issues them with grenades, he wants them all to suicide together. Kaminski refuses and the two younger men manage to disarm the Major. The three Russians get out with their hands up surrendering. Golikov gets on his knees disgusting both the Afghans and Daskal. Koverchenko taunts the Maj but uses his nanawatai protection to allow the Russians to leave on foot. At the crossroads Daskal pauses and falls behind the other two, the angry Afghan women approach screaming.
At the burning tank Taj gives Koverchenko a souvenir rifle. Sherina arrives all bloody and apologizes to Taj. Another Russian helo arrives and the mujaheddin scatter. Taj calls for Koverchenko to come with them but he puts on the horse collar sling and is lifted up in the air.