Chagai Hills, southern Afghanistan Three pickup trucks roar into the guerrilla base kicking up huge billows of dust. A half dozen turbaned Afghan fighters with rifles and cartridge belts strapped to their backs jump down to greet the aged tribal leader. He gestures to the vehicles. "Tomorrow 45 of my men will go down to the plains to fight the communists."
From the surrounding camps in this desolate, barren wasteland, more fighters will emerge to join the convoy of trucks, jeeps, and tractors as it weaves its way by night down the frozen desert trails.
And with captured Kalashnikovs, traditional Enfield rifles, homemade shotguns , and even old-fashioned single shots, the mujahideen, or guerrilla warriors, will launch their hit-and-run attack against the government installations below. Then, before the first light of dawn can expose them to Russian planes, they will retreat back to the hills.
Up till now, the Soviet armed forces have not made much effort to pursue the guerrillas into their own territory. But as spring approaches, this could change. Already, the pounding of Soviet aerial bombardments against guerrilla strongholds in the mountainous regions of northeastern Afghanistan can be heard with increasing frequency. Areas like this one to the south may be hit soon, too.
With Moscow's highly disciplined and elaborately equipped military forces reportedly preparing for a massive end-of-winter offensive against the guerrillas, the question now being asked is whether Afghanistan's inadequately armed and poorly trained insurgents will be able to hold up to the expected onslaught.
Few observers feel that the Russians, despite their military superiority, will be capable of fully crushing the mujahideen. Afghanistan's rugged and often hostile countryside as well as the respected, traditional fighting ability of its tribesmen, notably the Pushtun, speak against this.
"Furthermore," one leading Muslim analyst points out, "the Afghans really have nothing to lose. They are fighting a jihad [holy war] and life means very little. If you die in battle, then it is an honor. If you live, then you keep on fighting."
By not studying their history books, the Russians may have miscalculated disastrously the unrelenting Afghan spirit, but there appears to be little doubt that the mujahideen will suffer heavily in the months to come when the Soviets start launching their attacks.
Up till now, an estimated 200 scattered, uncoordinated mujahideen groups, ranging from several dozen to 1,000 fighters each, have operated without restraint in at least 22 of Afghanistan's 28 provinces.
The Russians have tended to stick to their military bases in order to secure the overland routes, rather than seek to track down the guerrillas.
All in all, over 100,000 armed guerrillas are said to be involved in the jihad. Rebel leaders from the six major guerrilla factions based in the western Pakistan frontier town of Peshawar, however, are quick to point out that they could field four times as many fighters if there were available weapons.
Wherever you go, whether it is here inside Afghanistan or in the scattered refugee camps along the Pakistan border, the mujahideen constantly plead for better arms, especially anti-tank guns and missiles.
"Why is the West doing nothing?" reproaches one camp malik, or tribal leader, as he offers me tea in a Northwest Frontier Province village. "The Russians are not just dangerous to Afghanistan, but to Iran, Pakistan, and all the free world."
Despite Russian and Afghan government claims that China, Pakistan, and the United States are training and arming the guerrillas, I could find no evidence of this inside the refugee camps outside Afghanistan or the guerrilla bases inside the country. The only weapons I noticed, were traditional Enfield-303 rifles, artisan replicas of European guns, the occasional aged Israeli Uzi, and many captured Kalashnikovs.
Machine guns from shot-down or captured helicopters, for example, are converted by tribal gunsmiths in Pakistan to mount on pickup trucks or jeeps. Tanks brought over by Afghan Army defectors are left to rust on the ground or are hidden among the rocks and forests of the guerrilla-held area. This is the limit of their fighting sophistication.
As for military training camps, I saw no sign whatsoever. The refugee camps inside Pakistan are obviously used by many mujahideen as supply bases, particularly for food, blankets, and tents. With many mujahideen families living in the camps, too, men use them as R & R centers.
The nervous and somewhat frightened Pakistanis, however, are doing everything possible, including preventing journalists from slipping over into Afghanistan, to show the Russians that they are giving nothing more than humanitarian aid. Pakistani soldiers even confiscate mujahideen guns if they are found in the settled areas, in order not to provoke Soviet military actions across the border.
Funds have been dribbling in, mainly from the Gulf states, but they have been mainly used to buy relief supplies. In this area, however, I noted a large number of American pickup trucks used by the mujahideen for fighting purposes. The trucks had been donated by Iran. Some guerrillas also hinted that weapons might soon be forthcoming from China. But for the moment, the mujahideen seem poorly equipped to cope with Moscow's impressively lethal array of weapons that may soon be flung against them once the Russians seriously set about trying to flush them out. With as many as nine divisions inside Afghanistan once the buildup is completed, the Soviets will have more than 2,000 PT-76, T-62, and T- 72 light and battle tanks as well as over 2,500 armored personnel carriers at their disposal. They will also have 122 mm, 152 mm, and 130 mm artillery pieces.
But most serious of all, the Russians can battle the mujahideen with their highly effective MI-24 helicopter gunships, which are even more feared by the guerrillas than the cannon-firing MiG-21 and MiG-23 jet fighters.
"When the planes come in," explains one guerrilla from Paktia Province near the western Pakistan border, "you usually have time to run for cover. But the gunships can track you down in the rocks."
In most parts of Afghanistan, there appears to have been little recent fighting because of the winter snows. But, according to refugee testimonies, government forces regularly strafe and bomb villages suspected of guerrilla sympathies. Against such arms, the mujahideen can do little.
Most guerrilla attacks have been restricted to minor skirmishes against convoys, military posts, and individuals. Since the Russian invasion at the end of December, there have been no reliable reports of major battles like those fought at the end of summer and early autumn last year.
In the northern provinces of Kunduz, Takhar, and Badakhshan, however, there has been bitter fighting between Soviet troops and the mujahideen. Because that area is extremely hazardous to reach and takes at least 10 days to cross the snow-clogged mountains of the Hindu Kush by foot and by mule, journalists have been forced to rely on guerrilla messengers for details.
The insurgents claim to control most of Badakhshan Province, for example, but the Russians have now massed troops in the provincial capital of Faizabad and in the border town of Ishkashin.
Casualties appear to have been heavy on both sides. Despite the cruel weather conditions, the guerrillas have succeeded in repeatedly cutting off the main strategic overland routes from Kunduz to Faizabad. The Russians, who are being forced to fly in supplies, are expected to launch a major offensive against the strongholds once the snows begin to melt.
Staging attacks from bases inside the Soviet Union, the Russians also make sweeping assaults against the villages. A firsthand account by a mujahideen medic, recently back from Badakhshan, confirmed reports that the Russians have been using mustard gas in the area. "Many people, including women and children, have been dying in these attacks," he told me in an appeal for medication to treat the surviving victims. "There is little we can do. The people are blind, paralyzed, or suffer from severe respiratory problems and burns."
The publicity-conscious guerrilla spokesmen in Peshawar are reluctant to admit casualities. They constantly refer to devastating losses on the government side, sometimes in the thousands, but acknowledge few casualties of their own. Only when fresh refugees from Afghanistan arrive, innocently unaware of media manipulation, is it obvious that the picture is not so healthy among the mujahideen.
Although the guerrilla groups have founded an alliance in Pakistan, field forces tend to operate along divided lines. The various groups suspiciously hold each other in deep mutual contempt. "We only come together when we fight," says a member of Jamiat Islami in southern Afghanistan. "Then when the fight is finished, we go our own ways." While recently touring guerrilla bases inside Afghanistan, we would often come across another group in the middle of the desert. Our trucks would slow down as we passed. The two groups would glare at each other without a greeting or a smile and then roar off in opposite directions.
An estimated 100,000 Afghan soldiers have deserted over the past year, but not all have gone into the mujahideen. A substantial number of the guerrilla forces have received basic military training, but very few groups appear to be militarily organized. Their field operations are poorly planned or totally impromptu.
Well-organized coordinated attacks against the governments appear to be nonexistent. This is a main fault of the mujahideen. Better weapons and more ammunition hereafter is all very well, but only when the guerrilla leaders finally iron out their political divisions in Peshawar and agree on a joint liberation front, can they hope to be effective.