Unity and the Afghan resistance

By , Thomas E. Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, spent nearly 10 years in Afghanistan.

In the 20 months prior to last December's invasion, Afghans were embroiled in a civil war pitting Soviet-supported Afghan Marxists against various traditional , religious, and political elements, each with its own reason for being in opposition. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, however, has transformed this civil war into a war of resistance. Urban Marxists and Soviet-trained Afghan military have defected and joined the underground movements and the resistance forces. The Soviet invasion has created a national unity of objective and purpose. Afghans want the Soviet forces out of their country; they want a free and independent Afghanistan.

In creating this, a cause around which all Afghans can unite, it is ironic that the Soviet occupation may have produced that which eluded successive Afghan governments of previous decades -- an active Afghanistan nationalism.

Yet one of the most common statements encountered in analyses of the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan is that the Afghans are woefully lacking in unity in their resistance to this expansionism by their northern neighbor. In underscoring this perceived lack of unity, Afghan freedom fighters have been variously referred to in our media and by some officials of the Carter administration as roving bands of nomads and tribesmen, as Muslim rebels (thereby implying that their motivation is based on religious fanaticism), and even as bandits.

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The use of these pejorative appellations by sources in the US betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the dynamics of Afghan socieyt and culture. Not coincidentally, the Soviet news agency, Tass, has deliberately portrayed the freedom fighters as murderers and plunderers in the same tradition that Russian imperialists followed in dealing with those who resisted their expansion into Central Asia more than half a century ago.

The media, perhaps due to their inability to move freely in and out of Afghanistan in order to produce first-hand reports on the conditions and fighting therein, have become fixated on the squabbles evident between the various Afghan groups and political alliances in Pakistan. While each of these groups has varying degrees of influence and contact inside Afghanistan, and some have considerable fighting experience within as well, it must be understood that the burden of the fighting is being borne primarily by units inside Afghanistan who may or may not have links with the groups in Pakistan.

These units operate primarily in those regions which they inhabit, inspired by their own perception of the nature of the threat to their cherished, age-old way of life. The manner of organization is indigenous, effective, and generally democratic. Allegiance to one's leader is rooted in centuries of custom and tradition and is not lacking in discipline. There are currently nearly 100 such units active in the eastern regions of Afghanistan alone. Other units, similarly bound by ethnic, tribal, religious, and local ties, are to be found in most of the valleys, villages, and urban centers throughout the country.

What would be the advantage to be gained in constructing an elaborate organization under the circumstances confronting the Afghan freedom fighters? They do not possess the surfeit of weapons enjoyed by other well-known guerrilla movements. (In some areas only one freedom fighter in ten has any weapon whatsoever.)

The Afghan terrain, the ethnic, linguistic, and religious configuration of Afghan society, and, above all, the overwhelming military communication resources and tactical mobility of the enemy render the current approach of the Afghan resistance vital to its legitimacy and viability. After all, who would have projected a year ago that the Soviets would still be so tenaciously resisted in their efforts to subjugate the Afghan people?

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