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Soviets using Afghan invasion as combat lab

By Stephen WebbeStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 26, 1981


As the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan moves into its second year, defense analysts here are trying to assess just what impact battling Afghan insurgents has had on Moscow's military machine.

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According to John Collins, senior specialist in national defense at the Library of Congress, Soviet commanders are "having a bully opportunity to test equipment and blood their troops" in Afghanistan. "They're going to find out where the weak points in their helicopters are; where the weak points are in their wheeled vehicles, their tracked vehicles, their small arms, and their artillery."

But Colonel Collins, author of the recently published and much-acclaimed "US-Soviet Military Balance," stresses that the Soviet Union is fighting "a very specialized, small- scale war" in the country. "They're involved in a hyper-specialized kind of combat and what will work there does not necessarily mean it's going to work somewhere else very well."

He doubts, for instance, that the weapons and equipment -- chiefly helicopters and light arms -- would be appropriate for a seizure of Persian Gulf oil, requiring, as it would, the close coordination of airborne forces and armored columns.

But an academic source with government contacts interviewed by the Monitor contends that the experience being gained by Soviet forces in Afghanistan would serve them well if they were ordered to march on Iran or, more important, China, which, he says, the Kremlin views as its chief enemy.

Moscow is thought to have between 80,000 to 100,000 men in Afghanistan. Initially, according to a Pentagon source, Soviet forces set up civil action programs to win over the population. But faced with a wave of assassinations "they went from winning the hearts and minds to getting their attention through other ways," he says. Soviet occupation troops are "pretty oppressive," particularly in the countryside, he adds. Villages suspected of succoring guerrillas are leveled, their crops destroyed, and their livestock either slaughtered or stolen. As a consequence, he observes, there are 1.4 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

The Pentagon source adds that Soviet forces have made extensive use of antipersonnel mines in Afghanistan, seeding whole areas with them and drastically reducing the night movement of guerrilla bands. Armor has not proved particularly effective in the country, the source continues, noting that tanks and armored personnel carriers have been ambushed and mined. He adds, moreover, that air power has achieved little. "It's very difficult to hit a handful of people with a sophisticated aircraft."

The source insists that there is "no verification whatsoever" for reports that the Soviet Union has used lethal gas in Afghanistan. Such gas as has been employed, he asserts, was probably "a riot-control type agent." But Colonel Collins maintains that the poor performance of both tactical aircraft and helicopters in Afghanistan "gives considerable credibility" to claims that Soviets forces have used chemical weapons in Afghanistan. He explains that nerve gases "go into holes, go into caves -- they'll do all kinds of things you can't do with a point-to-point bullet or a rocket, or any other kind of armament on an aircraft."

The academic source declares that, to Soviet commanders, gas "is simply one more weapon to be used when the tactical situation justifies it -- particularly against people to whom Western journalists do not have ready access."