Guerrillas survive biggest attack yet as Soviets roar into Panjshir Valley
Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan
From dawn until dusk they doggedly came.Skip to next paragraph
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First, there was an ominous distant drone. Then, tiny specks on the horizon began to sweep over the towering snowcapped Hindu Kush mountains. Wave upon wave of helicopters (often more than 100 a day) gradually approached the fertile Panjshir Valley.
They flew high to avoid guerrilla fire, but once on target, they circled like marauding sharks before coming in low to loose their rockets and bombs.
Occasionally, too, thundering MIG-23s and the new, highly maneuverable SU-24 fighter-bombers, the Soviet Union's equivalent of the American A-10, joined the gunships in their attempts to pulverize scattered mujahideen (freedom fighters) positions entrenched among vaulting rocks overlooking the main valley.
Although unable to enter the valley because of bombardments and heavy troop concentrations, we were able to move freely with Afghan mujahideen guerrillas along the mountain ridges and side valleys.
From one vantage point halfway up the Panjshir we could distinctly see the Soviet and Afghan government forces as they moved in dust-billowing columns of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and trucks along the single dirt road that runs the length of the 70-mile-long valley. Two kilometers south on the outskirts of the small mud and stone town of Onawa, stood the tents, corrugated iron huts, and supply depots of a recently established base.
Through our binoculars, we could distinguish formal rows of BM-21 ''Stalin organs,'' each capable of firing 40 rockets altogether carrying 4 1/2 tons of explosives, and giant self-propelled howitzers pointing menacingly in our direction.
At first glance, the estimated 12,000 Soviet and Afghan troops supported by such an overwhelming display of sophisticated military hardware was impressive enough. But a preliminary analysis of the offensive seems to suggest that old habits die hard and the Soviets have really learned little about fighting the mujahideen.
The Soviets still persist in their use of heavy-handed military tactics using aircraft and tanks suitable for the plains and rolling lowlands of Europe but certainly not for the rugged mountains of Afghanistan.
The fifth Soviet offensive against the Panjshir in the past 2 1/2 years began May 17 after more than a week of heavy aerial bombardments against towns, villages, and suspected guerrilla concentrations. These were then followed by the landing of heliborne troops at different points along the valley.
Three days later, on May 20, tanks and other armored vehicles that had moved up from Kabul to Gulbahar at the mouth of the Panjshir rolled in. Within a short time, the communist forces occupied the entire length of the valley right up to Dashtriwat, the northernmost town of the Panjshir.
There are several reasons for the latest attempt at crushing guerrilla forces in the Panjshir:
* The valley has become an important resistance center. Numerous guerrilla leaders from other parts of the country have sent their men to the Panjshir for military training. As a result, it has become an acute embarrassment to the Kabul regime. There are also increasing signs that the Panjshir resistance model is beginning to spread.
* The Panjshir lies dangerously close to the strategic Salang Highway, the vital transport link between the Soviet Union and Kabul. Convoys ambushed by the guerrillas provide them with a major source of food, gasoline, guns, and ammunition for the resistance.
* Perhaps most important, the frustrated Soviet-backed Kabul regime had to make an all-out strike in an effort to reassert its control in the face of ever-increasing opposition. The Soviets were also irked by a commando raid against Bagram airbase April 25 by guerrillas. According to guerrilla sympathizers in the Afghan military, 23 helicopters and MIGs were destroyed on the ground.
Although Ahmad Shah Massoud, the young, well-organized Tajik commander of the Panjshir, possessed accurate prior knowledge of the attack through sources in Kabul, the Panjshiris did not expect the Soviet heliborne troops to move with such speed.
As a result, a considerable number of civilian inhabitants in at least three towns were prevented from escaping to their previously prepared rock shelters and cages in the surrounding side valleys and gorges. ''The Russian soldiers came as a complete surprise,'' said Laurence Laumounier, one of the two French women doctors providing basic health care in the Panjshir.
"There was serious bombing against selected villages at 6 a.m. after we had left our hospital to visit some patients in a nearby side-valley, but we were not particularly worried as we thought it was just a continuation of the previous day's bombardments. Two hours later we heard the Russians were landing.''