Soviets' dismal four years in Afghanistan
The Soviet Union has now entered its fifth year of occupation in Afghanistan. For the Red Army, fighting in this Central Asian country, its first armed conflict on foreign soil since 1945 has lasted longer than World War II. Nevertheless, its efforts to crush a headstrong and popularly supported resistance movement continue to prove a failure.Skip to next paragraph
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As before, the war remains a military standoff with no political settlement likely in the near future. Tragically, it promises to be a drawn-out and dismal affair.
The Kremlin persists in prosecuting a long-term strategy consisting of brute force and KGB-style subversion. The mujahideen (holy warriors), for their part, have managed to defy all predictions of defeat by preventing the regime of Afghan President Babrak Karmal from establishing any semblance of control beyond the towns.
At present, the resistance ''holds'' roughly 85 percent of the countryside. It regularly infiltrates the capital by night and occasionally by day.
The nature of Soviet involvement still contrasts strikingly with that of the United States in Vietnam. Unlike the Americans, who at the height of the war deployed more than half a million men in Indochina, the Soviets have maintained a low-level holding operation in and around the main urban areas, military bases , and communications links.
And with no uncensored press coverage and with no antiwar pressure at home, the Kremlin has a virtual free hand in its war effort.
It has only slightly escalated its initial commitment of 85,000 invasion troops to today's 105,000 to 110,000, plus another 30,000 just across the Afghan border. Among these, up to five Air Assault Battalions of commando-style rangers , supported by helicopter gunships, have proved particularly effective in anti-insurgent operations.
But reports indicate that the Soviets, who are spending as much as $3 billion a year on the occupation, have begun to suffer comparatively high casualties. Morale among the conscripts is said to be low, with drug use, notably heroin, on the rise.
By the time of the US pullout from Vietnam in 1973, after more than 10 years of direct military involvement, nearly 60,000 Americans had been killed in combat. In Afghanistan, after four years of fighting and with a quarter of the troop commitment, the Soviets may have lost between 10,000 and 15,000 men (some reports suggest up to 30,000), with twice as many injured. Although combat losses total well over 100 a week during the heavier summer and autumn fighting periods, many casualties are thought to be the result of accidents and disease.
Large-scale military offensives involving massive air support combined with improved ground tactics still characterize anti-insurgency efforts against the more prominent guerrilla fronts. Increasingly, the Kremlin is relying with some success on a KGB-inspired ''divide and rule'' strategy aimed at gradually undermining the opposition: infiltration of mujahed groups, retaliatory raids against civilians, economic blockades, bribery, truces, and intimidation.
At the same time, the Kremlin is seeking to strengthen its surrogate Afghan regime. By introducing political, economic, and religious initiatives, it hopes to broaden communist appeal among a primarily Muslim and traditionalist people, who have always deeply distrusted a strong central government.
One indication of Moscow's long-range intentions has been the dispatching of an estimated 20,000 young Afghans to the USSR for education and indoctrination. Aimed at swelling the ranks of the Communist Party, now figured at 50,000 to 80, 000 card holders, they are also intended as fresh cadre for a new Soviet-style Afghan society.
Whether such Sovietization will succeed is questionable. The Kremlin, for instance, has never managed to stifle nationalist and Islamic tendencies in its own Muslim republics, which were forcibly annexed during the 1920s.
In Afghanistan, less than 15 percent of party members are thought to be convinced communists. And even among the leading Parcham (Banner) faction, the Soviet embrace presents a quandary. There are mutterings of resentment at the manner in which the Russians have extended their reign, treating them as colonial vassals rather than comrades-in-arms. Yet Parchamites know they are despised as collaborators by much of the population and remain inextricably bound to the Soviets for survival.
Without doubt, the mujahideen still suffer from numerous and often severely debilitating drawbacks. Poor general training, insufficient antiaircraft weaponry, and an archaic communications system are but a few.