Afghanistan: Soviets get tougher. But refined tactics fail to break guerrilla spirit
SIX years have passed since Soviet Red Army tanks first swept across the Amu Darya River into Afghanistan. To an extent, the war remains a savage stalemate with no solution in sight. If anything, Moscow's efforts to crush the country's Muslim-inspired peasant resistance have hardened significantly since Mikhail Gorbachev's rise to power last March.Skip to next paragraph
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One indication of this is Moscow's relentless devastation of the land, the continued massacre of civilians, and its divide-and-rule tactics against the Afghan resistance.
Another indication of the devastating nature of the war is the dramatic surge in casualties on both sides. Afghanistan witnessed some of the heaviest fighting of the war so far last summer in Paktia, Ghazni, Parwan, and Kandahar provinces. During this period, the International Committee of the Red Cross war hospital in Peshawar reported an unprecedented influx of up to 300 seriously wounded Afghan guerrillas a month.
Interpreting the Afghan situation remains exceedingly complex and often contradictory. The United States, for example, estimates the number of Soviet occupation troops at 118,000 with 30,000 to 40,000 more north of the border but deployed regularly in counterin- surgency operations. This represents only a slight increase of several thousand since early 1984. A year-end State Department report also puts the Soviet death toll over the past six years at 10,000.
Other sources, however, including West European diplomatic observers, argue that Moscow has increased its expeditionary force to well over 150,000.
The Soviets, these sources stress, have been establishing new bases, including one in Nimruz Province with the longest runway in the country; expanding security belts around Kabul and other towns; and operating on more fronts. Increased Soviet commitment
``All this has required more manpower,'' said one European. Both Pakistani and resistance sources put the Soviet troop number at more than 200,000.
Whatever the figures, the Russo-Afghan war appears to have undergone dramatic changes since this correspondent's last visit to northeastern Afghanistan in the summer of 1984.
Overall, the mujahideen (holy warriors) still hold 80 percent of the countryside, while the Soviets and their Afghan surrogates still seek to consolidate their control over the cities, military base areas, and the main axis points. Over the past 18 months, neither side has been able to claim any decisive victories. But there are strong indications that the Soviets have been gradually gaining the upper hand in parts of this central Asian nation -- a view not necessarily shared by Western diplomats monito ring the war.
``Both sides have strengthened their positions,'' insisted one Western embassy official in Islamabad. ``Although the Soviets have assumed much of the initiative since 1984 and have expanded their war, we believe that the mujahideen are coping. They are fighting better, and they are equipped with better weapons.''
Yet, according to various guerrilla commanders, international relief workers, Western journalists, and other observers, resistance capabilities have deteriorated in a number of provinces. Mujahed centers in Balkh, Badakshan, Nimruz, and even Ghazni have suffered badly from an increasingly mobile helicopter war, ambushes by special forces, subversion, and the loss through death -- in battle or by assassination -- of key commanders. Soviet assaults getting more focused