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Afghanistan: bleak scene for mujahideen. Arms from abroad help, but better training seen as resistance's key need

By Edward GirardetSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 22, 1986


Seven years after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the war remains an enduring - increasingly brutal - seesaw affair with heavy casualties on both sides. The armed resistance to Soviet occupation shows few signs of diminishing, according to returning Western journalists, relief workers, and guerrilla commanders known for their credibility.

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But despite their determination, the Afghan guerrillas continue to face formidable and often bleak odds in their struggle, these sources say. The guerrillas themselves say their losses in 1986 were the worst so far. But it remains difficult to get a reliable assessment of the guerrilla war because of the lack of consistent and up-to-date information from all of Afghanistan's 28 provinces.

During the first half of the year the mujahideen, as the guerrillas are known, came under heavy pressure from the Soviet-Afghan security forces, but the mujahideen have reportedly stepped up their own attacks from June onward, particularly in the Kabul region.

Despite propaganda claims on both sides, neither the Soviets and their Afghan surrogates in the capital of Kabul, nor the mujahideen, have been able to decisively alter the war's course.

The guerrillas' recent acquisition of American-made Stinger antiaircraft missiles has dramatically improved their defensive capabilities against Soviet and Afghan helicopter gunships and MIG jets, according to British journalist Radek Sikorski, who says he saw mujahideen using the missiles in October in Nangarhar Province. This confirms recent US reports.

But it is better training and tactics in modern guerrilla warfare that are more likely to make a difference, Western analysts say. According to a number of Western observers who have traveled extensively with the guerrillas inside Afghanistan in recent months, the guerrillas now have better weapons than they did during the first two or three years of the war.

But the new military equipment has not necessarily enhanced the resistance's overall fighting ability. British cameraman Peter Jouvenal, who has made 27 trips inside Afghanistan since the 1979 Soviet invasion, argues that many mujahideen, particularly those based in the Pathan, or Pushtun, provinces have learned little from the war, and are fighting as ineffectively as they did during the early days.

The Pakistanis, who control the supply of most of the weapons from outside sources, ``favor the Pushtuns,'' says Mr. Jouvenal, ``and that is why they have a surplus of weapons. ... In these areas military development has been the worst.''

Observers such as Jouvenal stress that guerrillas operating deep inside Afghanistan have enjoyed less access to advanced weaponry, but are fighting better than the Pushtuns. Commanders like Ahmed Shah Massoud in the Panjshair Valley, Ismail Khan of Herat, and Safiullah of Jhorine in the west, have been forced to adapt more readily to changing Soviet tactics than have the guerrillas who operate closer to Pakistan.

The mujahideen nearer Pakistan - through which most outside aid from the United States, China, and the Arab states is funneled - have little trouble obtaining arms and ammunition, Western observers say. But while some Pushtun commanders seem to understand the need to concentrate on a more mobile form of warfare, others have tended to adopt sedentary, conventional methods.

One example of this was the fortified guerrilla redoubt at Zhawar in Paktia Province. Equipped with antiaircraft guns, rocket launchers, and even captured tanks, the redoubt assumed a symbolic - even a prestigious - status, for a time. But it was of little military value. In April, it was destroyed by united Soviet and Afghan communist forces with heavy casualties all around.

``Perhaps [the Pustuns] learned a good lesson - not to try to keep such a big base and become immobile,'' said Sayed Majrooh of the Afghan Information Center in Peshawar.

Since the Soviet invasion in December 1979, the Kremlin has steadily honed its counterinsurgency strategy in an attempt to crush the country's primarily peasant resistance. It has also sought to broaden the base of its communist minority regime in Kabul, a regime now headed by Mohammed Najibullah, who replaced Babrak Karmal last May.

Soviet officials have privately conceded in meetings in Moscow that their involvement is like a ``bleeding wound.'' Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev recently indicated that Moscow wants out. But European analysts still regard Moscow's efforts as part of a long-term strategy to ``Sovietize'' Afghanistan.