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Afghan fighters slowly erode Soviet control. Resistance tactics, arms, and morale have improved in past year

By Edward GirardetSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 23, 1987

Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan

The guerrillas moved in from the mountains in captured trucks, on horseback, on foot. They loaded up machine guns, mortars, rifles, and a rocket launcher. The mujahideen had come from different bases in Nangarhar Province for the assault against the government fort earlier this fall. The stone outpost, encircled by mine fields, lay 10 miles from Jalalabad, the Soviet-controlled provincial capital.

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``We're not planning to capture it. We have not got enough ammunition for that.'' said Ashnarar, one of three local mujahideen commanders. ``But we like to keep up the pressure.''

The assault came shortly before sunset. For two hours, a fiery exchange of rockets, mortars, and red tracer bullets erupted across the evening sky. Having made their point, the mujahideen withdrew. The guerrillas reported no casualties. The fort took several mortar hits. Next morning, the Soviets made no effort to send in retaliatory strike aircraft. A few government tanks clattered up the road, lobbing shells. One burst killed two women in a farm compound. But they pulled back when nearby guerrilla units opened fire. The sortie was over.

A marked difference from earlier days

Nearly eight years earlier, several months after the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, this reporter witnessed a similar operation in the same region. But in those days, the guerrillas dared attack only at night. And it was a poorly planned hit-and-run affair with mostly outdated weapons.

The Afghans' bitter struggle against Soviet occupation has since changed markedly. The guerrillas now seem to be making small but significant gains against the Soviet-backed communist regime.

The mujahideen do not have the upper hand. And talk of a turning point is premature. But they are eroding the Soviet and Afghan government presence in the countryside. They are also placing the occupation authorities under growing pressure in cities, forcing entrenchment behind security belts. For years, the Soviets have been trying to expand security belts around the small handful of population centers and main communication links under their control. Hundreds of Army, police, and militia posts, some less than 100 yards apart, dot the outskirts.

Resistance sources admit that it has become more difficult to penetrate cities such as Kabul and Jalalabad. But elsewhere, such as Kandahar and Herat, heavy fighting continues despite security forces' efforts to ``rubble-ize'' the suburbs to deny the guerrillas shelter.

Yet entrenchment is only isolating the Soviets and their Afghan surrogates from the countryside, which is being increasingly abandoned to the mujahideen. Western diplomats said Tuesday that mujahideen outside the city of Khost had repulsed Soviet efforts to break a guerrilla siege of several years.

A new sting to mujahideen attacks

Without doubt, the most significant change has been the improved supply of antiaircraft weapons, longer-range mortars, and rockets to the resistance. The introduction last year of the US-made Stinger missile, in particular, has had a profound impact on Soviet air deployment with 20 to 30 aircraft reportedly shot down every month.

For years, the Soviets have relied heavily on air assaults as part of their counterinsurgency campaign. The Hind MI-24 helicopter gunship became a symbol of terror because of its widespread use to destroy the agricultural infrastructure in resistance-held areas.

``Starting early in the war, the Soviets have tried to depopulate large areas where resistance operations could be mounted, and air power was the primary tool for this policy,'' notes David Isby, an American military specialist and author of Jane's Weapons and Tactics of the Soviet Army, a respected military study. ``Now with Stingers, they cannot use their air power in this way.''