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Afghan winter: US foe or ally?

US officials say superior technology means a cold-weather advantage. But Afghans have experience.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 8, 2001


Ask Manab Khan what it is like to soldier through the winter in Afghanistan - as US-led forces have pledged to do - and the fighter for the rebel Northern Alliance shudders.

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He tells of the soldiers he found dead in the snow last winter near Sia (Black) Mountain, a featureless expanse of worn rock controlled by the ruling Taliban.

It wasn't a particularly hard winter, he recalls from his frontline position near Kabul, the Afghan capital. But "buried in the snow I found three Taliban, hunkered down with their hands clenched under their chins, their heads down, like this," Mr. Khan says, dropping to a fetal position on his haunches, as if trying to keep warm.

"They laid their Kalashnikov rifles out before them," he says, "They had frozen to death."

It's a cautionary tale for any foreign army that underestimates the harsh climate here. The Russians - who fought in the snow against their own successive invaders, from Napoleon to Hitler, could always count on "General Winter" to be a staunch friend and ally. But not in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

American military officials assert that superior technology will give their troops a cold-weather advantage. Yet brutal weather conditions here - from capricious lashing winds, to freezing rain and deepening snow that closes supply routes - have already resulted in American casualties, helicopter crashes, and stalled Special Forces operations, US military officials say.

Afghan fighters - on both sides - say they've always fought in winter. If US military planners rely heavily on the 15,000-strong Northern Alliance forces, this bitter season could prove more of a mixed blessing than a complete write-off, alliance officials contend. Alliance commanders near the key northern city of Mazar-e Sharif said yesterday that American airstrikes had been "very effective" in helping to pave the way for some rebel advances.

The mujahideen fighters who defeated the Soviets say they always had the upper hand over the mechanized and airborne Soviet units in winter - for the same reasons that the Taliban could have a tactical edge over any American ground troops. "We always attacked the Soviets in the winter, because they were not able to fight as well. It was a real advantage for us," says alliance Gen. Mohammad Sharif Tawasly, who has fought through more than 20 Afghan winters. "They couldn't bombard us, they couldn't supply their soldiers. It will be the same for the Americans."

One ambush, General Tawasly remembers, was successful because of the snowfall. His troops dug a trench beside a road, covered themselves with snow, then jumped up and destroyed the first and last vehicles of a 40-vehicle convoy, trapping the rest.

"Then we shot them as we wanted," Tawasly says, laughing briefly at the memory. Some 200 Soviet troops died, he estimates. "Such fighting caused the Soviets to leave Afghanistan."