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Afghanistan war: lessons from the Soviet war

In the Marjah offensive of the Afghanistan war, a reporter hears echoes of the Soviet war.

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APPROACHING THE PANJSHIR THAT SUMMER of 1982, we skirted the massive Bagram Air Base, today run by the Americans but then a hugely fortified Soviet bastion blistering with helicopter gunships and MiGs. On reaching the outer edges of the mighty Hindu Kush, we encountered groups of refugees hiding among the gorges. Days earlier, Massoud had evacuated the area's 50,000 or more people, somewhat less than the population affected by the Marjah campaign. He did this to minimize civilian casualties and to give his fighters free rein.

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Before dawn the morning after we arrived, we could hear the ominous drone of helicopters. As the throbbing grew louder, tiny specks appeared on the horizon, gunships sweeping over the jagged snowcapped peaks like hordes of wasps. Soon the hollow thud of rockets and bombs were pounding guerrilla positions. Intermittently, pairs of MiG-23 jets and the new highly maneuverable SU-24 fighter bombers shrieked across the skies dropping their loads.

With two journalist colleagues, I climbed to a 7,000-foot vantage over the valley. Dozens of front-line guerrillas, looking like Cuban revolutionaries with their long hair and beards, lounged among the rocks in the bright sun watching the spectacle. Grinning, they handed us glasses of tea, oblivious of helicopters roaring barely 500 meters overhead. Massoud's strategy was to empty the valley, let the Soviets in, and have fighters hit the occupation forces in their own time.

It was reminiscent of a 19th-century painting of picnickers casually watching a distant battle. We counted no fewer than 200 helicopter sorties that morning, while scores of tanks and armored personnel carriers ground their way up the riverbed, the only way to penetrate the valley because guerrillas had mined the road. Unlike the current anti-NATO insurgency, however, the use of improvised explosive devices was limited; while suicide bombers, a relatively recent tactic introduced by Al Qaeda, were never used by the mujahideen.

There seemed to be many simultaneous operations: Across the valley, M-24 gunships circled like sharks to attack guerrilla positions. Farther on, trucks mounted with rockets fired into mountainsides. Just below, a Soviet machine gun leveled off bursts against guerrillas among the boulders above. Nearby, shirtless Red Army soldiers took breaks sunning on looted carpets spread on the flat roofs of houses, while others redeployed, jogging single file through shrapnel-torn mulberry trees.

The Soviet/Afghan force quickly took the valley, proclaiming victory. The reality was far different. Massoud's experienced guerrillas suffered few casualties and, within days, launched assaults against the entrenched Red Army troops. Afghan government soldiers, too, poorly paid and disheartened, slipped out at night with their weapons to join the resistance.

Massoud eventually made a truce with the Soviets. This enabled the Red Army a "take and hold" policy with several garrisons in the Panjshir. Some civilians returned, while the guerrillas established their own concealed bases in mountains beyond. The truce was much criticized by rival groups of mujahideen, but it was part of a long-term strategy: Massoud had no intention of collaborating with the regime. Occupation troops first had to leave before any unity government could be formed. It's the same refrain today by the Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, and other opposition groups.