Afghan fighters lack unity as much as guns
Peshawar, Pakistan — There are 150 of them. Short of food, weapons, and ammunition, the Turkic-featured Hazara tribesmen have trekked for 20 days from their snow-covered mountain hide-outs to seek the help of Afghan rebel leaders here in this ancient Pushtun city in western Pakistan.
None of them is armed. They all have left their precious weapons behind -- their traditional Enfield 303s their 12-bore shotguns, captured Kalashnikovs, axes, swords, and even sticks.
More than 24,000 fellow mujahideen fighters, they claim, are battling government forces in the Hazara region of central and northern Afghanistan. They say less than one-half are armed with guns.
The 150 Hazaras have reached Peshawar at the foot of the Khyber Pass by traveling mainly at night, keeping to obscure mountain trails that cannot be seen from the air. In this way they have managed to elude the Afghan government soldiers aided by Soviet armed support.
Last autumn, the Hazara guerrillas took to the hills to fight the communists. For shelter they hollowed out caves and tunnels, and built camouflaged lean-tos among the rocks. They left their women and children behind in the villages. To survive the harsh winter, they took three months' supply of food, but it began to run out.
"We are here to seek help," Hazara tribal chief Muhammad Hossein Nasseri says. His dignity and simple sincerity contrast with the publicity consciousness adopted by many of the exiled Afghan rebel leaders. "We want to fight. But to fight we need more guns and food."
since last month's Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Hazara fighters claim to have killed 300 soviet and Afghan soldiers. In return, however, they have lost more than 1,000 mujahideen. Mr. Nasseri -- who still wears a heavy, long gray overcoat covering his brown "pajama" trousers despite the relative warmth of western Pakistan's winter sunshine -- also asserts that more than 2,000 women and children have died in government or Soviet air attacks.
When pressed as to whether they had fought against Soviet combat troops and not Afghan government soldiers, the Hazaras assured this reporter that many of the soldiers killed had been wearing Soviet uniforms. Some were captured, but executed shortly afterward.
"We take no prisoners," one of the Hazara says.
Furthermore, Mr. Nasseri maintains, the Soviet soldiers captured were all of Uzbek and Tadzhik origin; they spoke either Farsi or Pashto. But among the Soviet officers killed, he says, were a number of Europeans.
Recently, the Hazara rebels have begun to move down from the hills to fight in the fields. "We are not afraid of tanks and helicopters," one tribesmen says. They claim to have shot down three Soviet MI-24 gunships since the invasion in the narrow mountain valleys of central Afghanistan.
The mujahideen also have attacked government tanks with Molotov cocktails. Women reportedly have even soaked their chadors with gasoline and thrown them burning onto the tanks or armored personnel carriers as they passed through the villages.
Despite attempts by bickering rebel factions in Peshawar to claim loyalty of the visiting Hazara tribesmen, Mr. Nasseri makes it clear that his group has come to see them all. Hoping to return as soon as possible to his highland homeland, the Hazara chief asserts, "We will take help from anyone who is willing to give it."
This somewhat illustrates the curious ambiguity of the seven-odd major rebel movements based in western Pakistan that seek to represent the national resistance of Afghanistan.
Each rebel faction claims to command vast forces of armed mujahideen. Hezb-i-Islami, for example, perhaps the most vocal and effectively organized of the Peshawar-based groups, maintains that it controls 200,000 armed men within Afghanistan. Other factions each claim to lead between 90,000 and 150,000 mujahideen. Such figures appear absurdly unrealistic to many observers here.
What seems more likely is that the mujahideen are fighting a sporadic and highly uncoventional form of resistance without any national structure. Fighting is done mainly on a local or regional level. The tribes often gather together for large attacks, but will disperse just as readily afterward.
Although the exiled factions in Pakistan encourage the impression that the future of their country rests in their hands, many of the Afghanistan-based mujahideen are totally unaware of the politics that distinguish each of the movements. "We support anyone who helps us to fight the antireligious communists in Kabul," one mujahideen says.
Communications are poor or nonexistent, making it impossible to operate a nationwide resistance movement. Lacking radios, the fighting forces maintain contact mostly by messenger or circular letter. It often takes as long as two to four weeks for news to move from one part of the country to another.
Reports of recent widespread massive fighting between government troops and the mujahideen appear to be grossly exaggerated. With winter snows and mud severely hampering movements on both sides, most of the fighting appears to have been restricted to minor attacks on military posts and convoys.
The Soviets tend to keep themselves well out of the immediate fighting arena and have pressured Afghan government troops into taking up the front-line positions. This has even been admitted by some of the Peshawar-based rebel leaders.
"We have only killed six or seven Russians in the past two weeks," says a member of moderate leader Syed Ahmed Gailani's faction in Peshwar. "The Afghans are the ones to have suffered the brunt of any bloody clashes."
Still, occasional reports of effective partisan jabs at the Russians have been filtering through. Rebel sources claim that last week's reported fighting outside Kabul was the result of a small group of mutinous Afghan soldiers who inflicted substantial Russian casualties.
Fighting also was reported last week at the Bagram military base north of the capital. There, two Afghan soldiers started a shoot-out with Russian guards before being killed. In Farah Province, near Herat in western Afghanistan, an entire 100-man Afghan company deserted and went over to the mujahideen.
In Laghman Province near the Pakistan border, mujahideen shot seven Russians in a village ambush. The road leading from Kabul to Mazir-Sharif was apparently also cut by the rebels last week for a brief spell at Charikar, 50 miles from the capital.
But most observers here feel that few serious full-scale attacks will be attempted until early spring, when the snows begin to thaw.
In Peshawar, two leading rebel groups headed by Gailani and Mujaddedi have come together to form what they term a "firm alliance to combat the Soviet-backed central government in Kabul." But the moe obvious reason behind the creation of this United Islamic Liberation Front is to attract much-needed Arab financial support.
Previously, various Arab countries including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab emirates promised several million dollars but only on the condition that the rebels unite. Presided over by Gailani, the new front has appealed to other groups to join. Its hope is to appear sufficiently unified to persuade Arab foreign ministers at the international Islamic conference oppening Jan. 26 in Islamabad that they have, indeed, got their act together.
But cynicism among the Afghans themselves is running high. Some of the groups privately maintain that they will get together only on paper; that their often diametrically opposed ideologies can never really unite.
This appears likely to prove correct since the factions' credos range from religious fanaticism to progressive modernism. Each leader wants to be the new "ayatollah." In some ways, their worst enemies are not the Russians but themselves.