Soviet troops stumble in Afghanistan

Major Yuri of the Soviet Army's transport command in Tashkent would probably have a few sharp comments about US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance's latest plan for a neutral Afghanistan.

Major Yuri is a Soviet regular with a wife and a nine- year-old daughter in Kazakhstan and 11 years of soldier- ing behind him. He has spent the past two months escorting convoys of ammunition, food, and radio equipment from the Soviet Union across the Amu Darya River and over the Hindu Kush Mountains to Kabul.

On just one convoy in January he lost four of his men to sniper fire from Afghan guerrillas. He says he does not like Afghanistan -- and it is not difficult to see why.

Muslim guerrilla resistance in the country has grown rather than decreased in the past five weeks. Long stretches of Afghanistan's main highways -- which were still in government hands when the Soviets arrived in Kabul last December -- have since fallen under the control of the mujahideen, the "holy warriors" of Islam whom the West theoretically supports.

At the same time, the Afghan Army has suffered further defections. The 9th Division at Jalalabad, for example, has virtually ceased to exist since many of its soldiers went over to the guerrillas, taking their modern automatic rifles with them.

In the Afghan countryside, the Soviet Air Force is using helicopter gunships to strafe and bomb Afghan villages, recreating in Southwest Asia some of the worst aspects of Vietnam and Southeast Asia.

When Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev sanctioned the Red Army's advance into Afghanistan last year, he could not have foreseen the events that have taken place since then. That the Russians failed to predict the strength of rebel resistance was only the first of their mistakes.

When the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, they found no military opposition but they nonetheless sent in their frontline units, assisted by armored regiments from the other Warsaw Pact nations. They poured half a million men into Czechoslovakia.

Yet they sent only one frontline division into Afghanistan: the 105th Parachute Division was dropped into the Hindu Kush to secure the Salang Pass for Soviet transport columns traveling to Kabul. But five other divisions were second-line units composed of soldiers who had never served in East Europe and never seen the Soviet-Chinese border.

Many of the Soviet units now in Afghanistan come from the Red Army's Caucasus and southern Asia commands. Soviet troops from Tadzhikistan and Uzbekistan -- most of whom speak Farsi and can therefore talk fluently to the loyal Afghan troops -- had difficulty in communicating with their Russian commanders.

Many Soviet units arrived without any briefings on the military resistance in Afghanistan. A group of Russian soldiers who identified themselves as Volga Germans and who spoke German as their first language admitted they did not know the religion of the rebels. Major Yuri's transport column, with which I traveled for more than five hours through the mountains, had brought no maps of Afghanistan with them. At one point in that journey last January, Major Yuri had to borrow my own tourist map to identify the villages along his line of advance toward Kabul.

This is not how one of the most powerful armies in the world is expected to behave. When the major's column came under fire, several of his soldiers stood in the road without realizing the necessity of taking cover. Others fixed bayonets as if they were about to face a mass attack.

They look for all the world like figures from a World War II movie. And their actions may, indeed, have been prompted by some distant general's fading memories of how old wars were fought.

For the most salient feature of the Russian intervention in Afghanistan has been the Red Army's lack of combat experience. The Americans fought for years in Vietnam, and the British have had their battles in Kenya, in Aden, and more recently, in Northern Ireland.

The French and the Belgians have parachuted out of the sky in Central Africa during the past two years. But the Russians came to Afghanistan with only a few skirmishes along the Chinese border to season their armies.

It has been a harrowing experience for them. And, despite their overwhelming technical superiority and their immense firepower, things are not likely to get any easier.

The five groups of mujahideen guerrillas are slowly creating some form of political unity. Around the western Afghan city of Kandahar, for instance, the rebels are united and are posting notices around the bazaar -- signed by representatives of all five movements -- calling on all their people to wake up and addressing Russian troops in these words: "Sons of Lenin, what are you doing here?"

It is clear, too, that the rebels are increasingly well armed. Around Jalalabad, they now are using mortar and anti-tank rockets. Although they have not yet received any ground-to-air missiles, they have brought down one Soviet helicopter south of the city by hitting it with automatic rifle fire. They could not have done that two months ago. But their old Lee Enfield rifles -- the British service weapon of World War II -- are being replaced by brand new Russian Kalashnikovs.

Reports from Washington that these recycled Soviet weapons are being furnished with CIA assistance cannot be substantiated with any hard evidence. Most of the rifles probably come from defecting Afghan troops who were originally armed with Russian AK- 47s. There are growing rumors around Jalalabad that the US is giving "real" help to the guerrillas and that these references are not intended to imply that only money is being given to the rebels.

All this does not mean, however, that the Afghan rebels can win. And in the Pakistani city of Peshawar their ideological leaders naively try to outbid their rivals in the rebel cause by claiming ever more grotesquely exaggerated victories over Russian troops.

If the Soviets decide to drop any further pretense of "mutual cooperation" with the Afghan government of Babrak Karmal and annex the country, they will probably pour in hundreds of thousands of reinforcements. The postwar pogroms which the Soviets initiated against their own western minorities and the transhipments of whole ethnic communities across Russia set a precedent that can always be revived in Afghanistan. At least one very well-substantiated report suggests several hundred Afghan political prisoners have been held captive in the Soviet city of Tula, about 130 miles south of Moscow, since 1978.

What the Soviets dearly need is the active support of the Afghan Army. The Karmal government has promised increased pay for its remaining loyal troops, and it has lifted threats of punishment against those Afghans who dodged their country's draft under the previous two left-wing regimes. But the Army continues to disintegrate.

In Jalalabad, an unofficial agreement exists between some Afghan units and the rebels whereby both sides avoid shooting each other unless they are personally attacked. Thus the Afghan casualty rate there stands at only two or three dead a week, but the city's electricity and gas supply have been cut off for months because the rebels blow up the supply lines with impunity.

Around Jalalabad, local Afghan Army units have been withdrawn. They were, after all, scarcely enthusiastic about watching the Soviet Air Force bombing their home villages. Instead, Afghan troops from the far northeast and from the western city of Herat have been drafted into the Pakistan border area. Even so, several officers there have confirmed privately that there was a near mutiny in the 11th division at the beginning of February when the troops demanded more home leave.

Thus the Afghan Army -- with a few notable exceptions in Kabul -- is a rubber sword. Its continued existence is essential to provide a political facade of national independence, but its military presence is fast becoming a liability to the Soviet troops.

In the Soviet Union, where soldiers have traditionally played a more powerful political role in military decisions than they have in the West (except in world wars), the generals of the Red Army are unlikely to countenance any kind of withdrawal, even with a face-saving formula of guaranteed neutrality in Afghanistan. The current widsom in Kabul is that the Russians will master their recalcitrant client kingdom "when the snows melt" -- when Russian troops can move at will over the countryside unhampered by the permafrost that has locked itself over most of the nation. There are signs that a "spring offensive" already is beginning.

But Russia has secured its greatest victories in history -- Moscow in 1812 and Stalingrad in 1942 -- in weather far colder than in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the rebels are using the same phraseology. Just wait until the snows melt, they tell you, then the Soviets will dearly regrets their invasion. Both sides may be right; in which case, the world is going to watch a long war in Afghanistan.

First of two articles. Next: The writer, a correspondent for the Times of London, assesses the political-diplomatic outlook.

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