Afghan rebel attacks on Soviets produce only 'mosquito' effect
Outside Jalalabad, Afghanistan — Shortly after dusk, the partisan groups began moving down the valley from the village. One could trace their progress in the darkness by the chain reaction of barking dogs and the defiant shouts of "Allahu akbar" or "God is greatest" as they made their way along the narrow dirt paths that led through the fields.
Sporadically, the flicker of a flashlight would break through the trees and then, just as abruptly, would dissolve into the night.
Ten miles below the rebel-controlled village, occasional eruptions of gunfire coupled with the bursting of flares and rockets indicated that other mujahideen, or rebel warriors, had already launched their nightly harassment of Soviet installations in the small town of Jalalabad along the main highway leading from Kabul to the Khyber Pass.
But the night raid tended to underscore more their strong motivation rather than the effectiveness of their firepower. Although committed to dislodging the invading Soviets from their territory, the Afghan fighters, armed with inadequate weapons, are little more than an irritant to the high-powered Soviets.
The insurgents that British photographer Peter Jouvenal and this reporter had accompanied across the 10,000-foot-high snow-covered Spin Ghar Mountains on a nine-day trek into Afghanistan still waited patiently in their compound for the decision to move. Three men anxiously sought "Allahu akbar" or insults at the Russians during the attacks.
It was a cool night. With the hissing glare of a single gas lamp chiseling stark features on their faces, the mujahideen hunched forward as they sat in a large circle, blankets over their shoulders, with their rifles nestled between their legs.
Compared to several other groups we had encountered on the way, these rebels lacked modern weapons. All they had were the traditional Enfield .303s, useless against tanks and armored helicopter gunships.
The megaphone repaired, an energetic, stocky rebel commander from Kunar Province shouted the order to leave. Several flashlights were handed out. Only 15 mujahideen of the two-score group were taking part in this sortie, however.
"Normally we only got out every other night. Each group in the area takes its turn," explained Ulfat, a military cadet from Kabul, suggesting that despite political differences there is a certain degree of battlefield coordination among the rebel factions.
"But since you have come such a long way, we will take you on jihad [holy war ]," he said. His blue eyes and striking blond hair tucked beneath his Nuristani woolen cap strongly resemble features of Alexander the Great's Greek soldiers who invaded Afghanistan in the 4th century BC.
Traveling swiftly, the group surged forward in single file through the obscurity. Flashlights were used to briefly illuminate the crossing points over the numerous knee-deep irrigation ditches that interlace the wheat, rice, and poppy fields. Choruses of frogs croaked as we passed.
A quarter moon silhouetted stone and dried-mud farm dwellings along the way. Some had caved-in roofs or walls. Others were totally destroyed. Many Afghan farmers had abandoned their homes because of communist plane, helicopter, and tank bombardments. Only the barking of dogs revealed which houses were still inhabited.
Occasionally wading across rivers with their guns held high, the mujahideen marched for more than two hours. Then, ahead of us, the cold glare of electric lights and the growl of a generator amid sporadic gunfire marked the outskirts of Jalalabad.
Halting in a stony clearing, the commander pointed to the lights and told us that it was a Soviet base. Tadzhik and Uzbek Soviet troops had been stationed there previously, but apparently many had collaborated with the Muslim mujahideen and have since been replaced by Soviets of Slavic origin. At least four officers were said to have been executed by the Russians for sympathizing with the rebels. "Our Soviet Muslim brothers refuse to shoot at us," one rebel had explained.
"You must watch from here," whispered the commander. It was apparently too dangerous for us to go any farther because of mine fields. In addition, tanks, which we could not see because of the darkness, were parked along the camp perimeter only 800 yards away.
Leaving two armed rebels with us, the bulk of the group edged forward. Suddenly the mujahideen opened up. Tracers soared through the sky and we could hear the echoing cracks of their rifles.
A searchlight from the camp immediately swept the area, but it was too far away for the rebels to knock out.
The mujahideen bullets appeared to have little more than a mosquito effect on the enemy position. Intermittently, the Russians would fire off a brief burst from a heavy machine gun or would send up a flare. But it was only token.
Heavier fighting appeared to be going on north of the town. Later, we learned the Soviets were launching a massive offensive in Kunar Province, particularly in the Nuristan areas. Much of the land and air firepower originated from Jalalabad.
Disregarding our group, several tanks began rumbling toward the northern part of the town where the mujahideen were proving to be a nuisance.
Filtering back, the mujahideen did not seem to be perturbed by their obvious lack of strike capability. Throwing all caution to the wind and chatting like schoolboys after a football match, they discussed their "attack." No one had been injured and it was doubtful that they had inflicted any damage on the Russians.
But this did not seem to matter. Their job, they said, was to make life as uncomfortable as possible for the invaders.
But the ability of the mujahideen to move right to Russian positions with complete freedom obviously irks the Soviets, who constantly seek to hit back at the insurgents during the day. Arriving back at dawn, we threw ourselves down to catch some sleep. Two hours later a rebel shook me violently by the shoulder.
"Tanks," he shouted. "The Russians are coming." Mujahideen were hastily packing bedrolls, others rushed out through the main gate, guns in their hands. While putting on my boots, the dull roar of two nearby shell explosions rocked the building.
All the mujahideen were running. One could not see the tanks for the trees, but our guide said that six of them were making their way up the valley. "They are looking for our hide-outs," he said.
"You see," said our guide, "if we had missiles or anti-tank guns, we could fight back. But we have nothing."