Afghanistan: The Soviet price one year later; Soviets toughen Afghan strategy
Paris — Twelve months since its invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union is perfecting a brutal but highly calculated strategy based on military and psychological terror, starvation, and deception as well as bribery in its attempts to break the country's omnipresent resistance to communism.
Although determined rebel activity has increased by leaps and bounds since the first waves of Soviet troops entered their rugged, primarily mountainous nation last Christmas, people who have recently returned from inside Afghanistan warn that both Moscow's tactics and the West's continued reluctance to provide defensive weapons for the poorly armed resistance are beginning to seriously undermine Afghan morale.
"There is a growing bitterness among Afghans toward the West for not giving them any guns," noted Jean-Jose Puig, president of the Paris-based Association for the Friends of Afghanistan, who last month completed a seven-week fact-finding tour of eight provinces. "Help from abroad has become a psychological necessity. They need guns to give them back their courage and pride. If this does not happen soon, it may be too late."
Sources concur that there has been little overall improvement in the defense ability of the Afghans since the invasion.Captured arms or defecting government troops have furnished the fighters with a limited number of heavy machine guns, mortars, antitank guns, and other weapons, but they must still rely on guns such as the traditional British Enfield or the more modern and highly prized Soviet AK-47 assault rifle to fend off communist planes, helicopters and tanks.
The Soviet Union's heavily armored MI-24 helicopter gunships have in particular become a traumatic obsession with the Afghans. With both civilians and fighters fair game, the gunships sow terror among the villages, farms, valleys, and mountains with relative impunity. One 14-year-old boy from Paktia Province now lying in Peshawar hospital, for example, was severely injured by a low-flying gunship while walking through a field.
"There is practically nothing the guerrillas can do against such highly destructive attacks except hide among the rocks and wait for the Soviets to leave. This is what is driving them to despair," observed American Orientalist Mike Barry on his return to Paris earlier this month from Nuristan in northeastern Afghanistan.
For the first time, he maintains, Afghans have begun talking about the possibility of losing to the Soviets if the West does not help them procure at least portable missiles to defend themselves.
Some analysts believe that the ability of the resistance to shoot down helicopter gunships could change the entire scenario of Soviet military tactics against the Afghans. Until now, Soviet troops have avoided direct combat with the guerrillas and have relied on armored vehicles and air support in their attacks against the Afghans.
Unlike the Americans in Vietnam or the French in Algeria, the Soviets are not trying to "search and destroy" guerrillas as their principle objective.Moscow is fully aware that its present 100,000-strong force is insufficient to assert any semblance of control over rural areas. Popular support for the resistance is too widespread. Only barely have they managed to dominate Afghanistan's major towns and highways.
To engage in a full-scale antiguerrilla war would require at least half a million men and prove extremely costly both in lives and equipment, analysts assert.
Instead, the Soviets appear to have adopted a longterm strategy aimed at isolating the country's vast patchwork of resistance groups. "The resistance fighter in Afghanistan is like a fish in water," said Puig. "But the Soviets have not gone fishing. They are out to drain the lake."
To achieve this, the Soviets have divided Afghanistan into seven regions to facilitate control, and only conduct military operations in the field if they contribute toward Moscow's overall strategy. In the rebelheld Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan, for example, reliable sources indicate that there is little or no fighting. The Soviets, however, have encircled the area and are seeking to seal it off from the outside world.
Dr. Claude Malhuret of Medecins sans Frontiere, one of the several French relief groups involved in bringing food and medical assistance to beleagured regions inside Afghanistan, stresses that the Soviets have adopted a policy of trying to starve the Afghans into submission. "Food is one of the main problems ," he said. "In many areas there is no one left to cultivate the land. There is severe malnutrition. People are only barely surviving."
In an attempt to halt resistance movements along the frontier regions with Pakistan, the Soviets are establishing a 15-20 mile wide strip of "no man's land" completely devoid of human life except for occasional communist enclaves. By relentlessly bombing settlements and dropping hundreds of thousands of plastic "butterfly mines" -- green for vegetated areas and brown for rocky, desert terrain -- the Soviets hope to either kill the inhabitants or terrorize them into leaving.
This "wasteland" policy to block the frontier region's 120-odd mountain passes has already succeeded in certain parts where only gutted villages, shattered irrigation canals, and deserted fields remain. A large portion of Pakistan's 1.5 million refugees originate from these border provinces.
Similarly, the Soviets regularly bomb the mountains around Kabul to prevent rebel concentrations. There have also been reports of recent heavy bombardments in the provinces of Badakhshan, Kunduz, Takhar, and Baghlan.
Another tactic has been to purposely lull areas into a false sense of security and then attack unprovoked. According to Puig, who witnessed the beginning of a six-day surprise offensive in the Andarab Valley, north of Panjshir on Nov. 1, the Soviets used 300 armored vehicles supported by helicopters to flush out resistance fighters.
Villages and fields were strafed and bombed indiscriminately, while youths as young as 16 were rounded up and press-ganged into the Afghan Army, whose ranks have dwindled from 100,000 to 30,000 through desertions.
Analysts believe that the Soviets hope to eventually pressure the inhabitants into tacitly accepting the Moscow-backed Barbrak Karmal regime.