Soviets using Afghan invasion as combat lab

As the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan moves into its second year, defense analysts here are trying to assess just what impact battling Afghan insurgents has had on Moscow's military machine.

According to John Collins, senior specialist in national defense at the Library of Congress, Soviet commanders are "having a bully opportunity to test equipment and blood their troops" in Afghanistan. "They're going to find out where the weak points in their helicopters are; where the weak points are in their wheeled vehicles, their tracked vehicles, their small arms, and their artillery."

But Colonel Collins, author of the recently published and much-acclaimed "US-Soviet Military Balance," stresses that the Soviet Union is fighting "a very specialized, small- scale war" in the country. "They're involved in a hyper-specialized kind of combat and what will work there does not necessarily mean it's going to work somewhere else very well."

He doubts, for instance, that the weapons and equipment -- chiefly helicopters and light arms -- would be appropriate for a seizure of Persian Gulf oil, requiring, as it would, the close coordination of airborne forces and armored columns.

But an academic source with government contacts interviewed by the Monitor contends that the experience being gained by Soviet forces in Afghanistan would serve them well if they were ordered to march on Iran or, more important, China, which, he says, the Kremlin views as its chief enemy.

Moscow is thought to have between 80,000 to 100,000 men in Afghanistan. Initially, according to a Pentagon source, Soviet forces set up civil action programs to win over the population. But faced with a wave of assassinations "they went from winning the hearts and minds to getting their attention through other ways," he says. Soviet occupation troops are "pretty oppressive," particularly in the countryside, he adds. Villages suspected of succoring guerrillas are leveled, their crops destroyed, and their livestock either slaughtered or stolen. As a consequence, he observes, there are 1.4 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

The Pentagon source adds that Soviet forces have made extensive use of antipersonnel mines in Afghanistan, seeding whole areas with them and drastically reducing the night movement of guerrilla bands. Armor has not proved particularly effective in the country, the source continues, noting that tanks and armored personnel carriers have been ambushed and mined. He adds, moreover, that air power has achieved little. "It's very difficult to hit a handful of people with a sophisticated aircraft."

The source insists that there is "no verification whatsoever" for reports that the Soviet Union has used lethal gas in Afghanistan. Such gas as has been employed, he asserts, was probably "a riot-control type agent." But Colonel Collins maintains that the poor performance of both tactical aircraft and helicopters in Afghanistan "gives considerable credibility" to claims that Soviets forces have used chemical weapons in Afghanistan. He explains that nerve gases "go into holes, go into caves -- they'll do all kinds of things you can't do with a point-to-point bullet or a rocket, or any other kind of armament on an aircraft."

The academic source declares that, to Soviet commanders, gas "is simply one more weapon to be used when the tactical situation justifies it -- particularly against people to whom Western journalists do not have ready access."

Although the reserves used in the December 1979 invasion were later pulled out (probably because they had served their statutory 90 days) the source believes that their call to the colors provided the Soviet Union with invaluable lessons on reserve mobilization. Pointing out that most of the reserves were Muslims from the Central Asian Military District, he suggests that Moscow studied their combat performance against Afghans, fellow Muslims, with keen interest.

The reservists appear to have performed satisfactorily. "I've heard a lot of stories of looting, rape, robbery, and so on, but I've seen nothing about any mutiny," the source observes.

He adds that a reading of Soviet military magazines suggests that many of the nation's elite airborne units in Afghanistan, who traditionally have assumed a mountain fighting role, may be withdrawn. The high command, he says, is saving "these boys for something better such as invading Poland or China." The magazines imply that motorized rifle troops will bear the brunt of the war, he says.

Combat in Afghanistan is teaching Soviet troops "a lot about air mobility in a guerrilla environment," observes the Pentagon source, surmising that the Soviet high command views the invasion as an opportunity for officers and noncommissioned officers "to get some training under fire."

Soviet casualty levels in Afghanistan are shrouded in secrecy for obvious reasons. "I would hazard a guess that they'd be very high on wounds and comparatively low on deaths," says the academic source, explaining that while the guerrillas have machine guns and rifles (albeit antiquated ones in most cases) they have very little artillery, long the grim reaper of the battlefield. "They don't have anything bigger than a 4.2-inch mortar," he avers.

An intelligence source contacted by the Monitor believes the Soviet Union is suffering more dead and wounded in Afghanistan than it might admit to even if it made public statements on such matters. On the other hand, he believes the guerrillas are making inflated claims for the casualties Moscow is sustaining in the war.

He added that the dead are not being returned to next-of-kin for burial in home towns and villages but are being consigned to large military cemeteries, where presumably their interment creates less public comment. Wounded men are said to have been dispatched to East Germany so as not to alarm the Soviet population.

The intelligence source contends that the modest size of the invasion force may indicate that the Soviet Union did not invade Afghanistan to crush the insurrection, but rather to secure major population centers and reestablish some control over the government -- something, it could be argued, it has successfully achieved.

This raises the often-debated question: Was the invasion offensively or defensively motivated? "I don't think from the Soviet perspective the two can be separated," says the academic source. "They helped themselves defensively in the sense of securing the integrity of one member of the world Communist movement, but also, at some cost, moved a step closer toward attainment of specific strategic objectives." While preventing Afghanistan's defection from the Marxist camp, as well as installing the Babrak Karmal regime and backing it with their bayonets, the Soviet leaders have moved a step closer to several goals they are thought to hanker after, including the acquisition of warm water ports on the Indian Ocean and, more debatably, the oil of the Gulf.

Although he concedes that Soviet forces have, to some extent, sapped the morale of the guerrillas, Colonel Collins warns that "a revolution is a political, economic, and social activity which has military overtones, and it is possible to decimate the population and you still haven't destroyed the idea. After all, the French completely suppressed all [rebel] military activity in Algeria and they lost the war."

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