Afghan resistance: familiar pattern?

The following analysis is based on the writer's four trips into Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion of December 1979. He returned from his most recent 350 -mile trek into the Russian-occupied country last month. This is the last of a series of articles.

Ever since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan more than 21/2 years ago, Western analysts have sought to draw parallels with the wars in Vietnam and Algeria.

The conflicts remain substantially different. But some familiar patterns are beginning to emerge.

The Soviets have undoubtedly paid considerable attention to the lessons of Indochina and North Africa. And, so far, Moscow has refrained from entering into a full-scale military commitment in Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, they have permitted themselves to become embroiled in a conflict they seem unlikely to win under present conditions.

Whatever the original reasons for invading Afghanistan, Moscow has adopted a policy of limited containment based on heavy aerial bombardments, sporadic military, cordon-and-thump operations against resistance strongholds, and a combination of psychological and economic pressure on local populations. And just as American attempts at defeating the Viet Cong largely through reliance on heavy armor and air power failed, the Soviets are facing a similar predicament.

So far, the Russians' anti-insurgent methods have seemed better suited to the plains of Europe than to the mountains of Afghanistan. Certainly, they have made little headway in their efforts to neutralize the guerrillas.

With a few notable exceptions, the Russians have been reluctant to expose their troops to direct engagements. Instead, they have preferred to stick to the security of their armored vehicles.

This means that they have not suffered huge numbers of casualties. But, given the present Soviet military strength (an estimated 100,000 men), military analysts maintain that Moscow simply does not have the manpower to maintain an effective containment policy.

Some analysts question the feasibility of the Russians ever being able to contain the guerrillas at all considering Afghanistan's terrain and growing resistance capabilities.

The Americans in Vietnam, on the other hand, with more troops at their disposal, sought to clamp down on insurgent movements and protect military installations by sending out ''search and destroy'' patrols. The Russians do not. One Western observer, who witnessed the war in Indochina, found it incomprehensible that the Soviets would allow resistance groups to pass within a mile of Bagram (Moscow's most important airbase in Afghanistan) in broad daylight. Guerrilla caravans move back and forth regularly along major nomad routes without any attempts at interdiction.

What started out as a disorganized, untrained rabble of turbaned fighters using romantic frontier methods and weapons today is developing into a formidable guerrilla force. In many parts of Afghanistan this year, both resistance and foreign observers have reported a considerable rise in guerrilla attacks against communist installations, convoys, and supporters.

The recent apparent failure of a massive Soviet and Afghan government attempt to crush the resistance in the strategic Panjshir Valley could well prove to be a watershed in Soviet policy toward Afghanistan. Just as containment failed in Vietnam, Moscow may now have to sit down and rethink its present strategy. Its choices are limited:

* Continue with more of the same.

* Beef up its present forces and adopt more aggressive tactics.

* Seek a political and diplomatic settlement.

The first option promises a gloomy, drawn-out conflict, with the guerrillas steadily improving their fighting ability through better training, organization, and weaponry. A rise in convoy ambushes, direct attacks against military installations, and urban terrorism could be expected.

The guerrillas also have threatened to spill their activities across the border into the Soviet Union. Some groups already are claiming adherents among Soviet Muslims in the Soviet autonomous republics. For instance, they claim 2, 500 card-carrying Jamiat-e-Islam members in Tadzhikistan. There are unconfirmed reports of Afghan guerrilla attacks against Soviet government offices and police stations.

The second option presents a heightened continuation of an already acrimonious conflict. Military analysts maintain that Moscow would have to pour in at least half a million troops to even start being effective. In order to achieve the recommended 10-to-1 ratio for combating an insurgency, the Soviets would require, quite unrealistically, up to 3 million men. There are probably at least 80,000 full-time armed guerrillas at present fighting in Afghanistan, but as many 500,000 gun-carrying militiamen could be mobilized if it really came to the crunch.

Analysts also doubt whether the Soviet Union is even militarily capable of strengthening its present contingent with an additional 100,000 men by deploying vast numbers of troops away from its Eastern European and Chinese frontier positions. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, while providing a live combat training ground for troops, is also causing a severe drain on Moscow's strained economic resources.

An escalation of the Afghan war could furthermore damage Moscow's reputation among the nonaligned countries to an extent it is not willing to risk.

The latter choice appears to be the most feasible. Soviet diplomats and policymakers have privately acknowledged that they have made a mistake in invading Afghanistan. Although some maintain that it will be necessary to continue fighting until the resistance is exhausted or has accepted communist authority, others have indicated that Moscow is looking for a way out without losing face. The recent ''proximity'' talks in Geneva between Pakistan and the Kabul regime are perhaps a sign of this.

The guerrillas have far to go before they can hope to approach the organizational and combat dexterity of the Viet Cong. The Vietnamese had more than 40 years to improve on such skills. Similarly, despite the basic similarities of terrain, the Afghans could learn a great deal from the National Liberation Front experiences in Algeria. Nevertheless, for a nation of at least half a dozen vastly conflicting ethnic and tribal cultures, a 90 percent illiteracy rate, and a narrow intellectual base, the Afghan resistance has proven to be more resilient than the Russians, or many Western analysts for that matter, expected.

The guerrillas continue to function as a broad patchwork of independently operated groups loosely tied to the political parties based in Peshawar, Pakistan. But the guerrillas' abilities vary from region to region. This depends on the intelligence, organizational, and military qualities of the commanders. While some have become extremely adept in the art of modern guerrilla warfare, others remain totally and sometimes ludicrously incompetent.

The Panjshir offensive, Moscow's largest since the December 1979 invasion and its fifth in the region, has been costly both in lives and expense. It has also been detrimental to Moscow's image. Despite propaganda attempts by both Radio Kabul and Moscow to promote a huge victory against foreign-supported bandits, the sophisticated Russian military machine has been shown to be vulnerable and less effective than might have been expected.

The valley's symbolic value as a resistance center, however, has been enhanced. Ahmad Shah Massoud, the young charismatic guerrilla commander in the valley, has become a national hero. His uniformed, battle-hardened fighters are regarded with awe wherever they go. There are also strong signs that the Panjshir model is being copied by other guerrilla groups.

In a sense, Afghanistan is witnessing a true Islamic revolution. But it bears few if any parallels to the social, political, and religious doctrine advocated by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. New local commanders, many of them young and to an extent well-educated, are emerging as potential future leaders who have risen through merit rather than inherited tribal positions.

Characterized by political moderation rather than the fanaticism Westerners tend to associate with the Islamic upheavals of today, this new breed of leaders is gradually pushing out the older, traditional chiefs and mullahs as well as threatening the exiled political organizations in Peshawar. Running their own shows in the field, they still remain dependent on the Pakistani-based political organizations for funds and a large portion of their weapons.

Nevertheless, the resistance infrastructure is becoming better organized, and outside observers have found greater military coordination among the different groups. Chaikhanas (tea houses), serving as rest hostels and local political headquarters have sprung up along the caravan routes used by the guerrillas to ferry in supplies from Pakistan. During the Panjshir offensive, hundreds of fighters from the Salang, Bamiyan, and other areas trekked down to help Massoud and his men.

Ironically, the Massouds of Afghanistan are using the very methods that Moscow has been instigating among liberation groups in Latin American, African, and other third-world countries. But unlike Moscow's often direct military support for its bevy of liberation movements, the Afghans do not receive the same benefits from the West.

Closely following in the footsteps of the czar, the Soviet Union is acting as a colonial power with the long-term aim of fully absorbing Afghanistan into its own orbit.

By invading the country and propping up a minority government that would be incapable of surviving on its own, the Soviets have established themselves as the main protagonists in the conflict. Senior Afghan government officials, for example, all have Soviet advisers who call the shots.

Using the same approach as Marxist-inspired revolutionaries, these new leaders consider it important to make the people understand why they are fighting the war. Massoud, for example, well-read in Mao Tse-tung, Ernesto Che Guevara, and the communist Vietnamese leader Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, has set up a military, political, and social organization using village structures as a base in a manner of which Lenin would have been proud.

In its first real war since 1945, Moscow is realizing that it is not the same to ask Russian soldiers to fight in a foreign country where they are hated as invaders and infidels as to ask them to defend the homeland.

In many respects, however, Russia's most formidable foe is not a military one , but Islam. Not just a religion, it is a way of life. Difficult for the Western (and Russian) mind to understand, faith is the greatest strength of the Afghan, whose whole approach to life is closely bound to his constant struggle for survival. When this was recently put to a Soviet diplomat, he dismissed it as a naive, archaic, and feudal observation.

But traveling with the Afghan guerrillas, one cannot help but be impressed by their undaunted, simple devotion. No matter how poor or terrible the conditions, the Afghan is never alone. He still has his God. The Afghan is willing to die for his religion and his homeland. He is not just mouthing words. Against this the Soviets will be hard pushed for success. Some agencies providing relief to Afghan refugees:

Afrane, 1 Avenue Racine, Maisons Laffitte, 78600 France.

Afghanistan Relief Committee, Suite 4100, 345 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. 01054.

CARE Inc., 660 First Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10016.

International Committee of the Red Cross, 7 Avenue de la Paix, 1211 Geneva, Switzerland.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.