Afghan guerrillas fear Soviet victory unless military tactics improved

Nearly four years after the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan's brutal and ravaging war continues unabated, now largely ignored by the rest of the world. When Red Army troops entered Afghanistan in December 1979, few members of the Soviet military high command expected to encounter such determined popular resistance.

Fighting would no doubt drag on for some years, it was presumed, but at a tolerably low level. Eventually, it would peter out in the face of sheer military might and diminishing lack of local support.

But the Kremlin's notion of a quick repeat of the ''basmachi'' (bandit) anticolonial revolts in Muslim Central Asia, when Bolshevik forces ruthlessly brought the bulk of the region's nationalists to heel in the early 1920s, was soon shattered. Within months, the Soviets came to realize that Afghanistan would be no walkover and began a long-term strategy aimed at quashing all forms of opposition.

Soviet-Afghan government forces still retain a semblance of control over Kabul and other cities, while the mujahideen (holy warriors) ''hold'' most of the countryside. Just as aerial bombings and ''cordon and thump'' operations against guerrilla strongholds or villages suspected of resistance affiliations remain a regular feature of the Soviet campaign, attacks against military convoys, power stations, and government buildings are part of Afghan anti-communist tactics.

Overall, however, the war has gone through considerable change since the early days of the occupation. Military tactics continue to dominate Moscow's efforts, but economic and politically subversive measures are playing an increasingly impairing role.

So far, the mujahideen have given few indications of buckling under. If anything, they have stepped up their activities over the past several months, notably in and around the capital. Yet resistance leaders are aware that unless they can maintain momentum as well as deal with their own internal problems, the Soviets can expect to gain in the long run.

The Soviets have not sought a full military solution, as suggested by their unwillingness to drastically expand their original occupation contingent, now estimated at 105,000 men. But major offensives such as those in the Panjshir, Ghazni, and Herat areas have hardly hindered mujahed activities.

Nevertheless, the Afghans still have far to go. Political divisions and internal rivalry have done much to harm the mujahideen. Their struggle also lacks coordination and direction. The Soviets have adeptly exploited these drawbacks.

Although Islam has played a decisive role in galvanizing the Afghans into a ''jihad'' (holy war) against the communists, it has failed to provide them with the ideology and organization needed for a disciplined liberation movement.

Given the Afghans' varied ethnic backgrounds and strong, often obstinate individuality, regional or tribal allegiances will probably figure for a long time to come. Even the Soviets have confronted this in trying to build up the Afghan Communist Party.

The Afghan resistance is certainly better armed than in the first year of the invasion. Most front-line mujahideen now carry the coveted AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifle, which is used by the Soviets. Traditional British-style Enfields, however, remain the backbone weapon of the ordinary, part-time partisan. Most guerrilla units have at least a mortar launcher or RPG-7, perhaps a heavy machine gun if they are fortunate. But ammunition shortages often prevent guerrilla units from launching sustained attacks. ''What can you do with only seven or eight rounds, when it takes at least three to aim properly,'' complained one commander.

Similarly, the resistance still lacks anti-aircraft weapons. Although more Soviet aircraft, including occasional MI-24 helicopter gunship, are being shot down, guerrillas in many parts of the country are unable to defend themselves against air attack. This vulnerability to bombings has obliged many villagers to restrain support of the guerrillas.

The mujahideen have learned a great deal. But commanders capable of developing effective regional strategies and adapting to changing Soviet tactics are still rare.

All too often, guerrilla groups prefer traditional hit-and-run assaults against symbolic but militarily useless targets. Others have made non-aggression pacts with local government troops, thus bringing fighting to a standstill in some areas.

The Soviets continue to launch large offensives against suspected guerrilla positions, but they have become more selective.

''The Russians are no longer wasting their military efforts on mujahideen who pose no real threat. They are only interested in those who threaten to develop into a strong regional force,'' said Abdul Haq, a Hezb-i-Islami commander from the Kabul region.

As part of their strategy to establish a credible Afghan war effort as well as to reduce Soviet casualties, estimated by varying sources at between 15,000 and 30,000 dead or wounded, Moscow has also stepped its efforts to involve local government forces, notably the defection-ridden Afghan Army as well as the more reliable, and better paid, militia, known as the ''guardians of the revolution.''

One recently introduced tactic is the interdiction of mujahed supply lines. Ever since the invasion, Western observers have wondered why the Soviets never bothered to lay ambushes for guerrilla horse or camel caravans bringing in weapons, ammunition, and other goods from Pakistan.

On several occasions in the past, this reporter accompanied weapons caravans often passing through exposed, open areas. Apart from the danger of ''butterfly mines'' scattered by aircraft over known supply routes or the odd helicopter patrol, there was virtually no sign of Soviet interdiction attempts.

This has now changed. In July, for example, the Soviets succeeded in ambushing a major guerrilla convoy accompanying a group of French doctors and Western journalists in the Kohistan area north of Kabul. Over 100 Afghans were reported killed or wounded.

Resistance forces have sought to counter such efforts by attacking government bases in order to make it too dangerous for them to send out patrols. This is evidently not sufficient to reduce the threat.

[Seven Afghan MIG-21 fighter jets flew into Pakistan Sept. 18 and bombed a village near the border town of Parachinar, Radio Pakistan reported. This was the first such incursion into Pakistan since December 1981. The area is reportedly a supply center for mujahideen forces operating in Afghanistan.]

Poor communications and regional coordination as well as a lack of basic military training are some of the reasons behind the failure of so many resistance groups to adopt improved tactics or even the most elementary precautionary measures. While some groups have established walkie-talkie setups to monitor communist troop movements, most mujahideen must still rely on hand-carried messages.

''It often takes two, three, even four weeks for news to arrive from one area to another,'' observed Col. Abdul Rahin Wardak, deputy supreme military commander of the ''moderate'' unity (alliance). ''This makes it extremely difficult to coordinate local operations or keep one another informed. Until we have better communications we cannot even hope of launching simultaneous offensives in different parts of the country.''

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.