Soviets' dismal four years in Afghanistan

The Soviet Union has now entered its fifth year of occupation in Afghanistan. For the Red Army, fighting in this Central Asian country, its first armed conflict on foreign soil since 1945 has lasted longer than World War II. Nevertheless, its efforts to crush a headstrong and popularly supported resistance movement continue to prove a failure.

As before, the war remains a military standoff with no political settlement likely in the near future. Tragically, it promises to be a drawn-out and dismal affair.

The Kremlin persists in prosecuting a long-term strategy consisting of brute force and KGB-style subversion. The mujahideen (holy warriors), for their part, have managed to defy all predictions of defeat by preventing the regime of Afghan President Babrak Karmal from establishing any semblance of control beyond the towns.

At present, the resistance ''holds'' roughly 85 percent of the countryside. It regularly infiltrates the capital by night and occasionally by day.

The nature of Soviet involvement still contrasts strikingly with that of the United States in Vietnam. Unlike the Americans, who at the height of the war deployed more than half a million men in Indochina, the Soviets have maintained a low-level holding operation in and around the main urban areas, military bases , and communications links.

And with no uncensored press coverage and with no antiwar pressure at home, the Kremlin has a virtual free hand in its war effort.

It has only slightly escalated its initial commitment of 85,000 invasion troops to today's 105,000 to 110,000, plus another 30,000 just across the Afghan border. Among these, up to five Air Assault Battalions of commando-style rangers , supported by helicopter gunships, have proved particularly effective in anti-insurgent operations.

But reports indicate that the Soviets, who are spending as much as $3 billion a year on the occupation, have begun to suffer comparatively high casualties. Morale among the conscripts is said to be low, with drug use, notably heroin, on the rise.

By the time of the US pullout from Vietnam in 1973, after more than 10 years of direct military involvement, nearly 60,000 Americans had been killed in combat. In Afghanistan, after four years of fighting and with a quarter of the troop commitment, the Soviets may have lost between 10,000 and 15,000 men (some reports suggest up to 30,000), with twice as many injured. Although combat losses total well over 100 a week during the heavier summer and autumn fighting periods, many casualties are thought to be the result of accidents and disease.

Large-scale military offensives involving massive air support combined with improved ground tactics still characterize anti-insurgency efforts against the more prominent guerrilla fronts. Increasingly, the Kremlin is relying with some success on a KGB-inspired ''divide and rule'' strategy aimed at gradually undermining the opposition: infiltration of mujahed groups, retaliatory raids against civilians, economic blockades, bribery, truces, and intimidation.

At the same time, the Kremlin is seeking to strengthen its surrogate Afghan regime. By introducing political, economic, and religious initiatives, it hopes to broaden communist appeal among a primarily Muslim and traditionalist people, who have always deeply distrusted a strong central government.

One indication of Moscow's long-range intentions has been the dispatching of an estimated 20,000 young Afghans to the USSR for education and indoctrination. Aimed at swelling the ranks of the Communist Party, now figured at 50,000 to 80, 000 card holders, they are also intended as fresh cadre for a new Soviet-style Afghan society.

Whether such Sovietization will succeed is questionable. The Kremlin, for instance, has never managed to stifle nationalist and Islamic tendencies in its own Muslim republics, which were forcibly annexed during the 1920s.

In Afghanistan, less than 15 percent of party members are thought to be convinced communists. And even among the leading Parcham (Banner) faction, the Soviet embrace presents a quandary. There are mutterings of resentment at the manner in which the Russians have extended their reign, treating them as colonial vassals rather than comrades-in-arms. Yet Parchamites know they are despised as collaborators by much of the population and remain inextricably bound to the Soviets for survival.

Without doubt, the mujahideen still suffer from numerous and often severely debilitating drawbacks. Poor general training, insufficient antiaircraft weaponry, and an archaic communications system are but a few.

Nevertheless, they have distinctly improved their overall fighting capabilities. Despite ups and downs, morale remains generally high and there are few signs that popular support has waned.

Afghanistan's vast patchwork of resistance fronts is fielding better-equipped fighters. Tactics are also more consistent with modern guerrilla warfare than before.

In particular, the mujahideen are waging their jihad (holy war) with an unprecedented degree of regional cooperation. Dozens of guerrilla commanders, such as the Panjshir Valley's Ahmad Shah Massoud, who has brought much of northeastern Afghanistan under his leadership, are coordinating simultaneous operations more readily than during the first several years of Soviet occupation.

They are also concentrating on targets that hurt the Russians most: hydroelectric installations, natural-gas pipelines, and government or military facilities, including the Soviet Embassy in Kabul.

As some partisan leaders are painfully aware, the resistance still lacks the resources and organization to cater to the needs of civilians. As more inhabitants flee what analysts are now calling Soviet ''migratory genocide,'' the mujahideen lose their most valuable asset and basis of support. Aerial bombardments or the execution of villagers accused of guerrilla sympathies have forced as many as 5 million Afghans, most of them women and children, to seek refuge in Pakistan, Iran, and elsewhere.

Disconcerting as well is the gross imbalance of humanitarian relief that is provoking many to leave. While the international community has been admirably generous in assisting Afghan refugees in Pakistan, it has almost neglected those remaining inside. A handful of European and American relief agencies have assured a trickle of aid - clothes, medication, food, and money - to the war zones.

Compared to Beirut and Central America, Afghanistan is a forgotten conflict - a remarkable fact considering that a primarily peasant resistance with limited outside assistance has bogged down a major expeditionary force representing the world's largest standing army.

Soviet strategy is banking on international opinion to forget the Afghan struggle. Already, the Kremlin has obtained a general acceptance in many quarters that Afghanistan falls within its sphere of influence.

But there are indications that Western, and notably American, opinion is beginning to grasp the implications of the continuing war. Strategically, Afghanistan is seen to play a significant regional role because of its proximity to the Gulf. But the aspirations of an independent-minded people seeking to stave off Soviet aggression are being considered worthy of accolade.

Earlier this month (Dec. 12-13), the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the US State Department cosponsored a two-day forum in Washington to focus attention on Afghanistan. Attended by analysts, government officials, relief organizers, Afghan resistance members, and journalists, the forum examined issues ranging from poor press coverage to the need for more direct aid, both military and humanitarian.

Despite official assertions to the contrary, many observers consider Central Intelligence Agency assistance to the guerrillas insubstantial. In November, 123 congressmen cosigned a resolution calling for more effective aid. When Congress reconvenes in January, resolution organizers hope to achieve 85 percent cosponsorship in order to ''override the bureacratic obstacles still blocking effective material support to the Afghan resistance.''

Although interest seems to be growing in the West, Afghanistan remains an uneasy if not embarrassing issue among most third-world and Muslim countries. Afghan resistance circles are piqued that those who should be most concerned by the plight of a fellow nonaligned people are reluctant to go beyond symbolic gestures.

Since early 1980, the developing countries have contributed overwhelmingly toward the five decisive votes in the UN General Assembly condemning the invasion. Certain countries, notably Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, have granted considerable financial assistance to the Afghans, while Pakistan has borne the brunt of the refugee outflow.

But the third-world community has done little else, primarily out of fear of upsetting the Soviet Union. Unlike the political and financial backing of the UN for the Palestine Liberation Organization and the South-West Africa People's Organization - both of which enjoy official observer status as well as the blessing of the Soviets - it has not encouraged a diplomatic presence abroad for the resistance.

Afghanistan continues to be represented at the UN by a minority regime with scant popular backing.

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.