Afghanistan: Soviets get tougher. But refined tactics fail to break guerrilla spirit

SIX years have passed since Soviet Red Army tanks first swept across the Amu Darya River into Afghanistan. To an extent, the war remains a savage stalemate with no solution in sight. If anything, Moscow's efforts to crush the country's Muslim-inspired peasant resistance have hardened significantly since Mikhail Gorbachev's rise to power last March.

One indication of this is Moscow's relentless devastation of the land, the continued massacre of civilians, and its divide-and-rule tactics against the Afghan resistance.

Another indication of the devastating nature of the war is the dramatic surge in casualties on both sides. Afghanistan witnessed some of the heaviest fighting of the war so far last summer in Paktia, Ghazni, Parwan, and Kandahar provinces. During this period, the International Committee of the Red Cross war hospital in Peshawar reported an unprecedented influx of up to 300 seriously wounded Afghan guerrillas a month.

Interpreting the Afghan situation remains exceedingly complex and often contradictory. The United States, for example, estimates the number of Soviet occupation troops at 118,000 with 30,000 to 40,000 more north of the border but deployed regularly in counterin- surgency operations. This represents only a slight increase of several thousand since early 1984. A year-end State Department report also puts the Soviet death toll over the past six years at 10,000.

Other sources, however, including West European diplomatic observers, argue that Moscow has increased its expeditionary force to well over 150,000.

The Soviets, these sources stress, have been establishing new bases, including one in Nimruz Province with the longest runway in the country; expanding security belts around Kabul and other towns; and operating on more fronts. Increased Soviet commitment

``All this has required more manpower,'' said one European. Both Pakistani and resistance sources put the Soviet troop number at more than 200,000.

Whatever the figures, the Russo-Afghan war appears to have undergone dramatic changes since this correspondent's last visit to northeastern Afghanistan in the summer of 1984.

Overall, the mujahideen (holy warriors) still hold 80 percent of the countryside, while the Soviets and their Afghan surrogates still seek to consolidate their control over the cities, military base areas, and the main axis points. Over the past 18 months, neither side has been able to claim any decisive victories. But there are strong indications that the Soviets have been gradually gaining the upper hand in parts of this central Asian nation -- a view not necessarily shared by Western diplomats monito ring the war.

``Both sides have strengthened their positions,'' insisted one Western embassy official in Islamabad. ``Although the Soviets have assumed much of the initiative since 1984 and have expanded their war, we believe that the mujahideen are coping. They are fighting better, and they are equipped with better weapons.''

Yet, according to various guerrilla commanders, international relief workers, Western journalists, and other observers, resistance capabilities have deteriorated in a number of provinces. Mujahed centers in Balkh, Badakshan, Nimruz, and even Ghazni have suffered badly from an increasingly mobile helicopter war, ambushes by special forces, subversion, and the loss through death -- in battle or by assassination -- of key commanders. Soviet assaults getting more focused

``Soviet counterinsurgency operations have been on the rise,'' said Frenchman Dominique Vergoz, certainly the most traveled Western observer with the Afghan mujahideen since the Soviet invasion. ``The Soviet war is still characterized by big offensives, but they have stepped up commando-style assaults, such as ambushes, with considerable effect. These actions are small and rapid, and they have improved their knowledge of the terrain to the point that in many areas, they can go wherever they want.'' Soviet weapons equipped with silencers

The Soviet special forces, known as Spetznaz, are often armed with weapons equipped with silencers. Aided by informers, they are surreptitiously dropped by helicopter near known guerrilla positions or caravan routes to set up ambushes, usually under cover of darkness.

In one incident earlier this month, Amin Wardak, a top resistance commander from Wardak Province, was ambushed along a mujahed trail leading to the Pakistan border. Over a three-day period, he lost 82 men, and 60 were injured. When this correspondent met him at the Red Cross hospital where he had carried some of his wounded, he explained that they had been attacked at night in a narrow gorge.

``At first, we didn't know we were being shot at because of the silencers. Then people began falling.''

The Soviets have introduced equipment better suited to conditions in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan, such as lighter, more mobile mortars. Barrages, too, of long-range artillery and rockets are proving particularly lethal. So has the increased use of clusters of seismic mines, which are triggered to go off by vibration and planted by Spetznaz along caravan routes or in the frontier zones with Pakistan. Soviets wising up

In addition, the expansion of security belts involving strings of new outposts, each within sight of each other and manned by 10 to 20 men, has made it all the more difficult for guerrilla groups to penetrate, or even approach urban areas.

As a fighting force, the mujahideen still retain a grim determination to pursue their jihad (holy war) against the invaders from the north -- no matter what. Certain guerrilla fronts such as that of Pathan commander Abdul Haq from Kabul, or Tadjik Ahmed Shah Massoud from Panjshair and Ismail Khan in Herat, generally have managed to adapt to improved Soviet tactics and increased firepower. They regularly succeed in striking hard at the occupation forces. Afghan approach too fragmented

But others have not. ``Too many groups, particularly in the Pushtun areas, are fighting a local war,'' commented British filmmaker Peter Jouvenal, who has made 24 trips to Afghanistan over the past six years. ``They don't see the importance of moving outside their valleys and hitting targets that count.''

Among the reasons observers point out for the worsening performance of certain resistance fronts are:

The inability to cope with Soviet air superiority. The mujahideen have received heavy antiaircraft guns, but they still lack the type of portable arms (e.g., shoulder missiles) needed to stave off helicopter attacks in exposed, flat areas.

Insufficient and often inappropriate weaponry for a more effective, mobile guerrilla war. The mujahideen have been receiving considerable quantities of Chinese-made 107mm rockets, presumably the result of the US-funded weapons pipeline. But their accuracy and range (five miles) are limited.

Poor training and the loss of experienced commanders. As many as half of Afghanistan's top commanders in the field have been killed over the past few years.

The establishment of a resistance intelligence network to avert Soviet ambushes. Certain fronts are able to keep tabs on Spetznaz movements, but many simply do not bother to communicate Soviet activities to other fronts, especially because travel in Afghanistan is so risky. Next: humanitarian aid to Afghans.

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