The guerrillas moved in from the mountains in captured trucks, on horseback, on foot. They loaded up machine guns, mortars, rifles, and a rocket launcher. The mujahideen had come from different bases in Nangarhar Province for the assault against the government fort earlier this fall. The stone outpost, encircled by mine fields, lay 10 miles from Jalalabad, the Soviet-controlled provincial capital.
``We're not planning to capture it. We have not got enough ammunition for that.'' said Ashnarar, one of three local mujahideen commanders. ``But we like to keep up the pressure.''
The assault came shortly before sunset. For two hours, a fiery exchange of rockets, mortars, and red tracer bullets erupted across the evening sky. Having made their point, the mujahideen withdrew. The guerrillas reported no casualties. The fort took several mortar hits. Next morning, the Soviets made no effort to send in retaliatory strike aircraft. A few government tanks clattered up the road, lobbing shells. One burst killed two women in a farm compound. But they pulled back when nearby guerrilla units opened fire. The sortie was over.
A marked difference from earlier days
Nearly eight years earlier, several months after the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, this reporter witnessed a similar operation in the same region. But in those days, the guerrillas dared attack only at night. And it was a poorly planned hit-and-run affair with mostly outdated weapons.
The Afghans' bitter struggle against Soviet occupation has since changed markedly. The guerrillas now seem to be making small but significant gains against the Soviet-backed communist regime.
The mujahideen do not have the upper hand. And talk of a turning point is premature. But they are eroding the Soviet and Afghan government presence in the countryside. They are also placing the occupation authorities under growing pressure in cities, forcing entrenchment behind security belts. For years, the Soviets have been trying to expand security belts around the small handful of population centers and main communication links under their control. Hundreds of Army, police, and militia posts, some less than 100 yards apart, dot the outskirts.
Resistance sources admit that it has become more difficult to penetrate cities such as Kabul and Jalalabad. But elsewhere, such as Kandahar and Herat, heavy fighting continues despite security forces' efforts to ``rubble-ize'' the suburbs to deny the guerrillas shelter.
Yet entrenchment is only isolating the Soviets and their Afghan surrogates from the countryside, which is being increasingly abandoned to the mujahideen. Western diplomats said Tuesday that mujahideen outside the city of Khost had repulsed Soviet efforts to break a guerrilla siege of several years.
A new sting to mujahideen attacks
Without doubt, the most significant change has been the improved supply of antiaircraft weapons, longer-range mortars, and rockets to the resistance. The introduction last year of the US-made Stinger missile, in particular, has had a profound impact on Soviet air deployment with 20 to 30 aircraft reportedly shot down every month.
For years, the Soviets have relied heavily on air assaults as part of their counterinsurgency campaign. The Hind MI-24 helicopter gunship became a symbol of terror because of its widespread use to destroy the agricultural infrastructure in resistance-held areas.
``Starting early in the war, the Soviets have tried to depopulate large areas where resistance operations could be mounted, and air power was the primary tool for this policy,'' notes David Isby, an American military specialist and author of Jane's Weapons and Tactics of the Soviet Army, a respected military study. ``Now with Stingers, they cannot use their air power in this way.''
The fear of antiaircraft missiles, even in regions where they do not exist, has prompted the Soviets to severely reduce, if not halt, aerial attacks. On a recent two-week trip to Nangarhar Province, this correspondent did not see a single Soviet plane or helicopter. Previous trips invariably produced several sightings a day.
Whereas helicopter support used to be considered vital to any ground operation, troops are now deployed with little or no air cover. Instead, the Soviets prefer to conduct slow-moving ground advances backed by long-range artillery and multiple rocket bombardments. They have adopted more nighttime or high-altitude bombing, both of which are less effective than low-level daylight raids.
In operations where helicopters are still deployed, the Soviets use swift, hedge-hopping tactics. This makes them difficult targets for Stingers, but more vulnerable to conventional weapons.
Most indications suggest the Red Army is suffering higher casualties - a factor analysts say has prompted the Soviets to limit large-scale operations. In addition, ambushes against resistance caravans are tapering off because of Soviet reluctance to use helicopters for ferrying troops.
The Afghan Army, a desultory and demoralized force, still poses enormous problems for Moscow. The Red Army high command is known to be perplexed by the lack of enthusiasm and commitment many Afghan troops show for the war. There have been several reports over the past few months of Afghan soldiers and officers being executed for refusing to fight. Defecting conscripts, some of whom have received only three or four days training before being sent to the front, regularly complain of poor conditions in their isolated garrisons as well as abuse by their officers or Soviet advisers.
Apart from improved antiaircraft capabilities, the mujahideen have exerted other pressures. Successful actions against rural garrisons, such as Nahrin in the north, have done much to raise resistance morale, which was at an ebb last year.
``We have now gone more on the offensive. I think you will see more posts falling in the time ahead,'' said one guerrilla commander.
Many Western observers agree. ``If this trend continues,'' says one West European in Islamabad, ``the mujahideen will be able to develop their `liberated areas' more effectively and direct more of their military efforts at the cities.''
More resistance fighters are being trained in specialized urban guerrilla warfare. At one border camp, they are taught to make home-made bombs.
Stumbling blocks to mujahideen unity
Nevertheless, the mujahideen remain susceptible to KGB-style subversion. Government informers are numerous, and the Soviets have proven remarkably successful in politically dividing the guerrillas. A number of mujahed commanders have gone to the government side in return for money and arms. But these defections tend to be ambiguous, often temporary. The Kabul regime appears to be buying loyalties rather than winning them over.
``It is usually a matter of staking out territory or personality clashes between local chiefs. They will change sides if it is convenient,'' says one West European relief representative.
Some independent observers who have traveled with the resistance say many guerrilla fronts still lack training, discipline, and imagination in their operations, despite improved weapons' supplies.
In addition, longstanding rivalries among the political leaders of the resistance parties reduces their ability to act together effectively.
By nature, Afghans are a highly individualistic people, with little respect for authority. But, as observers note, whatever applies to the mujahideen also applies to the government side. In one reported incident, a Soviet attack against a mujahed base was planned to include Afghan troops. The Afghans, however, turned up a day and a half late. Why? Because they had halted several times along the way to cook food and make tea. And in that time, half the force deserted.
Third of four articles. Next: Why the Afghan conflict is so under-reported.