Afghan winter: US foe or ally?

US officials say superior technology means a cold-weather advantage. But Afghans have experience.

Ask Manab Khan what it is like to soldier through the winter in Afghanistan - as US-led forces have pledged to do - and the fighter for the rebel Northern Alliance shudders.

He tells of the soldiers he found dead in the snow last winter near Sia (Black) Mountain, a featureless expanse of worn rock controlled by the ruling Taliban.

It wasn't a particularly hard winter, he recalls from his frontline position near Kabul, the Afghan capital. But "buried in the snow I found three Taliban, hunkered down with their hands clenched under their chins, their heads down, like this," Mr. Khan says, dropping to a fetal position on his haunches, as if trying to keep warm.

"They laid their Kalashnikov rifles out before them," he says, "They had frozen to death."

It's a cautionary tale for any foreign army that underestimates the harsh climate here. The Russians - who fought in the snow against their own successive invaders, from Napoleon to Hitler, could always count on "General Winter" to be a staunch friend and ally. But not in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

American military officials assert that superior technology will give their troops a cold-weather advantage. Yet brutal weather conditions here - from capricious lashing winds, to freezing rain and deepening snow that closes supply routes - have already resulted in American casualties, helicopter crashes, and stalled Special Forces operations, US military officials say.

Afghan fighters - on both sides - say they've always fought in winter. If US military planners rely heavily on the 15,000-strong Northern Alliance forces, this bitter season could prove more of a mixed blessing than a complete write-off, alliance officials contend. Alliance commanders near the key northern city of Mazar-e Sharif said yesterday that American airstrikes had been "very effective" in helping to pave the way for some rebel advances.

The mujahideen fighters who defeated the Soviets say they always had the upper hand over the mechanized and airborne Soviet units in winter - for the same reasons that the Taliban could have a tactical edge over any American ground troops. "We always attacked the Soviets in the winter, because they were not able to fight as well. It was a real advantage for us," says alliance Gen. Mohammad Sharif Tawasly, who has fought through more than 20 Afghan winters. "They couldn't bombard us, they couldn't supply their soldiers. It will be the same for the Americans."

One ambush, General Tawasly remembers, was successful because of the snowfall. His troops dug a trench beside a road, covered themselves with snow, then jumped up and destroyed the first and last vehicles of a 40-vehicle convoy, trapping the rest.

"Then we shot them as we wanted," Tawasly says, laughing briefly at the memory. Some 200 Soviet troops died, he estimates. "Such fighting caused the Soviets to leave Afghanistan."

Veterans of the decade-long Soviet occupation - in which 15,000 troops were lost - don't disagree. "I would rather fight in the Russian winter, if anyone gave me a choice," says Gennady Borisov, who served as a paratrooper here for two years in the mid-80's. "In Afghanistan, it's too capricious. The temperature, air pressure, and visibility seem to change every minute. The climate is bad, the terrain is worse. Even without the enemy, every day in Afghanistan was very hard for us."

It has also been hard for American air forces, as daylight hours grow shorter, the snow and cold daily creep farther down from high mountain passes to low valleys, and tempestuous winds pick up grit and sandblast the countryside.

"The main way we moved in the mountains was by helicopter, but that is just about the trickiest kind of flying there is," says Alexander Oleinik, a Soviet Army colonel who covered the war for the military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda.

One American helicopter, on a nighttime rescue mission last weekend, was lost due to freezing rain, resulting in four wounded US troops. An unmanned drone crashed in the same storm. Earlier, in Pakistan, a US helicopter rolled over while touching down in another storm, killing two.

And then there is the wind. Ex-Soviet soldiers complain most about what they call the "Afghanets," violent dust storms that roared in almost weekly from Central Asia. The Afghanets occur year-round, but are worst when winter gives them a sub-zero bite.

"You had to keep your face wrapped up in cloth for protection. It often lasted a week," says Andrei Logunov, an infantry private who was based near the Afghan city of Jalalabad in the early '80s. The Afghanets left a fine residue of red dust, which got into machinery, ruined food supplies, and gathered in the breeches of rifles and artillery guns. "Our Soviet machinery continued to work, even when it was full of this dust," says Colonel Oleinik. "But I wish the Americans luck with all that delicate, high-tech equipment they use.

On Afghanistan's high central plateau, around Kabul, low cloud cover was a constant problem in winter, grounding helicopters and fighter planes for days at a time.

"I'm sure the Americans will manage all these challenges," says Oleinik. "But I hope they understand that it won't be easy. The Afghan winter will extract a very heavy price."

Easing that burden should be the alliance, say rebel commanders and soldiers alike.

"If the Americans are worried about the winter, then they should supply us, and we will defeat the Taliban," guerrilla Khan says. He notes that Northern Alliance soldiers are from mountainous regions, and are used to the cold. Most Taliban fighters are from the milder south of Afghanistan, or from Arab nations or Pakistan, and are not as used to the cold.

The three Taliban he found frozen were Pakistani volunteers, he says, according to identity papers found in their pockets. They wore plastic sandals and thin, knee-length cotton shirts - mistakes that his winter-hardened unit would never make.

"The season doesn't make any difference to us," Khan says. "We know how to fight and attack in winter."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.