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Inside Afghanistan

Can the resistance fighters prevent a Soviet victory?

He looked like an old man—perhaps seventy, although we had learned during our journey that age comes quickly in Afghanistan. He squatted across the room from us, holding a rifle that had seen other wars. We had traveled ten thousand miles to find out about the war in Afghanistan and the people who fought it. But the old man, learning we were Americans, decided that our own country was to be the subject of discussion.

"Why do Americans claim they are friends of the Afghan nation?" he demanded through our translator. "The Americans think that by making mouth in assemblies they will force the Russians to leave Afghanistan, but only by fighting can this happen. Many days we have no food, no arms, but still we are fighting." He pointed to the few bullets in his belts, indicating they were all that he owned.

"The mujahadeen fight for religion and country, and will fight to the death of the very last Afghan." To the very last Afghan: a familiar phrase, most often seen in Western press commentaries urging the United States to help stop the killing, to cooperate with international efforts to achieve a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Afghanistan.

When the Soviets first invaded in 1979, most of the world expected the Afghan rebels—poorly equipped, untrained, disorganized—to succumb quickly to the immense power of the Russian military machine. Even today the general opinion as expressed in the U.S. media, on both the right and the left, seems to be that in the long run a Soviet victory is inevitable. It is a short step to the conclusion that the mujahadeen had best be persuaded to stop fighting and seek a political solution.

The peace settlement now emerging from U.N.-sponsored talks between Pakistan and the regime of Afghan President Babrak Karmal contains several key points: the withdrawal of Soviet troops, an end to military aid to the resistance, and the continuation in Kabul of a government friendly to the Soviet Union, along with international guarantees to ensure that the terms of the treaty are abided by. What diplomats call "substantial progress" has been reported in these talks. Perhaps as soon as this fall, some observers suggest, Pakistan and Kabul could reach an agreement: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, so violently begun, may be brought to a peaceful close.

But if a peace settlement is actually to end the fighting, the Afghan resistance must be satisfied with the terms of the agreement. To talk with the mujahedeen and with the refugees in Pakistan is to realize that this possibility is remote.

According to Karen McKay of the Committee for a Free Afghanistan, a Washington-based relief group, 90 percent of the population supports the mujahadeen. The title "holy warrior" is taken seriously by the rebels and their countrymen. Any hope resting on the belief that, out of pragmatism, the Afghan fighters will abandon their jihad and negotiate with the Russians is specious. Even members of the moderate alliance, with whom we traveled, are firmly committed to a view of the war as a religious duty. Soviet practices help to underscore this in the minds of the Afghans. According to a recent deserter we met in Paktia, men impressed into military service are force-fed the precepts of the "Great April Revolution," as the 1978 coup is officially called. Told that Allah is a myth, they are forbidden to pray and they are encouraged to drink alcohol, in defiance of the Koran.

Religious zeal, even as it has fired the hearts and minds of the Afghan resistance fighters, has sometimes undermined their cause. The mujahadeen first rejected guerrilla tactics as displaying both cowardice and a lack of faith in Allah. After suffering heavy initial losses in frontal assaults on armored Soviet divisions, the rebels have reevaluated Allah's will. Quick ambushes, night raids, and acts of sabotage are now staples of the resistance.

The Soviet response to resistance activity has been swift and brutal. The war in Afghanistan is not a conventional one. With virtually the entire population opposing the Russian presence, Soviet strategy is directed against the people as a whole. Routine bombing of civilian targets, the wanton massacre of unarmed men, women, and children, and the torture of those suspected of aiding the resistance are common occurrences in Afghanistan, in one widely reported case, the Soviets burned a hundred males alive—including children as young as six years old—in an irrigation canal where they hid in fear of the Soviet troops. And it has become quite common for shopkeepers, farmers, and tradesmen who are too poor to satisfy Russian soldiers demanding goods without payment to be summarily shot.

The Soviets appear determined to pursue the course that began with the initial invasion, despite the loss of credibility they have suffered in much of the Third World, especially in Islamic countries. Bringing Afghanistan firmly into the Soviet orbit is important to Moscow. Possession of Afghan territory provides the Soviet Union with enormous strategic advantages, bringing the Russians tantalizingly close to their centuries-old goal of a warm water port. The Soviet Union knows that it will need to import oil before the turn of the century, and the prospect of controlling the sea lanes in the Persian Gulf provides a motive for further expansionist moves in the region. In addition, a good-faith withdrawal of Russian troops from Afghanistan would send political waves throughout the Soviet empire, particularly to Poland and to the chronically restive Central Asian republics, which are ethnically and religiously similar to Afghanistan. The Russians cannot tolerate a free, Islamic Afghanistan. Although the diplomatic costs continue to mount, the Soviet Union has usually been willing to endure a little social embarrassment in return for tangible military and political advantage.

"You can destroy Afghanistan," Louis Dupree, a noted American scholar of Afghan studies told us while we were still in Peshawar, "but you can't conquer Afghanistan." The Soviets seem to have taken this maxim to heart. Since they have not been able to defeat the resistance outright, they seek to eliminate the mujahadeen's means of support. By burning harvests and destroying villages, the Soviets aim to transform Afghanistan into a barren wasteland, hoping eventually to starve the resistance into submission. In the first half of this strategy, at least, the Soviets have been quite successful. In 1978, before the "Communist Revolution," Afghanistan was on the verge of becoming self-sufficient in agriculture. After four years of war, the output of wheat, corn, barley, and other crops has dropped dramatically every year. In 1982 the wheat harvest, Afghanistan's staple, was only a fifth of what it was in 1978.

The food situation in Afghanistan is rapidly growing critical. Food prices in Kabul jumped 200 percent in April, and one had to prove membership in the Communist Party, the militia, or the Afghan secret police to obtain bread, meat, or rice. Professor Sayd B. Majrooh, head of the Afghan Information Center, a Peshawar-based clearinghouse for information from refugees, mujahade en, and journalistic sources, reports an increasing incidence of an ancient practice: wholesale looting by an invading army. Instead of ransacking only the houses of peasants suspected of harboring mujahadeen, the Soviets have started pillaging whole villages in searcb of vegetables, bread, and livestock for their soldiers' consumption. Farmers who had nothing to do with the fighting, men who sought only to provide for themselves and their families, have now gone over to the mujahadeen because the Russians have taken everything they had.

The savagery of Soviet tactics has made a de ep impression on the Afghan people. The Russians make use of many of the most barbaric techniques of the ancient art of warfare, with the advantage of the most up-to-date weaponry. The head of any future pro-Soviet government in Kabul will almost certainly inherit the fierce hatred the Afghans feel for the present one, Babrak Karmal. Even if the mujahadeen cease fighting while the Soviet troops withdraw, they are not likely to stop trying to overthrow the puppet regime in Kabul. When resistance activity stepped up again, the Soviet military machine would again enter Afghanistan, in an encore performance of the 1979 invasion.

In spite of the attitude of the Afghan people, Karmal and Pakistan may come to some kind of agreement if the United States is willing. Pakistan is eager for a settlement. Zia's current anti-Soviet bias and Moslem loyalties combine to make him a staunch supporter of the mujahadeen. But there is considerable pressure on Pakistan to defuse the situation. It is expensive to feed and house three million people, and the influx of refugees tends to destabilize the country. In addition, Pakistan is host to three different ethnic minorities with separatist ambitions; the Baluchs, the Sindhis, and the Pathans. Any of these groups, backed by the Soviet Union, could pose serious problems for the pro-Western government of General Zia, Recent U.S. overtures to India—Pakistan's hereditary enemy—by Secretary of State George Shultz may be aimed at reminding Pakistan that its long-term interests lie in accommodating the United States rather than in snuggling up to Yuri Andropov.

The Soviet Union has learned from its past mistakes in Afghanistan. Convoys of soldiers and supplies are now protected by helicopters. Heavy machine guns originally designed for antiaircraft use have been mounted on trucks to allow the Soviets to defend against Afghans hidden on the crests of mount a ins. The "limited contingent" of Soviet troops in Afghanistan has been upped to somewhere between a hundred twenty thousand and a hundred fifty thousand men. Still, the conclusion of the current edition of the Pentagon's Soviet Military Power is that the "Soviets find themselves embroiled in a counter-insurgency campaign that cannot be won with current force levels."

The conventional wisdom is that the resistance dominates the rural areas, while the Russians control the cities. Such generalizations underestimate the successes resistance fighters have scored even in urban areas. Charles Dunbar, an American diplomat recently returned from Kabul, estimates that a third of the district capitals are in rebel hands, ln Kandahar, Afghanistan's second largest city, the resistance flourishes. As of May, some fourteen of twenty-four military posts in and about the city had fallen to rebel night raids. Said one mujahed in Kandahar, "We did not leave even the tea cups behind." And in Kabul itself the presence of the resistance is felt through assassinations, bombings, and acts of sabotage. On April 26, for example, one day before the anniversary celebration in honor of the "Communist Revolution," a bomb exploded inside the apartments where ruling party officials and their families live; eyewitnesses reported that some sixty were killed in the blast. Visitors report that heavy shooting can be heard around Kabul every night. The Russians may have "control" of Kabul and other urban areas, but the cities are certainly not secure.

Two factors will determine whether the Afghan resistance can keep the Soviets from turning a military stalemate into victory. One is the willingness of the United States and Moslem countries to provide continuing diplomatic and military support, and, more importantly, to upgrade the kinds of weapons being supplied. The question of outside aid to the Afghan resistance is tricky. It is difficult to assess the number and kinds of weapons the United States gives the resistance fighters. What arms the United States does supply are kept secret in order to avoid embarrassing Pakistan, which is understandably nervous about the thinly veiled threats of retaliation that have emanated from its powerful neighbor to the north. Despite the fact that President Reagan is said to have made the decision to increase arms shipments last fall, six months later we noticed serious shortages of arms and ammunition. In the province of Paktia, we observed some shiny new Kalashnikovs—some of which are said to be supplied by the U.S. through intermediaries—but far more World War I British Lee Enfield rifles, and not enough of those. Would-be mujahadeen remain behind during resistance attacks for lack of guns. And the most needed weapons of the resistance— antiaircraft weapons —were conspicuous by their absence.

The mujahadeen remain virtually defenseless against air attacks. Increased use of fighter jets and helicopters, especially the MIG-24 attack aircraft, code-named Hind by NATO, has not been matched by comparable improvements in the arms of the resistance. Although occasional reports circulate that the freedom fighters have downed Soviet aircraft, these incidents generally occur in mountainous terrain when the unarmored upper half of helicopters are exposed to machine-gun fire while flying low near mountain peaks. The mujahadeen have few SAM-7 and other antiaircraft guns; for the most part, helicopters roam invulnerable to attack and free to harass the mujahadeen and terrorize civilians.

The second factor crucial to mujahadeen fortunes is the building of political institutions. The tide of refugees will swell inexorably unless the Afghan resistance can find means of giving succor to the general population. There is evidence that the mujahadeen have begun to provide the people with an alternative to the Kabul regime. In Paktia, for example, we visited a public school organized by the mujahadeen to encourage children and their families to remain in Afghanistan. Court systems have been established in Kandahar and Logar provinces, often headed by respected Islamic scholars.

The most sophisticated experiment in rebuilding civil government in areas controlled by the resistance is now taking place in the Panshjer Valley, north of Kabul. Ahmad Shah Massoud, a charismatic young resistance commander, has emerged as a national hero for his able defense against repeated Soviet assaults on this strategic valley. A recent ceasefire he negotiated with the Russians has given him breathing space to reorganize the Panshjer militarily and politically. He has created a new military structure, dividing the mujahadeen into three kinds of fighting units: regionally stationed commandos, mobil commandos, and zarbati (quick-strike) groups. The valle has been divided into several military districts overseen by Massoud's lieutenants. Within these districts perhaps one-quarter of the mujahadeen are permanent fighters. The remainder spend one week a month as mujahedeen and three weeks tending to home, farm, and family. Massoud has also turned his attention to providing for the general populace. In each "qaragah," or military district, there are three committees; military, political-judicial, and economic. Massoud is attempting to remedy the food shortage and encourage the local population to rebuild the houses that were destroyed in last year's bombing raids. He has even established a bus service, using captured Soviet trucks.

Mujahadeen from all over Afghanistan come to the Panshjer to receive training and advice from Massoud, and he has sent emissaries to the other provinces who give assistance in military training and organizational matters. He is in contact with twenty of the twenty-eight Afghan provinces. If it is possible to coordinate the diverse Afghan resistance into a unified front, Ahmad Shah Massoud may emerge as a national leader.

Factional disputes are usually held to be a major problem for the resistance. There are at least seven different factions headquartered in Peshawar. But the infighting among the mujahadeen is often exaggerated in Western accounts. The various factions seem to be cooperating, especially in the field. In Kapisa, for example, the two principal resistance commanders in the area, Maulawi Aref of the Jamiat-e Islami and Maulawi Shifiullah of Herakat, are reported to be on very good terms, and they are coordinating their activity with the mujahadeen of Kohistan. Bernd de Bruin, a Dutch freelance journalist who recently visited Kandahar, reported to the Afghan Information Center that there is good cooperation between groups of Younes-Khalis, one of the fundamentalist factions, and the Jamiat-e Islami. He describes the situation between them as "quite relaxed." Travelers in Logar and Kunar provinces bring the same report: the morale of the mujahadeen is high and the relations among the groups are friendly. In the Panshjer Valley, resistance commanders belonging to five different parties have integrated their activities with those of Massoud. The mujahadeen seem to understand that they must set aside their differences if they are to defeat the Soviet Union. As Gul Mohammad, a resistance commander in Lalander, exults, "Now, in Logar, the mujahadeen do not care who the leaders are in Peshawar. When there is a call for fighting the Russians, everybody is going with everybody."

The exception to the generally harmonious behavior is the fundamentalist Hezb-e Islami, headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Instances of internecine warfare almost always seem to involve Gulbuddin's people. In Maidan, Gulbuddin's mujahadeen fired fourteen mortar shells into the town, killing twenty villagers. In the Tagao Valley, heavy fighting has been reported between the followers of Gulbuddin and other resistance groups. The Tagao Valley is the usual route of mujahadeen heading north, and the Hezb-e Islami is blocking fighters from other organizations from going through.

In February two resistance commanders from the moderate alliance were gunned down in the streets of Peshawar. Members of the moderate alliance believe that the assassins were working for Gulbuddin. It has also been suggested that the killings were ordered by the K.G.B. for the purpose of increasing tensions among the resistance factions. A third possibility would render the above difference of opinion moot. Commenting on the question of who actually pulled the trigger, a Western observer stated, "Sure, it was either the K.G.B. or Gulbuddin, but it doesn't really make much difference which one. They both get their signals from Moscow."

The suspicion that Gulbuddin is secretly well-disposed to the Soviets is not as fantastic as it may sound. Gulbuddin is heavily financed by Libya, whose association with the Soviet Union speaks for itself. In some places, Gulbuddin's people camp openly within a kilometer of Russian Kabul military outposts without coming under Soviet attack. Bernd de Bruin visited Maidan and viewed the odd behavior of Gulbuddin's forces firsthand: "1 asked the mujahadeen of Maidan whether they are going to attack some enemy convoys. They said it was not possible because the Gulbuddin people will not allow it. … "

Furthermore, it is rumored in Pakistani and American diplomatic circles that the Soviets may be willing to invite Gulbuddin to join the Karmal government as part of a compromise peace plan. If Gulbuddin's ambition leads him to be amenable to Soviet influence, international Moslem criticism of the Soviets might be defused without sacrificing Soviet hegemony in Kabul. Such a solution might satisfy the Soviet Union, it might satisfy Pakistan. It might satisfy the United Nations, the Third World, and even the United States. But it will not satisfy the Afghans.

A mujahed on his way to battle appears to the Western eye to be a warrior from centuries past. In many ways he is. He wears a turban and a dagger. There is a good chance that the rifle he carries was taken from a dead British soldier by his grandfather. He is part of a centuries-old tradition of fighting for his God and his country. He is not likely to lay down his arms because emissaries from a neighboring government in Pakistan and a puppet regime in Kabul sign a piece of paper in Switzerland.

This article originally ran in the August 29, 1983, issue of the magazine.