The rebel the Soviets fear

DAVID KLINE July 19 1982

The rebel the Soviets fear

DAVID KLINE July 19 1982

The rebel the Soviets fear


He is known as the Ché Guevara of Afghanistan—a legendary figure who dropped out of engineering school in order to organize resistance in his native Pansjer Valley after the Soviet invasion in 1979. Since then the 28-year-old Ahmed Shah Masoud has successfully defied four Soviet attempts to drive his guerrillas from the valley. And last week came news that he may have won his greatest victory to date, defeating the largest of a series of Soviet spring assaults aimed at destroying Afghanistan’s increasingly well-armed, but scattered, rebel armies.

The news came after earlier reports that several Afghan government and Soviet divisions had succeeded in capturing key rebel positions in the valley, destroying the bulk of Masoud’s army. There were even claims that Masoud himself had been killed or captured, casting a pall over hopes for the long-term success of Afghan resistance.

But evidence from eyewitnesses of the Pansjer fighting, together with interviews with captured Afghan government soldiers and dispatches sent by Masoud by courier to Peshawar, across the border in Pakistan, shows that Moscow’s occupation army may have suffered the biggest defeat yet in its 30-month antiguerrilla campaign.

The initial Soviet attack, it seems, was planned for April 28, the day after the fourth anniversary of the coup that brought the pro-Soviet regime of Hafizullah Amin to power. However, Masoud received warning of the Soviets’ intentions and determined on a preemptive strike against support aircraft at the giant Bagram airbase, outside Kabul. Altogether, the guerrillas destroyed or damaged 25 aircraft, Masoud reports, delaying the Pansjer assault by more than two weeks.

The pre-emptive strike was typical of Masoud’s tactics. Early in his guerrilla career he rejected the usual Mojaheddin tribal massed assaults against well-defended positions. Instead, Masoud favors classic guerrilla tactics: smallforce hit-and-run attacks on vulnerable targets. This flexibility was doubly important when the Soviets launched their offensive on May 18. Expecting a Soviet thrust northward into the valley, Masoud had deployed much of his strength in defensive positions at Pansjer’s southern tip. But he had also positioned strong mobile units throughout

the 50-km-long valley. So when a large force of Soviet paratroopers and helicopter-borne assault teams made surprise drops at four separate points high in the valley, Masoud’s forces were not completely outflanked. “We were attacked from the sides by many Russian soldiers,” wrote Masoud in a June 10 dispatch. “But they were not able to get behind us.”

The airborne attack involved more than 190 helicopters and 20 jet fighterbombers, he said. Eyewitness reports from two Western journalists and three French doctors who have since reached Peshawar claim that some of the jets

were SU-24 close-attack fighters, craft never before spotted in Afghanistan. Then, on May 21, 12,000 Soviet troops and 6,000 Afghan conscripts gan moving north through Pansjer from the town of Gulbahar.

During the first week of the assault the Soviets bombed guerrilla positions for more than seven hours each Masoud reports. Abdu Qadir, a 19-yearold guerrilla lieutenant recovering from an eye injury in Peshawar, recalls one attack: “It was just before dawn, and we were sitting outside the mosque after prayers, cleaning our weapons.

All of a sudden, some jet bombers came over, and it was very bad. One man was martyred and 12 were wounded, including me.” The guerrillas, meanwhile, kept close to the hillsides and used their antiaircraft guns,

apparently to good advantage. Masoud reports that his men knocked out five helicopters and captured 40 heavy machine-guns. “More than 100 Russians and puppet troops were killed,” he claims. “And we suffered 14 dead, more wounded.”

During the second week, guerrilla forces were able to thwart the air attack by moving up close to enemy positions, where there was heavy hand-to-hand fighting. But by then, in a demonstration of solidarity unprecedented in the war, other rebel units in at least four provinces were dispatching men, arms, food and gasoline to the Pansjer. One independent guerrilla force of 1,000 is even reported to have mounted a diversionary attack on the Soviet garrison at Salang, near the valley. Christian Science Monitor reporter Edward Girar-

det, a witness to the fighting, said on his return to Peshawar that he had seen a “traffic jam” on the rural roads as men and matériel rushed to the Pansjer.

By June 4, after almost 20 days of heavy fighting, the invading forces began to withdraw. They left behind a force of 5,000 to 8,000, mostly Afghan infantry, along with two armored brigades. But within days Masoud launched a counterattack. “The remaining enemy forces are continuing to pull back slowly,” he said on June 19.

Masoud’s estimate of enemy losses is 3,000 Soviet and Afghan casualties, 14 helicopters and three SU-24 jets downed and 60 gtanks and armored vehicles destroyed. If true, these would be £the biggest Soviet losses of any

single engagement in the war. The Mojaheddin are reported to have suffered hundreds of casualties and to have lost several precious heavy antiaircraft guns. But no significant arms caches were abandoned, and the Pansjer remains in their hands.

These figures, though highly significant in military terms, cannot adequately describe the political cost to the

Soviets of their failed offensive. The Red Army’s poor showing will intensify the Kremlin debate about whether to pour in major reinforcements or to make a serious attempt to negotiate with the rebels. For the guerrillas, the successful defence of the Pansjer further enhances Masoud’s reputation among Western experts as “the i£only Afghan the Soviets truly fear.” It could also mark a turning point in guerrilla efforts to forge a national resistance movement.

-DAVID KLINE in Peshawar.