Slow death in Afghanistan

Ross Laver December 24 1984

Slow death in Afghanistan

Ross Laver December 24 1984

Slow death in Afghanistan


Ross Laver

The village of Stugana, on the lush southern slopes of the Hindu Kush mountains, is like countless others in Afghanistan: a once-peaceful farming community now lying in ruins. In 1980 a wave of bomb and rocket raids by Soviet MiG jets and helicopters forced Stugana’s 150 families to abandon their crumbling mud houses and join a tide of refugees spilling east into Pakistan. Then, last September a few dozen villagers returned to Stugana’s bomb-ravaged streets, determined to make a fresh start. But despite the village’s lack of strategic or tactical significance, the Soviet rocket attacks resumed, and once more the war-weary refugees packed up and fled. Now, no one lives in the village—one of hundreds of ghost towns that bears witness to the Soviet Union’s reign of terror against Afghan civilians. Five years after the Soviets invaded, ostensibly at the request of the faltering left-wing regime of then-president Hafizullah Amin, the

war has displaced an estimated four million Afghans out of a prewar population of 16 million.

In strictly military terms, the war is a stalemate: an estimated 115,000 Red Army troops occupy most of the urban centres but they have failed to root out the rebel Mojaheddin (Islamic holy warriors) who still control 80 per cent of the countryside. Still, the Soviets have not allowed their lack of success in battle to frustrate their goal of subjugating a strategically vital neighbor. Instead, in their first military campaign outside the Iron Curtain, Soviet troops—backed by the Afghan army’s own 30,000 regulars—direct their fire not only at the rebels but at the Afghan people as a whole. Entire villages have been razed, crops burned and livestock killed. By destroying the infrastructure of Afghanistan, Moscow seems to be planning to eliminate the guerrillas’ means of support in order to starve them into submission. Conceded one Afghan fighter: “The war has been deadlocked up until now, but we are beginning to lose the population. If this continues we may

eventually lose the war because there will be nowhere for the Mojaheddin to hide.”

Bombing: Last week the consequences of what Moscow’s enemies describe as its “migratory genocide” became clearer with the prediction by a respected Paris-based medical aid group that as many as 800,000 Afghans face starvation this winter. Said Dr. Claude Malhuret, president of Médicins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), which has sent teams of medics to the war zone: “Our people can see this impending famine in several ways: in the drastic increase in the cost of food, up 70 per cent in the past few weeks; in the fact that guerrillas who once asked for money to buy arms are now pleading for food; and in the noticeable increase in the flight of refugees toward the Pakistani border.”

Malhuret added that drought and bad weather have contributed to food shortages in the western province of Herat near Iran and in the northeastern province of Badakhshan near the Soviet border. As well, widespread Soviet bombing

has destroyed harvests, irrigation canals and food stocks. “It is all part of the deliberate Soviet plan to ‘empty the fishbowl’ by clearing out the local populations,” Malhuret said. In Herat the attacks were so persistent that villagers could only work the fields at night. Recalled one refugee who witnessed the air raids: “The Russian soldiers told us either to get out to Pakistan or to come to Kabul [the capital].”

Juggernaut: In retaliation, the guerrillas are stepping up attacks on Soviet bases in and around the capital. Last week Western diplomats in Pakistan reported that Soviet and Afghan troops were digging fresh trenches in eastern and western Kabul in preparation for expected guerrilla attacks marking the fifth anniversary of Moscow’s intervention on Dec. 27. As well, three new Soviet BM-21 rocket launchers were installed at Kabul airport to counteract the rebels’ recent acquisition of 107-mm Chinese rockets. The preparations occurred only two weeks after insurgents reportedly shot down a Soviet transport plane eight kilometres outside Kabul, killing all eight crew members. Another four people died—and 18 were wounded—on Nov. 25, when rebel rockets slammed into the Qalai Zaman Khan section of the capital, adjacent to a complex housing government ministers, ruling party officials and Soviet advisers. The blast was also reported by Soviet television, indicating that the damage may have

been much greater than reported.

But the reports of fighting and of casualties rarely receive formal confirmation. Indeed, for the most part, the Afghan war has been characterized by a chronic lack of information. Shortly after the Soviet juggernaut rumbled into Kabul—setting the stage for the overthrow and execution of President Amin and his replacement by another proSoviet, Babrak Karmal, 55—all foreign correspondents were ordered out of the country. The few uncensored accounts that leak out are usually compiled by Western correspondents illicitly crossing the border on foot from Pakistan,

usually by joining up

with supply caravans on their way to guerrilla bases high in the Hindu Kush mountains (page 29). Other reports filter out from Western diplomats in Kabul, whose information is sketchy and often speculative.

Still, it is generally agreed that the war has claimed no more than 7,000 Soviet lives. In addition, a Pentagon source told Maclean's that the Red Army has sustained perhaps 40,000 injuries, ranging from flesh wounds to severed limbs.

Moreover, according to

military analyst Alexander Alexiev, a Soviet-born specialist with the American RAND Corp., the war consumes no more than two per cent of the Soviet military budget. Said Alexiev: “They [the Soviets] have no incentive to negotiate because in terms of cost they can afford to stay where they are for years and years.”

One measure of Washington’s concern over Soviet staying power is its recent decision to increase vastly the amount of covert U.S. military aid to the rebels. Officially, the Reagan administration maintains a facade of neutrality in the war in order not to embarrass Pakistan, the conduit for arms shipments to the guerrillas. But unofficially, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has been funnelling arms to the resistance movement almost from the moment war broke out. And last month Congress voted to more than double U.S. aid in 1985—to $280 million from the $120 million spent this year—after a Senate intelligence committee report said that the current level of assistance “virtually precludes any significant and lasting Mojaheddin military gains.” For the first time the assistance will include sleeping bags, clothes and cash for food purchases. In addition, China, Saudi Arabia and Israel are estimated by U.S. intelligence sources to provide a total of $100 million worth of arms a year to the insurgents.

Antiquated: Even at those levels, the rebels cannot hold out indefinitely. For one thing, an estimated 10 to 15 per cent of U.S.-funded arms shipments never reaches the guerrillas. Instead, they are siphoned off by Pakistani authorities and shadowy middlemen or sold again by corrupt representatives of the resistance groups based in Peshawar, the major Pakistani rebel base. Explained a U.S. intelligence source: “There is always a market for arms in that part of the world.” At the same time, the Pentagon refuses to supply the Mojaheddin with new U.S.-made weapons in case

they are captured by the

Soviets and used as evi-

dence of U.S. involvement. As a result, many rebels operate with antiquated equipment, including British Enfield .303 rifles of the type used in two world wars. The CIA also feeds the rebels a steady supply of Soviet-designed Kalashnikov rifles, but their inaccuracy at long range means that they are of little value in guerrilla warfare.

The most glaring deficiency, however, is a lack of effective anti-aircraft weapons. According to

Senate committee testimony, as much as 80 per cent of all Soviet combat and logistics operations depend on aircraft or heavily armored helicopter gunships. But because of Washington’s refusal to supply sophisticated U.S. weaponry, the guerrillas are often left to defend themselves with old, Soviet-made ground-toair SAM-7S, which are less effective than Western shoulder-fired missiles. “Eventually,” said David Dood, a military adviser to the Federation for American Afghan Action in Washington, “the guerrillas will fall. No resistance group can carry on indefinitely without adequate aid. The fighters will

burn out. With the present levels of aid I think they can last another five years.” An administration official put it even more bluntly: “Afghanistan is lost. All we can do is to make the Russians pay by keeping the guerrillas going.”

Secular: The rebel groups themselves are deeply divided along religious and tribal lines. At least seven different guerrilla factions operate within Afghanistan, loosely grouped into two alliances. In one camp are the Islamic fundamentalists represented by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, 36, an uncompromising anti-Westerner who leads the Hezb-iIslami (Islamic Party), and Burhanuddin Rabbani, 60, of Jamiat-i-Islami (Islamic Organization). Even as allies, however, the two parties have frequently clashed in struggles for local power. The other major alliance consists mainly of more secular, tribally based groups such as the National Islamic Front for Afghanistan. Led by Sayed Ahmad Gailani, a religious community leader from

the Pushtu-speaking tribes in southern Afghanistan, NIFA rejects Gulbuddin as a fanatic who would drag Afghanistan back into the Middle Ages. For his part, Gulbuddin considers Gailani to be a feudalist and a CIA puppet. Explained Anthony Arnold, a former U.S. intelligence analyst in Kabul and now a specialist in Afghan politics at the Hoover Institute in San Francisco: “Unity is not the Afghan way. Afghanistan is made up of 25,000 village states, and they all feud against each othgr and shoot each other with great enthusiasm.”

To complicate matters still further, there are also clashes between the majority Sunni Moslem population and the pro-Iranian Shi’ites in central and east-

ern Afghanistan. A British doctor who recently accompanied a band of Jamiat guerrillas reported that after one such fight he treated eight tribesmen for bullet wounds. He added: “They felt my responsibility was to them and they resented me giving medicines to other people.”

Even so, there are periodic stirrings of hope among anti-Soviets that the rebels may rally around a strong central leader. Frustrated by the guerrillas’ disunity, a delegation of moderate Afghans visited Italy last year hoping to engineer the political comeback of exiled King Mohammed Zahir Shah, 70, who has lived in Rome since being deposed in a 1973 coup. But the initiative soon collapsed. Many Afghans dislike the aging former monarch, whom they remember as a decadent and uninspiring leader.

Since then, speculation has centred mainly on Ahmed Shah Massoud, 29, a resistance commander in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley, which controls the

main road between Kabul and the Soviet Union. A former engineering student at Kabul’s Soviet Polytechnic, the softspoken Massoud has emerged as one of the most influential Mojaheddin leaders. On several occasions his 10,000 men have repelled the combined forces of the Soviet and Afghan armies. At one point in late 1982, Moscow even offered Massoud a substantial bribe—rumored to be about $350,000—to sign a 16-month truce. He accepted the offer, then used the ceasefire profitably to reinforce his mountain stronghold, setting aside food supplies and training new guerrillas.

Assassination: When the truce ended last April, the Soviets unleashed the full fury of their military might on the Panj-

shir guerrillas. In two separate offensives this year the Soviets launched ground and air blitzes in which highlevel carpet bombing gave way to ground attacks by helicopter-borne commandos. But each time Massoud’s men withstood the assault, pulling back temporarily to safer positions and evacuating civilians. The Soviets were equally unsuccessful in two apparent assassination attempts on the rebel leader this year, even though both efforts were followed by Kabul Radio claims that he was dead. Said Massoud: “Every time that they proclaim our defeat and a month later are themselves taking heavy casualties again, our reputation increases. We should thank them for this.”

Faced with a stubborn resistance, the Soviets have settled in for a long and costly occupation. For all of its brutality, the Afghanistan war is very much a seasonal conflict. Every year the Red Army launches its “summer offensive.”

Each autumn the fighting dies down as both sides withdraw for the long, snowy Afghan winter. A British doctor who toured the country this fall said that he was surprised to find large expanses of the country still untouched by war. Said Dr. Kenneth Grant: “I travelled around for nearly four weeks and never saw a Russian. I think their main aim at the present time is to create disruption.”

Still, the Soviets have gradually tightened their grip. After repeating many of the same mistakes made by the Americans in Vietnam, the Soviets have adopted a new strategy that borrows heavily from the British Indian empire model. The country has been divided into seven military districts, each headed by a Soviet general with an array of modern firepower and sophisticated warplanes, including MiG-23 fighters. During lulls in fighting the Soviets concentrate on building cantonments that serve as safe havens for the troops, as well as new roads and bridges to improve mobility. Two new airfields are also under construction near the Iranian and Pakistani borders, an action that would increase Moscow’s ability to launch air strikes in the Persian Gulf if the conflict there should widen.

Invasion: Even now, Western analysts are uncertain about Soviet motives for invading Afghanistan, which in the 19th century served as a buffer between imperial Russia and the British raj. One interpretation is that the Soviet incursion was simply the latest manifestation of Moscow’s historic push to secure a warm-water port on the Indian Ocean, by way of land-locked Afghanistan. But other analysts argue that the Kremlin was alarmed by the rapid spread of Islamic fundamentalism and that the invasion was intended to forestall the infection of largely Moslem Soviet Central Asia.

At the same time, the Soviets feared that the outbreak of civil war in Afghanistan could lead to a pro-Western government in Kabul. “If you look at the map from their point of view,” said John Erickson, director of defence studies at Edinburgh University, “from Norway right round to Yokohama [Japan] an iron ring had been closing in on them. The one gap was Afghanistan. If that closed they were completely cut off.” For his part, Essex University lecturer Peter Shearman, a British expert in Soviet foreign policy, said that even now the Soviets would be satisfied with a neutralist government in Kabul. He added: “I do not think Afghanistan should be seen in the same light as Czechoslovakia or Poland. I think they have realized that it was a rather grave error moving in in the first place. But, like the Americans in Vietnam, they want to save face. They’re not going to pull out overnight.”

Apart from that obvious parallel, an-

alysts see few similarities between the Afghanistan war and the U.S. experience in Vietnam. The Kremlin’s supply lines to Kabul are much shorter, making the war more manageable from a military standpoint. More important, unlike the Americans, the Soviets do not have to fear a ground swell of adverse public opinion at home. The Soviets exercise strict control over domestic reporting of the war. References to Soviet casualties are invariably brief. They are usually

accompanied by reports of the “worldwide” condemnation of the “bandits’ atrocities,” substantiated by quotations from the Communist press of Cuba, Vietnam, Czechoslovakia and other Soviet Bloc nations.

Safety: But the lack of hard information on the war cannot hide reality from the hundreds of black-shawled women who visit Moscow cemeteries each Sunday to weep on their sons’ graves. “Our Vasya —Died a hero in the hills of Afghanistan,’’ one tombstone reads. For the most part, Soviet citizens display a general lack of interest about the war, mixed with a desire to avoid personal involvement. And although many are willing to dis-

cuss their views with Western correspondents, none are prepared to give their full names. Said Sergei, 24, a teacher in northern Caucasus facing military call-up next year: “I hope they do not send me to Afghanistan. I do not understand all that is going on there, but I just want my military service done in safety to get home to my wife and daughter.” A Moscow office clerk, Boris, 50, said he asked an associate in the Moscow Regional Command to ensure

his son was posted near the Soviet capital rather than risk a tour of duty in Afghanistan. But a 45-year-old office worker, Galina, expressed a more common sentiment: “Of course there are casualties but we cannot let the Ameri-

cans have their way everywhere. The Afghans asked us to come and we must help.”

Across the open border from Afghanistan, nervous Pakistanis worry that Soviet ambitions might not end at the Khyber Pass. Recently, air raids over Pakistan have intensified as Soviet-backed Afghan forces exercise what they claim is their right of “hot pursuit” of Pakistani-based guerrillas. By raising the threat of a wider conflict, the Soviets also hope to

coerce Pakistani President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq into withdrawing support for the rebels. But Zia, a military dictator whose continuing support for the rebels has cemented his country’s close ties to the Reagan administration, has so far stood firm with his Islamic brothers.

How long Zia can maintain that stance will depend, in part, on his ability to calm Pakistan’s growing internal resentment over the influx of Afghan refugees. Already Pakistan’s northern border areas are host to almost three million homeless peasants and Moj aheddin spread over dozens of crowded and unsanitary refugee camps. And despite the government’s strong support for their cause, an increasing number of Pakistanis are blaming the Afghans for everything from unemployment to drug abuse and high crime rates.

In Haripur, a town 30 km north of Islamabad where more than 150,000 refugees live in a sprawling camp, gpvernment authorities had to step in last month to try to stop the spread of rumors that Afghan thugs were kidnapping young Pakistani girls and selling them as slaves to border tribesmen. Many of the country’s banned opposition parties are also vowing that if they ever come to power, they will severely restrict the refugees’ freedom of movement or push them back over the border. Said one opposition spokesman: “The Afghan refugees would be campaign topic number 1 here if the elections were really free—and almost everyone but Zia would be against them.”

Violations: Last week Pakistan protested to Kabul over an alleged fourkilometre penetration by two Afghan

MiG jets on Nov. 28. Pakistani diplomats warned Karmal’s regime to “stop these unprovoked violations, failing which Pakistan reserved the right to defend its territorial integrity with all the means at its command.” Senior officials in Islamabad said that Zia is also pressing the United States to sell Pakistan earlywarning reconnaissance planes to deter Afghan and Soviet air raids. Washington already has sold Pakistan 40 F-16 fighter jets to defend itself, but the MiGs enter and leave Pakistani airspace so

quickly that they rarely have time to scramble to intercept them.

At times, Zia’s government has tried to negotiate a political solution to the war. But the talks have always faltered. For their part, the Soviets seem to be gambling that the forced exodus of Afghan peasants—coupled with large-scale indoctrination programs for those who stay behind—will ensure that future Afghan generations are more pliable than the current one. Last month the Karmal government reportedly sent about 900 Afghan children aged 7 to 9 to Soviet Central Asia for at least 10 years of Communist “retraining.” Said one Kabul diplomat:

“The Soviets must have concluded that nothing short of a decade of Sovietization inside the Soviet Union was likely to make a dent on them.” That, and a brutal military occupation that so far shows no sign of letting up.

Alex Brodie

Richard M. Evans

William Lowther

Heather Marshall

Brigid Janssen

David North