Moscow’s costly war

BOB LEVIN January 13 1986

Moscow’s costly war

BOB LEVIN January 13 1986

Moscow’s costly war


The images are grimly familiar. Helicopter gunships clatter through the skies and green armored convoys roll along dusty roads. Ragged rebels roam forbidding mountain trails, antique rifles at the ready. On the plains, blackened fields surround flattened villages littered with dead bodies, while survivors flee to teeming refugee camps. This is the war in Afghanistan as portrayed for years in the West, but only recently on Soviet television. It began with a blitzkrieg Soviet invasion and the installation of a decidedly proSoviet regime in Kabul on Dec. 27, 1979, and it quickly became a Vietnamstyle stalemate. As the fight for Afghanistan entered its seventh year last week, the Soviets gave mixed signals —some conciliatory, others intransigent—on just how long they planned to stay.

Soviet leaders have many reasons to consider withdrawing—not least among them the TV images that, even censored to favor the invaders, reinforce the agonies at home over absent relatives and mounting casualties. The Red Army has an estimated

118,000 troops in Afghanistan, supported by 30,000 Afghan regulars. But together they failed to subdue an estimated 200,000 guerrillas in 1985 despite some of the fiercest fighting of the entire war. Soviet fighter bombers and gunships rained terror on the countryside in an effort to destroy rebel bases of support. In the process, the Soviets sustained heavy casualties of their own, raising their six-year death toll to about 10,000 according to U.S. government estimates, and at least twice that number according to Afghan sources in the United States. Said Anthony Arnold, political analyst with the San Francisco-based Hoover Institution: “It is becoming an increasing psychological problem for Soviet society.”

Last week U.S. officials revealed what may be the strongest Soviet indication yet of a possible pullout, though it was oblique. The clue came last month at Geneva in the sixth round of indirect peace talks—conducted through United Nations intermediaries—between Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. That country has been menaced by skirmishes along its

northwestern frontier, and it is the reluctant host to an estimated four million Afghan refugees. Afghan Foreign Minister Shah Mohammed Dost presented UN intermediary Diego Cordovez of Ecuador with an unofficial timetable for a Soviet pullout within one year. But Pakistan, which refuses to recognize the Afghan government installed under President Babrak Karmal by the invading Soviets, rejected an Afghan demand to discuss the proposal face-to-face with the Pakistanis. That left the talks deadlocked, though Cordovez said he gave both sides proposals designed to break the impasse at the next round in February or March.

The pullout proposal was not the only sign of a softening attitude in Moscow and Kabul. Following his November Geneva summit with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, President Ronald Reagan said there was evidence that the Soviets “want a solution to this problem” of Afghanistan. Three weeks ago the Communist party newspaper Pravda called for “an atmosphere of positive dialogue” among opposing forces in Afghanistan. The

Afghan guerrilla; Soviet helicopter; rebel contacts base: a bloody Vietnam-style war reaches Soviet television

following week Gorbachev himself said that the Soviets were committed to “essential progress” in 1986 on a range of regional issues—and he specifically mentioned Afghanistan. Still, the U.S. state department, for one, remains skeptical. It said in a report last month that “Soviet hints of a willingness to be flexible may mask a basic condition: the maintenance of a Sovietdominated government that the Afghan people—and the world—reject.” For its part, Moscow continues to insist that the Red Army’s presence is needed to protect Afghanistan from outside interference. The Soviet news agency,

Tass, said two weeks ago that “a normalization of the situation around Afghanistan is possible only if the United States and its allies stop giving aid to the counterrevolutionary elements.”

The Soviets’ softer line may have less to do with peace than with propaganda. Gorbachev, analysts calculate, is well aware that the war he inherited from his predecessors when he became leader last March has been a public relations disaster not only abroad but at home. In November a UN investigator reported widespread torture, mass killing of civilians and other human rights violations in Afghanistan. Gorbachev also knows of the restlessness within the Soviet Union over a war that was originally billed as simply a short-term incursion. Appar-

ently in response, Soviet newspapers and magazines have begun detailing the difficulties in achieving peace. And two weeks ago Soviet television showed a one-hour documentary featuring graphic footage of the bitter combat between a modern military force and stubborn guerrilla armies.

There is clearly no reason to expect the rebels to succumb soon. The Soviets and their Afghan allies continue to control the cities, and they have used their helicopter gunships, MiG fighterbombers and armored columns to attack rebel strongholds in the countryside—and to deprive them of food and shelter by burning crops and razing villages. Such scorched-earth tactics leave the rebels on the defensive, but once the Soviet columns pull out of a captured area the guerrillas simply return to control the hills. Last summer the rebels even dug in for a conventional battle in the strategic province of Paktya, holding their own against a large Soviet force. Fighting is expected to slow down once again during Afghanistan’s snowy winter, but last week guerrilla sources said that their forces launched a three-hour rocket barrage on five targets around Kabul, killing at least 21 Soviet soldiers.

As well, the Kremlin’s contingent has been hard hit by low morale and even mutinies, especially among troops from largely Moslem Soviet Central

Asia and by the unreliability of its Afghan allies. Stories of Afghan government press gangs forcing people into the army to replace the dead or deserted often reach Pakistan. Indeed, last week Western diplomatic sources in Pakistan said the new “recruits” included students attending graduation ceremonies.

The Afghan government has made more willing converts of Pakistani tribesmen in the Khyber Pass area, arming them to fight Afghan rebels who use the border region as a staging ground for military operations. And the Kabul regime has tried to win hearts and minds in the struggle. Two weeks ago Kabul announced the appointment of nine non-Communists to senior government posts, including several from minority ethnic groups that back the rebels. “It’s like a bridge hand,” said Andrew Eiva, director of the Washington-based Federation for American-Afghan Action, a pro-rebel group. “They’ve already played their lead card, trying to co-opt the resistance.”

The rebels are divided along tribal and religious lines, although the seven main guerrilla groups officially united in July. They are also hampered by often-antiquated weapons, despite the fact that the United States—along with China, Saudi Arabia and Israel— have helped to alleviate that problem with new equipment. In 1985 the CIA provided about $280 million in covert aid to the guerrillas, which was used to buy such foreign-made weapons as Soviet-designed Kalashnikov rifles. Independent sources in Washington, however, say that shadowy arms dealers took some of the money in commissions, while Pakistanis in charge of arms distribution kept some of the weapons for themselves.

But sources in Congress say the CIA has been authorized to increase aid to the guerrillas to $470 million in 1986— although the funding will remain covert. “It would be very bad from the standpoint of Soviet prestige if it looked as if the United States had beaten [the Soviet forces],” said Arnold of the Hoover Institution. “They might stay in Afghanistan just to stop that perception.”

Just how serious the Soviets are about wanting to withdraw remains unclear. The UN peace talks resume in Geneva next month or early in March, and Reagan and Gorbachev are expected to meet in Washington later in the year. Perhaps by then Gorbachev will have decided to cut his losses and leave Afghanistan to the Afghans.

BOB LEVIN in Toronto with ALEX BRODIE in Islamabad, WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington and ANTHONY HYMAN in London