Scorched-earth warfare

December 1 1986

Scorched-earth warfare

December 1 1986

Scorched-earth warfare


December marks the seventh anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The subsequent war of resistance has ground to a stalemate, causing the desertion of hundreds of disillusioned Soviet soldiers—including the five whom the Canadian government spirited out of the country last week. The war has cost thousands of lives and created the world's largest refugee problem. Reporting of the war is fragmentary. However, some reporters manage to trek over the rugged mountain trails from Pakistan to link up with units of the Mojaheddin resistance—Islamic guerrillas trying to overthrow the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul. Maclean’s correspondent Richard Evans recently returned from his third such trip.

His report:

Out of a clear blue sky, three Soviet Sukhoi tacti cal bombers dived almost vertically to release their deadly loads, then swooped up again to clear the rugged peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains. As the bombs erupted in the

Skandar Khel valley below, the sound of the strike rolled over the forested foothills like thunder. The bombs had not hit a target of any obvious military significance but rather a group of mudbrick farm buildings clustered on the floor of the once-bountiful valley. Still, the Soviet attack was neither random nor the result of faulty intelligence. Instead, it was part of a ruthless campaign aimed at starving the Mojaheddin into submission by destroying the source of their food supplies.

Soviet jets and helicopters have been waging continuous scorched-earth warfare for the past four months, the rebels say, pounding villages and farms in Afghanistan’s fertile northern and eastern provinces. “With the

war in a strategic stalemate,” said Afghan scholar and Mojaheddin spokesman Sayed Majrooh, “the Soviets are making a last-ditch effort to win outright by destroying the country’s agricultural infrastructure.” International relief specialists, working in the desperately crowded refugee camps across

the border in Pakistan, say that the Soviet campaign may cause a fullscale famine—perhaps as serious as Ethiopia’s. And, said Dr. Mohammed Heider, medical co-ordinator for the Swedish Humanitarian Committee, “at least in Ethiopia the international aid agencies could get in and help. But in Afghanistan it is very different. I see no way that enough aid could get in.” Judging from the scenes in the Skandar Khel valley during a tour under Mojaheddin escort, the Soviets are well on the way to achieving their objective. The valley was home to 20,000 people before the invasion seven years

ago, but it is now almost deserted. Its villages have been bombed to rubble, its irrigation canals are wrecked and dry, and the handful of farmers brave enough to remain say that they only work their fields at night for fear of attack from the air. So far, dwindling food supplies do not seem to have seri-

ously impeded the Mojaheddin’s fighting ability. But if widespread undernourishment turns to mass starvation—as it could this winter—the effect on the resistance could be disastrous. Said one Western aid worker: “If all the harvest is destroyed and all the people leave, there will be nowhere for the Mojaheddin to find food and shelter.”

The fighting has grown more intense over the past year. The Mojaheddin, who number about 200,000, usually strike under cover of night and then melt back into the countryside, although lately the trend has been to-

ward larger and longer battles. The Soviets have become wary of the rebels’ skilful use of antitank rockets; when Soviet armored columns travel Afghanistan’s exposed desert roads, they are escorted by jets and helicopters. And there is evidence that better weapons are beginning to trickle through to the resistance. Last month five Soviet helicopters were shot down near the eastern city of Jalalabad, allegedly by guerrillas armed with British shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. At a rebel hideout in Paktia province, I saw stacks of new heavy machine-guns and land mines, many bearing Chinese markings. Said rebel commander Mahomet Nawaz: “For

once we have enough arms.”

The Soviets, however, have also updated their arsenal. Increasingly, they have been replacing slow-moving Hind helicopter gunships with Su 24 and Su 25 jet bombers equipped with sophisticated electronics and infrared suppression systems that can nullify all but the best surface-to-air missiles. The Red Army now has an estimated 118,000 troops in Afghanistan, supported by 30,000 Afghan regulars. Most observers say that Moscow’s much-publicized continuing withdrawal of some 7,000 troops will have no effect on the strategic balance of the war. The majority of the forces in-

volved are attached to antiaircraft battalions, and the rebels have never had any airplanes. And there are reports that more useful Soviet troops have already replaced those sent home.

Beyond their Soviet opponents, the Mojaheddin have also been fighting among themselves. Armed clashes are increasingly frequent among the rebels’ rival tribal and religious groups, which range from pro-Western moderates to Moslem fundamentalists. Some 80 per cent of Afghanistan’s people adhere to the Sunni sect of Islam, and although they lack the radical religious zeal of Iranian Shias fundamentalism is clearly on the rise. The largest and most fundamentalist of all the Mojaheddin groups is the Hezb-i Is-

land, or Islamic party. Beginning as a small, ill-equipped rebel band during the 1978 Afghan civil war that preceded the Soviet invasion, the Hezb-i Island has grown into a formidable force of nearly 100,000 armed guerrillas supported by more than one million Afghan civilians. “As an armed force,” said one Western military analyst, “the Hezb make the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] look like a backyard operation.”

The Islamic party has also made the rebels look increasingly divided. “There is an outright civil war raging in the central highlands,” said Michael

Barry, field investigator for the New York-based International Federation on Human Rights. “I saw the fundamentalists attack a group of moderate Mojaheddin in Wardak province.” Leaders of other guerrilla groups have made similar claims. But Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the founder and leader of the Hezb-i Island, denies the charges. “Our party is growing while the others are losing their memberships,” said Hekmatyar. “They fear our power, and this is why they are accusing us.”

Many Pakistani politicians say that Hekmatyar is the only leader with a chance of uniting all the Mojaheddin groups. The 34-year-old engineer is the youngest and most charismatic of all the rebel leaders, and he is the only one who personally leads his men into battle. In an effort to gain wider acceptance, he recently organized free elections among his followers, who chose new military commanders and provincial resistance leaders throughout Afghanistan. “Hekmatyar is the man to watch,” said A.S. Yusefi, a correspondent for Dawn, a leading Pakistani newspaper. “He is the only rebel leader who is renowned as both a politician and a fighter.” Still, Hekmatyar does not have the unqualified support of a major Western power, and it remains uncertain whether he can unite his people.

For many Afghans, the internal politics of the rebel movement seem remote. According to a recent United Nations survey, five million of them emdash; one-third of the prewar population emdash; have fled the country for squalid refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran. Despite millions of dollars in humanitarian aid each year from Western and Middle Eastern countries, the densely populated camps are breeding grounds for diseases such as tuberculosis, whooping cough and malariaemdash;and for seething discontent. Said Barry: “The Afghan people hate the Soviets and feel betrayed by the West. If the war does not end, we could see an unprecedented wave of terrorism coming from the misery of these camps.”

Thousands more Afghans are expected to flee the country during the hard winter aheademdash;particularly if the Soviets continue their campaign of bombing farms and villages. Many farmers will be forced to eat the last of their grain, leaving little or nothing for the spring planting. Among the landless poor, many may starve to death. Meanwhile, in the diplomatic chill following the failed U.S.-Soviet summit at Reykjavik, the war in Afghanistan is unlikely to become the subject of serious superpower negotiations. And as long as the Soviets remain in Afghanistan, the bloody war of attrition can only continue. lt;£gt;