How successful are the Soviet troops fighting in Afghanistan? During a second visit to the resistance forces, in late 1980, I found that in some respects the Russians were improving their tactics. For example, soon after I entered north-eastern Pakistan with a group of five resistance fighters, one of my companions reached out abruptly to stop me from stepping on a mine that lay a few feet ahead on the mountain path. It was the size of a pack of playing cards and covered with green plastic which blended easily with the moss-covered ground. Walid, my translator and the leader of our group, took a photograph of the mine before he threw a rock and exploded it. These antipersonnel mines are scattered in the mountains by Soviet helicopters. They explode only when someone steps on them and they can easily blow off your leg. They are relatively ineffective against insurgents traveling by day but they prevent guerrillas from moving through the hills at night, particularly if they are accompanied by caravans of camels. By contrast, when I first visited the resistance groups last summer, we often traveled at night.
The Parcham faction now running the Afghan government which the Soviet Union brought to power in late 1979 has, moreover, been able to organize defense forces in the villages along the border, something the preceding Khalq regime was not able to do. Aside from ambushes on the roads, most of the skirmishes we observed followed a similar pattern: lightly armed guerrillas attacked mountain villages, forts, or military outposts held by the army, which then responded with heavy machine guns or, more often, mortars. The outcome in most cases was largely symbolic: there was no gain for either side, although such skirmishes can be unsettling for Afghan army soldiers, who feel isolated and vulnerable in these mountain outposts.
In other cases, however, the Russians won decisively. A band of some 300 resistance fighters was surrounded by Soviet troops between September 24 and 27, not far from the towns of Sao and Shal in Konar province. After two days of artillery fire and bombing, Soviet “black beret” paratroopers were dropped from helicopters. “They were very fast,” Walid told me, “faster than us, and good shots. When it got dark, they began to shoot flares from the hilltops, and the fighting went on throughout the night. For two days we had no food, no way to defend our position. It was raining, a hellish two days.” There were few survivors among the resistance fighters. A similar operation took place in September in the Panjshir valley. Then in late November Soviet and Afghan troops began a campaign to drive the guerrillas not only from the Panjshir valley but also from the provinces of Baghlan, Parwan, Logar, Wardak, and the border region of Paktia. This continues today.
What have the Soviet troops achieved during the year that they have occupied Afghanistan? Until now their strategy has proven very effective, largely because they have avoided the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.