Salehan Valley, guerrilla-held southern Afghanistan
"Just give us better weapons and more ammunition. Then we'll throw out the Russians, even if we must struggle to the last man," declares the dignified, gray-bearded guerrilla leader solemnly. "We don't want pity."
The fighting spirit is certainly there. But regrettable for the several thousand armed mujahadeen, or guerrilla warriors, hiding here in Afghanistan's desolate Baluchi region 60 miles north of the Pakistni frontier, such admirable defiance is not enough. Neither will it be sufficient simply to send in desperately needed military supplies, such as antitank guns and missiles, to resist the sophisticated weaponry of the Soviet Union's expanding and highly disciplined invation forces.
The guerrilla bases are scattered in the barren Chagai Hills among the sparsely vegetated open valleys and rocky, dried-out riverbeds of this rugged desert landscape. During a tour of them in an open American-made pickup truck, it rapidly became apparent that the Baluchi mujahadeen are dangerously underestimating the strenght and capabilities of the Soviet forces.
Furthermore, the mujahadeen here are disastrously ill organized, unprepared, and poorly trained.
Still deluding themselves that their formidable foe from the north is not very different from the dispirited Afghan troops they have successfully fought ever since the Communists first came to power in Afghanistan in Aoril 1978, the guerrillas face the strong possibility of being ruthlessly slaughtered, once the Soviet military is ready to slip into full action, possibly in the next few weeks.
To get here, I traveled by car (in the company of several fellow journalists) along the main highway that leads from Quetta, capital of Pakistan's aluchistan Province, to Qila Safed, on the Iranian border. Our earlier attempts to enter Afghanistan illicitly had been thwarted by Pakistani frontier patrols. So we decided to stop off between Pakistani checkpoints at a small desert town along the way and hide for the night in a "safe house" belonging to one of the six major mujahadeen groups based in Peshawar.
The house, a one-room mud-and-stone affair overlooking a large courtyard where several tents were pitched, was used as an "R&R" center for guerrilla fighters. Political posters decorated the smoothly plastered walls. A fire smoldered in a wide metal basin, and a kerosene lantern and several quilts were the only furnishings.
While a smiling, turbaned 14-year-old Baluchi boy handed us the traditional glasses of hot, heavily sugared tea, the guerrilla fighters apologized for their Spartan life style. "We have very little to offer," said Mahmed, the pseudonym used by our English-speaking guide to protect members of his family living in a government-controlled region of Afghanistan. "Apart from arms, we also need money to buy food, blankets, and medicines."
In the far corner of the room lay a 28-year-old mujahadeen. He had severe bullet wounds in his thigh. He insisted on showing us his injury, explaining that he was shot 10 days earlier during a skirmish with Afghan troops near Laskhar Gar, 150 miles to the north. He was brought to Pakistan by truck for medical care.
"We could not leave him too long in the Pakistani hospital," explained Mahmed , formerly a political science student at Kabul University. "There are many Communists in this part of Pakistan, and it is too dangerous for our people."
With almost no medical aid available inside Afghanistan, many injured guerrillas don't survive the long, hazardous journey over the bumpy tracks that run through the desert.
Next morning, shivering in the dawn cold, we climbed into a waiting pickup truck for the long overland haul into Afghanistan. Two more trucks crammed with mujahadeen from the nearby refugee camps joined us. They were flying the green and white Islamic Afghan flag.
Forbidden to carry guns while still in Pakistan by the uneasy Islamabad government, the Afghans may travel unhindered across the frontier. They hide their weapons under colorful Baluchi blankets on the floors of the pickups. One of the guerrillas asked us to cover our faces so we would not attract the attention of the police while driving through the town.
There was no road through thhe desert, only wheel tracks marking a constantly used desert route. Several miles from the town we were overtaken by two Pakistani military trucks loaded with troops. They surged past, throwing up clouds of dust in their wake.
Farther on, a group of mujahadeen fixing a flat tire on their jeep warned that the soldiers were looking for us. With informers everwhere, news travels fast. We waited in a nearby refugee camp until the patrols had left the border area.
The craggy, blisteringly arid Chagai Hills loomed forbodingly ahead. Once inside Afghanistan, we had to travel five hours along rugged trails that follow dry river gullies or suddenly break out across the open desert.
Here in the guerrilla-held area our guide confidently maintained that there was no danger from Soviet air patrols.
"All this is in mujahadeen hands," he said, indicating the desolate but strikingly beautiful landscape.
Along the way, we met straggling clutches of Afghan refugees making their way toward the Pakistan border. Their faces strained with exhaustion, they traveled in the backs of trucks or tractor trailers and on camels, on donkeys, or on foot.
At one point along our route, we came across a solitary man resignedly crouched beneath the bleached remains of a desert pine. Next to him was, of all things, a bicycle.
The Russians have bombed their villages, explained our driver, the malik or village chief, speaking of one of the mountain guerrilla bases. Many have been killed.
We stopped repeatedly to talk to the refugees. A Baluchi peasant, his face half covered by his turban cloth, led a single camel carrying his wife and several young children. Tent sticks and canvas protruded from under their legs. He said that at the end of January he lost two sons and a daughter during the bombing of his village, which lies abut 100 miles north of the border in Afghanistan's Helmand Province.
"They came during the day," he said without expression, "and my children could not run away."
Thirty miles inside Afghanistan, we encountered our first guerrilla base. Some 200 tents had been pitched along a dry riverbed. The camp lay totally exposed. No attempt had been made to camouflage it from Russian air patrols.
Pickups and jeeps and captured military trucks roared and in and out of the camp. The only thing that seemed to be missing was traffic lights.
Although many of these mujahadeen -- mostly ethnic Baluchis from the Afghan provinces of Helmand and Kandahar -- had taken their families to the safety of Pakistan's ever-growing refugee camps before returning here to fight the Communist regime in Kabul, a substantial number of women and children lived on the base.
Struck by their complete lack of precautions, I asked the camp chief whether he was not afraid of helicopter of MIG attacks from the Russian military bases only 150 miles away. He shrugged unconcernedly: "They have never come before."
When I pointed out that recent reports indicated there was an influx of reinforcements in preparation for a massive early spring campaign against the guerrillas, the chief simply said: "There is no danger."
At every camp, some of them consisting of only five or six tents, we met dozens of armed mujahadeen. In one of them, we were received by Kafir Hajin Nur Muhammad Khan, a guerrilla leader. Greeting us warmly at the entrance to his kudik, a mud and stone desert dwelling with a reed roof, the aristocratic-looking Baluchi led us inside. An elderly aide immediately served us tea as we sat down on the carpeted earthen floor, making ourselves comfortable around the open hearth fire.
Mr. Muhammad Khan, whose family once controlled dozens of villages and thousands of acres of farmland under a treaty with the British, was imprisoned last year by the Communists for refusing to accept what he described as "antiIslamic repression" under the Kabul regime.
Several months ago he fled with his people to these mountains to fight the government.
Now he commanded 300 mujahadeen. His brother, Alhaj Muhammad Ibrahim Khan, who traveled with us from the Pakistani border, controlled several nearby bases. The two men, who consult each other at least once a month, expressed deep hatred of the Russians.
"The communist will fail because they have not got the support of the people, " the Kafir explained. "[Muhammad Nur] Taraki failed; [Hafizullah] Amin failed; [Babrak] Karmal will fail -- and so will the Russians." While he spoke, choosing his words carefully, several guerrillas entered the house, bowed low to their leader, kissed his hand, and then sat down to warm their hands over the fire.
The mujahadeen did not accept that the situation had drastically changed, that the Soviets had given up trying to establish a popular base with the Afghans and were trying to impose their revolution from above.
"The Russians are atheists, anti-Islamic. They cannot win," said the elder Khan. "We are ready to fight to the last man. The Russians are not."
The mujahadeen's most obvious disadvantage is their lack of sophisticated weapons. Some of their guns are almost museum pieces and their bullets homemade. But increasing numbers now carry the coveted AK-47 automatic rifle. The majority are still armed with the more traditional British Lee-Enfield .303 rifles. I also saw some Israeli Uzi submachine guns and Czech rifles.
To fight the Russian T-72 tanks now being brought in, as well as the effective Soviet Mi24 helicopter gunships, the mujahadeen are urgently asking for heavier weapons, which no one seems willing to give them.
But the guerrillas here, all sporting impressively desinged cartridge belts across their chests, seemed more determined to be photographed in striking poses than to prove their military abilities. I seriously began to question their marksmanship when, after repeated attempts, the guerrillas failed to hit a yellow paper target at 75 yards, missing by several feet. Finally a bulky former government officer hit the paper with his AK-47.
The mujahadeen readily admitted that only a few of them received any proper military training. "I was instructed for one week on how to use this rifle," explained 24-year-old Paiz Muhammad, as he held up his Pakistani-made replica of a Lee-Enfield .303. "I learned how to shoot fighting the Communists." Whether he can hit a target is another matter.
But this poor show of marksmanship is not really the fault of the mujahadeen. Even if they want to practice, few guerrillas can afford to do so. Ammunition is simply too expensive.
"Either we have to capture it or buy it," Mr. Muhammad Khan explained. In the Pakistani tribal areas near the Afghan border, a single AK-47 round cost $1.50. Bullets for the Czech rifles go for $2.50 each. In a country where $30 a month is condidered a good income, bullets are too precious to waste.
A major complaint among the mujahadeen chiefs was that their men often sell captured weapons, grenades, and ammunition in the bazaars to help feed their families. "This means we have to buy back equipment we have previously captured, " a guerrilla remarked.
The Baluchi guerrillas do not appear too have any military strategy except a "let's go and get the Soviets" approach. The Pathan Afghan tribesmen to the north claim that they are better organized than their baluchi comrades to the south, but foreign observers who have recently visited Paktia and Kunar Provinces say the northern guerrilla tactics are not much different.
As in other parts of Afghanistan, the Baluchi communication system is bad, and guerrilla activities are poorly coordinated. With few radios, the guerrillas must rely on messengers. News often takes weeks to get through. I also saw no maps, although the guerrillas appeared to have a good knowledge of their fighting terrain.
When guerrilla operations are planned, the chiefs from the surrounding areas get together for "jirgas," assemblies, to discuss basic tactics. When a target and date have been set, they pile into their jeeps and trucks, sometimes as many as 30, and then make their way by night into the government areas, picking up additional mujahadeen along the way.
Formations are vaguely defined, and the guerrillas are not organized into tight squads or compaines, as the Viet Cong were in Vietnam.
Some observers maintain that this almost total lack of field orgainzation is to the majahadeen's advantage. This may have been true until now. But the guerrillas are no longer fighting the British, whose arms were only slightly more effective than their own, nor are they combating unreliable Afghan soldiers.
The military picture has not been the same since the December invasion. Not only are Afghan companies commanded by Soviet officers, but the Soviets have begun to mix their own troops with Afghan soldiers to boost efficiency and morale.
The mujahadeen can certainly last for years fighting from the mountains, but the months to come may prove to be extremely costly to the guerrillas unless they can become united and better organized. Even with effecitve weapons, courage will not be enough to protect their complaisantly exposed desert retreats when the Soviets start hitting hard.