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Soviets unite warring Afghans

On Christmas Eve, 1979, one plane after another carrying Soviet troops landed in Afghanistan, thrusting a modern army onto one of the largest tribal societies on earth.

One year later, long-time observers of Afghan tribes are puzzled over continuing -- and perhaps escalating -- resistance to the far superior Soviet tanks and armored helicopters.

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Without modern weapons, a loose network of ragtag "freedom fighters" has prevented total subjugation of Afghanistan's rugged countryside, draining the Russian military and perhaps making Moscow think twice about any moves into Poland.

Unusual links have developed between rival and traditionally unorganized tribal leaders, according to reports reaching American, British, and exiled Afghan anthropologists.

In a land the size of Texas where inter-tribal warfare is as much a way of life as the practice of Islam for an estimated 13 million nomads and peasants, sporadic and scattered guerrilla resistance was expected to be no match for modern Soviet troop divisions, which were on their first military venture outside Cuba and the Soviet bloc since World War II.

In the last two months, anthropologist Richard Strand notes, "There has been a spontaneous unification of people traditionally at each others' throats. Now they sit down and jointly plan military strategy.

"This is the first real revolution that has happened in Afghanistan," he adds , having just returned from Pakistan refugee camps, where he took reports from fleeing tribesmen.

The military resistance has had a year to learn how to make land mines and Molotov cocktails, use some limited antiaircraft weapons, and generally perform such simple acts as blocking mountain roads with bolders.

Still, weapons are in high demand as reflected by the prices: a World War II-vintage rifle sells for about $1,000; grenades for $700; and single bullets for $2 to $3 in a nation where the average income is $160 a year, says Zalmay Khalilzad, a political scientist at Columbia University.

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The appearance of disunity among the mujahideen (freedom fighters), has so far been one reason given for little, if any, Western military aid.Even more than weapons, however, the Afghans need food since many insurgents spent the summer fighting the Soviets, neglecting their crops.

Despite the lack of weapons for the insurgents, states Prof. Louis Dupree of Pennsylvania State University, "The Russians have stopped sending infantry out because they are defeated all the time by Afghan guerrillas." The Soviets are replacing manpower with firepower, using more land mines, tanks, MI-24 gunships, and MIG 21 jets to reach into mountain passes.

The emerging networks of sometimes competing tribes in Afghanistan defy Western notions of military hierarchy, anthropologists say. "Many people bemoan the lack of unity among these groups. If there was any more unity, I'd get worried," says Professor Dupree.

Near the city of Jalalabad, the Darri-i-Nur tribe has united with its hated enemies, the Safis. "For the first time, tribal distinctions were irrelevant, and a military bureaucracy developed that cross-cuts tribal divisions," says anthropolist R. Lincoln Keiser of Wesleyan University. Initial fighting was led by Mir Beg, a Singarik tribe leader who has become the military commander of all guerrilla forces in the area. His skillful negotiations played well on anti-government feelings, and his capture of government arms helped bring in many followers.

One year of training and organizing have made the freedom fighters bolder, tougher, and more experienced. "New leadership might emerge within Afghanistan, " says Professor Khalilzad, who adds that the Soviets could face a conflict for years to come. "The Russians, in driving out so many Afghans, are forcing those that remain to unite, usually in groups up to 3,000 in different regions," says Professor Dupree.

Unlike the British invasion in the 19th century, the Russians and Afghans are historical enemies, and legends of past Russians cruelties are common among many tribes, especially in the northeast province of Badakhshan, where Stalin persecuted the relatives of Muslims in the 1930s.

Badakhshan, the only province which shares borders with the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, and Pakistan, has seen an "unprecedented popular armed resistance in this historically passive and non-militant area," says M. Nazif Shahrani of the University of California at Los Angeles.

One saying heard in barren Badakhshan reveals the depth of resentment against the Russians: if your father was a Russian, carry an axe with you -- i.e. never trust a Russian, even if he is your father.

These people have an organization that "is best at the local village level where a number of villages within a valley or adjacent valleys have organized themselves in military units [Jabha or fronts]," says Dr. Shahrani. "These local cells involve individuals and families from all strata of society, and leadership is determined by consensus of its membership. . . . There is also a loose regional hierarchy of command established within the province, but their effectiveness and eventual success lies in their grass-roots support. No more than a dozen families have left the central areas of the province for Pakistan, and there is strong determination on the part of the people to stand and fight rather than leave."

The Muslim militants and recalcitrant tribesman are a very loose collection of as many as 60 different regional pockets of insurgents, with a common aim: political and economic independence and, perhaps, preservation of Islamic culture, according to Bahram Tavakolian, a Denison University anthropologist.

"The disparateness, and even the disunity, of the various factions presently fighting on the rebel side is paradoxically, both the reason why the insurgents are unlikely to overthrow the communist government in Kabul and the reason why they may succeed in maintaining their unique cultural identities and local political autonomy after the major fighting is over and the Soviet troops withdraw."

Afghan experts see the country's spontaneous grass-roots revolt differently from other Islamic rebellions, such as in Iran, where an "Islamic brotherhood" unites factions. Islam is as an expression rather than a cause of Afghan cultural identity, and of their political opposition to foreign rule. "Afghanistan is not experiencing a jihad [holy war] against atheism but a political struggle against usurped authority," states Dr. Tavakolian.

Under two years of communist rule, the fabric of relations between tribal politics and the state bureaucracy has become unraveled, including the accepted practice of bribery, say anthropologists. Islam was attacked in many schools by communists and certain prayers were banned, attacking the values which gave meaning to the lives of the people. Importation of school administrators and teachers into villages disenfranchised people both politically and religiously. "The elite in the tribes no longer had ties to the elite in Kabul," says Mr. Strand.

Also confronting the Soviets were two years of a communist land distribution program which has decreased agricultural output and inspired resistance. "The opposition to this program has been overwhelming -- both by the landowners and the peasantry," finds M. Siddieq Noorzoy, economist at the University of Alberta.

Still, the Soviet-controlled government in Kabul, recognizing the Islamic nature of the resistance, has begun to emphasize Islam in speeches. The date of the Soviet invasion is declared as a date that God intervened on behalf of the Afghan people. A school has been opened on Islamic ideology and flags change from red to green, the Islamic color. "The strategy is not yet successful," says Dr. Khalilzad.

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