Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

David Kline

Afghan rebels loosen Soviet grip

First Published: The Call, Vol. 9, No. 42, November 5, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Editor’s Note: Call reporter David Kline recently visited Afghanistan, where he covered the guerrilla war against that nation’s Soviet-backed military regime. This is the first of several reports that will appear in The Call.

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Rebel-Held Paktia Province–Moslem rebels in this strategic South Asian country are beating the pro-Soviet government of Hafizullah Amin on the battlefield.

I was one of the first Western reporters to visit rebel-controlled areas in Afghanistan after secretly crossing the mountains from Pakistan under armed guerrilla escort. Observations of the insurgents in action–including a major battle at the government fort at Alikhel–tend to support the conclusion that they do, in fact, have Amin’s regime on the run.

Guerrilla leaders say the reason for their success is not hard to understand:

“Our Mujahadeen [guerrillas] are fighting for the life of their nation,” rebel commander Syed Ishaq Gailani told me during an inspection of his troops in Paktia Province. “They are ready to die for an independent Afghanistan.”

Gailani is one of the nephews of Syed Ahmad Gailani, president of the National Front for the Islamic Revolution in Afghanistan (NFIR). The front is one of the half-dozen or so rebel groups fighting to overthrow the repressive, Moscow-dominated Amin regime. Sources in neighboring Pakistan say the NFIR is probably the largest of the groups, with 70,000 fighters under its command.

I saw a disciplined and highly motivated rebel army during my visit, armed with everything from World War I British rifles to a few of the latest Soviet-made Kalashnikov automatics–the latter captured in battle from pro-government troops. But if there was an abundance of rifles, there was a near complete lack of armour, artillery, transport, communications, medical support and all the other equipment usually thought necessary to fight a war in the last half of the 20th century.

The insurgents’ limited firepower, however, had not stopped them from pushing Amin’s forces into only two isolated outposts in the province by the time arrived.

One, the garrison at Alikhel, was captured by the rebels during my visit. The other–the provincial capital of Gardez–was attacked by guerrillas on Oct 8, according to Western press reports. The road to the nation’s capital, Kabul–only 65 miles to the north west–was cut during the attack.

The military situation is roughly similar in 24 of the country’s 28 provinces, where other rebel groups battling Amin’s disintegrating 100,000-man army. Rebel leaders told me it is only a matter of time–perhaps as early as next spring–before they hoist their victory flag over Kabul.

The government finds itself in a position that virtually all observers describe as precarious, despite the fact that Moscow has committed 4,000 military advisors to the war. These officers, however, do more than merely “advise”–they actually direct Amin’s army down to the company level.

The Kremlin has also deployed some of the most advanced weaponry in its arsenal here, reminiscent of the U.S. government’s use of Vietnam as a “testing ground” for weapons a decade ago.

I witnessed how MiG-21 fighters routinely pound rebel positions and villages alike, and heard reports of the use of napalm in “scorched earth” attacks. More recently, the Soviets have deployed what some say is the most sophisticated helicopter in the world–the $2 million MI-24 gunship equipped with rocket launchers and nose-mounted machine guns.

Advanced weaponry has helped to push up the death toll in the war to its estimated 250,000 level. But apparently the rugged, mountainous Afghan terrain has helped the insurgents withstand such awesome firepower and still go on to capture government-held towns and forts, one after another.

The Soviet adventure here, in fact, has been of such little success that foreign diplomats in Kabul have begun referring to the country as “Russia’s Vietnam.”

“The comparison with Vietnam may be stretched at the moment because they’ve lost less than 1,000 men,” one member of a British military delegation visiting Pakistan told me. “But if the Russians send in their combat forces to save Amin, they may find themselves in a hole so deep they’ll never see that proverbial ’light at the end of the tunnel.’”

In any case, the Kremlin’s efforts to bolster their friends in Kabul have certainly left deep scars on the lives of the people of Afghanistan.

During my tour of Paktia Province, I saw dozens of villages damaged during MiG-21 bombing sorties. In the sister villages of Sardgaland Markhal, I counted as many as one-fourth of the homes as destroyed. Unexploded bomb casings with Russian markings still littered the fields around the villages.

“More than 100 people were killed the last time the jets came,” one Sardgal resident told me. “That was on Sept. 11, so we have had three weeks now with no attacks.”

Two days later, all the people of these villages–this reporter included–would flee to the mountains to escape Soviet MiGs that bombed in retaliation for the loss of the Alikhel garrison to rebels.

Destruction has not only come from the air and from Russian-piloted jets. In one village, the local mullah [priest] displayed damage wrought by Amin’s troops during a reprisal raid on the mosque. Gaping holes pierced the mosque’s walls where tanks had fired into them. He also showed me the mosque’s Koran– the Moslem holy book–that had been shredded by soldiers.

“Before the Mujahadeen made the soldiers retreat to their forts,” declared one villager, “they used to come through, shooting and wrecking everything. If they thought a village was giving help to the Mujahadeen, they would line up a few families and shoot them, children and all.”

Accounts of brutality against civilians are common here. They might be dismissed as the “horror stories” typical of any war were it not for the fact that reporters hear them everywhere–from Kabul to the refugee camps of Pakistan.

But the most important confirmation of the Amin regime’s use of terror against the population came in mid-September with the release of Amnesty International’s (AI) report on Afghanistan. The report documented human rights violations under the reign of Nur Mohammad Taraki, Amin’s predecessor, who was killed by Amin loyalists in a coup last month. Most Afghans regarded Amin as the real strongman, even when Taraki was in power.

The international human rights organization asserted that at least 12,000 political prisoners are being held by the Kabul regime, and it documented many cases of torture and execution of intellectuals, religious leaders and political opposition figures. Amnesty International also reported that at the notorious Pul-I-Charki prison outside Kabul, between 20 and 50 executions are carried out each night on the prison’s “killing ground.”

One interesting part of AI’s report gives evidence of the arrest of hundreds of pro-Chinese Marxist-Leninists who opposed Soviet domination. Amnesty International believes most, if not all, were tortured and then killed by the Kabul regime in June 1978.

Such widespread violations of human rights tend to undercut claims by the government that the rebellion is being waged by a handful of rightist landlords angered over Kabul’s supposed implementation of democratic, social and land-reform programs.

Ordinary villagers as well as rebel leaders emphatically insisted to me that they oppose Amin because he has sold their nation to Moscow. The government, people here say, merely tries to disguise its betrayal with rhetoric about “democracy” and a “better socialist order.”

“Anyway, have you seen one landlord, one rich man, among all the thousands of villagers here who support us?” asked Gailani, the rebel commander, when questioned about the government’s charges. Indeed, there was no one this reporter could identify as being anything other than a poor and barely-fed peasant.

On the other hand, members of some old ruling families do play a significant role in several of the insurgent organizations, including a few former ministers from the pre-1973 monarchist governments.

This fact only confirms the view that–insofar as the Afghan revolution is more than a spontaneous outpouring of popular anger- -it is led by the patriotic Afghan bourgeoisie. The main force of the revolution, of course, is the millions of poor peasants who support it and do the fighting.

Religion also plays a critical role in mobilizing popular sentiment against the regime. Amin, and Taraki before him, are seen not only as Soviet puppets but as enemies of Islam as well for their suppression of the Islamic clergy. Islam still has an unbreakable hold over the minds of this country’s people.

By all accounts, then, the armed rebellion in Afghanistan gathers steam by the day, winning one victory after another against a government wracked with internal divisions and unable to maintain even a semblance of popular support. But will the insurgents find themselves the masters of their country by spring, as rebel leaders so confidently predict?

My guess is that this is unlikely, in view of what Moscow feels is at stake here. Afghanistan is nothing less than a strategic base for the Kremlin’s expansionist operations in the whole region, and a stepping stone towards warm water ports in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean.

As such, Afghanistan and the region play a vital role in the Soviet’s rivalry with the U.S. imperialists for world domination. South Asia and her ports flank Europe and, together with Soviet positions in the African horn and Arabian peninsula, constitute a potential choke-hold over Western supply lines that Moscow would like to strengthen.

Afghanistan is important to the Soviets for other reasons as well: “Imagine if Soviet power is defeated by Afghanistan’s rag-tag guerrillas,” one Pakistani journalist told me. “What effect would that have on the peoples of Eastern Europe, or even on Russia’s own 40 million Moslems?”

Given all this, it is most reasonable to expect an ever-expanding commitment from Moscow–including the use of its own combat troops.

Is there a U.S. connection to the Afghan war? Yes, insofar as Soviet involvement here is a result of the contention of both superpowers for domination in the region.

The rebels themselves deny any U.S. involvement. Nor would they welcome a direct American role, citing the U.S. record in Vietnam as evidence of the need to be independent of both superpowers. But NFIR leaders told me they would welcome arms and some other aid from Washington.

“We’ll take guns from anyone as long as there are no strings,” Syed Ishaq Gailani stated. “We hope the world will help us because of the justice in our cause.”