"Train like you fight, and fight like you train," said a senior soldier who oversaw troops as they practiced raiding an abandoned qalat (fortified home or building) in eastern Afghanistan. These simulated raids lasted long into the night, and were in preparation for an upcoming raid on a suspected insurgent's facility.
Robert Cunningham

Since the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, it has failed to consolidate the rule of its Marxist client in Kabul. Although there are occasional reports that the government of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) has increased its control, events over the last year confirm an overall lack of progress and the growing strength of the Afghan resistance. The Soviet-sponsored regime has made few political gains and its administrative and combat performance has not greatly improved—a record that led to the abrupt resignation of Afghan leader Babrak Karmal on May 4, 1986. The mujahedeen resistance, on the other hand, is more capable than ever, boosted by increasing firepower, operational and political cooperation and international support. It is slowly but steadily evolving into a powerful military force.

The Soviets, however, are looking to the long haul. Facing increasing losses in the field, as well as the beginnings of dissent at home, Moscow has responded with marginal military adjustments and hints of diplomatic flexibility. Nevertheless, the costs to the Soviet Union seem manageable, and there is no evidence that it is willing to withdraw until its proxies are confirmed in power. Afghan tenacity and international pressure could someday force Moscow to change its calculations. But, at best, this will take years.


Two years ago, Soviet forces failed in a massive assault to eliminate the resistance in the Panjsher Valley. Since then the resistance has increasingly taken the military initiative. The overall level of combat has steadily intensified, even during the customary winter lull, when the focus of combat shifts to the south and west. Every summer the pace of fighting escalates as the mujahedeen take the offensive. The Soviet and DRA militaries have been forced to respond to these attacks with increasing force in order to stave off major losses. Were Soviet troops to withdraw from Afghanistan, the Kabul regime could not long hold off the mujahedeen.

Early in the conflict the Soviets concentrated their operations in "strategic" areas of Afghanistan—the densely populated and economically valuable belt stretching from the northern gas and agricultural fields, through the industrial region north of the Hindu Kush, down to Kabul and Jalalabad. But Soviet forces have been unable to consolidate their control within this core or eliminate the growing concentrations of mujahedeen. Consequently, in recent years the Soviets have shifted their attention to the border areas in order to stanch the flow of arms to mujahedeen inside the country. More Soviet forces have been garrisoned facing the border with Pakistan, though still at a distance. With increasing frequency, these Soviet troops have mounted both large- and small-scale operations in the border areas. These efforts have harassed and complicated, but not significantly curbed, mujahedeen movement and logistics.

As a result, in 1985 and so far this year, much of the fighting has taken place near the Pakistan border. In May 1985 the Soviets moved 10,000 troops with tanks and helicopters up the Konar Valley to relieve the Afghan regime garrison at Barikot, which had been periodically under siege since 1978. This operation was motivated partly by the failure of a smaller joint Soviet-DRA column to push through earlier in the year. Shortly after reaching its objective, however, the main Soviet force withdrew from the valley, leaving the garrison to DRA forces. It did not take long for the mujahedeen to return and reestablish the siege.

To the west of Konar, in the Panjsher Valley, the resistance gained a major victory in June 1985, precipitating a Soviet military reaction. For the first time in the war the resistance took an important regime garrison. Panjsher resistance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud and his troops first captured a number of outposts, then overran the Afghan garrison at Peshghor established after the Soviets’ 1984 offensive. The mujahedeen captured extensive supplies and nearly 600 prisoners at Peshghor, including a number of Soviets and DRA officers, and killed an Afghan general. The Soviets responded hastily; in contrast to their usual well-planned operations, they threw troops piecemeal into the Panjsher, perhaps to save Soviet garrisons further down the valley. By the end of July, with over 10,000 troops in the Panjsher, the Soviets went over to the offensive. Nevertheless, during the early part of 1986 Massoud’s forces continued to operate within and outside the valley. Mobile groups from the Panjsher inflicted costly attacks on Soviet convoys traveling through the Salang Tunnel. The Soviets responded with several medium-sized operations and tactical airstrikes.

Late in the summer of 1985, the heaviest fighting shifted south to Paktia province on the Pakistan border. Five thousand mujahedeen drawn from several parties joined forces to attack the Afghan regime garrison at Khowst in the largest offensive ever mounted by the resistance. As many as half the outposts around Khowst fell to the mujahedeen, but they failed to take the town. The Soviets were able to relieve the garrison by air although several attempts to send convoys failed, including one with over 5,000 troops. Casualties were high on each side in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. Although DRA troops mounted a counteroffensive from Khowst, the town remains under siege.

Heavy fighting in Paktia continues. In April of this year, DRA and Soviet forces captured and destroyed the largest resistance base at Zhawar, but then withdrew. The mile-long cave network at Zhawar, less than six miles from the Pakistan border, had been well defended by antiaircraft weapons. These proved inadequate in the face of what may have been the most intensive Soviet air strikes of the war, and the first use of large-scale night raids. Mujahedeen casualties ran in the hundreds, but the DRA army also suffered heavy losses. One of Kabul’s few elite commando units, which led the initial assault, was cut to pieces; its commander was reportedly executed after a trial by resistance forces. The attackers have withdrawn and the mujahedeen are reported to have now moved back into Zhawar. The fall of Zhawar may have been the largest single defeat so far for the resistance, but it will not change the course of the war.

Mujahedeen activity has steadily increased in the other parts of Afghanistan as well. In the south, the regime has all but abandoned most of Kandahar, particularly the bazaar. In September 1985 resistance forces claimed to have downed a civilian aircraft near Kandahar with an antiaircraft missile. DRA and Soviet forces remain at the Kandahar airport and come under periodic attack. But the Soviets are fighting back. In early spring 1986 a large Soviet convoy was sent from Kabul to Kandahar. Soviet troops surrounded the town and bombarded the bazaar in an attempt to break resistance control of the city center. After extended house-to-house combat, the attack was broken off. Resistance forces apparently retain control of most of the city.

In the spring of 1985 several mujahedeen groups joined to attack the Kajaki Dam north of Kandahar; combat raged for months in the heaviest fighting of the war in the southeast. The Soviets had to increase their presence in this most isolated corner of the country.

In Nangarhar province, near the Khyber Pass, the DRA launched a series of operations in the winter of 1985-86. At first the DRA troops held together well, but on encountering heavy resistance had to withdraw and call for Soviet help. At about the same time, near the Pakistan border, the Soviets armed and trained about 400 Afridi tribesmen to fight the mujahedeen. When they brought the tribesmen into battle, however, the Afridis circled around, trapping the Soviets in a crossfire with the resistance, and then slipped away across the border into Pakistan.

Resistance activities in the north diminished after the death of the most important mujahedeen commander in the region, Zabiullah. Still, there were several attacks on the pipeline that carries Afghanistan’s natural gas to the Soviet Union. The mujahedeen also made occasional forays into the U.S.S.R. itself.

Both sides have been particularly active in western Afghanistan. In 1985 resistance forces in Herat, under the unified command of Ismail Khan, moved to rid the city of its minimal regime presence. The Soviets reportedly had to call in reinforcements directly from bases in the U.S.S.R. The Soviets attacked a number of resistance bases in the fall, and they have regained nominal daytime control of the city. But the fighting continues.

In the mountainous region of central Afghanistan known as the Hazarajat, Iranian-supported Shi‘ite groups vanquished the traditional Shi‘ite parties and moved to establish an Islamic republic administration. While in the past these groups have fought more against local rivals than against the Soviets, their increasing control has made the Hazarajat a more secure base for resistance forces.

The Afghan capital, Kabul, appears more secure. Refugees have doubled its population to about two million since the Soviet invasion. There are checkpoints and gun and tank emplacements on all access routes, and a nightly curfew is imposed. The movements of visiting news correspondents and resident diplomats are restricted. Yet observers have remarked at the city’s apparent calm, the full bazaars, the accumulation of Volgas, Toyotas and Mercedes. If the war is not readily visible in Kabul, it is audible. The noise of explosions can be heard year round; visitors note the constant drone of helicopters and warplanes. Numerous fires have been caused by aircraft ejecting antimissile flares.

The Soviets devote extensive resources to maintaining security in Kabul—their minimum tactical goal in Afghanistan—particularly on symbolic occasions or during important regime meetings. During these internationally visible events, as many as 60,000 Soviet or Afghan military and police personnel are deployed in the capital to maintain order.

With each passing winter, particularly when resistance movement is hampered, Soviet security measures appear increasingly effective. As the weather heats up, however, so does the fighting. Every summer, Kabul is shaken by rocket and commando attacks. The airport and military logistic centers are prime targets. In July 1985 the Soviet embassy compound in the western suburbs was hit by mujahedeen rockets, reportedly resulting in the deaths of several Soviet guards. Attacks became so frequent that the Soviets installed a rocket-launcher battery in the embassy compound in order to return the fire.

There is widespread and credible evidence that the war has significantly damaged the Afghan economy, already one of the world’s poorest. In March of this year, Karmal claimed that since the beginning of the war the mujahedeen had destroyed 39 state-owned enterprises, 250 mosques and prayer houses, 2,707 schools and 130 medical centers, with total material damage amounting to 36 billion afghani, or about $18 million according to the official exchange rate.

Nevertheless, there is considerable evidence that the economy continues to function in much of the country. Disruption of agriculture has been mostly confined to areas of heavy fighting and population movement. These areas—most notably the provinces bordering Pakistan—are most familiar and accessible to Western reporters and the refugees; accounts of conditions there encourage perceptions of food shortages throughout the country. Food production in 1985 may have exceeded wartime averages, but isolated food shortages do exist. The Soviet Union has had to increase its already dominant share of Afghanistan’s trade and aid to make up for the shortages.

In sum, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan remains essentially a city-state, with military outposts in the hinterland and a secure civilian presence only in Kabul and a few other towns. Both Herat and Kandahar, the second and third most important cities in the country, are substantially in resistance hands. More than two-thirds of Afghanistan’s population and an even greater proportion of its territory are beyond regime control.


The Soviets have adjusted their numbers, weapons, pace of activity and tactics to compensate for the growing capabilities of the mujahedeen and the decreasing effectiveness of the Afghan armed forces. In 1985 Soviet troop strength in Afghanistan increased marginally to about 120,000. They are supported by an estimated 30,000 additional troops stationed in the Soviet Central Asian republics north of Afghanistan. Over the past year the Soviets have augmented or upgraded support and communications facilities, and employed new types of armor, artillery and mines. Tactical air support has been improved with the upgrading of airfields, permitting aircraft to be dispersed closer to combat zones. The Soviets have added to the number of war planes, equipping some with more sophisticated missiles.

Soviet forces now operate with greater frequency in smaller units. The number of Soviet special forces in Afghanistan has steadily increased since 1984 to approximately 4,000. Fighting in small units, they have successfully ambushed resistance caravans and engaged in reconnaissance and counterinsurgency thrusts; in larger formations they have conducted heliborne assaults. These commandos, unlike the regular Soviet troops, are respected and feared by the mujahedeen. But due partly to their limited numbers, they have not substantially affected the course of the war.

This more offensive posture has cost the Soviets in increased casualties and aircraft losses. At the end of 1985, the U.S. government estimated that the total number of Soviet casualties in Afghanistan since 1979 was over 30,000, including more than 10,000 killed. In addition, the Soviet Union and the Afghan regime together lost nearly 800 aircraft in the first six years of Soviet occupation.

There have been other costs as well. Soviet forces in Afghanistan continue to suffer morale problems. Alcoholism, drug abuse and disease, particularly dysentery and hepatitis, are rampant. Soviet soldiers have sold military supplies to pay for liquor and drugs, including heroin. Although there is no evidence of a coherent nationwide anti-civilian strategy, Soviet troops have increased reprisals on the civilian population in disputed areas, a sign of low morale and discipline.

The Soviet Union appears to be particularly sensitive about those of its soldiers who could be considered missing in action, avoiding mention of prisoners or defectors in its news media whenever possible. A few Soviets have gone over to the resistance; some of them even fight alongside the mujahedeen. According to Western press interviews, Soviet defectors often convert to Islam and adopt Muslim names. In addition, various resistance groups hold Soviet prisoners, generally in secure base areas inside Afghanistan. The international press reported in May 1985 that 12 Soviet prisoners were killed in an explosion at Badaber/Mattani camp inside Pakistan. The incident was reported in the Soviet media only after the news reached the Soviet Union from international news sources.

The Soviet military has reaped certain benefits from fighting in Afghanistan. The war has provided a testing ground for new weapons systems. As many as 60,000 officers have served in Afghanistan, gaining useful combat experience. There are personal benefits to be gained as well. Despite the military’s overall lackluster performance, Soviet captains and majors often leave Afghanistan with a promotion to assume a position at a military academy or a more senior command. Senior Soviet officers have parlayed their Afghanistan experiences into the most prestigious decorations, party rank and military posts.

Back in the Soviet Union, there is little evidence of genuine enthusiasm for the military occupation of what some veterans refer to as "Stan." Although there is no evidence of widespread opposition, there are signs of growing discontent. There have been public demonstrations against service in Afghanistan in Armenia, Georgia, the Ukraine and other republics. Draft evasion appears to have increased, prompting Soviet authorities to issue new laws punishing those who fail to register. Underground samizdat criticism has grown, including both negative reports from Afghanistan veterans and open expressions of sympathy for the Afghan people.

One Soviet journal recently carried a letter that would have a familiar ring for Americans, concerning the difficulties of a veteran in coming to terms with attitudes of people back home. In Afghanistan, the veteran wrote, his buddy was killed and he himself was wounded and many times on the brink of death; on returning home he could not believe his eyes when he found his friends interested in obtaining new records and cars, his parents arguing over the site for a new dacha, and his girlfriend going about in "American jeans." He wondered what his comrade had died for.

In an effort to generate more domestic support, the Soviet news media have significantly expanded their coverage of the war, including television reports. Not all the coverage is optimistic. One Moscow telecast reported that about 120 Afghan drivers working for an Afghan-Soviet transport company have died in ambushes over the past few years. At the Geneva summit meeting in November 1985, a Soviet spokesman publicly admitted to a sharp increase in casualties in Afghanistan that year. Soviet spokesmen have said that the fighting is "intensifying," a clear indication that Moscow is preparing its own people for a long struggle.

Politically and militarily, the Soviet Union appears to be settling in for a long, but limited, war. It has permitted only moderate increases over the years in its total commitment of troops. The Soviets have acted in the short term to preserve security in Kabul and a few provincial centers, to protect their supply lines and to prevent the resistance from growing too strong or threatening these secure zones. This defensive stance allows the Soviets to pursue longer-term political goals: wearing down the Afghan people’s will to resist; stabilizing the government in Kabul; and developing loyal followers in the army, government and communist party who will be capable of eventually running the country.

For some time there was evidence of Soviet dissatisfaction with Kabul’s performance, as revealed in its treatment of the Afghan regime and its leaders. Moscow’s official greeting on the seventh anniversary of the April 1978 communist coup and again on Afghanistan’s national day in August were less enthusiastic than in previous years and appeared to downgrade the status of the Afghan communist party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA).

Soviet dissatisfaction with Babrak Karmal became increasingly apparent when he was accorded low-level treatment on a series of visits to Moscow. During the February 1986 Soviet Party Congress Karmal was not received by General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev or other key Soviet leaders, unlike other guests of equal or lesser rank. Thus, it was not surprising that on May 4, after a somewhat mysterious month-long visit in the Soviet Union, Babrak Karmal resigned as general secretary of the PDPA. He was replaced by the party secretary for security affairs, Najibullah (sometimes known as just Najib). Karmal asked the specially convened 18th plenum of the PDPA Central Committee to accept his resignation "because of health reasons, and after a careful assessment of my possibilities and of the issues and international problems." A member of Karmal’s Parcham faction of the PDPA, Najibullah is known for his longstanding close ties to the Soviets. He served as head of the KGB-dominated intelligence and security service KHAD from just after the Soviet invasion until December 1985.

Both Soviet and resistance spokesmen minimized the significance of the leadership change. But the announcement was accompanied by heavy security precautions that included the deployment of Soviet troops and tanks in the streets of Kabul. The replacement of Karmal, who had been a member of Afghanistan’s parliament under the monarchy, by a figure known only for his leadership of a ruthless security organization will not contribute to Kabul’s domestic legitimacy.


The Afghan regime remains weak and ineffective. With little prospect of improving its performance or appeal, Kabul has intensified efforts to construct a facade of legitimacy. The regime had never before invoked political devices such as elections or a Loyah Jirga (the traditional Afghan conciliar form of democracy)—probably because the PDPA could not win a fair election, and a managed exercise would have reduced the regime’s credibility even further. Following Soviet direction, the regime has organized, stage-managed and publicized a series of meetings and public displays. There is no evidence that these exercises have yielded additional political support.

In April 1985 the regime hurriedly scheduled and convoked a Loyah Jirga—an assemblage historically used by the Afghan monarchy and the pre-1978 republican government to validate a transfer of power or to gain public approval of a specific new policy of major significance. The party and regime now claim to derive their legitimacy from the Proclamation of the 1985 Jirga. Nevertheless, prematurely playing the Loyah Jirga card devalues, for at least several years, a device that ultimately could have been used to help genuinely legitimize a regime with more popular support.

A large number of the 2,000 participants were regime functionaries, from the military or KHAD, or members of the PDPA or its various front organizations. The "independent" delegates were paid well for their attendance—reportedly 20,000 afghanis per delegate, and up to 50,000 afghanis for those who agreed to speak in the televised sessions.

Kabul also staged local council "elections" in August 1985, the first elections since 1978. As depicted in the government news media, "voting" consisted of counting raised hands in a random selection of residents (including young children). The regime announced that 450,000 Kabul residents participated, about 90 percent of eligible voters, but it is doubtful that even five percent of this number actually took part.

The regime focused on the frontier and its neighbors in a September 17, 1985, High Tribal Jirga for the Pushtun and Baluch tribes, whose territories span the borders with Pakistan and Iran. Again, delegates were reportedly paid well to attend. Cash payments were supplemented by arms, reportedly for use in defending the frontiers and presumably also tribal lands across the border.

Reinforcing the apparent change in emphasis from the party to the regime, Karmal presented on November 9, 1985, his blueprint for an ideological shift toward pragmatism. Invoking Leninist phraseology (thus certifying no departure from the ultimate goal of communism), Karmal outlined "ten theses" for broadening the social base of the Afghan revolution. He stressed that "our main aim is to establish conditions in the country under which all national questions could be solved . . . in a peaceful way." The basis of the initiative would be to "broaden the composition of leading state organs, that is, the Revolutionary Council and the Council of Ministers, to include the credible representatives of the people who can reflect interests of various strata and groups." Karmal also made assurances that Islam would be respected, the private sector would be encouraged, tribes would be permitted self-rule and that nonparty organizations could be formed if they were not hostile to the government.

Despite apparent Soviet support, Karmal subsequently acknowledged opposition to his "theses" from within the PDPA. He responded with threats that "those who do not obey the party decisions . . . have no place in the party. We do not intend to retreat from this decision." Much of this opposition has come from the Khalq faction of the PDPA. Formerly headed by deposed presidents Nur Mohammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, the Khalq faction is more ideological and nationalistic than Karmal’s Parcham faction. Continuing disputes between the two factions have sometimes burst into violence.

The regime has tried to strengthen its position through personnel changes in the party and government. At the opening session of the 16th plenum of the PDPA Central Committee on November 21, 1985, a party reshuffle was announced, the first change in the Politburo in three years. It was at this meeting that Najibullah (in a replay of Yuri Andropov’s rise to the top of the Soviet hierarchy) was named to the Secretariat of the PDPA, beginning his ascent from KHAD to the party leadership post in May 1986. Najib’s deputy, Ghulam Farid Yacubi, was promoted to full member of the Central Committee and was quickly named as the new director of KHAD.

In December 1985 the regime announced the appointments of a number of purportedly "nonparty" figures. Sayed Amanoddin Amin was named vice chairman of the Council of Ministers. (There are several holders of this rank, the equivalent of deputy prime minister.) A technocrat, Amin previously served the DRA as a deputy minister and as chairman of the Economic Consultative Council, the voice of the so-called private sector. Other appointees similarly held important regime positions in the past, and their "nonparty" identities may be suspect. Abdul Hamid Mobarez, for example, named deputy education minister, was identified by Radio Kabul as a former head of the Afghan-Soviet Friendship Society.

In January 1986, 79 new members were nominated to the Revolutionary Council, doubling its size. The council’s presidium was also enlarged. Haji Muhammad Chamkani was named vice president, the first time a nonparty figure had been elevated to such a high level. Throughout the so-called broadening process, the nonparty figures appear to have gained their appointments at the expense of Khalq faction members. On the whole, however, there is no evidence that the campaign has significantly increased the regime’s popularity or legitimacy.

The PDPA continues to claim a steady growth in membership. In March of this year, Karmal told a Soviet interviewer that the party had 150,000 members, an increase of 15,000 from a figure he cited in January 1985. Western observers put party membership at half of this number or less, but the PDPA is unmistakably growing. Expansion of membership among peasants and soldiers has meant a smaller pool of capable, committed activists for the resistance to draw on.

In January 1986 KHAD was elevated to cabinet level as the Ministry of State Security. The change can be viewed as a "promotion" for good performance. The organization, which has a well-deserved reputation for brutality and torture, has grown steadily and now may be almost as large as the army. KHAD is overseen closely by the KGB and other Soviet bloc security forces. It has had some success in recruiting and keeping uneducated young urban males. These recruits have little or no ideological commitment to the communist regime but, having burned their bridges to the rest of Afghan society, have become loyal to the organization. Most KHAD cadres are based in Kabul, but the organization operates all over the country and abroad.

A new push has been made to build up local militias throughout the country. This effort parallels the traditional Kabul strategy of buying off villages and tribes—especially in the areas bordering Pakistan and Iran—with offers of arms, money and protection in return for a pledge to keep the mujahedeen out of the area. This approach has succeeded up to a point, but the militias have only rarely fought the mujahedeen. More commonly, groups take the government booty, then subsequently go over to the resistance.

The regime’s efforts to gain long-term support among young people appear to have suffered a dramatic setback due to an apparently growing effort to fill vacancies in the military. In March 1986 the call-up was extended to teachers in the capital. In the past three years, half the graduating class of a top Kabul school have left the country before the end of their final term out of fear of conscription at graduation. Efforts to indoctrinate Afghan youth in regime-controlled areas or inside the Soviet Union have failed to produce a substantial committed cadre.


The Afghan military remains incapable of holding off the mujahedeen, notwithstanding continuing Soviet efforts to reverse its deterioration. The December 1984 appointment of a Khalqi, Nazar Mohammed, to head the Ministry of Defense apparently was not enough to inspire the largely Khalqi officer corps. They are likely to be further alienated as a result of continuing shifts in the factional power balance in favor of the Parchamis and the reduction of ideology in Karmal’s broadening campaign.

In recent months the Soviets have intensified their efforts to "Afghanize" the war. The DRA military saw more engagements and scored some successes. Where it ran into serious opposition, however, it was forced to call on Soviet support. Enlisted men, who are mostly impressed conscripts, prefer not to fight the mujahedeen. They frequently desert, and the resistance generally sends them back home or absorbs them into its ranks. Mass desertions and surrender in the face of mujahedeen attacks continue. The DRA military remains a major source of arms and ammunition for the resistance. On more than one occasion DRA troops have reportedly tried to curb Soviet reprisal attacks on civilians.

The Soviets have been pressuring the DRA to expand its ranks. In March 1985 Karmal told the 15th Central Committee plenum that "bringing the ranks of the military up to full strength cannot be delayed." On January 5, 1985, the Politburo announced that those who "volunteer" for the army would have to serve only two rather than the standard three years required of conscripts. In fact, many conscripts have been forced to serve beyond their required term—a major source of disaffection within the army. In order to legitimize conscription by press-gang, the regime decreed that anyone between the ages of 18 and 38 who had not yet served would be liable for immediate call-up.

The Afghan air force, previously considered the most loyal service, has experienced increased defections and sabotage. Heightened vulnerability to mujahedeen air defense has steadily eroded morale. In June 1985 about 20 Afghan fighter planes were destroyed by sabotage at Shindand Air Base near the Iranian border—the largest loss of aircraft in any single incident of the war. The accused saboteurs (DRA officers who were later executed) were unhappy over the disciplining of pilots who dropped their bombs in the desert instead of on a village. In July DRA air force personnel defected to Pakistan with two Afghan Mi-25 (Mi-24D) export-version Hind helicopter gunships, the first Hinds to slip out of Soviet or proxy control. The DRA, claiming the pilots had gotten lost, demanded that Pakistan return the gunships.


As for the resistance, it is better armed and trained than it was in the past, and increasingly professional. As a result, the mujahedeen have been able to take greater initiatives in the fighting. Many of the separate fighting groups are displaying increased cooperation. Improved air defense—still comprised primarily of heavy machine guns but increasingly supplemented by surface-to-air missiles—has blunted somewhat the impact of Soviet air power and forced the Soviets to adopt countermeasures. Through skillful use of mines the mujahedeen have increased their destruction of armored vehicles and convoy traffic. They have kept themselves well supplied with arms from captured equipment and a variety of outside sources. There are reports that the mujahedeen have stockpiled a large quantity of arms as insurance against future supply cut-offs or shortages.

The Afghan resistance consists of several elements, both inside the country and abroad. The mujahedeen could not survive without the support of the overwhelming majority of the Afghan population. Although Soviet and regime reprisals have generated more caution in the behavior of civilians, in many cases reprisals have hardened attitudes toward the occupiers. Under the pukhtunwali, the Afghan traditional code of behavior, an unfulfilled requirement for badal, or blood revenge, is passed down through generations. Those who live under regime control, including many employed by the DRA, pass on intelligence or commit sabotage. The regime periodically uncovers resistance supporters among its ranks, but cannot get them all. At the end of 1985, four Afghan generals reportedly were arrested for cooperating with the mujahedeen.

Resistance units, known as fronts, are headed by local commanders, originally traditional leaders but increasingly young men skilled in combat and organization. Thus a new generation of nontraditional leaders is emerging inside the country. Most, but not all, of the hundreds of separate fronts are linked, sometimes tenuously, to one or more of the major resistance parties. Tensions among the groups—at times reflecting traditional tribal or ethnic squabbles, sometimes disputes over territory or supplies—continue to be a problem for the resistance. But the war appears to be slowly creating a national consciousness among the Afghan population, and popular pressure has apparently contributed to a reduction in combat among different fighting groups.

Many of the more traditional fronts, operating as local self-defense units, never venture out of their local areas. Some occasionally attack convoys or regime posts. But alongside these groups a modern guerrilla army is developing. Operational units of increasing size have evolved around a single commander; this is particularly the case among non-tribal groups such as those organized by Massoud in the Panjsher Valley, Ismail Khan in Herat or (among tribal Pushtuns) Jallaluddin in Paktia. The Pushtun tribes gather around the traditional leaders like Pir Sayyid Gailani in Paktia, or join alliances as in Kandahar or the Helmand Valley. These groups, and perhaps the Hazarajat Shi‘ites, can be viewed as the equivalent of focos, the political and military sub-centers proposed by Che Guevara in his model of Latin American guerrilla war.

Increasing numbers of mujahedeen fighters have received at least rudimentary training and have become adept at a variety of modern weapons and combat support equipment. Many have become full-time soldiers, especially the commanders (some of whom, like Ismail Khan, were originally officers in the DRA army). While Soviet troops are rotated (conscripts roughly annually, officers about every two years), the mujahedeen’s combat experience accumulates. The development in a few short years of complex logistical networks handling many tons of supplies in a hostile environment with little basic infrastructure is a remarkable accomplishment.

The mujahedeen suffered a major setback in February when Zabiullah, regional commander of the Jamiat-i-Islami resistance group, was killed by a mine that exploded under his jeep. Zabiullah had been singularly successful in extending his influence outside his own party; his successors have not yet been able to reestablish the coordination he maintained with other groups in the north. The loss of major commanders remains a serious potential problem, but the ability of the resistance to find replacements is growing.

The loss of the logistic base at Zhawar, although not critical, can provide a valuable lesson to the mujahedeen. They are not strong enough to hold or deny territory to the Soviets. Regardless of the antiaircraft weapons the mujahedeen may acquire, the Soviets will always be able to destroy static bases: they can mass air assets sufficient to overcome any such defense. Thus, no matter how well-intentioned, pressuring the mujahedeen to escalate their resistance to a higher or conventional level, to hold land, or to determine tactical details from afar seriously risks the collapse of the struggle. Guerrilla war is a long-term vocation, and the Afghans’ foreign supporters need to be as patient as the Afghans themselves.

The resistance has undergone a political consolidation over the years, partly at Pakistan’s behest. In 1980 there were over one hundred different resistance parties with offices in Peshawar. Since 1979 there have been at least six major resistance alliances. The merger of the two existing "fundamentalist" and "moderate" alliances of the major resistance parties was announced May 16, 1985, in Peshawar. The new coalition kept the same name—Islamic Unity of Afghan Mujahedeen—that had been used by both alliances.

The new alliance is represented by a single spokesman, rotated quarterly among the party leaders. Decisions are by consensus among the seven leaders. The fundamentalists are now represented by four groups: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami (Islamic Party); the Hezb-e-Islami faction of Yunus Khalis; the Jamiat-i-Islami (Islamic Society) headed by Burhanuddin Rabbani; and the Ittihadia (Islamic Unity) led by Abdul Rasool Sayyaf. The moderates are represented by three groups: the Harakat-e-Inqelab (Islamic Revolutionary Movement) of Nabi Mohammedi; the Mahaz-e-Milli (National Islamic Front) of Pir Sayyid Gailani; and the Jebh-e Najat-e Milli (National Liberation Front) led by Sibaghatullah Mojadeddi.

The major focus of the alliance thus far has been promoting the international political role of the resistance; it has demanded Afghanistan’s seat in the United Nations and other international representation. Gulbuddin led a delegation to New York during the United Nations’ 40th anniversary activities in the fall of 1985. Gailani went to the Islamic Conference meeting in Rabat, Morocco, where his presentation was apparently very well received; he also observed the U.N. Commission on Human Rights session in Geneva last March. Rabbani, the coalition’s current spokesman, can also be expected to travel. Throughout all these appearances abroad, alliance unity has been maintained and the role of the spokesman respected by the other delegates—no small accomplishment for parties that in the past regularly fought each other.

The resistance alliance has its limitations. The various parties retain considerable differences over their visions of a post-Soviet Afghanistan. The alliance thus far has had greater impact abroad than inside Afghanistan. It remains only a representative coalition that lacks a central authority. And it has yet to integrate Afghans outside the seven parties (for example, the Shi‘ite groups) or fully reflect leadership developments in the jihad. Nevertheless, the alliance is slowly developing a coherent voice. In the future it could become a credible interlocutor in a discussion of Afghanistan’s future, and thus may prove to be the most significant political development in the resistance effort yet.


Pakistan has become a "front-line state," threatened by the prospect of permanent Soviet domination of Afghanistan and the permanent presence of Afghan refugees. Pakistani-Afghan relations have long been troubled. The British-demarcated border, the Durand Line, which divides areas traditionally inhabited by the Pushtun and Baluch tribes, has not been recognized by Afghan governments. The recognition of the frontier is a highly valued plum held out by the Kabul regime in U.N. negotiations. In the past, Pushtun nationalism produced calls in both countries for Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan to become independent or merge with Afghanistan under the name of Pushtunistan. Since the Soviet invasion the question has become moot; Pushtuns and Baluch now feel lucky to be out of the Afghan embrace.

Afghans in Pakistan constitute the single largest group of refugees in the world. The Pakistan government reports registration of over 2.6 million Afghans; numbers continue to grow, although at a slower pace than in years past. Despite a recent renumeration, that figure may involve some double counting. However, there are large numbers of additional unregistered refugees, many living on the fringes of the camps in the NWFP and Baluchistan.

Net refugee flows are difficult to determine partly because there is still considerable movement in both directions across the border. Although from 1983 to 1984 the refugee flow diminished, it apparently increased in mid-1985 to as many as 35,000 people a month, then abated. The increase was due to an upswing in fighting and perhaps to deliberate Soviet and DRA efforts to drive Afghans out of the disputed areas near the border. The new refugees differ from their predecessors. Many are wounded or suffer from malnutrition. They come with few possessions, unlike earlier refugees who brought household goods, animals and even commercial vehicles. As registration can be a lengthy process, many refugees congregate around existing camps, where they are supported by relatives or fellow tribesmen until they can get other assistance.

The Soviets and KHAD both attempt to exploit Pakistani sensitivities over the refugee presence and the threatened spillover of the war. Over the past year there has been a marked rise in Soviet/DRA subversion in Pakistan’s tribal areas along the border. Many KHAD infiltrators have been apprehended by the Pakistani authorities. A series of bomb explosions in Peshawar, including a January 1986 blast at a Pakistan International Airlines office, inspired a local demonstration against the Afghans’ presence.

The specter of Pushtun and Baluch separatism was raised when the DRA convoked a jirga of the independent tribes in Kabul. According to Radio Kabul, two of Pakistan’s most important regional parties, Abdul Wali Khan’s National Democratic Party (representing Pushtuns from the NWFP) and the National Awami Party (Baluch), and a host of minor radical groups from Pakistan participated. The Sindhi Awami Tehrik party, implicated in the 1983 Anti-Zia disturbances in the Sindh, sent a message of solidarity. The Afghan Revolutionary Council told them "Afghanistan was and will be your homeland."

In 1985, there were over 200 DRA or Soviet violations of Pakistan airspace and more than 25 instances of shelling of Pakistan territory. Violations continued at a high rate through the early months of 1986. As before, nearly all violations were reconnaissance missions or air and artillery strikes related to fighting just over the border inside Afghanistan. Violations were especially numerous around Arandu, opposite Barikot, and all along the tribal areas that border Paktia province. During the spring 1986 fighting in Paktia, the frequency of Afghan air incursions into Pakistan territory was unprecedented.

The second largest concentration of Afghan refugees is in Iran. The government of Iran estimates that there are up to 1.8 million Afghans within its borders, few of whom are living in refugee camps. Iran does not recognize the DRA and refuses to participate in the U.N. negotiations on the Afghanistan situation. Iran complained of periodic border violations during the course of 1985. In June of that year, Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazari, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s heir apparent, encouraged several Afghan Shi‘ite resistance groups to stop fighting among themselves and concentrate on fighting the Soviets. Iranian support generally has been channeled to these groups and seems to be on the increase.


Efforts in the United Nations to negotiate a settlement in Afghanistan have resulted in six rounds of indirect talks in Geneva since 1982. Negotiations are led by U.N. Under Secretary General for Special Political Affairs Diego Cordovez. Cordovez shuttles between delegations from Islamabad and Kabul, officially informing Iran of the discussions and unofficially informing the Soviets. In June 1985 the United Nations reported tentative agreement on three out of four proposed accords. The first accord calls for noninterference in Afghanistan’s affairs; the second, international guarantees of a final settlement; the third, the voluntary return of Afghan refugees.

Discussion of a fourth accord dealing with the key issue of a Soviet troop withdrawal (and establishing a timetable) was blocked in August 1985 when Afghanistan continued to demand direct negotiations with Pakistan. The Soviets and the DRA maintain that a withdrawal can be accomplished only through a bilateral agreement between Moscow and Kabul, but that this can be linked to the other elements of the U.N.-sponsored accords.

Afghanistan did not change its position regarding direct negotiations with Pakistan at a subsequent round of talks in December. In the absence of a settlement, Pakistan refuses to negotiate directly with the DRA government. In that same month, the United States offered to play the role of guarantor in a peace settlement that would include a speedy withdrawal of Soviet troops, linked to the other elements of the U.N. accords.

In March 1986 Cordovez shuttled between Islamabad and Kabul in an effort to move the discussion of the fourth instrument forward. The DRA produced the timetable for the withdrawal of Soviet forces that it had hinted at the previous December. The DRA plan also calls for monitoring to determine that "outside interference"—the term Moscow uses to describe the indigenous Afghan resistance—has ceased before Soviet troop withdrawal begins. Previously, the DRA refused to discuss a time frame unless the Pakistanis agreed to direct talks. Dropping this condition was considered a concession by the DRA-Soviet side. Pakistan appears encouraged by the progress of the negotiations. President Zia ul-Haq told Le Monde that "it is very possible that Mr. Gorbachev has changed his mind." Cordovez delivered a new draft of instrument four to the parties in April that served as the basis for another Geneva session that began May 5.

Despite hints of flexibility, Moscow has given little indication of a readiness to abandon the DRA to its fate. Moscow continues to stress the concept of a political settlement that applies "around Afghanistan," and that will maintain and legitimize its client in Kabul.

Nevertheless, Afghanistan is clearly of increasing concern to the Soviet leadership. At the February Party Congress, Gorbachev mentioned Afghanistan alone as a "regional conflict." He called the Afghan war a "bleeding wound," the starkest description so far from a Soviet leader. Gorbachev’s formulation on withdrawal, including the desire for a solution in the "nearest future," appeared slightly different from previous authoritative statements. Such close attention at the Party Congress indicates that the Soviet leadership feels that it must at least appear to be trying to solve the Afghanistan problem.

The Afghan resistance is not involved in the negotiations, and without popular Afghan consent there can be no solution. After more than six years of brutal war, there is little likelihood that an authentic Afghan government could be genuinely friendly to the Soviet Union. However, a government that the Soviets could live with, that would not be a threat, and whose neutrality would be internationally guaranteed is not inconceivable. Regardless of their jihad or the requirements of revenge, the Afghans can compromise and have done so several times in their history.

Consequently, the continuation of Cordovez’ efforts is valuable: the U.N. negotiations provide a door for a possible withdrawal, should the Soviets ever decide it is time to leave. Such a decision does not now appear in prospect. But Gorbachev and the rest of the Soviet leadership may be showing signs of impatience over Kabul’s lack of progress. Should they conclude that 15 years hence Afghanistan will be at least as big a headache for them as it is now, they might reconsider their involvement. It will take time and require a combination of pressures—on the ground in Afghanistan, abroad in their relations with the Islamic world, Europe and the United States, and within the Soviet Union itself—for such a reconsideration to occur.

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  • Craig M. Karp is a State Department political analyst for the Near East and South Asia. This article is adapted from the author’s Afghanistan: Six Years of Soviet Occupation, United States Department of State Special Report No. 135, December 1985. The author wishes to acknowledge the contributions of Eliza Van Hollen, Peter Colm, Paul Trottier, Lisa Carty, Ron Lorton, Desiree Millikan, John Zerolis and, on Soviet internal developments, Paul Goble. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State.
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