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3 May 2022

From the NS archive: Marching with the rebels

12 December 1980: How the Afghan guerrillas are faring after 12 months of struggle against the Russians.

By Gérard Chaliand

Writing a year after the USSR invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, the French journalist Gérard Chaliand, who had made two extended visits to Afghanistan during that time, appraised the efforts of the guerrilla rebels so far. In this piece, translated from French by Francis Wheen, Chaliand describes guerrilla war as “an extremely tedious activity”, during which one spends most of the time “tramping up hill and down dale”, and is only very occasionally witness to an ambush or combat. Many of the villages through which Chaliand walked were abandoned – a depressing sign of the reasonable success of the Soviet strategy. The Russians had not committed the error made by the French in Algeria and the Americans in Vietnam, the journalist observed – of filling the country with a huge expeditionary force. Instead, they had chosen to send a force just big enough to control the main towns and communication routes, but had not yet broken the offensive capacity of the Afghan resistance. War in Afghanistan, Chaliand concluded, had only just begun.

After a steep climb we reached the Dolei Pass, on the border between the provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. We paused for a few moments to savour the reward for our effort: the view. On the Pakistani side, many miles away, we could see paddy-fields laid out in terraces – one of the most beautiful artificial landscapes in the world. On the Afghan side were long chains of overlapping mountains, half-obscured by a light mist, looking like a Chinese painting.

We had just begun our descent when my companion grabbed my arm. Exactly two yards in front of me was a mine, no bigger than a pack of cards. Its green plastic case was well camouflaged by the mossy ground on which it lay. The leader of our group, a man called Walid, photographed the mine before detonating it by throwing a stone at it. These “anti-personnel” mines – which can easily take your leg off – are dropped from helicopters. They remain intact on landing, but explode the moment someone steps on them. Their presence throughout the countryside effectively prevents one from travelling at night.

Contrary to the impression given by films and books, guerrilla war is an extremely tedious activity. (I speak as one who has spent more than fifteen months with guerrillas in Latin America, Africa and Asia.) Almost all of a guerrilla’s time is spent tramping up hill and down dale, which is pleasant enough but hardly very exciting. Most of the rest of the time is spent hiding, visiting camps and trying to avoid disease. You may occasionally be present at an ambush, but actual extended combat is rare.

My journey with the Afghan guerrillas began in October just south of Barikurt and finished at Chitral. The province of Kunar, through which we travelled, seemed almost empty. We passed through at least a dozen villages which had been abandoned by the inhabitants, with the crops still unharvested. For a month we ate almost nothing but nuts and ears of corn, although occasionally, when we stayed with villagers, we would be treated to tea and yoghurt.

Along the Kunar river there are a number of villages and towns which are held by a small contingent of Afghan soldiers – about fifty, usually – and a village militia, normally several hundred strong. The fighting around these fortified villages is almost always of the same pattern: the guerrillas launch a small-arms attack; the army replies with mortar or machine gun. The outcome is normally inconclusive, but these symbolic skirmishes make the Afghan army feel isolated and insecure while giving the rebels the initiative.

However, not all the confrontations are so harmless. Between 24 and 27 September, near the Binchei Pass in Kunar, a column of about 300 rebels was surrounded by Soviet troops. After two days of artillery fire and aerial bombardment, Soviet parachutists were dropped from helicopters. Walid, my guide, takes up the story: “They were much better than us and at nightfall, from the tops of surrounding hills, they would send up rocket flares. We were trapped there for two days, without food, being fired on from all sides. It was hell.” There were few survivors.

A similar operation took place the same month in the Panjshir valley, and the Soviet troops and the Afghan army have now moved on from there to conduct further cleaning-up exercises in the provinces of Baghlan, Parwan, Logar, Wardak along the Pakistan frontier.

The Soviet strategy has worked reasonably well. The Russians have not committed the error made by the French in Algeria and the Americans in Vietnam – that of filling the country with a huge expeditionary force, of which only about 10 or 15 per cent are effective fighters. Apart from being very expensive, it is also bad for morale to have large numbers of useless troops cluttering up the country. Instead, for both political and economic reasons, the Russians have chosen to send a force which is just big enough to control the main towns and communication routes.

The Afghan army, which was 80,000-strong in 1978, has shrunk to half the size through desertion. Many of the deserters have joined the resistance, taking with them their arms and equipment. Even so, the government has managed to hold the Pakistani border by setting up a dense network of fortified posts, surrounded by mines.

The Russians move about in armoured columns, which the rebels are unable to attack successfully. Most of the mines and explosives used by the guerrillas are of poor quality, and anti-tank guns are few and far between. Moreover, if a group of Soviet tanks is attacked, helicopters move in almost immediately to pin down the guerrillas. Indeed more and more often these days the Soviet troops themselves are moved about by air, which makes them even more unassailable. Contrary to periodic reports from “diplomatic sources” (usually in New Delhi), the Soviets have suffered remarkably few casualties in the year since the invasion.

In the border provinces, the Soviet and Afghan armies have provoked an exodus by a large part of the rural population. The number of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, which was about 400,000 a year ago, is now over a million. This has caused further problems for the guerrillas, as it is hard for them to find food in the depopulated areas, and it has forced them to move on. The difficulties faced by the rebels have been compounded by the fact that the Afghan regime and the Russians have been practising classic tribal politics in the countryside, assiduously cultivating a number of chieftains who, for diverse reasons, do not feel any allegiance to the guerrillas.

Despite these rural activities, the Russians’ main effort in the first year of occupation has been concentrated on the towns, and especially on Kabul. As well as trying to deal with administrative problems – which are complicated by the rivalry between Parcham and Khalq – the Russians have built a number of new roads and have set up economic projects which will aid the integration of Afghanistan into the Soviet bloc. The Russians strengthened their control over Kabul this summer by issuing special identity cards, which have hampered the rebels’ ability to sneak into the city to stock up at the bazaar.

The Russians have, therefore, some reason to feel that their Afghan excursion has been fairly successful, and cheap. When assessing the credibility of claims such as that recently published in the International Herald Tribune – which said that the Russians had suffered 1,500 casualties in the month of September alone – it is worth recalling that in 12 years of war, against a foe much better armed than the Afghan rebels, the Americans lost no more than 50,000 troops.

Nor, however, should one exaggerate the losses suffered by the rebels. Those who describe the Afghan war in terms of genocide are harming the cause that they claim to support. The essential point to stress at the moment is that the offensive capacity of the Afghan resistance has not been broken. The rebels have not yet suffered the sort of blood-letting which took place in Algeria in 1958-59, or in Vietnam in 1969-70. There is not yet an Afghan equivalent to the Vietnamese “search and destroy” operations or to Operation Phoenix.

In fact, the balance sheet at the end of this first year is uncertain: the bottle is half empty or half full, depending on how you look at it. The government has had great difficulty in finding young recruits to swell its army; students have demonstrated their opposition several times in the streets of Kabul; there have been numerous defections by high officials who cannot bring themselves to collaborate with the Karmal regime. Equally, however, the resistance has not profited much from this discontent: most educated people have gone to the West rather than join the rebels, who are thus short of technical and political know-how. The doggedness of the rebels and the muted satisfaction of the Russians, coupled with the fact that neither side has yet suffered a serious setback, lead me to believe that the real war in Afghanistan has barely begun.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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