- The Washington Times - Monday, September 24, 2001

LONDON "Every Afghani man is a fighter: War is a way of life," Tom Carew said in an interview. He is a veteran of Britain's legendary commando Strategic Air Services, who trained the mujahideen in their fight against the Soviets.
"You see a lot of sickening sights in the SAS, an awful lot. I can stomach most things, but this was truly nauseating. A body was lying on the ground. You could tell it was a body from the congealed blood that stained the stony ground in circles around it, but it was barely recognizable as a human being.
"The torso had been mutilated. The limbs stomped into a mash of ruby red flesh and splintered bone. The head had been kicked off and used as a football. No features could be made out; no eyes or nose were left on this gruesome, bloody skull just a few remaining wisps of blond hair that gave the clue as to who this once was: a Russian crewman on a Hind E helicopter.
"The mujahideen had shot down his aircraft just half an hour earlier. God knows how badly he had been hurt when it had crashed into the trees just outside the Afghan village, but he had clearly tried to crawl to shelter. The villagers had got to him first and showed no mercy.
"They had attacked him with their boots, with knives, with crude farm tools. Now they circled, panting, swathed in sweat, jostling to crow over their victim, their hands and clothes stained with his blood.
"I felt bile rise in my throat. Somewhere, at the edge of my memory, I recalled some lines from Kipling's 'Young British Soldier':
'When you're lying out wounded on Afghanistan's plains,
'and the women come out to cut up what remains,
'you roll to your rifle and blow out your brains.'
"It is one of the few verses I know. As a young man in Dorset, poetry wasn't a particular interest. I had thought that I was destined to take over the family farm: I had little use for literary insight. But the farm was sold and I joined the Paras and then the SAS. Which was how I ended up in Afghanistan.
"I have seen barbarism while serving in Northern Ireland, but nowhere have I witnessed such brutality as I saw in Afghanistan. Captured Russian troops, their stomachs cut open, were left to die in the blazing sun that baked their innards. For the Afghanis, such sights are commonplace. Every man is a fighter. There is little distinction between a mujahideen and a civilian. War is a way of life.
"The Afghanis have always been devastatingly effective guerrilla fighters. It is why they will make a lethal foe for Western forces. But in 1980, when the country was invaded by Russia, they were woefully ill-equipped to deal with the superior strategies of a superpower. That was where I came in.
"My mission was to teach the mujahideen modern tactics, to instruct them in how to use sophisticated weapons and to gather as much Soviet hardware as I could.
"I think I did a good job (though now I hope that the lessons those tribesmen learnt have not been passed down): When I left, after a year, the Afghanis were disciplined soldiers.
I knew that they possessed bravery, determination and resilience, but they also had something of greater military value: They know every inch of the Hindu Kush and how to make best use of its caves and gullies, treacherous drops and winding slopes. And they have the stamina to survive, as guerrilla units, within them.
"I had been told that they were wily and strong, but even I, as a veteran SAS soldier, was in awe. I thought that I was fit, but at altitudes as high as 14,000 feet, I struggled for breath.
"The landscape was nightmarish. There were far too many narrow passes for vehicles, which meant that the Russians needed everything helicoptered in. But the Afghanis thrived in it. They used mules for transport and needed to carry little because they had a simple yet effective method of collecting rations. They just stopped at villages.
"It did have disadvantages, though. The water, for a Westerner, is undrinkable, which meant carrying bottles, and, in summer with no refrigeration, the meat had to be killed each evening if it was to be edible. But there was never any real way of knowing how fresh the cooked meat we existed on would be. One autumn day, I ate what seemed perfectly fine goat and got hepatitis.
"I knew that I needed to get across the border to a Pakistani hospital, but the freezing rain had given way to snow and the only route was over the 13,000-foot White Mountain. Normally, I would have made a 10-day detour around it, but I knew that I needed treatment quickly. I was desperately sick, but made the long trudge, armpit-deep in snow. For the Afghanis, it was little more than a stroll.
"I was wearing netting 'socks' over my boots to conceal my distinctive footprints. But they wore out in days, which meant I was, at times, a liability. It wouldn't have taken a skilled tracker to spot that the footprints I was leaving were made by a Westerner.
"There were other things I could do to blend in, though. I used salt instead of toothpaste, fearing that the Afghan scouts used by the Russians would pick up the scent of Colgate.
There were similar lessons that I had to learn in Afghanistan. Not, however, as many as the mujahideen and they learnt more swiftly than I did.
"When I arrived, I had been dispirited by their weapons. In spite of their prowess as guerrillas, their weapons mostly .303 rifles of prewar vintage had had little maintenance.
"A few had Kalashnikovs taken from dead Russians, but they had no idea how to use them properly. They didn't understand the idea of fire control, they just let rip. Unaccustomed to semiautomatics, they'd pull the trigger and blast off a full magazine in one go, using up 32 rounds when two would have sufficed. That was their first lesson conserving ammunition. There was no way, in that terrain, that they could carry more than a couple of spare magazines.
"I taught them how to 'shoot and scoot' to lay an ambush, turn on the firepower, then disappear. They picked up the skill swiftly and slaughtered a lot of Russians that way. If they killed them, they were ecstatic, but they took no prisoners. Anyone found alive was hacked to bits: they delighted in that barbarism. That was their way. I just turned my back.
"Another priority was banning the slings that they used to strap their weapons to their backs. They pinned religious tokens on them, which jingled as they trudged up the narrow mountain paths or waist deep in snow. I explained that there is only one place for a guerrilla's gun: in his hands. Poised. Ready for use.
"They realized the logic quickly, but I have to confess to an ulterior motive, too. Among the mujahideen, it is common practice to walk along holding hands. It sounds astonishing. It is a cultural thing, but a habit I didn't intend to indulge.
"Prayers were another problem: five times a day, they would drop everything to pray although never during battle. They would stop at water, wash their feet, pile all their shoes and weapons into a heap and drift off to prayer, leaving themselves sitting targets. It made my blood run cold. I eventually convinced them one shoe and one weapon was enough.
"But the most difficult habit to drum out of them was what I called their "lemming tendency." In their doctrine, it is a tremendous honor to die in a jihad. They became reckless, took too many risks. It took a long time to instill the notion of living to fight another day. They take their religion very seriously and they believe that they will have a great old afterlife, with virgins as handmaidens, should they die in a jihad.
"I respected their cultural beliefs, but they did lead to some hilarious conversations. It came as a great surprise to them that Westerners worshipped a God. They thought that we were all infidels who worshipped black taxis and red buses. They would ask: 'How do you buy a wife in England?'
"I would try to explain the custom of courtship, how one might meet a girl at a disco or dance. They were wide-eyed. 'Scores of virgins, like we will have when we die, all in one dance room?' I never had the heart to dispel the notion.
"For all their naivete, their appetite for knowledge, for modern warfare tactics, was insatiable. As was their thirst for battle.
"Do I think that they are unbeatable? No. But they are a formidable foe and, unless Western forces incorporate the Northern Alliance of anti-Taliban forces, our chances of success are slim.
"This will be no quick-fix war. It will be a long and drawn-out conflict. I genuinely do not believe that the mujahideen I trained would throw in their lot with Osama bin Laden. They did not have those fundamentalist tendencies. But the first thing any Western force needs to do is to crush radio transmissions. The mujahideen will be bombarded with Taliban propaganda and the mullahs will enforce its message. The mujahideen will be enormously susceptible to that.
"As far as weaponry goes, it will be difficult to evaluate what they may have or in what state it may be. It is possible that they still have Stingers shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles and possibly some old ZSU23s, highly effective three-barrel, 50-calibre machine guns. Arranged in groups or mounted on the backs of trucks, they can easily shoot down helicopters.
"It is also possible that many of the plastic, tennis-ball-size land mines that they laid and that are practically undetectable are still there.
"The onset of the Afghan winter will be one of the biggest problems. I believe that the Western forces will wait. Then, I suspect, they will use what we in the Regiment called 'SAS:' Speed, Aggression, Surprise. This is a job that definitely should not be rushed."

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