- The Washington Times - Monday, October 22, 2001

MOSCOW The commander who oversaw the Soviet Union's humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 cautions that U.S.-led forces face the same fate if they define their mission too broadly in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
"The best tactics would be to surgically remove the tumor and malignancies of terrorism from the body of Afghanistan," said retired Col.-Gen. Boris Gromov, who fought in Afghanistan for five years in the late 1980s, eventually becoming the last commander of Soviet forces there.
"But if you consider as terrorists all Afghan people who support [the ruling Taliban regime] to this or that extent, the U.S. chances to score a victory in this war are then close to zero," Mr. Gromov told The Washington Times.
U.S. officials are keeping the experience of Mr. Gromov and his military colleagues in the 1979-89 Soviet campaign in Afghanistan in mind as they plot strategy against bin Laden's terrorist camps and the Taliban regime that shelters them.
Moscow's 1979 invasion and an occupying force of some 120,000 Soviet troops failed to preserve a puppet regime in Kabul. With substantial aid from the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, Afghan resistance fighters including bin Laden harried demoralized Soviet troops and largely controlled the countryside and territory outside the major urban centers.
Suffering mounting casualties with no political end in sight, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev ordered his forces home in 1989.
Russian veterans of the Afghan campaign have been watching the U.S.-led strikes against the Taliban with deep interest, with many telling the Russian press that Washington must take extreme care as it considers the follow-up to the current air bombardment.
Gazeta.ru, a popular Russian Internet media site, headlined one of its first dispatches on the U.S. retaliation campaign: "America prepares for its second Vietnam."
But Mr. Gromov praised the apparent U.S. decision to avoid a massive Soviet-style ground invasion, relying instead on special operations missions and on the Northern Alliance, an existing Afghan coalition of opposition forces, to seek out bin Laden and pressure the Taliban.
"A large-scale land military operation may drag the United States and its allies into a multiyear military conflict that won't bring glory to their troops," he said.
"I believe that a limited number of well-trained U.S. Marines and Special Forces could conduct the land operation. They are competent enough to do both detain or eliminate the Taliban leadership and destroy the terrorist bases."
The former commander repeatedly cautioned against expanding the scope of the mission to the point where it alienates all Afghans.
"Don't make the war against bin Laden and the Taliban a war against the Afghan people," Mr. Gromov said. "Otherwise, you'll get bogged into a multiyear massacre with no chances to win."
Russian military experts note, however, that the U.S.-led coalition has some significant advantages over the Soviet force.
Soviet generals saw both morale and discipline plunge as the war dragged on, with soldiers selling their weapons to Afghan fighters by the end of the conflict. The war was increasingly unpopular at home, in contrast to the strong public support being given to President Bush.
The Afghans this time cannot call on neighboring allies to ward off the invading force or supply their troops. Even Pakistan has broken ties with the Kabul regime and has pledged support for the U.S. counterterrorism effort.
Nonetheless, many top veterans of the Soviet Afghan debacle predict a rough ride for the U.S. effort.
Ruslan Aushan, president of Russia's Ingushetia region and a mechanized infantry battalion commander during the Afghan war, said the Afghan landscape gives defenders a huge advantage.
"Mountainous terrain provides the defensive side with perfect conditions for creating ambushes and fortified areas in the mountains, which are hard to take over even if you have modern and precise missile weapons," Mr. Aushan recently told the Russian newspaper Argumenty i Fakty.
"Our troops were stationed in all parts of the country, but they controlled only the area directly near them," he recalled. "The Americans are not going to be able to control Afghanistan even if they send the entire U.S. Army there."
Col.-Gen. Eduard Vorobyev, deputy chairman of the Russian parliament's defense committee and another Afghanistan veteran, told the newspaper that air strikes alone would not defeat the Taliban, while a ground campaign would severely tax U.S. supply lines.
"The major problem [for ground forces] is being separated from the rear support," Mr. Vorobyev said.
"Warfare in Afghanistan is hard regardless," he said.
"Success would depend on every little thing such as, for instance, whether the servicemen have appropriate supplies of warm underclothing and wool caps."
David R. Sands contributed to this report from Washington.


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