- The Washington Times - Friday, March 8, 2002

Timothy Gusinov spent 4-1/2 years with Russian military advisers, Soviet troops and Spetsnaz (Special Forces) in Afghanistan during the 1980s. During his second tour, he was a senior military interpreter for the 3rd Army Corps of the Afghan Army, with its headquarters in Gardez, near where U.S. forces are now engaged. The following is his recollection of that experience.

In the spring of 1987, the Soviet air force in Afghanistan conducted a large-scale military operation to open the highway from Gardez to Khost and resupply the Afghan army's 24th Division. It was considered a crucial operation before the final withdrawal of Soviet troops from southeast Afghanistan.
The Afghan positions in the mountains along the road were well-fortified with anti-aircraft weapons.
Realizing that air force and infantry casualties would be high, the Soviet command devised a deceptive operation in which they dropped 200 human dummies by parachute on enemy positions.
Immediately, tribal fighters opened fire.
The drop was organized early in the morning, and flashes of anti-aircraft fire on fortified positions and tracers in the air were highly visible.
The Russian air force and artillery controllers marked the enemy positions on their maps and made the necessary calculations.
In less then an hour, before the tribal fighters could change their positions, aircraft and Mi-24 helicopter gunships nicknamed "crocodiles" by the troops for their reptilelike silhouettes attacked their targets.
The pilots, handpicked for this mission, initially attacked from the direction of the rising sun to blind the enemy.
In a second wave, they attacked from two opposite directions on colliding courses, so that the stunned enemy wouldn't know which aircraft to fire at first.
The air force alternated weapons a lead plane dropped bombs, covered by aircraft firing salvos of rockets.
The air force then performed "star" strikes, in which a group of aircraft attacks the target from multiple directions in quick succession.
Finally, they played the deadly aerial "Russian roulette," forming a circle over the target area and attacking it with very short intervals between planes, keeping the enemy under constant rain of fire.
The Afghans were shocked by the accuracy of the attack and resulting high casualties and offered only weak resistance before disappearing deeper into the mountains.
But as the Americans are liable to find, even if they succeed in driving al Qaeda and Taliban troops from their mountain strongholds during the current battle, it is impossible to completely seal the wide area.
Just as happened in Tora Bora late last year, these fighters, born and raised in the mountains and experienced in mountainous combat, will use the tiniest gaps and cracks in the ring tightening around them to disappear like water into the sand.
Afghans are tough and stubborn fighters, even when facing an almost certain and terrible death of being burned alive or suffocating in caves and underground tunnels.
The prime mission of American troops in the Gardez area is not just defeating al Qaeda and Taliban forces, but destroying them.
In the current situation, priority should be given not to tactical advance along the front, but to outflanking the enemy and to the deployment of as many troops as possible by helicopters to the enemy's rear to seal the area and cut off their ways of retreat.
The U.S. troops should not rush for what seems to be an opportunity for immediate success it might be a cleverly laid ambush.
It helps always to know their exact location and closely coordinate their actions with other units because the risk of friendly fire in the mountains is very high. Maneuver and persistence, not speed and attack, are the key factors for a victory in mountain combat.
The area in Paktia province, where the U.S. battle has been waged for the past week, is known for a bitter rivalry among the Zadran, Manqal, Jaji and Chamkani tribes.
In the 1980s, after a battle with Soviet troops, the mujahideen fighters would retreat from the Gardez area to fortified bases further southeast in Alaqadarie-Naqa and Hokumatie-Waze.
Soviet troops never risked pursuing them, avoiding going deep into the Zadran tribe's domain, so these bases remained intact after the Soviets pulled out.
The Zadran, who control the area where the Americans are fighting this week, are one of Afghanistan's toughest and most militant tribes, with tens of thousands of fighters and a history of forcing foreign armies to flee the country.
The tribe played an important role in driving out the British in the 19th century and in getting rid of the Soviets 100 years later.
During times of peace, the tribe traditionally opposes any attempt to create a functioning central government in Kabul, but in times of war, its fighters typically come to the nation's rescue.
In the 1980s, Russian military intelligence analysts put the total Zadran tribe strength at 90,000.
The strength of the armed detachment in any Pashtun tribes can reach up to 20 percent of the total population, meaning that in case of an all-out war, the Zadran could mobilize nearly 20,000 fighters.
An influential Zadran leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani, a powerful anti-Soviet field commander in the 1980s, joined the Taliban when it came to power, and the majority of the tribe followed.
The Soviet military considered the Zadran to be tough and skillful fighters, and for this reason both Soviet and Afghan communist government troops attempted to avoid direct confrontation with the tribe whenever possible.
Even other Pashtun tribes in the Gardez area fear the Zadran, and fighters allied with the United States during the present battle may be reluctant to take any decisive actions on their territory.
The urge for, and fear of, vengeance runs deep in the Pashtun culture.
Americans are still considered infidels in their land, and the alliance in the Gardez area is just a marriage of interests, where religious and tribal priorities always prevail.


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