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'We Face a Long Fight . . . It Will Take a Long Time' : Afghan Rebels Goal: A Quagmire for Soviets

December 29, 1985|BARRY RENFREW | Associated Press

BARI, Afghanistan — Sitting in a cramped bunker as Soviet and Afghan aircraft droned through the air nearby, the guerrilla chieftain mused that Afghanistan would never be free until it became another Vietnam.

"We must make it bad for the Russians, like it was for the Americans in Vietnam," Jalaluddin Haqqani said as he studied a large map spread out on the earthen floor.

About a mile away were the outer defenses of the encircled town of Khost, defended by 4,000 Afghan and Soviet troops. The beat of helicopter blades could be heard in the surrounding hills along with the roar of transport planes landing at Khost's air strip.

Parallel to Vietnam

Unprompted, the guerrilla commander had turned to the Vietnam War to explain what Islamic guerrillas face if they are to drive out Soviet troops and topple Afghanistan's Communist government.

"We have seen how the Vietnamese kept on fighting and how the Americans' power did not help them because the Vietnamese did not stop fighting," he said.

Afghanistan faces years of death and suffering and much of the country will be shattered, Haqqani said calmly. That was the price of freedom, he added.

"We face a long fight. It will not be easy and it will take a long time," he said.

Sounds of Artillery

Outside, dozens of moujahedeen, or holy warriors, were cleaning their weapons, preparing food or resting in the afternoon sun. Intermittent gunfire could be heard in the distance along with the blast of artillery as returning patrols ambled up the hill to the steep gully sheltering the guerrilla positions.

A wiry man with a graying beard reaching halfway down his chest, the 47-year-old Haqqani is one of the guerrillas' best-known field commanders, with a reputation for leadership and courage. An old blue and brown woolen ski cap was perched on the former religious teacher's head, a bulletproof vest nestled under his robes and his rifle was always within easy reach.

Guerrilla forces have surrounded Khost for five years, bottling up the garrison and forcing the government to keep it supplied by air. The guerrillas frequently attack Khost and its defenses from the surrounding hilltops, hitting the town with rockets, shells and machine-gun fire.

Soviets Send Troops

Thousands of reinforcements, including elite Soviet airborne assault troops, were flown into Khost in August as part of a major offensive. The Soviet and Afghan government forces drove the guerrillas back for a while in heavy fighting before the offensive stalled out in mid-September as guerrilla resistance hardened.

The bunkers at Bari had been overrun and destroyed. The shelters had since been rebuilt with charred wood left from the wrecked camp, and the bloody, rotting uniforms of Afghan soldiers killed in the fighting still lay on the ground.

Haqqani, who estimated he commands 5,000 guerrillas in surrounding Paktia province, said he was not dismayed by the long and costly years of fighting around Khost. It would take many more years for the poorly equipped guerrillas to wear down the Soviets, he said.

High Cost, Little Gain

The moujahedeen might be able to capture Khost with an all-out attack, Haqqani said, but the cost would be too high and the town could not be held against government counterattacks.

"Our strategy is not to capture cities. We attack the enemy all the time. He has no peace, he does not know when we are coming," he said.

Khost is defended by thousands of well-armed troops with scores of tanks and field guns and can be reinforced by air at any time, Haqqani said.

"The enemy can bring in a thousand troops by helicopters in one hour," he said.

Arms, Bullets Needed

Haqqani said he had only half the weapons and ammunition his forces need. The guerrillas had very little protection against aircraft and needed anti-aircraft missiles, ground-to-ground rockets and artillery, he said.

The 60 or so guerrillas at Bari were armed with everything from World War II-era rifles to captured Soviet Kalashnikov assault rifles and a few machine guns and light anti-aircraft guns. Bright stickers adorned the butts of many of the guerrillas' rifles showing a hand pointing toward heaven with the inscription, "God is the one."

The moujahedeen are fighting a holy war and have faith that God will give them victory, Haqqani said.

"We want a government that is not under the power of another country. We want a free country. And we want our religion--religion is above everything," he said.

Asked how long the guerrillas will have to go on fighting, Haqqani replied, "Only God knows. But we know many more will die and be hurt."

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