WASHINGTON — In April of last year, guerrillas fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan's rugged Panjshir Valley could occasionally peer into the heavy cloud cover and make out an Antonov-12 turboprop transport plane flying up and down the valley.
Although the cumbersome transport plane seemed far less threatening than the screaming Soviet jet fighters and helicopters that strafed the guerrillas, it played a major military role. Dubbed the "Flying Kremlin" by the rebels, it served as an airborne command headquarters, an example of the Soviets' new willingness to move an entire command post close to the field of battle.
The creation of an airborne command center illustrates a little-noticed aspect of the six-year-old Afghanistan conflict: In the necessarily cold-blooded world of military planners, such wars provide potentially valuable opportunities to test equipment and tactics in the crucible of real combat.
In the view of Pentagon officials and other U.S. military analysts, the war in Afghanistan, the first extended combat involving Soviet forces since World War II, has provided the Soviet Union with an invaluable opportunity to polish its military apparatus. U.S. analysts, who study the Soviet experience almost as closely as do the Red Army generals themselves, say the Soviets or their allies are already applying the lessons as far away as Eastern Europe, Angola and Nicaragua.
In the event of a clash in Europe between Soviet and American troops, Defense Department officials believe that the Soviets would benefit from their experience in Afghanistan. Moreover, one defense official said, "some of this would carry over" in the unlikely event of a Soviet push farther south, into Pakistan and Iran toward the Persian Gulf.
"The lessons they've learned in Afghanistan could be usefully applied wherever they choose," said Richard L. Armitage, assistant defense secretary for international security affairs.
Both superpowers spend billions of dollars each year largely on the basis of abstract, theoretical analyses of what will be needed on the next battlefield. Chances to test those theories in practice are so rare that defense planners seize on them, grim as their consequences may be in human and political terms.
For the Soviets, the conflict in Afghanistan has tied down more than 100,000 troops for six years in an unsuccessful effort to stamp out the insurgents. That outcome poses a risk of demoralization similar to that suffered by the United States in Vietnam.
At this stage, the experts are divided over the impact on Soviet troops.
According to officials and others, some personnel problems that surfaced early in the fighting have disappeared since the Soviets withdrew Muslim soldiers, who shared ethnic background and religion with the guerrillas.
Among Soviet draftees, a Pentagon official said, drug use has sapped the will to fight. "There is very low morale; they'd rather not fight," he said. However, Yossef Bodansky, a free-lance military analyst, argued that "drug abuse is very limited."
Although defections have been well publicized in the West, Bodansky said they have been "negligible."
And, just as the experience of the U.S. Army, rebounding from a post-Vietnam low, demonstrates, debilitating morale problems can be overcome in a matter of years.
Experts say they see no sign that the war, which began in the last week of 1979, is nearing an end. The U.S. government officially estimates that about 119,000 Soviet troops are in Afghanistan, but a Pentagon official who asked not to be identified by name said the number is probably closer to 150,000.
The Soviets, for all the lessons learned from their combat experience, have failed to eradicate the guerrillas. They have, however, maintained their control of the major cities in pursuit of "a limited and long-term strategy to outlast the resistance," hoping eventually to undermine it within Afghanistan or at least chase it out of the country, the Pentagon official said.
"What you have is increasing Soviet control," he said.
Regardless of whether the Soviets ultimately prevail, their military planners will continue to sift the ashes of the Afghanistan experience for lessons they can apply elsewhere.
Most Innovative Ideas
The combat in Afghanistan, Bodansky said, has allowed the Soviets "to test and verify and get confirmation of their most innovative ideas and channel them back into their system. It will have a major impact in the future. They're not doing it (just) so Lt. Ivan will have a better chance of getting through a mountain pass."
Under the rigors of combat, the Soviets have been able to test a variety of new instruments of modern warfare, including night-vision devices, chemical weapons believed to have been used earlier in the fighting and silencers that allow commandos to use assault weapons in surprise attacks.
"It's a laboratory for everything," a Pentagon official said, asking not to be identified by name.