Welcome to the death zone

The U.S. can't win a ground war in Afghanistan, says a British special forces officer who helped train the mujahedin.

By Tom Carew

Published September 19, 2001 7:57PM (EDT)

We were in Afghanistan to assess the fighting capability of the mujahedin, and to retrieve Soviet equipment. It was 1979 and the Afghans were fighting a superpower with tactics they had used against the British before the first world war.

Watching them fight was like watching an old western: The cowboys would come into a valley and down would come the Indians. My task was to teach them modern guerrilla tactics. Without them, they would be exterminated. I tried to go without preconceptions, but it was hard. Before leaving Britain, everyone said be careful, they are barbaric, they'll chop you up. My boss gave me a Flashman novel about Muslim brutality -- his idea of a joke. After a few months adjusting, however, I found the Afghans to be very pleasant. We got along. I respected their bravery; they respected the way I instructed them.

I had more difficulty coping with the physical terrain. When I arrived in Peshawar, an Afghan military leader warned me, "I hope you are fit, my men march very quickly." No problem, I thought. I was used to marching. But my God; up, up, up we went. We entered the Hindu Kush mountains and started climbing. Above 3,000 meters, the oxygen started to thin and my concentration to lapse. The Afghans were used to it, but anyone else feels really lightheaded.

As fighting terrain, it is an absolute nightmare. It's a natural fortress. You can't get very far with vehicles; you get bogged down and the passes are too steep. The Russians had a bloody awful time. They really got stuck. It's one thing to put in your infantry, but you've got to keep them within range of your artillery and your mortars. With bad mountain passes, this is almost impossible.

None of this matters to the Afghans: They have it all organized, moving from one village to the next, where they have bases stocked with food. This is how they have fought and won wars for the past 200 years, with little bases all over the place and holes in the ground where everything is buried. This allows them to carry as little as possible and to cover ground much faster than a Western force could. We didn't use tents. We lived in caves or slept rough. There were guys in the army just carrying a weapon, three magazines and some naan bread, wrapped in a shawl on their back. There is no way a Western soldier could carry heavy equipment and keep up with them.

For a foreign army, establishing a supply route would be very difficult. To try to carry food and water up those mountains, some of which are 4,000 meters high, would be madness. Because of bacteria, you have to carry bottled water and each gallon weighs 4.5 kilograms. On some days, we were going through 11 to 15 litres. A soldier marching in those hills is going to burn between 4,000 and 5,000 calories a day. You need high-calorie, Arctic rations. Meat doesn't last more than a couple of days, so must be killed fresh. I contracted hepatitis from bad food.

And, of course, there is the weather. Toward the end of this month, the winter will start setting in. It begins with rain; then it freezes, then it snows. By the middle of October the snow will be very deep, up to neck height. A journey that takes three days to walk in summer will take more than 10 days in winter. The freezing conditions rule out helicopter support. The mist in the valleys invites crashes.

The Afghan fighters know the mountains as well as a farmer from Wales knows his hills. They are like mountain goats. I heard someone on the radio say, "Yeah, we can put in a load of four-man teams." Well, that's ridiculous. The Hindu Kush is a vast expanse of land. What can a four-man team do that you can't do with a satellite? Never mind a needle in a haystack; it's like a needle in the middle of Wembley stadium.

Besides, a Western task force will stick out like a sore thumb in the Hindu Kush. Most of the Afghan fighters wear sandals with old car tire treads on the bottom. So a Western boot print is instantly trackable. Once identified, the soldiers are sitting targets. We trained the Afghans in the art of "shoot and scoot"; they would lay a little ambush, let rip and disappear. They picked it up very quickly. Before long, they had learned to let the Russian convoys get halfway up a pass and then blow a hole through their middle. The lucky ones died instantly. The unlucky were chopped to pieces in the aftermath. In the Hindu Kush, don't expect to appeal to the Geneva convention.

The Taliban don't have much in the way of weapons. Their best defense is their terrain. When I first arrived, all they had were old 303s, sniper rifles and some bolt-action guns. Very few had Kalashnikovs -- they weren't used to semiautomatics. Now, of course, they are much more sophisticated, although their weapons maintenance is virtually zero; a lot of it won't have been upgraded since the Russian war. They might have a few Stingers left -- one of the best, shoulder-held, surface-to-air missiles. But whether they're serviceable or not is debatable.

They have a lot of old ZSU23s, one of Saddam Hussein's favorite weapons, which can be used in ground or air support. It's a three-barrel, 50-calibre machine gun, usually arranged in groups of two, three or four, and it's fearsome. It has a range of about 4,000 meters, so if you're coming in on a helicopter and have four of these blasting away at you, it's devastating. They drive their Toyota pickups around with these things mounted on the back. Then there are the landmines. In the early 1980s, they cleared a buffer zone between Pakistan and Afghanistan -- an area equal to four days' walk -- then put in observation posts on the high ground and mined it all. Everything that entered the area was obliterated and it is possible that the ground is still mined. They are small mines, the size of tennis balls, made of plastic so you can't detect them.

As for the composition of the army, most of the men were 17 to 24 years old. In some ways, the Afghan soldiers were no different from young guys everywhere; there was camaraderie. They might go and smoke a bit of opium, but for religious reasons, they wouldn't drink. They would get up at first light for prayers and would cover some distance before the sun came up. They would stop five times a day for prayer, although never during battle. I believe the Koran says that if you are engaged in combat, then you are excused from prayers. But they always prayed afterward. They were normal Muslims, not fanatics.

Still, in terms of their efficiency as an army, their biggest problem was the mullah influence over them. Because of the doctrine that it's a great honor to die in a holy war, they were fearless and took risks that Western soldiers perhaps would not. This is not the point of a military exercise, which is to defeat the enemy and live to fight another day. If you are reckless with your life, you risk depleting the army before it has won. But it was almost impossible to raise this issue with them; it would have invited a lot of trouble.

It is, in my opinion, extremely unlikely that bin Laden is hiding in the mountains. He must have a base from where he can communicate. He can't communicate from inside the Hindu Kush. He is more likely to be on the northwest frontier of Pakistan, a heavily populated area that the West will be loath to attack. It is like the IRA tactic of hiding behind women and children, of hiding in a kids' playground. Besides, he will want to be somewhere where he can get CNN coverage of the attack on America, to admire his work.

Most of the Afghan military leaders I encountered operated from the comfort of Peshawar in Pakistan. They didn't take part in any fighting, because they wanted to be around when the fighting was over, to reap the benefits.

If it comes to a ground war, I believe the Western forces will have a very slim chance of victory. The last army to win in Afghanistan was that of Alexander the Great; everyone else has got mauled and pulled out. The CIA made an awful lot of maps when they were there, but a map is only as good as the person using it, and there is no safe way to get troops in. The Afghans are a formidable enemy. I should know. We in the West pointed them in the right direction and with a little bit of training, they went a long way.

© The Guardian. Used with permission.

Tom Carew

Tom Carew is a former British Special Air Services officer who helped train Afghanistan's mujahadeen. This article first appeared in the Guardian.


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