The Afghan rebels felt they had an impregnable position.
On one side of their mountaintop outpost in Afghanistan's Nangarhar Province was a sheer cliff dropping hundreds of feet to a river valley. The other side was a steep grade, passable but not without being seen from the commanding rebel position.
Yet shortly before dawn one day in March, the eight fighters with the National Islamic Front of Pakistan rebel group who were manning the post were surprised and killed by Soviet commandos, probably from the spetsnaz special forces.
Rebel commanders who examined the demolished post after the Soviets left came to a startling conclusion: The Soviet commandos had climbed the sheer cliff and attacked from behind.
"They must have," said National Islamic Front commander Mohammed Gailani. "There was no other way."
In the early years of the six-year civil war in Afghanistan, such daring tales were usually reserved for the moujahedeen, the generic fighting name for the dozen or so Afghan resistance groups battling Soviet and Soviet-backed Afghan troops. Soviet troops, mostly conscripts in the Soviet Union's first extended experience with combat since 1945, were ridiculed as slow, unimaginative and generally incompetent.
Recently, however, rebel commanders have begun to speak with grudging respect for the Soviet soldiers, particularly the elite commando units nicknamed spetsnaz (special purpose) by Western military analysts. The Soviet name for the units is secret. The moujahedeen call them "the black soldiers" because the few that they have captured had darkened their faces for night operations.
"These are the best soldiers in the Soviet Union," said a highly respected rebel commander, Abdul Haq, 28. Haq commanded rebels in the territory around Kabul, the Afghan capital, even before the Soviet invasion in December, 1979.
Haq has seen the Soviet style of combat evolve from armies of conscripts and tanks, to large helicopter cavalry forces, to the quick-hitting special counterinsurgency units that favor night fighting.
Must Decide Quickly
"In Afghanistan," said the stocky young commander with disarmingly mirthful brown eyes, "you always have to make a quick decision. These spetsnaz are the only ones who can do that. They are older and they have better equipment. They don't operate like the other soldiers. They like quick attacks."
"It was much easier to capture conscripts," Haq said, "and much easier to take information from them. With these people (the special commandos), you need a special way to make them talk."
The Soviet special forces have been given credit for several recent victories in the Afghanistan fighting, which revived in March with the annual spring offensive by Soviet and Afghan government forces. Last month, the rebels lost one of their biggest bases, at Zhawar in Paktia Province, to a quick-hitting Soviet assault.
Although the rebels claimed to have inflicted serious losses on the Soviets--five jet aircraft and seven helicopters downed and more than 100 vehicles destroyed--it was a significant victory for the new aggressive Soviet style in Afghanistan.
Grenades Against Jets
Films taken of the fighting by the Hizb-e-Islami (Hekmatyar faction) rebel group were shown to reporters in Peshawar late last month. They showed hopelessly ill-equipped rebels on ridges above the Zhawar bases attempting to shoot down swooping jets and helicopters with rocket-propelled grenades designed for anti-tank warfare.
The Soviet special forces units (whose members wear blue berets and striped undershirts to distinguish them from the other Soviet units) apparently played a key role in setting up the Zhawar victory by knocking out several rebel positions above the base, a mile-long series of fortified caves in a remote canyon.
However, the overall attack, using both airborne commandos and ground attack, was the best example yet of evolving Soviet counterinsurgency tactics. U.S. Defense Department analysts are concerned that the prolonged Afghanistan conflict has provided the Soviets their first field laboratory for modern combat.
The annual Defense Department evaluation of Soviet strength, "Soviet Military Power," released by the Pentagon in March, made special note of the increased ability of Soviet forces in Afghanistan:
"Soviet forces, which now number 118,000, have become steadily more effective in attacking moujahedeen, and a coherent Soviet counterinsurgency strategy designed to break the military stalemate appears to be emerging."
No Long Out of Reach
The report described a Soviet operation last spring in the Konar Valley near Barikot in which Soviet forces were able to "insert air assault forces into areas previously considered inaccessible to Soviet formations."
Said the report: "This significant improvement in force projection has been enhanced by the introduction of several special purpose (spetsnaz) battalions into Afghanistan. Trained to operate in small teams behind enemy lines, spetsnaz units exemplify the continuing Soviet efforts to tailor forces in Afghanistan to counterinsurgency operations."
Outsiders who have witnessed the new Soviet style in action are impressed.
Alain de Bures, 40, is a French civilian who has spent several months during each of the past three years inside Afghanistan helping Afghan civilians to establish agriculture programs in a wartime setting. His territory is the Kunar River valley, which runs parallel to the Afghan-Pakistan border north of Jalalabad.
Beginning last year, the Soviet strategy in the Kunar Valley has been to cut off supply lines across the Pakistan border. The most effective technique, according to De Bures, has been for Soviet airborne units to take positions atop the foothills facing the passes in the mountains separating the two countries.
First, De Bures said, larger Soviet MI-8 helicopters drop bulldozers and other heavy equipment on the hilltops to clear the trees and establish a base. From these positions, the Soviets can pick off any caravans making their way through the passes.
"The Soviets for the first time have been able to close the border," said de Bures. This causes food and ammunition shortages and other hardships in the valley.
If the moujahedeen forces try to mount an offensive against the Soviet hilltop forces, the Soviets are able to bring in reinforcements or leave by helicopter, setting up another base on another hill. Without any effective weapons against aircraft, the moujahedeen are at a great disadvantage.
Like other rebel commanders, Abdul Haq is encouraged by reports in the Western press that the Reagan Administration has agreed to supply them with sophisticated Stinger ground-to-air missiles. Last year, the United States supplied the rebels with more than $400 million in military supplies, the largest expenditure in a covert CIA operation since the Vietnam War. However, all of these weapons were conventional equipment, basic ammunition, assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades for the most part.
Want Stinger Missiles
Meanwhile, not one of the rebel groups claims yet to have received a Stinger. In Washington, Pentagon officials would not comment on whether Stingers would be sent or have been shipped.