Afghan City a Ghost Town as Rebel Siege Is Stymied

Times Staff Writer

The moujahedeen rebels' much-ballyhooed offensive against Jalalabad has virtually ended in failure, leaving an urban nightmare of twisted metal, shattered glass, ruined streets and tens of thousands of abandoned homes.

After more than two months of intensive rebel artillery attacks, most of the city's buildings are scarred by shrapnel from rockets, more than 130,000 of them. All but a few shops are closed, their owners gone. No vehicles are moving in the streets; only soldiers dare to venture out. Most of the people are gone, either killed or driven away as refugees to Pakistan or some safer region of war-torn Afghanistan.

The few people still here spend most of their time in underground shelters trying to escape the rocket fire.

Western reporters, allowed to visit the city Wednesday for the first time since the rebel offensive began March 7, could see clearly that the fighting had become a standoff, a siege not likely to end in much of a victory for either side. There is a definite loser, though: the city of Jalalabad and its people.

It was equally clear that the Soviet-backed government of President Najibullah is still in control of Jalalabad, which lies about 45 miles from the border with Pakistan. The city is the only real stronghold between Pakistan and Kabul, the Afghan capital, about 75 miles to the west.

Wednesday's visit was a public relations gain for Najibullah, whose Marxist party has managed to stay in power despite the withdrawal, completed in February, of 115,000 Soviet troops, ending nearly a decade of Soviet military presence in Afghanistan.

The government managed to fly 13 Western journalists into the heart of Jalalabad by helicopter and return them to Kabul without losses or injury to people or equipment, even though there had been official concern that this feat might not be possible.

For weeks, the government had refused to take anyone to Jalalabad, where the rebels were saying they had overrun key military positions. Only after the reporters appealed directly to President Najibullah was the trip finally arranged, and then it was delayed several days for security reasons.

"There is a great risk," a Foreign Ministry official warned before the trip, "but if we can get you in and out alive, it will be a victory. It will show the world for the first time that the city is still in our hands."

Targeted by Rockets

Rebel rockets were fired at the Soviet-built MI-8 helicopters as they clattered through mountain passes where the rebels have set up anti-aircraft positions, but the aircraft arrived safely.

The party of journalists was taken on a 4 1/2-hour tour of the city. It was hurried, but government officials did manage to find supporting evidence for several contested claims.

When the rebel drive on Jalalabad began, it was viewed as decisive by officials of the U.S. and Pakistani governments, the rebels' two most important allies in their "holy war" aimed at bringing down the pro-Moscow regime in Kabul. The offensive began just two weeks after the rebels formed a provisional government at their base in Pakistan, and Jalalabad was to be the rebel capital in this country.

In their reports on the offensive, the moujahedeen repeatedly announced that they had seized the Jalalabad airport. But on Wednesday, the press party found the airport to be firmly under government control--at least what is left of it.

The building housing the terminal and control tower is a scarred shell, crowded with troops. The runway is severely cratered. The single hangar has been all but destroyed, its walls pitted.

Not a single incoming round of rebel fire fell on the airport during the visit, and the air force commander there, Lt. Col. Jahangir, declared: "We can just cut these extremists up like small birds. There is power here, and they are not able to capture us."

An effort was made to show the city as a sort of paradise lost, the result of a military campaign gone awry. The escorts pointed out a high school, a mosque, a Sikh temple and scores of residential neighborhoods that had been shattered by the rebel rockets.

The party was then taken 10 miles west of the city to look at a 26-year-old hydroelectric power station, Soviet-built and unscathed by the fighting. It provides electric power for all of Jalalabad.

At the Nangarhar provincial hospital, as at other stops, escorts led the journalists to what appeared to be a staged human drama. A woman named Kaouki wailed at the bed of her son, Faizal, who had been hit by shrapnel three days earlier. She screamed at the American reporters, "Why are you sending these rockets to us?" She said she wept not only for her son but also for 10 members of her family lost in the war.

The hospital director said that since the rebel offensive began, 128 people have died in his hospital, one of several in the city, and that 3,000 others have been treated for injuries--1,000 of them in the first two weeks of the offensive. Another official said 2,000 Jalalabad civilians were killed or injured in the last two months, 60% of them children.

To conclude the visit, the government arranged a press conference with two Afghan generals, one them the commander of the eastern front and the other serving as provincial governor.

The eastern front commander said the rebels have suffered a "shameful defeat." He alleged that one in every three rebels killed or captured was either a Pakistani or an Arab adviser. He said many advisers were mutilated and dumped into rivers by angry Afghan villagers or the rebels themselves.

Lt. Gen. Manoki Mangal, the governor, said, "Fortunately, the armed forces of Afghanistan are fully supported by the people."

He refused to estimate how much of the population remained in the city but said that "you see for yourselves that Jalalabad is alive."

His description may have been an exaggeration--only a handful of civilians could be seen in the streets--but no rockets or shellfire fell on the city during the visit, and in general it seemed more peaceful than Kabul, suggesting that the offensive might be over.

Lilac Bushes in Bloom

Jalalabad is known as the "garden city" because of the orchards and gardens that used to flourish here, and on Wednesday there was spring in the air. Lilac bushes were in bloom, birds were singing.

The most terrifying part of the trip was the helicopter flight in and out, particularly in the vicinity of a steep promontory called the "Ridge of Silk" halfway between Jalalabad and Kabul.

One of the pilots, Capt. Humayoun, said it is among the most treacherous areas in the country, a 2,000-foot wall of rock. As the helicopters approached, they fired dozens of rockets into the mountainside and, every few seconds, launched arcs of flares to draw off the rebels' American-made, heat-seeking Stinger missiles.

After landing back in Kabul, Capt. Humayoun said that although he is only 24, he has flown the route hundreds of times. He said the rebel rockets fired Wednesday missed the helicopters by a wide margin.

Nonetheless, the journalists offered to buy his dinner.

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