After Soviet Departure, Patriotic Enthusiasm : Pilots’ Skill, Morale Give Afghan Regime a Lift

Times Staff Writer

Capt. Mohammad Humayoun was virtually scraping rocks and sagebrush when his Soviet-built MI-8 helicopter transport came under rebel fire.

Humayoun banked sharply toward the source of the gunfire and unleashed a burst of return fire, as his helicopter gunship escorts zeroed in on the enemy.

Moments later, as the helicopters continued to dodge and weave, still moving at 150 m.p.h. and just a few feet from the mountainside, two of the escorts reported that their engines were overheating.


They were deep in rebel territory, halfway between Kabul and the besieged eastern city of Jalalabad, but Humayoun and the other pilots casually put their choppers down in a shallow river bed. And as his passengers--foreign reporters--looked on, Humayoun bounded out of the cockpit, removed his shoes and socks and waded in for a swim.

“The helicopters were hot,” he explained with a laugh when his passengers questioned him, “and I was thirsty.”

This vignette helps to explain why the government of President Najibullah has managed to cling to power despite stiff rebel pressure, the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the dire predictions of Western political and military analysts.

“From the beginning of this war, the difference for the regime has been air power,” a Pakistani military analyst said in February, when the last of the Soviet troops were pulling out of Afghanistan. “And Najibullah’s future will depend on the morale and skill of his air force.”

Capt. Humayoun’s skill and bravado in the face of the enemy provided strong evidence that the government continues to enjoy that advantage.

Carried Critical Supplies

Humayoun, 24, said he has made the dangerous flight between Kabul and Jalalabad scores of times, mostly carrying critical supplies past a rebel blockade that for the better part of two months has closed the highway that connects the two cities.


Asked why he continues to risk his life, he replied, “It’s our job, and for our homeland we will sacrifice anything.”

Such loyalty was not always found in the Afghan air force. Before the Soviet pullout, many Afghan pilots, disillusioned after 10 years of taking orders from Soviet officers, flew to Pakistan and defected. Others reportedly refused to fly dangerous missions.

In the last years of the Soviet military involvement, all Afghan pilots, of Soviet-built fighters as well as helicopters, were carefully screened, and only the most loyal were allowed to fly. This resulted in severe fatigue among the more active pilots, and morale plummeted.

But with the departure of the last of the Soviets, many pilots have been infused with a sense of independence, a patriotic enthusiasm that has been reinforced with special privileges. The Najibullah government has redefined the old military adage that an army travels on its stomach.

Most civilians in Kabul must wait in line for hours for such necessities as bread and kerosene, but military officers are abundantly supplied with food and black-market fuel, much of it flown in on daily supply flights from the Soviet Union.

“You’ve got an embattled government fighting for its very survival,” a diplomat said here recently, “and the government is going to be looking after the people in the army very well.”

Representatives of the foreign press were given a look at this treatment at the big infantry encampment at Jabal Saraj, 90 miles north of Kabul and a key choke point on the Salang Highway, which leads to the Soviet border.

50-Foot-Long Table

Gen. Mohammad Shafi, the commanding officer, treated his guests and his senior officers to a feast that covered a 50-foot-long table in the officers’ mess with such delicacies as steak, chicken and eggs, none of which can be found, at any price, on the streets of Kabul.

“Now I know where all the food is going,” a Foreign Ministry escort said. “At least we know our army is happy.”

Perhaps not at every level, however. Twice when the government flew the reporters out to remote encampments by helicopter, huge crowds of enlisted men gathered at the landing zones--men so desperate to get out of the encampments that they risked public embarrassment and disciplinary action.

On one occasion, the pilot and co-pilot had to punch and shove a soldier who tried to force his way on board. When the soldier hit the ground, his commander gave him a swift boot in the backside.

“Morale in the armed forces is perhaps the hardest thing to judge at the moment,” an East Bloc diplomat said in Kabul. “Among the officers and pilots, it is very high. They are being well looked after, and of course there is the saying that ‘we either hang together or we hang for sure.’ At the moment, I’m not sure the rest matters very much. If the officers are loyal, you’re not going to get mass defections.”

Since the Soviet pullout, there has been “a sense of pulling together and closing ranks in the army,” he said and added: “Was there a lot of resentment for the Soviets on the part of the officers before? Absolutely. You could feel it. Now that’s a key irritant gone.”

They Know Their Enemy

Also, military analysts in Kabul said, there is a clearer sense among the soldiers of who is their enemy.

“After Jalalabad, I think it’s clearer to the soldiers what they’re fighting against,” the East Bloc diplomat said, referring to the recent rebel offensive that has left the strategic eastern city scarred and all but abandoned, yet still in government hands.

Soon after the offensive at Jalalabad began March 7, there were reports of government troops being slaughtered after they surrendered or were captured. In one case, as Western journalists watched, a truckload of prisoners being escorted by relatively moderate rebels was stopped by extremists who casually shot the captives to death.

Still, after three weeks of traveling with government forces, most of the reporters concluded that it was the Soviet withdrawal that has buoyed their spirits, even though most analysts had thought this would do the opposite.

There was ample evidence of higher morale at a news conference with what the government calls its “hero pilots.” These men, flying MIG jet fighters, helped beat back the rebel offensive at Jalalabad. The pilots said they had been able to elude the rebels’ American-supplied Stinger missiles, which had temporarily neutralized Soviet air power after their introduction in 1986.

Defies the Targeting System

“It is our technique,” one of the pilots, Maj. Jailani, said, describing a bold dive followed by a low-level bombing run and then a steep, gut-wrenching climb. This, he said, defies the Stinger’s computerized targeting system.

Jailani was asked whether the Afghans or the Soviets were better at fighting this kind of war.

“In the kind of war we are fighting--defending the homeland--I would say the Russians are better at defending their nation, and the Afghans are better at defending their nation,” he replied. “And this, I think, is what is making the difference now. We are fighting our own war.”