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Book Excerpt: Up Afghanistan's Panshir Valley And Back Again

Afghans dry rice on a road in front of a broken old Soviet personnel carrier in northern Afganistan in November 2001.

Afghans dry rice on a road in front of a broken old Soviet personnel carrier in northern Afganistan in November 2001.

The following is an excerpt from "The Great Gamble: The Soviet War In Afghanistan," a new book by U.S. National Public Radio's Moscow correspondent, Gregory Feifer.

As the sun was setting over Afghanistan's snowcapped Hindu Kush Mountains on a cold evening in April 1980, four months after the Soviet invasion, an armored column approached a narrow passage wedged between a steep, barren mountain and a long precipice in the forbidding Panjshir Valley north of Kabul. Its progress was blocked by an attack on the front unit, seemingly from nowhere. Vladimir Polyakov, a patriotic young lieutenant who had been sent to Afghanistan from Potsdam, scrambled after his soldiers, who were jumping from their exposed personnel carrier to take cover behind several large boulders.

A week earlier, his motorized rifle battalion had joined a crack paratroop battalion in Charikar, near the foot of Panjshir, to rumble up the narrow valley floor in their armored BTR armored personnel vehicles. It was his unit's first major operation after months of waiting and boredom. Bulbous Mi-8 transport and fearsome Mi-24 gunship helicopters -- with their double canopies and stub wings loaded with rockets -- thundered overhead. Forward units swept for mines while others searched villages for "dushmany," or bandits, as the Soviets had come to call Afghanistan's mujahedin rebel fighters.

The offensive had been ordered to take the Panjshir Valley, above which a skilled resistance commander named Ahmad Shah Mas'ud had stationed himself in the precipitous hills. From that strategically valuable position northwest of Kabul, Mas'ud had been staging attacks against the Bagram air base and the Salang highway, the crucial supply line from the Soviet Union. Now Polyakov found himself calculating how to stay alive. After several minutes under fire, he and several of his men realized the mujahedin would eventually pick them off from above. Their only hope would be to clamber up the rocky mountainside to attack the rebels targeting them. They slowly scrambled up -- and found nothing: the Afghans had avoided them by the simple means of leaving for higher ground. At dawn, the group made its way back down. The sun rose to expose those who'd remained in the valley: some 25 men, now all dead.

The fighting took place near the village of Ruha, halfway up the valley. Later, after rebels fired at Polyakov's battalion from the general direction of the village, the Soviets responded by destroying many of its houses. Unable to pinpoint the enemy's exact location, the tanks fired randomly, often blowing up buildings more for target practice than anything else. The column then pushed on to another village, where children and elderly inhabitants emerged to observe the approaching machinery. While several soldiers distributed some of their rations to the obviously impoverished among them, other soldiers searched the group. They found a handful of bullets in the possession of a man apparently in his 30s. Seizing him, the Soviets ordered him to carry a heavy armful of ammunition up an incline that lay ahead. When the column reached the top, they shot him.

To flush out hidden mujahedin, Polyakov's battalion left its BTRs to climb a mountain path on one side of the valley. While a forward team moved ahead to scout, the rest split into two companies. Polyakov led the second. Suddenly more exhausted than the other men by the extremely difficult ascent, he fell behind together with two soldiers who helped carry his automatic rifle. They stopped to rest every 15 minutes, the soldiers waking Polyakov when he fell asleep. He grew too weary even to worry that he was becoming too weak to fight. Luckily, his group found no enemy to engage, and the battalion stumbled back to the valley floor the following day.

The conflict was nothing like what Polyakov had expected. With scant strategy of any significance and negligible coordination between units, the Soviet fighting was mostly defensive, and on the enemy's initiative. Even the smallest tactical decisions had to be made at headquarters and took hours to receive. The main Soviet advantage of overwhelming air power provided little recognizable help to soldiers aware only of their immediate surroundings, from which the deadly bullets and projectiles were aimed at them. Polyakov couldn't understand why a joint effort of air and ground forces wasn't organized. As it was, he and his soldiers hardly knew what their immediate objectives were. Their training for engaging forces similar to their own, units equipped with tanks and airplanes in European fields and forests, was little help in countering partisan fighters in desert and mountain territory.

Simply locating the enemy was almost impossible. Hiding in caves and behind boulders high in the mountains, the rebels fought only when conditions favored them. Often using stolen or captured Soviet rocket grenades, they picked off Soviet personnel and vehicles from afar. Sharpshooters aimed lethally for the head—or the feet, making wounded soldiers burdens for their units. As the initial weeks of the conflict turned into months, fear became a normal part of Soviet soldiers' lives. Sometimes the raw, crippling dread of being killed or injured was overwhelming. The often-enraged Soviet response of heavy barrages of grenade and artillery fire into the mountains had little effect because the troops rarely knew where the Afghans were.

The lieutenant's initial optimism about the invasion turned to bitterness. Had the Soviets been sent to the countryside as cannon fodder? The heroic fighting he'd expected was turning out to be slaughter. A handful of enemy snipers could tie up an entire column. As for defeating the mujahedin, his battalion had done no more than march from one end of the Panjshir Valley to the other and back again.