October 4, 2001

20 Years of Training for War


NORWALK, Conn. -- The seven Afghan mujahedeen had been on the move for two days, climbing from sweltering valleys up through frigid mountain passes, their mission to deliver battle orders from guerrilla headquarters on the Pakistan border to a field commander in distant Nuristan province. Boarding rickety rafts floated by inflated goatskins, they crossed the roaring Kunar River, and then they heard Soviet helicopter gunships approaching.

They took cover in a nearby cave. One, a mustached man in his mid-40's, squatted in the entrance and fired his rifle at the huge aircraft, one round at a time. Bristling with laser-guided rockets and rapid-fire cannon, the armor-plated choppers flew off, unharmed. The crews probably didn't even realize they were being fired upon.

As the man ducked back into the cave, I asked to look at his rifle. I was stunned to see that it was a single-shot, breech-loading Martini-Henry. Stamped on its receiver were the initials V. R., for Victoria Regina, and the date of its manufacture, 1878. The guerrilla's grandfather or great-grandfather perhaps might have taken it from a now-forgotten British soldier in some lonesome mountain pass on the ragged edge of the empire.

I spent a month with the mujahedeen as a reporter, during their decade-long war with the Soviet Union. That scene of a middle-aged fighter shooting at the future with a piece of history seems especially vivid to me now that American forces are made ready for deployment to Afghanistan to punish the Taliban.

Even if there were no such defiant fighters, waging war in that country would be a daunting business. The mountains soar to 20,000 feet in the east, and endless deserts lie in the west. Tracking down Osama bin Laden and finding Al Qaeda base camps in the forbidding recesses of the Hindu Kush will be difficult in the extreme.

We do enjoy one advantage the defeated Soviet Army did not have. Thanks to its brutal rule, the Taliban lack the support the mujahedeen possessed during the Soviet-Afghan war. Mr. bin Laden and his mostly Arab associates, according to some Afghan scholars, are considered foreign thugs by many. And it's possible that a toppling of the regime would be welcomed by a significant part of the populace. But no one should have any illusions about the Taliban. If their support isn't as broad as they make it out to be, their militia will still prove to be extremely tough and dedicated.

I offer a small example of what Afghans have learned to endure. I was with a platoon of mujahedeen escorting 1,000 refugees into Pakistan in 1980. We had to cross a mountain torrent on a bridge consisting of two rain-slick logs laid side by side. In front of me was a 10-year-old boy, separated from his family, hobbling on feet slashed to ribbons from five days of barefoot marching. Realizing that he would probably fall into the rapids below, I carried him to the other side; then, with my interpreter's help, I found his father and handed him over. The father slapped the boy in the face and poked me in the chest, shouting angrily. Naturally, I was shocked. "He's angry with the boy for not crossing on his own, and angry with you for helping him," the interpreter explained. "Now, he says, his son will expect some stranger to help him whenever he runs into difficulties."

Well, that little boy probably learned. I don't know what became of him, but in my imagination, I see our troops encountering him: now 31, inured to hardship and accustomed to combat, unafraid of death, with an army of men like him at his side.

Philip Caputo is the author, most recently, of "The Voyage," a novel.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company