The Quagmire That Awaits

Col. Vladimir Pesterev (Ret.) was the commander of a motorized rifle division during the unsuccessful 10-year Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Wounded twice, first by a sniper's bullets and then when his armored personnel carrier rolled over an antitank mine, he quickly learned the dangers of a ground war in Afghanistan--one that claimed the lives of at least 13,000 Soviet soldiers. He shared his memories of the debacle with NEWSWEEK's Eve Conant in Moscow last week. Excerpts:

CONANT: There is a possibility that the United States and NATO may send ground troops into Afghanistan. How dangerous could that prove to be?
The U.S. would be fighting a different enemy than we fought, but the terrain has not changed, nor has the style of warfare. First of all, you must learn to fight like the Afghans do. They use ambushes or military diversions to attack. There is no "front." There is only guerrilla war. They can shoot from any bush, or any building, and you cannot tell where the fire is coming from. When you are in the mountains, they may be shooting from one side but the echo comes from all over the gorge. If they are in a cave you cannot get at them. Planes and helicopters won't help.

What are conditions like in Afghanistan this time of year?
Soon there will be winds and storms. Planes and helicopters cannot be used because there is no visibility. Dust and sand rise up 300 meters, and nothing can be seen from above. In the mountains it's very cold; even in the summertime, if you climb high you will see snow. Food can be thrown from helicopters, but what can be done about water? Rubber containers break when they hit rocks. Our soldiers would lick the rocks because there would be no water otherwise. If any men were sent below to fetch water, there would be an ambush and one or two men would be killed. If the helicopters flew lower they would just be shot down.

At the time you were fighting the Afghans, they had U.S. military support. If there is a ground war now, the Taliban would be fighting alone and would also be fighting their own internal opposition, the Northern Alliance. Wouldn't that make the conflict easier?
They still have their warehouses of weapons. They have also had breaks from fighting with the Northern Alliance. Times have changed. But time also means they have more experience. Afghans learn to fight when they are 12 years old. My troops had a truck that was shot at by a 12-year-old boy with a grenade launcher. Nobody even thought he could fire. He shot several men and destroyed the truck.

You were wounded in Afghanistan. How did it happen?
A sniper started to shoot at my men as they took prisoners. He killed one, then another, then still another. I was in charge, so I was looking through my binoculars. The sun was on that side, and there was a bright reflection from the binoculars. From the reflection the sniper immediately understood who the commander was--and they always shoot the commander first. Right away one bullet went through my hand and into my chest. But I was wearing magazines with bullets, and the sniper's bullet got stuck. The second bullet, just as I was turning, went into my leg right here.

Could a war using only airstrikes work in Afghanistan?
If reconnaissance works effectively and provides accurate data on the movement of small or big enemy groups, then it could be possible to fight using modern methods, especially if they are not in the mountains. But in conditions of bad visibility the aviation will not be effective. It just won't work out. And civilians will suffer no matter what humanitarian plans NATO might have. Regular people live in the mountains, in gorges, in valleys and especially near rivers. And children will be fighting. In the end, we had to fight against civilians ourselves, because everybody fought: kids, adults, middle-aged people, the elderly, everybody fought. Everybody fights there.

At that time you were also fighting against the United States, or at least U.S. support of the Afghans. Now it looks as if Russia is going to help the United States and NATO in Afghanistan. Does that seem strange to you?
You know, trouble brings people closer. Terrorism is a common trouble--it is not just America's problem. Terrorists have bombed apartment buildings in Russia. I don't think there is anything surprising in this; this is how it should be. Russians are very worried about the tragedy that happened in the United States.

The United States and Europe have often criticized Russia for its brutal military campaign in Chechnya. Do you think the Western attitude toward Russia has now changed?
Yes. I think they sympathize with us now. I have had friends in Chechnya who were killed. Just like the Americans had loved ones who were killed, our friends and loved ones have died, too. We are angry too. We are doing our best.