WASHINGTON -- The fierce Afghan winter and the fabled Afghan warriors who seem to thrive in its extremes are very much on the Pentagon's mind.
If U.S. forces go to battle on the ground, Americans could experience the worst winter fighting they ever have faced -- "Vietnam with snow" is how one military analyst describes it.
In January, the temperature in Kabul, the capital, drops below freezing and the snow usually is at least 11 inches deep, a combination that produces a skin-soaking cold. A fighter for the ruling Taliban regime wears pretty much what he did in July: a light jacket, baggy pants, a little canvas over his feet.
"Afghans are very tough fighters in winter," said Afghanistan analyst Alex Alexiev. "You see some people barefoot. You don't see that anywhere else."
For now, the U.S.-led strikes on Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist organization and his Taliban allies have come from the air, and the weather considerations have not been paramount.
But if bombing raids fail to roust the fighters, the likelihood of ground force involvement increases and weather becomes an important factor.
Unless Taliban authorities surrender bin Laden, "We must expect to go through the winter and into next summer at the very least," Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, the top British warrior, said last week.
The Fort Drum, N.Y.-based 10th Mountain Division, a legendary alpine unit, is positioned across the border in Uzbekistan. Smaller special operation teams have reconnoitered inside Afghanistan.
Mobilizing the division was an encouraging sign that the alliance had studied the failures of the 1979-88 Soviet invasion, Alexiev said.
"The Soviets moved in December 1979 from Uzbekistan, where it is fairly balmy in the winter," he said. "The soldiers lacked winter apparel." That demoralized the invaders and helped rally the resistance.
Hindu Kush mud
But it was the Hindu Kush, the jagged range running through northeastern Afghanistan like a hunched spine, that especially humbled the Soviets. Kabul, controlled by the Taliban, is in the Kush.
In winter, mud renders the Kush's roads impassable and puts the aggressor at a disadvantage.
Until now, the northern alliance -- putative U.S. allies based in the northern Kush -- was able to repel Taliban thrusts northward because of the mud. The same obstacle threatens to stymie any allied plan to advance south to Kabul.
Leonid Gritsyuk, a sergeant who served in Afghanistan in the winter of 1985-6 and now lives in Sacramento, Calif., said his training prepared him for temperature extremes, but not for the skin-soaking cold of the Kush.
Local fighters, on the other hand, hardly seemed affected by what he called "the puddle."
"They were so used to the wet climate in the mountains, I don't think they noticed how cold it was," he said. "I could see them running in the mountains. They were in their element."
The Soviets, trapped in their bases by the mud, became sitting ducks.
"The mujahedeen shot at us, but we didn't go after them," said Gritsyuk. At least 15,000 Soviet troops died during the war.
Once, desperate for firewood, Gritsyuk led 30 troops into a village. Afghans ambushed them; only 16 Soviets returned.
Such tales belie hopeful predictions by some military officials -- including Britain's Boyce -- that the winter will slow the war, apparently based on a "gentleman's agreement" among the militias who fought the 1992-95 civil war to lay down guns during the winter months.
The Taliban has never observed the practice; its first major thrust north of Kabul was a December 1996 surprise attack that exploited its enemies' presumptions of just such a truce.
Within hours, the Taliban had advanced seven miles and the frost-frozen fields north of the city were littered with the corpses of alliance troops.
Former Soviet generals are criticizing the U.S.-led alliance for underestimating the weather and the Taliban's determination.