Aganv Tangay River Valley, Afghanistan — It was like a scene from the Mexican revolution. The unshaven rebel commander, sitting regally on a chair under a massive eucalyptus tree, barked orders at a motley band of armed followers just down from the mountains.
Inside the sprawling compound, scores of Afghan insurgents sporting carbines, shotguns, pistols, automatic rifles, and grenades with colorful cartridge belts slung across their chests milled around.
Two bearded mullahs wearing dark sunglasses with labels still attached ruminated in their midst. Outside the camp's mud-caked walls, a turbaned young rebel crouched intently behind a 1938 Czech-made Bren machine gun, surveying the path that led to the village.
The moustachioed former Afghan Army major, now in command of roughly 70 Hizb-e Islam (Younnis Khalis faction) supporters, ventured a wry smile. "We have come down to strike hard at the Russians," he said. "We will make them bleed."
His eyes darting across the compound, the commander shouted another instruction in Pashto. Then he glanced back. "We will block the road down there," he said, gesturing with his head in the direction of Jalalabad 20 miles to the north.
"And we will go on hitting them, even if it takes years, even if every last Afghan is killed, until the Soviets leave our soil."
The Soviet Communist Party newspaper Pravda recently commented that "the fight against bandits in the mountains is not easy." Most Afghan mujahideen (freedom fighters), who, after all, are defending their liberty and country, do not consider themselves bandits.
It is true that some traditional Afghan marauders from the mountains have jumped on the resistance bandwagon in hopes of an easy and legitimate plunder. Furthermore, a number of them have levied "taxes" or "toll fees" on hapless refugees or even insurgents from other parts of the country.
But overall, the mujahideen appear to be effectively making life as uncomfortable and costly as possible for the Soviet occupation forces.
Although rebel claims of 7,000 to 10,000 Russian dead among Moscow's 90,000 troops inside Afghanistan (30,000 more are believed to be poised along the northern frontier) are considered to be gross exaggerations, resistance groups are slowly whittling away at Russian ranks, driving them toward a time-dragging stalemate. Western intelligence sources in Pakistan believe the Soviets have lost 500 to 1,000 men since their Dec. 27, 1979, invasion.
So far, the Soviets have only managed to control the towns and main roads. Superior Soviet firepower has not prevented the mujahideen from launching raids, usually at night, from the surrounding mountains. Chief targets appear to be military bases, police stations, and government installations.
Almost all schools, government buildings, and houses belonging to communist officials in the countryside and in villages have been devastated.
And in the narrow, rocky gorges where it is difficult for Soviet helicopters and planes to operate, the mujahideen regularly attack convoys along the highways.
Although the rebels find it easy to damage trucks, there is little they can do against tanks and armored personel carriers. Equipped with only a small number of grenade launchers, mortars, RPG-7 anti-tank guns, light field artillery, mines, and an occasional rocket, the mujahideen find it almost impossible to penetrate Soviet armor.
Soviet troops tend to remain inside their tanks, coming out only under heavy air cover. Even if they do have weapons, the rebels more often than not lack ammunition.
The mujahideen also fear the merciless Mi-24 helicopter gunships of the Russians. While recently traveling through Afghanistan south of Jalalabad, this reporter was constantly urged to walk faster while passing through open, arid country. "Helicopter, helicopter," was the repeated warning of my rebel guide.
One foreign observer, inside northern Kunar Province during a massive Soviet offensive last week, reported that the mujahideen could do nothing but hide from the Russian's vastly superior land and air forces."It was like a Russian combat training program," he said. "The rebels were helpless."
The only apparent assaults to really hurt the Russians have been achieved by defected Afghan troops still operating in an organized military manner. An entire Afghan battalion recently defected with all its weapons and successfully inflicted heavy losses on a Soviet force in the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul.
Yet just as the mujahideen find it frustratingly difficult to fracture the Soviets, the invaders from the north find it almost impossible to suppress Afghan resistance. Hatred for the Russians and their "Afghan communist puppets" is simply too strong. The rebels have time and terrain on their side.
Even the relative security if towns is now being ruptured more regularly. In Kabul earlier this week schoolboys and schoolgirls, as well as thoursands of older students, again demonstrated against the Babrak Karmal government. Tanks and helicopter gunships had to be called in. At least 27 unarmed demonstrators were killed and numerous injured. As in all major towns, communist officials and Russian soldiers fear for their lives when walking the streets.
With the Afghan Army in disarray, the job of fighting the insurgents is left up to the Russians. But all efforts to pacify the countryside have failed.
In areas visited by this reporter, Russian armored vehicles, MIGs and helicopter gunships have made repeated forays into the countryside to flush out rebels. Numerous houses have been bombed. And hundreds of men, women, and children have been killed and thousands forced to flee to neighboring Pakistant across the 10,000-foot-high Spin Ghar mountains. But the moment the Russians withdraw, the mujahideen return from their mountain hide-outs.
Western military analysts say the Soviets face three choices.
* First, without increasing their present forces, they could concentrate on holding the towns and roads, leaving the countryside to the rebels. They could also continue launching offensives against the mujahideen, but would lose the territory they capture the moment they withdraw.
* Second, the Soviets could bring in extra troops. Analysts believe they would need more than 250,000 men to try to control the countryside. They would also have to come out from their tanks and armored personnel carriers.
Most of the mujahideen use the more than 120 passes that link Pakistan with Afghanistan for bringing in supplies, weapons, and fresh fighters from refugee camps or tribal areas. Just as the British were forced to do during their campaigns against the Afghans, the Russians would have to control these highland areas to safeguard the valleys. This, however, would be extremely costly not only in human lives, but in time, equipment, and, most important, morale.
"In the long run," noted one European observer, "the Russians would have to try and pacify the local populations and persuade them not to provide food and sanctuary for the rebels."
This seems unlikely, given the way the Soviets have been destroying Afghan villages. Many Afghan tribesmen this reporter has spoken to hate the Russians, calling them "communist infidels with no God."
* Third, the Russians could seek a political solution and leave the country. Most analysts believe the Soviets have misread the situation and would be eager to rid themselves of an increasingly costly quagmire. But the question remains: If Western countries allow the Soviets to withdraw, will the Afghans?