Soviet view: We're only rooting out Afghan 'bandits'

As Soviet Vice-President Makhmadula Kholov told it in the Indian capital this week, the Afghan Army is quite capable of dealing with the Afghan rebels on its own.

Soviet troops, in Afghanistan by invitation, were not engaged in any military action, insisted the deputy chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and president of the Tadzhik Republic. They were assisting the Afghan Army in forming its units and helping to deal with "bandits" entering Afghan territory.

As Radio Kabul was officially telling it, meanwhile, "subversive and foreign elements and spies working under the command of their foreign masters" were killing, burning, blowing up, and terrorizing peaceful Afghans.

In increasingly candid broadcasts, the government-operated radio has been reporting rebel activities -- ascribed to "terrorists -- in the key western city of Herat near the Iranian border and in four northern provinces bordering the Soviet Union: Balkh, Kunduz, Samangan, and Jawzjan.

Although the Afghan government has claimed success in repelling, capturing, and killing rebels, it has also given wide publicity to the dispatch of "volunteers" to take on the insurgents -- often in areas it has just reported as calm and peaceful.

With "cries of joy and happiness," the government news media reported this week, volunteers have gone off to combat the enemies of Afghanistan's Marxist revolution. These enemies, it said, are receiving "direct financial and military support by United States world-plundering imperialism, British reactionary circles, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, hegemonous China, and other retrogressive countries of the world."

Meanwhile, as diplomats, travelers, and other Kabul- watchers clustered in the Indian capital were telling it, Soviet troops only recently finished tangling with fleeing defectors from the Afghan Army's 14th armored division based in Ghazni. With armor and their dreaded MI-24 helicopter gunships, they continued to pound villages suspected of harboring or aiding the insurgents.

The Afghan Army, according to diplomatic accounts, has shrunk to fewer than 30,000 men -- less than half its original estimated strength of 80,000. The government's effort to enlist fresh recruits has degenerated into press gangs scouring city streets for youths as young as 15.

"They've had to actually go out and drag these guys out of their homes," a Western observer reports.

Coup and Army defection rumors abound. Observers say Soviet control of the primary road network extends no farther than the distance of their longest-range weapons. Afghan emigres happily pass along rebel claims of assassinations of hated party figures and large victories over Soviet and Afghan troops.

To the puzzled outsider, Afghanistan has become many different wars seen through the perspectives of those relating it.

Normally knowledgeable diplomats stationed in Kabul are restricted to a 20 -mile radius of the capital. Aside from their own observations of military movements in and out of the city, they must pick, sift and piece together rumors , facts, and observations from colleagues and internal travelers to give their capitals and outside missions some inkling of events inside Afghanistan. Only a few Western reporters have enveigled their way into the country in the face of a flat ban on the Western press.

Inconsistencies and contradictions abound. Afghanistan's government-controlled news media feel no need to reconcile day- or week-old antirebel success stories with their own fresh reports of new "terrorist" activities in the same regions.

I

In his first meeting with New Delhi's corps of avid Afghan watchers, Mr. Kholov retreated to a nonplused "no reply" when asked an embarrassing question: How could the rebels inflict as much damage as Radio Kabul is reporting if the Soviet-assisted Afghan Army was so capable of taking them on?

Mr. Kholov is heading a Soviet delegation here to commemorate the 9th anniversary of the Indo-Soviet friendship treaty. He is also attending India's annual independence day celebrations Friday. He could not understand, he added, why the Afghan situation drew so much interest in India.

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