Moscow — It was a brief item, just a few lines buried in the endless stream of propaganda the Soviet news agency Tass pours forth each day. But, in its timing and in its artful phrasing, the item summed up one of the most intransigent international problems facing President-elect Ronald reagan as he plots strategy toward the Kremlin.
"Kabul, Nov. 10," the Tass item began.
"The Afghan news agency Bakhtar reports that in recent days, the People's Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, assisted by party activists, crushed a gang of counterrevolutionaries who had operated in the Alingar district of the highland Laghman province.
"Big numbers of Chinese, Pakistani, and US-made weapons were seized. . . . The local population restored, with the help of the Afghan armed forces, a bridge across the Alingar River which had been destroyed by the bandits. . . . Volunteer detachments of the defenders of the revolution are being forced. . . ."
It all sounds, and is intended to sound, as though the triumphant Afghan Army is mopping up a handful of hapless, misguided opponents with the enthusiastic support of the local population.
In fact, the Afghan Army is decimated by desertions and casualties. "I can't remember the last time the Afghan Army actually did any fighting," remarks one Western analyst here.
It is the Soviet Army -- about 90,000 men -- that does the fighting, though in public Tass never refers to any Soviet fighting at all.
And 11 months after the original invasion, Soviet troops still have not been able to suppress the guerrilla forces -- whom Tass invariably calls "counterrevolutionaries" instead of describing them as they really are: traditional, Islamic Afghans fighting a civil war against a hated pro-Moscow, atheistic regime.
The Tass item is yet another sign of Soviet refusal to withdraw its troops despite Western and Islamic pressure and criticism, despite trade embargos, and despite President Carter's description of the invasion (to Congress last January) as "the most serious threat to world peace since the Second World War."
Western and Asian sources here report Soviet troops holding their own, digging in for the winter, attacking Pakistani border posts.
The troops have not suppressed the guerrillas. Unless they have massive reinforcements, they will not be able to do so.
Those reinforcements are not in sight at the moment, for several reasons. It is costing a small fortune to build permanent barracks and shops for the troops and civilians already there. The Kremlin is preoccupied with Poland, with preparations for the 26the congress of the Communist Party here in February, and with taking the measure of Mr. Reagan himself.
"The Soviet clearly miscalculated last December," says a Western source. "They thought the West's protests would be relatively brief. they thought they could create a pro-Moscow government with wide internal support. they were wrong -- but they hold the cities, and they're not leaving."
The only method the West has of pressuring Moscow is to keep up its criticism -- to make the price of the Afghan venture as high as possible. So far, Western and Islamic criticism has had little effect.
The coming debate on Afghanistan at the United Nations in New York is not likely to change Kremlin minds. Nor is the absence of NATO ambassadors from parades in red Square, such as happened Nov. 7 on the anniversary of the 1917 revolution.
It is expected here that outgoing President Carter might send some more aid to guerrillas based in Peshawar, Pakistan before leaving office. Mr. Reagan will have to decide how much more to send and whether to intensify US criticism of Moscow. He was outspoken against the Afghan venture during the campaign this year.
Ironically, one of Mr. Reagan's chief weapons is one he says he is opposed to using: the US grain embargo. US officials say the embargo is beginning to hurt the Soviets. Moscow has reported its second low grain harvest in two years. World supplies are tightening following poor yields in the US and Canada, and signs of lower-than- usual harvests in Australia and Argentina.
The Soviets urgently need all the grain, especially corn, they can buy, not just for themselves, but to give to Poland, vietnam, Laos, and other allies.
Meanwhile, Soviet troops in Afghanistan have tried to cut down the flow of guerrillas across the border from Pakistan by offensive in Paktia PRovince, and by three helicopter gunship attacks across the PAkistani borders in late October and early November.
The gunships, with Afghan markings, were soviet Mi-24 models almost certainly flown by Soviet pilots. The most recent attack caused casualties at a refugee camp on Pakistani territory.
But Soviet troops are mainly concerned with building weathertight barracks against the Afghan winter. Babrak Karmal, installed by the Soviets late last december, has returned to Kabul to try to strengthen his own support after a visit to Moscow that included medical treatment at a Central Committee polyclinic. His key ministries are all under Soviet control.
Despite 5,000 or 6,000 Soviet troops killed or wounded so far, those ministries show no signs of changing hands.