Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan — From dawn until dusk they doggedly came.
First, there was an ominous distant drone. Then, tiny specks on the horizon began to sweep over the towering snowcapped Hindu Kush mountains. Wave upon wave of helicopters (often more than 100 a day) gradually approached the fertile Panjshir Valley.
They flew high to avoid guerrilla fire, but once on target, they circled like marauding sharks before coming in low to loose their rockets and bombs.
Occasionally, too, thundering MIG-23s and the new, highly maneuverable SU-24 fighter-bombers, the Soviet Union's equivalent of the American A-10, joined the gunships in their attempts to pulverize scattered mujahideen (freedom fighters) positions entrenched among vaulting rocks overlooking the main valley.
Although unable to enter the valley because of bombardments and heavy troop concentrations, we were able to move freely with Afghan mujahideen guerrillas along the mountain ridges and side valleys.
From one vantage point halfway up the Panjshir we could distinctly see the Soviet and Afghan government forces as they moved in dust-billowing columns of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and trucks along the single dirt road that runs the length of the 70-mile-long valley. Two kilometers south on the outskirts of the small mud and stone town of Onawa, stood the tents, corrugated iron huts, and supply depots of a recently established base.
Through our binoculars, we could distinguish formal rows of BM-21 ''Stalin organs,'' each capable of firing 40 rockets altogether carrying 4 1/2 tons of explosives, and giant self-propelled howitzers pointing menacingly in our direction.
At first glance, the estimated 12,000 Soviet and Afghan troops supported by such an overwhelming display of sophisticated military hardware was impressive enough. But a preliminary analysis of the offensive seems to suggest that old habits die hard and the Soviets have really learned little about fighting the mujahideen.
The Soviets still persist in their use of heavy-handed military tactics using aircraft and tanks suitable for the plains and rolling lowlands of Europe but certainly not for the rugged mountains of Afghanistan.
The fifth Soviet offensive against the Panjshir in the past 2 1/2 years began May 17 after more than a week of heavy aerial bombardments against towns, villages, and suspected guerrilla concentrations. These were then followed by the landing of heliborne troops at different points along the valley.
Three days later, on May 20, tanks and other armored vehicles that had moved up from Kabul to Gulbahar at the mouth of the Panjshir rolled in. Within a short time, the communist forces occupied the entire length of the valley right up to Dashtriwat, the northernmost town of the Panjshir.
There are several reasons for the latest attempt at crushing guerrilla forces in the Panjshir:
* The valley has become an important resistance center. Numerous guerrilla leaders from other parts of the country have sent their men to the Panjshir for military training. As a result, it has become an acute embarrassment to the Kabul regime. There are also increasing signs that the Panjshir resistance model is beginning to spread.
* The Panjshir lies dangerously close to the strategic Salang Highway, the vital transport link between the Soviet Union and Kabul. Convoys ambushed by the guerrillas provide them with a major source of food, gasoline, guns, and ammunition for the resistance.
* Perhaps most important, the frustrated Soviet-backed Kabul regime had to make an all-out strike in an effort to reassert its control in the face of ever-increasing opposition. The Soviets were also irked by a commando raid against Bagram airbase April 25 by guerrillas. According to guerrilla sympathizers in the Afghan military, 23 helicopters and MIGs were destroyed on the ground.
Although Ahmad Shah Massoud, the young, well-organized Tajik commander of the Panjshir, possessed accurate prior knowledge of the attack through sources in Kabul, the Panjshiris did not expect the Soviet heliborne troops to move with such speed.
As a result, a considerable number of civilian inhabitants in at least three towns were prevented from escaping to their previously prepared rock shelters and cages in the surrounding side valleys and gorges. ''The Russian soldiers came as a complete surprise,'' said Laurence Laumounier, one of the two French women doctors providing basic health care in the Panjshir.
"There was serious bombing against selected villages at 6 a.m. after we had left our hospital to visit some patients in a nearby side-valley, but we were not particularly worried as we thought it was just a continuation of the previous day's bombardments. Two hours later we heard the Russians were landing.''
But most of Massoud's some 3,000 armed partisans were already positioned in the mountains overlooking the Panjshir and immediately began inflicting heavy casualties against the landing Soviet troops. While some helicopters deposited troops on the mountain tops, others sought to move up the hillsides toward the guerrilla positions but were pushed back.
''At first the Russians had only set up tents on the valley floor but were then forced to dig trenches when the mujahideen firing became too murderous,'' said Capucine de Bretagne, who together with Dr. Laumounier was hiding out in a village only a few hundred meters from the nearest Soviet troops.
The Soviet strategy of putting troops in battle positions without the security of armored vehicles has been witnessed on only a few previous occasions , such as the Kunar offensive at the beginning of the war. This suggests that Moscow is prepared to accept higher casualties in order to end the stalemate. But it is still not clear whether the Soviet Union is prepared to increase its 90,000-strong military contingent in Afghanistan.
When columns of Soviet armored vehicles began entering the valley Massoud ordered his men to let them pass in an attempt to stretch them out as much as possible before striking with mortars and RPG-7 rocket launchers.
In the first 10 days of the offensive, some 50 vehicles were destroyed in the Panjshir, possibly as many as 35 helicopters and MIGs shot down, and large numbers of weapons and ammunition captured. This included over 100 AK-74 assault rifles, several mortars, heavy machine guns and antitank guns. From one guerrilla observation post overlooking the town of Khonis, this correspondent could see the remains of at least two helicopters, the first, a burned-out wreck on a sandbank; the second craft protruding from the waters of the Panjshir River. Along the road, we could also see Russian troops trying to remove the wreckage of a destroyed or damaged infantry combat vehicle.
In parallel attacks against the nearby Salang Highway, the guerrillas destroyed at least 60 armored vehicles, gasoline tankers and trucks. This effectively blocked the route for several days.
Latest resistance reports indicate that the Soviet and Afghan government forces have suffered as many as 3,000 dead and wounded. These figures seem to be substantiated by diplomatic and other sources in Kabul who refer to unprecedented numbers of casualties in the capital's hospitals.
Although some villages suffered scores of dead and wounded in the initial heavy bombardments, mujahideen casualties during the fighting appeared suprisingly low. According to the French doctors, they treated half a dozen lightly injured partisans who returned almost immediately to the front during the first 10 days and could confirm only two mujahideen dead. The guerrillas themselves claimed to have taken few lossess.
''The Russians can stay as long as they want,'' one guerrilla commander told this correspondent as he and his men prepared to bed down for the night in a well-hidden stone house within gunshot of Soviet positions. ''There is nothing much they can do except drive their tanks up and down the valley. Their bombing does not bother us.''
Although there is little the Soviets seem able to do militarily against the guerrillas, the continued occupation of the valley is preventing farmers from irrigating their wheat fields and orchards and could prove to be economically disastrous in the months to come. But resistance leaders maintain that supplies can easily be brought in from the outside to feed the inhabitants during the winter.
Despite the quantity of explosives dropped on the Panjshir - ranging from 500 -pound bombs to 50-pound rocket payloads - over the past month, the overall effect against resistance operations has been remarkably limited because of the rough, rocky terrain. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed, however.
In one recent incident, the Russians dropped 223 bombs against guerrilla concentrations in the side valley of Paranda. One person was killed and another injured. Three houses were destroyed and a cow killed. The craggy mountainsides have also prevented the detonators of numerous bombs from exploding forcing the Soviets to parachute them onto targets instead.
According to Peter Jouvenal, a British photographer who witnessed the offensive from the beginning, the Soviets bombed and rocketed a guerrilla heavy machine gun position overlooking the town of Bazarak for an entire afternoon. ''Only one small tree was all that was left standing, but the gun was firing away the next day,'' he said.
At time of writing, reports indicate that the communist forces have now withdrawn to Ruka, a third of the way up the valley. The reports say the Soviets seem to be giving up their attempt to remain in the Panjshir to establish a local administration. This idea already was dealt a blow when Gulam Dustagn Panshiri, a senior Communist Party member, was installed as district commissioner in the early days of the offensive. A week later, he was assassinated.