Largest Soviet offensive in Afghanistan war fails to hold Panjshir
It now appears that Afghan guerrilla forces are in the process of completely retaking Afghanistan's strategic Panjshir Valley.
The latest action comes just 10 weeks after Soviet and Afghan governments troops first attacked the region in the war's largest combined anti-insurgent operation.
Reports from both French and Afghan resistance sources maintain that three of the five Afghan Army posts left behind to garrison the valley have been overrun, with the remaining two fully encircled and under constant harassment.
At least 12,000 Soviet and Afghan government troops are thought to have originally participated in the offensive, which Western observers consider to have been a military failure. Except for the five garrisons and several Soviet backup units, the major portion of the communist force had withdrawn by the end of June after suffering unusually high casualities and equipment losses.
Although fighting and aerial activity still continue around the towns of Rokha and Anaba, where the military outposts are situated, the Panjshiri partisans are reported to have reestablished control over the upper and middle sectors of the 70-mile-long valley. The reports say guerrillas have also launched assaults against three points near the Salang Highway that connects the Soviet Union with Kabul.
According to a letter from Ahmad Shah Massoud, commander of the Panjshir resistance, the offensive has been characterized by a strikingly high number of defections among both Afghan and Soviet army ranks. Apart from the desertion of hundreds of Afghan soldiers, including four senior army officers, he wrote, 153 Soviet Tadzhik soldiers crossed over to the Panjshiri guerrillas, themselves ethnic Tadzhiks.
During a one-week counterattack in July against the Afghan forts, the guerrillas claim to have destroyed nine tanks and 36 other vehicles, and to have captured numerous weapons. One resistance report, which could not be verified, said that 80 percent of the valley's houses were devastated either during the heavy bombardments that preceded the offensive or by demolition squads. The valley's wheat fields and fruit orchards are also said to be practically barren.
As was feared when this correspondant visited the Panjshir region at the end of May, the crops were mainly ruined by enforced drought. Most farmers, obliged to seek refuge in the surrounding side valleys, were unable to enter the valley to irrigate their fields during the communist occupation.
There have also been unconfirmed reports of deliberate burning of soon-to-be-harvested crops by the Soviets and the use of chemical defoliants in an attempt to wreck the valley's chances of independent survival.
Resistance leaders have been urgently appealing for funds to purchase relief supplies for the valley's approximately 80,000 inhabitants. If assistance is not forthcoming, they warn, many inhabitants might be forced to seek refuge in Pakistan or Kabul.
At least two Paris-based French volunteer organizations, Afrane, and Friends of Afghanistan Association, have dispatched representatives to gauge the Panjshir's immediate requirements with the view of arranging relief caravans.
Although American relief organizations have granted ample support to Afghan refugees in Pakistan, there is general reluctance to pay attention to what some observers see as the more urgent needs of war victims inside many parts of Afghanistan.
French relief officials argue that aid to the interior will now determine the number of refugees fleeing communist repression in the months to come.
''Once their homes and fields have been destroyed, there is no way for them to stay if they don't get help from outside,'' says Jean Jose Puig, of the Friends of Afghanistan Association.
''The West should start realizing there is a problem inside the country and not just among the camps in Pakistan.''
Since last winter, the Soviets have become more aggressive in their tactics (as have the mujahideen), particulary in the regions of Herat, Kunar, and Mazar-i-Sharif.
The anti-insurgent assaults have not only been directed against the guerrillas. Civilians increasingly are being punished for supporting the resistance. At least 1,000 villagers were reported to have been massacred recently in Loghar province, southwest of Kabul, by Afghan government troops in a massive retaliatory operation.
Resistance forces, who reportedly lost 200 men, have acknowledged that their failure to coordinate proper defense measures prevented them from protecting the local inhabitants on whom they had come to rely for shelter, food, and logistical support.
Earlier this year, Western diplomats in Islamabad had predicted a slowdown in refugee numbers, which at present stand at roughly 2.5 million in Pakistan. Relief officials now fear a major influx of refugees fleeing the present escalation of bombardments and fighting. Lt. Gen. Fazle Haq, governor of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, said he expects some 800,000 Afghans to flee their country in the coming months.