Big Soviet drive in Afghanistan reflects tougher Chernenko line
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Only a small percentage of the conscripts - as few as 15,000 to 20,000 according to one military attache - are reportedly exposed to the full rigors of war. The others are said to be involved in ''education and reorientation'' programs, building new airstrips and roads, protecting vital Afghan Army installations and transport and communications sites.Skip to next paragraph
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The Soviet Air Force has taken over and expanded military air bases at Kandahar, Shindand, Farah, Kabul, Bagram, Jalalabad, and Herat. Their present air and ground deployment thus gives them the capability for an expeditious thrust into the Indian Ocean, Iran, and the Gulf.
But the lush Panjshir Valley has been a longtime irritant to the Soviet regime, and both the stronghold and symbol of the Afghan mujahideen.
Thus three separate Soviet armored columns are pushing through the valley - 15,000 Soviet and 2,000 Afghan forces, along with 400 to 600 tanks. They are supported by unprecedented, high-altitude, saturation bombing raids. As many as 100 Soviet TU-16 Badger bombers and SU-24 Fencer fighters arrived in Afghanistan from the Soviet Union at the end of March. It is a scale and intensity of commitment never sanctioned by Mr. Andropov.
Casualties have been minimal, according to Western diplomatic reports, as virtually no civilians remain in the 70-mile-long valley. Contact between the advancing Soviet forces and the mujahideen has been limited to occasional hit-and-run raids by the resistance.
The Western officials quoted above have also discounted the veracity of Afghan resistance reports that the Soviets used chemical weapons as they have continued their advance, now into its third week.
''It's simply illogical,'' an official said, ''when the valley's been evacuated, and there are virtually no inhabitants left.''
According to an Eastern European source, the operation is taking longer than the Soviets had expected when they launched the offensive April 21. They are said, as during previous Panjshir campaigns, to be having difficulty in flushing the mujahideen out of their new deployments in side valleys and along the mountain ridge. Six earlier attempts to take the valley have failed.
The seeming Soviet reluctance to continue pursuing a carrot-and-stick approach in Afghanistan began to appear as early as the February funeral of Mr. Andropov.
Fearing that Pakistan's borders were increasingly vulnerable, and saddled with 3 million increasingly disruptive Afghan refugees, Pakistani President Muhammad Zia ul-Haq went to Moscow for the funeral. He was fully prepared to propose direct Pakistani-Soviet talks on Afghanistan to Mr. Chernenko, a move initiated earlier by the Islamabad government, but which the Kremlin had rebuffed.
There was no such opportunity. Despite two formal requests for an appointment , Mr. Chernenko pointedly ignored the Pakistani leader. Instead, Chernenko met with India's Indira Gandhi, Babrak Karmal, and a relatively unknown admiral from Bangladesh.