Panjshair Valley, Afghanistan — ''It has become a very hard war,'' said resistance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud as he sipped tea in a well-concealed cave adorned with rugs and blankets. ''Far harder than before.''
During an interview a month ago in his mountain stronghold only a rifle shot away from the nearest Soviet observation post, the young leader paid little attention to the sullen roar of artillery and mortar shells exploding on the rocky escarpments. He looked up only when a Soviet MIG-27 jet fighter streaked in low to bomb a guerrilla position and a dashaka (heavy machine gun) on a nearby ridge fired in response.
''Militarily, the Soviets have failed to achieve their objectives,'' Massoud explained, referring with constantly restless hands to a large satellite map of northern Afghanistan spread out before him. ''Every time they have come into the valley, they have tried to destroy the mujahideen.
''But we have always managed to elude them and then hit them from all sides. Their commandos (heliborne troops) have learned a great deal about mountain guerrilla warfare and are fighting much better than before. They have caused us some serious problems, but we have learned to cope with them.''
It is a much different story for the civilian population.
''Unfortunately,'' he said, ''we are in danger of losing our people. This is where the Soviets may succeed. Failing to crush us by force, as they said they would with each offensive, they have turned their wrath on defenseless people, killing old men, women, and children, destroying houses, and burning crops. They are doing everything possible to drive our people away.''
Considered one of Afghanistan's most influential commanders, Massoud is one of at least a dozen young men who have emerged as key leaders among the country's broad patchwork of guerrilla fronts.
When this reporter first met him in August 1981, he was virtually unknown to the outside world. But the former engineering student had established an impressive resistance organization by Afghan standards.
In contrast to numerous partisan groups elsewhere, those in the Panjshair Valley operated their own semiautonomous Islamic state along well-defined social and political structures: a local government, a court system, a finance department to collect taxes and support families whose men had been killed, schools, mosques, a hospital, and most significantly, a ''military academy'' for the training of mujahideen.
On several occasions since the December 1979 invasion, the Red Army has launched major offenses to wrest the Panjshair from resistance control. Each time, however, the combined Soviet-Afghan government operations have failed. To the chagrin of the Kabul regime, Massoud's military prowess and organizational abilities not only enabled the Panjshair to survive, but also boosted it as a leading symbol of the resistance.
It was exactly this sort of success that caused the frustrated Soviets to step up their efforts to crush Massoud once and for all. In late spring 1982, when this reporter returned to the Panjshair for the second time, they had launched their fifth and largest offensive, involving more than 12,000 troops.
When the assault, which had been widely publicized by the regime as its final thrust against Massoud's ''counterrevolutionary bandits'' began to falter, the Soviets launched yet another offensive at the end of summer. This achieved little, and the guerrillas continued to operate with relative impunity. In an unprecedented move, the Soviets approached Massoud in December 1982 offering a cease-fire.
Massoud accepted, despite acrimonious charges leveled by some guerrilla groups that he had sold out. But the young commander justified his actions by arguing that both the valley and his men needed a breather. The Soviets, for their part, were hoping the cease-fire would not only keep the Panjshairis out of mischief but also would discredit them with the rest of the resistance.
The Soviets soon realized the truce was not going to work. As expected, the Panjshairis used the 16-month respite to rebuild their villages, cultivate their fields, set aside food supplies, restock ammunition, and train guerrillas.
More to the point, however, Massoud met with guerrilla commmanders from throughout the northern provinces in an effort to forge a more coordinated regional movement against what he now regarded as a conflict that ''could last 40 years.'' While abiding by the treaty in not conducting military operations inside the Panjshair, his men continued to wage war elsewhere, notably in the Salang and Kohistan regions.
On April 20 of this year, the Red Army ended the truce. In nationwide operations against prominent resistance areas such as Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Kandahar, it launched its seventh offensive in the Panjshair. At least 20,000 Soviet-Afghan troops backed by massive air and ground suppport were reported to be deployed.
According to Massoud and other sources, the Panjshairis were fully informed of Soviet plans at least one month before the operation. As in the past, resistance sympathizers in the government continued to provide the Panjshairis with usually reliable information on military operations.
Several days before the offensive, Massoud ordered the evacuation of the valley. Most inhabitants sought refuge in neighboring areas.
At the same time, mujahed groups began moving into position. While some established themselves in the side valleys to conduct commando actions and lay mines along the roads, others traveled farther afield toward Kabul or toward the Soviet border to operate with other regional fronts.
''These groups had orders to launch coordinated attacks to distract the enemy ,'' said Massoud. ''What was extraordinary, however, was that both the Khad (Afghan secret police) and the KGB (Soviet secret police) had no idea about our tactical retreat.''
In an effort to preempt last spring's offensive, guerrilla groups began ambushing government convoys and blowing up bridges along the strategic Salang highway, which is the main supply link between the Soviet Union and Kabul. For some two weeks, the route was blocked. Others sought to harass communist military forces in and around Gulbahar near the mouth of the Panjshair.
In their first attack, the Soviets carpet-bombed the lower half of the virtually deserted valley for three successive days. In addition, they bombed parts of Andarab, Khost, Nooristan, Kohistan, Nahreen, and Salang, leaving as many as 1,000 civilians dead.
The Panjshair commander maintained that the Soviets also used a form of white gas which they dropped by air in large barrels at both ends of the valley.
''You can still find the empty barrels,'' Massoud noted. ''But as the mujahideen were already on higher ground, they were not affected. When they came down from the mountains, they found a lot of dead foxes, chickens, and birds.''
During the initial stages, the government forces reportedly suffered heavy casualties from mujahed mines. Western diplomats and other sources observed a significant rise in the number of dead and injured being brought to the capital for burial or hospitalization.
The guerrillas also claim to have knocked out hundreds of vehicles plus as many as 40 planes and helicopters, more than during any previous offensive.
But since the Soviets seek to remove or destroy damaged equipment to prevent it from falling into the hands of the guerrillas, such assertions have been difficult to substantiate. Neither has it been possible to confirm mujahed losses, estimated by Massoud at 150 dead.
Nevertheless, the communist forces soon demonstrated that they intended to stay in the valley.
By burning and looting houses, shops, and mosques as well as disrupting much of the irrigation system, the Soviets seemed intent on making it impossible for the villagers to return unless willing to accept government tutelage.
From Kabul, the authorities launched an extensive propaganda campaign, much of which was duly reported in the Western and third-world press.
As on previous occasions, Radio Kabul insisted that the Panjshair resistance had been annihilated and the ''bandit'' Massoud killed. The valley, it maintained, was under firm government control and conditions were returning to normal. Because of communications problems as well as poor organization, the resistance failed to counter these claims.
When this reporter visited the Panjshair in August this year, at least two-thirds of the valley remained occupied. An estimated 15,000 Soviet-Afghan troops were garrisoned at six major bases stretching from Anawah to Panjrow. Every day, however, small groups of Afghan deserters managed to sneak out of their heavily fortified camps to guerrilla lines.
Holding the side valleys, most of the ridges, and the upper Panjshair, the guerrillas were conducting a bitter war of attrition against the communists.
They had cut off the road in several places and forced the Soviets to supply at least one base (Payshgar) by helicopter and parachute. They were also stepping up attacks elsewhere such as the Salang and Kabul regions in an effort to oblige the Soviets to spread their forces.
But while the mujahideen appeared to be faring well militarily, it was obvious the civilians would have an arduous if not impossible task in getting reestablished. Although some 200 civilians had returned to Dashti-Rawat, a resistance-held town at the northern end of the valley, virtually every house had been damaged or destroyed.
Massoud told this correspondent, shortly before I left the region, that he was expecting another series of Soviet assaults within the next 20 days, or at least before the onset of winter.
On Sept. 5, less than a week after my departure, the Soviets dropped heliborne troops at Dashti-Rawat and other strategic points after heavy bombardments in another large-scale effort to dislodge the guerrillas. With little reliable information emerging from the Panjshair, the situation remains confused. Radio Kabul once again announced a string of mujahed defeats, while some diplomatic reports referred to high guerrilla casualties. Usually reliable sources, however, indicate that the latest offensive failed.