Seven years after Soviet invasion, Afghanistan's agony goes on. Soviets seem unable to get free of military, political quagmire

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It is a dubious distinction for a proud people: Afghans constitute the world's single largest refugee population. Some 5 million Afghans - roughly a third of Afghanistan's population - have sought shelter in crowded settlements in Pakistan, Iran, and the Soviet Union. That is just one legacy of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which took place on Dec. 24, 1979.

Seven years after the Red Army invaded, Afghanistan is a country in agony. Neither a political nor a military solution seems in sight. Infighting, both within the country's communist government and the guerrilla groups opposing it, seems set to prolong the conflict.

Moscow, while claiming to want an end to involvement in Afghanistan, has made little progress in reaching that goal, according to United States experts. Afghanistan remains an economic, political, and military quagmire from which Moscow seems either unwilling or unable to extract itself.

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``Moscow's costly attempt to conquer an independent neighbor remains a failure,'' US Deputy Secretary of State John C. Whitehead concluded recently.

On the political, diplomatic, and military fronts, the Soviet Union launched a number of initiatives over the past year. None seems to have borne fruit.

The most significant was the installation of a new leader for Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Najibullah, in May 1986. The general was formerly the head of the dread Afghan secret police, the Khad.

The ouster of his predecessor, Babrak Karmal, was seen in the West as a move to bring more efficiency to the Afghan government, to force a degree of unity on the country's fractious Communist Party, and perhaps to pave the way for an international settlement.

US officials say there is no evidence that he has succeed in any of those goals. His ascension has, however, coincided with growing brutality and ruthlessness of Afghan government troops.

Felix Ermacora, the United Nations ``special rapporteur'' on human rights in Afghanistan, concluded in a report earlier this year that the conflict ``has led to serious violations of human rights and to intense human suffering.''

In a report earlier this year, he documented cases of torture and brutality against Afghan civilians by government forces and Soviet troops, including the indiscriminate bombing of villages and the killing of children, women, and other noncombatants.

Such brutality has only heightened resistance to Soviet occupation. Mr. Ermacora concluded that the Afghan resistance movements ``would seem [to] command the support of the vast majority of the population.''

The UN General Assembly, echoing eight earlier resolutions, last month renewed its call for ``the immediate withdrawal of the foreign troops from Afghanistan.''

In a July 28 speech in Vladivastok, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev announced that six Soviet regiments were being withdrawn from Afghanistan.

US analysts, however, claim that four of the regiments were made up of antitank and antiaircraft forces. The guerrillas have few tanks or aircraft, so the withdrawals seem to have little military consequence. The other two regiments withdrawn - known as ``motorized rifle'' regiments - would normally be expected to play an active role in counterinsurgency warfare.

But the US State Department says those regiments were moved into the country only for the purpose of a ceremonial withdrawal.

``It was a phony withdrawal,'' says Herbert G. Hagerty, director of the State Department's Office of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh Affairs.

``It's phony because it wasn't what it was claimed to be. The net change in Soviet strength is neglible. Besides, it obscures the real issue, which is a total Soviet withdrawal.''

A State Department report concludes, ``Contrary to their assertions for international audiences and back home in the USSR, the Soviets apparently do not feel secure enough to give up any real fighting capabilities.''

The Afghan resistance movement, meanwhile, continues to be split along ethnic and ideological lines, to the frustration of Western governments aiding them. But a fragile alliance of seven resistance groups - founded some 18 months ago - seems to be holding.

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