Afghanistan war defies political solution. The Soviet-Afghan war enters its ninth year this week with no military solution in sight. Refugees still flee the country and the Afghan death toll has reached 1 million. Observers say the resistance to Soviet-backed rule has grown stronger with the help of US antiaircraft weapons. And the Soviets are reconsidering their role in what some call `Moscow's Vietnam.' But the crux remains how to devise a political solution. (US conservatives worry the Reagan administration may bargain away too much. Story, Page 7.) Veteran Afghanistan reporter Edward Girardet has just returned from a two-month visit to the region. A four-part series begins today.
``Our war against the Russians has never been a matter of winning or losing on the battlefield. It is a matter of who can hold out longest against the other,'' comments Brig. Rahmatullah Safi, a veteran resistance commander. The burly former Afghan Army colonel, who now runs a guerrilla training camp at the base of a rocky hill northwest of Peshawar, pauses for emphasis. ``But our struggle in Afghanistan is also a classic guerrilla war. And because we are still fighting, we are winning.''Skip to next paragraph
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The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which enters its ninth year this week, has never been an easy conflict to assess. Consistent, reliable information from inside the country has always been difficult to obtain. And, with two foreign journalists reportedly killed in October, Afghanistan has become a much more dangerous war to cover.
On the surface, the conflict remains a bloody stalemate. Few analysts see any possibility of a military solution. The Soviets have failed to crush the resistance. Yet there is little the mujahideen (resistance fighters) can do should the Soviets decide to pursue a limited war of containment, entrenching themselves in the cities and their main countryside bases.
In the end, most observers agree, only a diplomatic or political settlement can resolve a conflict that has already devastated much of that beautiful, rugged land and inflicted untold trauma on its staunchly independent people.
Current estimates hold that a mil-lion or more Afghans have died as a direct result of the war. Some 5 million civilians, almost a third of the country's pre-war population, have fled to Pakistan, Iran, and elsewhere - the single largest refugee population in the world. Between 2 and 3 million Afghans still within the country have migrated to the largely Soviet-controlled cities to escape the fighting, or sought protection in ``liberated zones'' held by the guerrillas.
One significant trend has emerged in the past year of fighting: The mujahideen for the first time appear to be forcing the Soviets to seriously reconsider their commitment to what many observers now regard as ``Moscow's Vietnam.''
``There is no doubt that the mujahideen are in a much stronger position today than ever before,'' says a Western diplomat in Islamabad, Pakistan. ``Their fighting capabilities have vastly improved and morale has never been higher.''
According to diplomats, military analysts, guerrilla commanders, foreign aid workers, and independent observers recently in Afghanistan, the most evident if not dramatic development has been the high toll of Soviet and Afghan government aircraft shot down by the mujahideen. Improved antiaircraft defense systems, such as the US-made Stinger missile, have not only pressured the Soviets into modifying tactics, but have enabled some Afghan civilians to return to their villages.
However, the mujahideen still suffer from problems that have dogged them in the past.
For one, many of their good commanders have been killed and have proved hard to replace. Rivalry and corruption persists among the Afghan political parties based in Peshawar. While field cooperation inside Afghanistan has definitely improved, clashes between certain commanders of the fundmentalist Hezb-e-Islami (Hekmatyar Gulbuddin faction) and other groups continue to undermine the mujahideen's jihad (holy war).
In recent years, the political alliance has lost much credibility and respect among Afghans. United States policy requires that all its aid - an estimated $715 million of military and humanitarian assistance in fiscal year 1987 - be channeled through the Peshawar-based parties. The US program, particularly the cross-border relief operation run by the Agency for International Development, is criticized for lacking coherence, direction, and effectiveness.