Kandahar, Afghanistan — For the Soviet forces still here, Kandahar, Afghanistan's second city, is proving as difficult to leave as it was to subdue. In recent weeks the mujahideen (Afghan guerrillas) have moved into positions within shelling range of Kandahar Airport, where a majority of 2,000 Soviet troops (down from a high of 12,000 several years ago) are still dug in. And, as the mujahideen noose around the airport garrison grows tighter each day, the Soviet Army withdrawal becomes more difficult and dangerous.
During a visit to Kandahar last month, there was heavy fighting almost every day. The mujahideen are concentrating on taking Baba Wali, the last Afghan government base in the city's Argandab district. In mujahideen hands, Baba Wali would provide a strategic high ground and make the Soviet position at the airport more vulnerable.
The mujahideen, however, have no illusions about the price they will pay for the assault on Baba Wali. Its defenses, visible through binoculars, are awesome. The main headquarters is high on a hill. Linked to it are 20 posts, some with tanks, and all with heavy machine-guns. To knock out Baba Wali, the mujahideen will have to capture each of these strong points dug into the steep, barren mountainside.
On a trip to the Kandahar area about three weeks ago, this reporter visited the remains of four Afghan Army bases that once provided a defensive wall for Kandahar airport. The mujahideen say those positions did not fall easily.
Shell casings lie a foot deep where the 150 defenders of each base reportedly manned their machine guns to the moment of death. These were not the dispirited government troops who abandoned bases recently in central and eastern Afghanistan, leaving behind tons of arms and ammunition.
Government forces in Kandahar are estimated at 6,000. One thousand are conscripts, considered most susceptible to desertion. But the 5,000-man, volunteer militia is highly trained, and well paid. They face about 1,000 mujahideen.
So far, the Soviets have been vague about a date for leaving Kandahar and the mujahideen here say they plan to take a heavy toll in reprisal for nine years of bitter fighting and alleged atrocities against civilians.
Mujahideen from all seven Afghan resistance parties have been carefully building fighting holes and bunkers from which to launch assaults on Baba Wali. They expect heavy bombardment from Soviet artillery, rockets, and high-flying jets that are beyond the range of American-supplied Stinger missiles.
Civilians, their donkeys piled high with household goods, are fleeing the area. The lush apple orchards from which the mujahideen are launching the attack on Baba Wali are almost ripe, but for yet another year the fruit will rot on the trees unpicked.
The visit to Kandahar - a city reputedly founded by Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C. - began at Toba, a sprawling complex of ammunition caches nestled in the barren hills a few miles south of the Pakistani border. All seven mujahideen groups share this staging base for Kandahar, and the loading and departure of trucks goes on around the clock. We left Toba in a convoy of two hardy Japanese trucks loaded with rockets, small-arms ammunition, diesel fuel, and flour, and 50 mujahideen riding shotgun.
Driver Fati Muhammad skillfully maneuvered across deep desert sand, dry river beds, and shallow streams. Asked about the possibility of mines, he replied: ``Mujahideen don't have the technology to detect the mines, so we just leave ourselves in the hands of God.''
The trail was littered with the charred remains of trucks that were ambushed or hit mines. We could hear giant Antonov transport planes landing at Kandahar airport, less than three miles away. Our convoy swung around the eastern edge of Kandahar and arrived in the city district of Argandab after a 30- hour trip.
Kandahar was once a city of 200,000 people. After almost nine years of war, 70 percent of the central city is destroyed. Only 30,000 civilians remain, about half in government-controlled areas and the rest in mujahideen-held sections.
The Kandahar mujahideen operate in 40 groups of 10 to 20 men each. Commanders are said to number more than 100.
``Kandaharis are proud people,'' it was explained. ``Everyone wants to be a commander, we don't like to follow.'' But Kandaharis of different guerrilla parties appear to cooperate more than guerrillas in other areas of Afghanistan. ``We are Kandaharis first, and party members second,'' one commander said.
Mujahideen commander Haji Latif, affectionately called Haji Baba (pilgrim father) and sometimes the Lion of Kandahar, wears a captured Soviet pistol and a bandoleer of cartridges tucked under his flowing white beard. Haji Latif is up at 5:00 a.m., hectoring his troops out of their sleeping bags for morning prayers.
Shortly after first light, air strikes can be expected from high-flying bombers, which the mujahideen say are probably MIG-25s flying out of Baghram air base or, perhaps, the Soviet Union. Mujahideen antiaircraft guns open up on the impossible targets. Latif says he needs better air defenses, particularly Stinger missiles.
A French photographer and this reporter joined Latif and his guerrillas on a visit to his forward base closest to enemy lines in the city center. Our motorcycle cavalry, with Kalashnikovs and Nikons smashing against each other at every bounce, was caught in a heavy crossfire between mujahideen attacking a Soviet post and Soviet troops returning fire. We dismounted, waited for darkness, then crept past the post, which was burning but still held by the Soviets.
A necklace of parachute flares suddenly lit up the sky. Red tracer bullets chewed up the road ahead of us. After dashing into a nearby village, we sipped tea brought by the villagers and watched the duel of tracer bullets between the attacking mujahideen and Soviets.
At the base, Commander Nazak gave us a tour. Carefully digging up the mines he had planted on the path out of his base, Nazak led us through a maze of rubble and shell-pocked buildings to look through holes in vantage points at his enemy. The combatants were dug into the buildings, within shouting distance about 50 yards away.
Nazak gave a running commentary as we dashed from peephole to peephole - ``This is the governor's mansion. See the flag, he's long gone ... There's the Khad [secret police] headquarters. There are 45 Khad and 15 security men there. And that's Zhira Cuti army post....''
We walked through a village to a point where the wall was broken, providing a clear view of the Soviet base. Tanks, armored cars, and trucks full of troops were passing on the road just 150 yards ahead. The Soviets searched vehicles heading south toward Pakistan.
As we sped back to our base we could see rockets being fired toward several areas of Kandahar. On arrival, we found a rocket had made a direct hit 30 minutes earlier. One guerrilla was wounded by shrapnel from the blast. Gullasi, a medic trained by the American Mercy Corps International in Quetta, Pakistan, soon arrived, to take care of him. Later we heard that at least 80 civilians had been killed in the exchange of fire.
Latif says he has no intention of allowing the ``Shuravi'' (Soviets) to leave Kandahar with dignity. ``In Kandahar for the past nine years we have fought the enemy every day of the year,'' he says, ``and we are going to fight them now as long as one is here to shoot at.''