NANGRAHAR PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN — SEVERAL weeks ago, on the day the last Soviet occupation troops were to leave Afghanistan (Feb. 15), a group of resistance fighters and I found ourselves listening to the BBC's Pashto-language news broadcasts over a shortwave radio. ``Shouravi khalas,'' (The Soviets are finished) I ventured to Gulam Safi, a guerrilla commander operating near Jalalabad, the capital of this eastern Afghan province. ``Are you not happy?''
Mr. Safi, a stocky man with a thick beard, has fought Afghan communists since abandoning his college studies, well before the 1979 Soviet invasion. Now barely 30, he has a wife and family living in Pakistan; all three children were born in refugee camps.
``We have nothing to be happy about yet,'' he said with quiet resignation. ``The Shouravi may have gone, but the war is not over. We must continue fighting until [Afghan President] Najibullah and his clique are overthrown. And even then, it is not over for us. We must rebuild our country.''
Based on a decade of reporting on Afghanistan, it is hard to foresee an early end to the tragedy that has befallen this rugged Central Asian nation. Forecasts by some analysts that President Najibullah's ruling People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) would be ousted within weeks of the Soviet pullout have long seemed unrealistic.
While there is little doubt that the PDPA lacks popular support, it still has the means of holding on - for months, possibly years. In recent days, the Soviets have resumed flying weapons, including medium-range missiles, to the beleaguered regime because of the heavy fighting around Jalalabad.
This battle is only the latest, though most serious, in a war that has been devastating to civilians. According to several estimates, well over 1 million men, women, and children may have died. Many have been victims of Soviet air and ground offensives, and Afghan security force attacks.
While Mikhail Gorbachev is responsible for removing Soviet forces from Afghanistan, his first year in power (1985) marked one of the most ruthless military campaigns against the Afghan resistance. Certain guerrilla groups also carried out sporadic brutality against civilians suspected of collaborating with Kabul.
THE war has caused an estimated 5 million Afghans to seek refuge in Pakistan, Iran, and elsewhere. And 2-3 million civilians have fled to the cities to escape the fighting.
A remarkably tolerant people (despite adverse publicity provoked by some extremist groups), most Afghans have relied on Islam for their moral strength, pursuing their faith in a modest and nonconfrontational manner.
As outsiders have found through the centuries, Afghans can be as warmly hospitable to friends as they are bitterly opposed to their enemies.
Yet, while the mujahideen may have defeated the Soviets, they may be in danger of losing their struggle for independence to a more insidious foe - competing foreign interests.
The Afghan conflict is no longer a black-and-white issue of poor guerrilla against Soviet aggressor. Rather, it has become a regional tug-of-war involving the Soviet Union, the United States, Pakistan, Iran, India, China, Saudi Arabia, Arab religious zealots, drug traffickers, and international aid organizations.
As commander Abdul Haq, a leading guerrilla strategist recently lamented: ``We could handle this ourselves if only all these outside interests would let us.''
Moscow (which still has advisers in Afghanistan) is deftly manipulating its political and economic influence. This includes buying enough time for the Kabul authorities to make deals with guerrilla commanders, often for money, as a means of dividing the resistance. The Kremlin also shows every indication of encouraging Iran and India to act as counterweights to Pakistani interests. And it has tried, unsuccessfully, to parlay its promised $600 million for UN recovery programs into aid and supplies to the Kabul regime.
THE Pakistanis, for their part, have pressured the resistance on the military and political fronts.
According to several guerrilla sources and observers, the 2-week push against Jalalabad was largely instigated by the Pakistani military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. They say the ISI wants to hasten Kabul's fall through a guerrilla capture of a major city, and give the newly formed government-in-exile a seat inside Afghanistan.
Critics say the operation could prove disastrous for the resistance, which is unused to conventional warfare tactics. There are reports of high casualties among both mujahideen and civilians.
Many guerrilla commanders and observers would have preferred to wait for the Kabul regime to crumble gradually from within - the result of factional infighting, coups within the security forces, and steady resistance pressure on the cities. But though they resent the Pakistani role, they have gone along with it because the ISI controls weapons' and ammunition supply conduits.
Pakistan has also been instrumental in spurring the formation of an interim resistance government last month. By supporting such fundamentalist groups as the Hezb-i-Islami, led by Hekmatyar Gulbuddin, the ISI hopes to establish a pro-Pakistani administration in Kabul.
Western diplomats say there is disagreement within both the US State Department and Central Intelligence Agency over the extent of US support for Pakistan's role, particularly its policy of backing extremists. But, lacking any other means, Washington continues to use the ISI for supplying the Afghans military and other aid.
Many Afghans are suspicious of Pakistan's involvement. They say a resistance administration cannot be truly representative if formed on foreign soil.
The interim regime is headed by an Arab-backed fundamentalist, Abdul Rasul Sayaf, with Mr. Gulbuddin's party controlling the foreign minister's post. According to resistance sources, international aid workers, and other experienced observers, the ``government'' enjoys only limited backing among Afghans, particularly the Shiite minority and non-Pushtun ethnic groups that have been excluded.
Afghans are also finding themselves caught up in a tightening web of international aid politicking.
At least 130 aid agencies have set up operations in the Pakistani frontier city of Peshawar. About 20 of the agencies have provided crossborder humanitarian assistance for several years.
But many of the newer organizations, says a long-time West European aid coordinator, appear determined to ``get a piece of the action regardless whether their help is needed or not.''
The UN's Operation Salaam - which hopes to get an estimated $2 billion dollars in funding - is casting around for development projects inside Afghanistan. Observers, however, point out that this is a waste of time since few refugees will return as long as the security situation is uncertain.
ONE of the questions being increasingly raised by concerned Afghans and international aid representatives is whether the country really needs such huge amounts of assistance during its initial recovery. These sources concede that aid will prove vital for some communities in the first year of return - for health, education, and other support programs.
But, in the words of one Western aid official, ``We really have to ask ourselves whether these hundreds of millions of dollars are necessary, or are we in danger of destroying the Afghans through a lot of handouts?''
An experience this correspondent had is perhaps an apt illustration of the Afghans' traditional independence, resilience, and ability to make the best of a bad situation.
In 1983, many of the towns and villages in the northern Panjshair Valley had been razed by at least six major Soviet-Afghan offensives. But when this correspondent visited the area that same year, local inhabitants were already reconstructing during a cease-fire - rebuilding the mud-and-stone homes and shattered irrigation systems, and ploughing their fields. All this was done with only a minuscule amount of outside aid.
As one Afghan commander, formerly a teacher, says: ``We may need some help in the beginning. But once we have our crops in, then let us do it on our own.''