With the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in its sixth month, it has become increasingly difficult to piece together a reliable picture of political events from the deluge of eyewitness accounts, rumors, and unconfirmed reports that emerge from this war-wracked desert nation.
Communist authorities in Kabul have long since forbidden Western journalists from officially entering the country to verify reports of uprisings, assassinations, and bombings in the capital and other major towns.
Foreign journalists occasionally have slipped into the Soviet-occupied urban districts as tourists, while some have arduously trekked across the mountains from Pakistan into the guerrilla-held areas in the frontier provinces. Only recently have a few journalists succeeded in penetrating central Afghanistan.
Observers, therefore, must rely to a great extent on firsthand descriptions from some of the nearly 900,000 Afghan refugees now encamped in the Pakistani highlands and frontier plains. Travelers, normally diplomats and businessmen, are another information source. But their accounts are often contradictory or based on hearsay.
Peshawar-based Afghan political factions represent a third outlet. Eager to provide details, the groups have a strong tendency to exaggerate, and their reports can no longer be considered reliable. They can, however, provide valuable leads to new Soviet moves or developments in the resistance.
What appears to be happening is this: Islamic insurgents in Afghanistan are fighting the estimated 90,000 to 100,000 Soviet troops and their communist Afghan cohorts not only on hundreds of military fronts, but also along political , tribal, religious, and even regional lines. The common denominator among Afghanistan's seven major ethnic groups is their intense hatred for the communists.
Thus one must consider several concurrent scenarios. First, there are the six principal political groups operating out of Pakistan. Until recently they were considered the backbone of Afghan resistance. It is now clear they are less important than previously imagined.
In March, after much bickering, five of these parties officially formed an alliance in hope of obtaining funds and weapons from Arab countries by presenting a semblance of unity among the mujahideen, or freedom fighters, to the outside world.
Chaired by Gholan Rasoul Sayaf, a compromise choice whose resistance credentials were strengthened by a long sojourn as a political prisoner in Pul-e-Charki prison outside Kabul, the alliance includes:
1. Hizb-e Islam (the Islamic party of the Khalis faction) led by the ailing bearded cleric, Muhammad Younnis Khalis.
2. Payman-e Ettehad e Islami (United Islamic Front) headed by the highly respected landowner Sayed Ahmad Gailani.
3. Jamiat-e Islam (Islamic Front) led by theology professor Burhanuddin Rabbani.
4.Harakat-e Inqilab-e Islami (movement for the Islamic revolution) led by former parlimentarian Mauliwi Muhammad Nabi Muhammadi.
5. Jabha-ye Azadi e Afghanistan (Afghan Liberation Front) led by theologican Sebratullah Mojadidi.
Despite its pretensions as a strongly united force, the alliance is only loosely held together. Political leaders appear to spend more time criticizing each other than coordinating efforts to fight the communists. The Arabs are apparently still unconvinced by their unity and have only handed out limited financial aid, despite a recent Middle East tour by Mr. Sayaf and other alliance representatives.
The sixth group, the Hizb-e Islam faction of "engineer" Hekmatyar Gulbuddin, refused to join the alliance. Rigidly anti-West as well as anti-communist, the ultra-conservative and fanatically Islamic Gulbuddin had demanded leading the alliance as his condition for joining. The more moderate parties balked.
Each of the Peshawar political groups claims to be the true representative of the Afghan people. As much as can be determined, however, their influence does not substantially spread beyond the refugee camps in Pakistan and the frontier Afghan provinces. Beyond these areas, it is considered haphazard.
Second, since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of December, increasing numbers of tribesmen have become disillusioned with the political groups. In May, insurgents representing the country's 28 provinces held a broadly based "momasela loya jirga," or provisional grand council, in Peshawar in hopes of forging a united front.
So far progress toward the formation of a government-in-exile has been frustrated by discord and political opposition. Mr. Gulbuddin's Islamic Party is reportedly doing everything possible to subvert the proceedings. But it now appears that Mr. Gailani's United Islamic Front and Mr. Khalis's Islamic Party are lending support.
In recent weeks, however, the political parties, which had felt themselves secure as the acclaimed representatives of the Afghan people, have begun to feel undermined.
Third, in the provinces, the real power of the resistance groups lies in the hands of local tribal chiefs. Hence the numerous fighting fronts throughout Afghanistan. They are the ones who command respect, not the political parties. Coordination with other fighting groups therefore depends on local jirgas or councils as well as traditional friendships.
Generally, villagers tend to welcome mujahideen, regardless of political or tribal affiliation, as fellow fighters in their struggle against the communists. Insurgents in Nuristan to the northeast and the Hazarajat in the central highlands have been practically fighting their own autonomous wars against the Kabul regime.
The Hazaras, for example, have always been suspicious of the Sunni Pushtuns who have traditionally controlled central government in Afghanistan and now dominate the parties in Peshawar. The Hazaras -- Mongolian-featured, Persian-speaking, and Shiites like the Iranians -- have virtually established an independent Hazarajat inside Soviet-occupied Afghanistan.
Economically cut off from the rest of the country by Soviet troops, the Hazaras were threatened with dire starvation only two months ago. It appears now, however, that they have temporarily staved off hunger by organizing mule and camel supply trains from Pakistan. Sometimes as many as three convoys a week leave Pakistan with food, weapons, and ammunition.
Hazaras interviewed by this reporter made it clear they were prepared to seek help from the political groups in Peshawar, but would not join. Mr. Gailani apparently has some sway in the region. Hazara tribal leaders, however, pointedly sent representatives to the loya jirga in Peshawar in support of the front.
Similarly the Nuristanis, led by the highly revered and independent tribal warchief Muhammad Anwar Khan, have been fighting on their own. Nuristan was the first province in Afghanistan to oppose the communists. In September 1978 it declared itself "independent" from the Kabul government.
Particularly annoying to the Russians because of its strategic position close to China and the Soviet Union, Nuristan has been the target of repeated Russian troops attacks. Entire villages and small towns have been destroyed. Although groups like Jamiat-e Islam have a respectable following in the area, Anwar Khan has declared his support for the loya jirga.
And fourth, a major form of resistance is found in urban areas such as Kabul and most other towns. Ranging from students to shopkeepers and mullahs, some are members of the political groups. But most tend to operate within a loosely defined front called the Jabha-Ye Mobarezin-e Mojahed-e Azadi-e Afghanistan (Front of Holy Warriors for the Liberation of Afghanistan). The urban groups reportedly instigated the loya jirga.
In recent weeks, Kabul and other towns have been wracked by front-organized demonstrations. The urban groups instigate strikes and plot assassinations. Inhabitants also are urged to call "Allahu akbar" (God is greatest) from the rooftops to unnerve the Soviets and encourage Afghan soldiers to defect.
To quell the demonstrations, troops, tanks, and helicopters were called in. More than 100 persons, mainly schoolchildren and students, were reportedly killed. Hundreds had to be hospitalized because of what observers believe to be a high-concentrate tear gas used by the security forces. Herat and Kandahar were reportedly put under martial law recently because of the violence.
Urban resistance operations appear to have prompted serious worry among the Soviets about their hold on the towns. The reported insurgent concentrations outside Kabul, which some analysts estimate number only several thousand mujahideen supported by thousands of peasants, are said to be in close contact with the urban groups.
Curiously enough, the political groups in Peshawar have remained strangely silent on the latest guerrilla operations. This, some observers feel, may indicate the growing strength of the front.