USSR poised for Afghan strike after Olympics?

The Indian subcontinent is nervously watching the Moscow Olympics with more than sporting interest. The suspense centers not on which country will carry off the most gold medals , but on whether the Soviets will launch a harsh new offensive against the Afghanistan resistance fighters once the games are over.

Diplomatic and military analysts shy away from outright predictions of a major post-Olympics offensive against the guerrillas who have bedeviled Soviet attempts to gain control of the rugged Afghan countryside.

But they say that the current lull in both Soviet search-and-destroy operations and in rebel activity points to a regrouping and gering up on both sides for a Soviet drive. Such a move would probably come in the few months left between the early August end of the Olympics and the onslaught of the Afghan winter.

Travelers and close observers of the Kabul scene have reported a marked increase in Soviet military supply operations in the Afghan capital. Russian planes have been landing and unloading military cargo openly during daylight hours in addition to normal nighttime landings.

"The Soviets are concentrating on resupply and reconfiguration," says a diplomatic observer.

A Commonwealth diplomat reporting from the Afghan capital notes a downturn in rebel activity, although sporadic clashes continue. He says that the resistance groups may be "gathering forces to withstand an expected increase in Soviet operations after the Olympics, when there will be only three months left before the Afghan winter sets in."

Analysts also point to change patterns of Soviet military activity, including a dimunition of search-and-destroy operations against rebel bands. The focus, since early July, has been on retaliatory bombing raids against villages suspected of feeding and sheltering the insurgents.

Besides punishing the villagers by reducing their homes to rubble, the raids are apparently intended to turn the civilian population against the rebels -- or at least make them wink twice about aiding them.

Since July 19 -- the starting date of the Olympics -- the Soviets also have upped the visibility of their military presence in Kabul. Tanks have reappeared on all the city's bridges, self-propelled artillery pieces have been stationed at strategic points outside of town, and more armed Afghan soldiers and civilians than previously seen have been patrolling the streets.

Recent purges within the Afghan government and ruling People's Democratic Party, which have been paralyzed by bitter feuds between the Rival Khalq and Parcham factions, also point to attempts to get the government's house in order before the anticipated offensive.

Observers doubt that Parchamist President Babrak Karmal could have successfully stripped power from high-level Khalqi officials without the backing of the Soviets, who had originally hoped to meld the two warring factions into a broad-based government.

A fresh Soviet drive to stamp out Afghan resistance could take several forms, observers believe. One scenario involves bringing in thousands more troops in addition to the estimated 80,000 now stationed in Afghanistan and another 40,000 just across the Afghan-Soviet border.

Another projects the full-scale deployment of existing troops on anti-rebel operations. Analysts believe it would involve extensive use of the lightweight, highly mobile armored vehicles the Russians recently brought in to replace the heavy tanks.

"It won't be a sudden burst of bloodshed," predicts a Commonwealth diplomat. "They [the Soviets] would lose the benefit of favorable action to their troop withdrawal. I think there will be a gradual increse in activity within the constraints of the number of people they've got in there now. It will be gradual, but detectable."

Some Pakistani officials openly worry that the Soviets may push their anti-rebel drive onto Pakistani territory. An all-out offensive could mean the strafing of refugee camps in Pakistan, where more than 900,000 Afghans have taken shelter, or hot pursuit of retreating rebel bands across the Pakistan border.

Analysts view the possibility as remote because it would generate an international outcry and dangerously escalate superpower tensions.

A longtime area observer concludes: "Nobody but the Russians knows what the Russians are going to do."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.