Stripped of its sophisticated weaponry and riddled by desertions and defections, the disintegrating Afghan Army may prove to be a bigger barrier to Soviet troop withdrawal from Afghanistan than the antigovernment insurgency.
Regional analysts who closely track events in the rugged country are drawing this conclusion as the Afghan Army's weankesses force the Soviets to shoulder an increasing -- and often exclusive -- burden of fighting the Afghan rebels.
Without a strong fighting army to back the government of their choice -- and thus retain their influence -- the Soviets may find it impossible to pull back their 85,000 troops regardless of international pressure or any desire to do so.
Less than half the remaining Afghan Army (down to 35,000 men from a pre-invasion strength of some 80,000) is "willing or able to fight," says an experienced observer. "The Soviets are taking away the Army's sophisticated weapons because that's where the mujahideen get their weapons -- and they know it."
Although the Soviets maintain their troops are merely acting as military advisers to the Afghan forces, anti-rebel sweeps into the countryside "are now increasingly all Soviet," the observer adds.
"The Soviets have to do it and will continue to have to until somebody can build an Army."
The soviet-supported government of Afghan President Babrak Karmal -- itself torn by intraparty feuding between the rival Khalq and Parcham wings -- is trying, but with little reported success. Alternating carrot and stick, it is offering financial incentives that are huge by Afghan standards to volunteers willing to join special militias, and is forcibly seizing young men of military age.
Reports from Kabul say that press gangs literally roam the streets at night -- and occasionally in daylight -- searching houses to find men who cannot produce documentary evidence that they have already served in the military. Recruitment teams regularly visit schools, and travelers from Kabul say that high-school seniors are being offered diplomas without examinations if they quit school and join the military for one year.
Nevertheless, says a Kabul traveler, "They can't get people to come into the Army. You can force or bribe them in, but they run at the first chance they get."
Tacitly acknowledging widespread desertions and draft dodging, Kabul this week announced a one-month extension of its amnesty for deserters and men who ducked the draft.
Many observers believe that with world opinion stacked against Moscow for its invasion, the Soviet leadership would like to find a face-saving political solution that enables it to pull out its troops -- as long as it can leave a Soviet-leaning regime behind.
The problem is that the rebels are likely to keep fighting any government seen as a puppet regime, and the crumbling Afghan Army is in no shape to take them on.
Since building up an army is a long-range job, the Soviets now seem resigned to a lengthy stay. Inside Afghanistan, they have reorganized their forces into seven regional commands, each headed by a general, in an apparent effort to boost their effectiveness against local rebel groups. Permanent barracks, hospitals, roads, bridges, and other installations are being built.
US officials in Washington have cited increased Soviet and declining Afghan Army casualties as evidence that Russian troops are taking on more of the fighting themselves. They estimate Soviet injuries at 6,000 to 12,000 since the troops arrived in late December, about 10 percent of them fatalities.