With a minimum of outside help, the Afghan freedom fighters have stayed on the attack against the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan. Predictions that the winter would bring a slackening of the fighting in Afghanistan have proven to be erroneous. The Afghans have a tradition of fighting and settling their feuds during the winter, when they have no need to tend to fields, herds, and harvests.
According to US State Department analysts, the fighting has led to a stalemate. With the one-year anniversary of their Christmas invasion of Afghanistan approaching, the Soviets are now in a position to move troops throughout most of the country almost at will. But outside the nation's cities, the Soviets are able to hold little ground.
And in some places the Soviets are unable to move effectively. They have made repeated attempts, for example, to crush resistance in the Panjshir Valley (situated only 40 to 50 miles north of the capital city of Kabul) but they have been repulsed each time.
The Panjshir Valley (Panjshir means "five lions") is important to the Soviets in part because it lies just north of the major Soviet air base at Bagram and not far from Kabul. Soviet MIG jets and helicopters fly missions from this base.
The valley is part of the massive Hindu Kush mountain range, with peaks reaching as high as 22,000 feet. Green and fertile because of the melted snow, the valley is one of the most heavily populated areas of Afghanistan. Its inhabitants are largely Persian-speaking Tajiks, a fiercely independent people known for their fighting skills. The turbaned Tajiks do not take easily to foreign domination.
One reason for the Soviets' failure to hold ground has been the disintegration of the Afghan government Army. Because of desertions and defections to the insurgent side, the Army, once about 100,000 strong, numbered less than half that figure at the time of the Soviet invasion. Some analysts say that the Afghan Army is now virtually nonexistent, or at least reluctant and unreliable. The Soviets are reported to have stripped the Army of most of its antitank and antiaircraft weapons because of a fear that these would find their way to the insurgents. The Army is said to be engaged only in small-unit operations.
The freedom fighters have survived, meanwhile, in large part thanks to homemade weapons, captured Soviet arms, and weapons turned over to them by Afghan Army defectors. Americans with friends among the insurgents say that they are getting only a minimum of outside help. A modest "consortium" of nations providing limited aid in the form of small arms and ammunition is said to include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Egypt is supplying Soviet-made automatic rifles from its stocks, according to Americans close to the insurgents. The US is supposed to be helping to coordinate. Saudi Arabia has provided some funds to the guerrilla fighters.
According to a report from Peking, China provided limited aid during the civil war that preceded the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but this report could not be confirmed.
The insurgents say that what they most need are weapons to be used against tanks and helicopters, particularly against the latter. The most useful weapon to be used against the Soviets' MI-24 helicopter gunship would be shoulder-launched, heat-seeking missiles. But the Carter administration is reported to have vetoed the idea of helping supply such weapons. One reason for this was a fear that such weapons might enter the international arms market and end up being used against the aircraft of countries, such as Pakistan or Israel, which are not their intended targets.
Another problem for the Carter administration has been a fear that if foreign nations become too deeply involved in aiding the insurgents, the Soviets will retaliate against Pakistan.
"We're constantly getting suggestions from people in the [American] government that they are giving help," said Thomas Gouttierre, director of International Programs at the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
"But my impression is that about the only thing the Afghans are getting is small arms, such as AK-47s," he declared. "Most of the weapons they now have, I'm convinced, are homemade, captured, or provided by defecting soldiers."
Some American experts on Afghanistan are predicting, however, that the Reagan administration will substantially increase clandestine arms aid to the freedom fighters. The new administration may find this sort of thing easier to do now that the US Central Intelligence Agency is no longer required to report to eight committees on its secret operations. The CIA now reports on such matters only to the Senate and House Committees on Intelligence.
"They're going to put the hardware in," said one such expert. "They're going to say to the Russians, in effect, as long as you're dumb enough to persist in this, we're just going to stack the weapons up at the border and see what happens.
"We'll just jack up the price for the Russians, so they'll have to buy out."
But this expert said that any such arms policy should be combined with a strong diplomatic initiative to offer the Soviets a peaceful way out of Afghanistan. Most of the experts, including one former intelligence officer with experience in clandestine operations, agree that no matter how many weapons the insurgents receive, they will not be able to defeat the Soviet Army with all its modern technology.
"They can't win it in the strict military sense," says Professor Gouttierre. "But we can hope for some kind of an accommodation which would permit the Afghans to regain their country for themselves. . . . This can only be brought about through continued struggle and pressure on the Soviets."
According to Louis Dupree, an anthropologist from Pennsylvania State University, the one thing that the insurgents cannot cope with is the Soviets' MI-24 helicopter. The Soviets have been using this helicopter, he said, not so much to fight the guerrillas as to destroy their villages.
Dupree, who probably knows as much about Afghanistan as any American, describes this as a strategy of "rubblization" --egy of "migratory genocide" -- destroying villages in order to force the people supporting the insurgents out of the country.
To stop the helicopters, Professor Dupree thinks the freedom fighters must be given the type of hand-held, heat-seeking missile launchers that can be used once and then thrown away.