The moon has just risen from behind the towering peaks of the Hindu Kush. Like a steady flow of quicksilver, the first ghostly figures of the caravan emerge from the darkness of the Pakistani village.
The 70 mujahideen guerrillas carry newly acquired rifles; their horses are laden with additional weapons, crates of ammunition, medication, food, and other vital supplies.
A cool rush of air from a cascading torrent in the gorge briefly dispels the dry heat of the night as the guerrillas and their 50-horse caravan make their way along a dirt track. They are heading toward one of the 120-odd mountain passes along the 840 mile Pakistan border that lead into the resistance-controlled regions of Afghanistan.
To safeguard their secret supply routes, the Afghans have requested that its exact location not be revealed.
Two groups of partisans form this particular caravan, one of dozens along this route during the snow-free summer months. Fifty men are returning to the Panjshir Valley armed with Russian-style Simonov rifles to fight against the Soviet-backed Kabul regime.
The others will stay with the caravan for several more days, then branch off to the north to join partisan units in Takhar and Badakshan provinces. Two French doctors and one nurse of the Paris-based Aide Medicale Internationale have also joined the 10-day trek to the Panjshir in order to continue running the valley's only hospital.
The sieve-like Afghan-Pakistan frontier is almost impossible to control under present circumstances. With only an estimated 85,000 occupation troops, the Soviets are finding it hard enough to battle resistance groups in the rugged and often inhospitable desert terrain in Afghanistan. Attempting a physical blockade of border entry points would require a vast injection of manpower that Moscow seems unable or unwilling to commit for the moment.
Although the Russians continue to seed the frontier regions sporadically with "butterfly mines" and booby-trapped objects such as pencils or watches, this has had only a limited effect.
But communist displeasure at such unrestrained border leakage -- ranging from fleeing refugees to resistance supply caravans and ordinary merchant traffic -- has been expressed by military incursions into Pakistan. Overflights are almost too common to be reported. Helicopters have even pursued partisans several miles into Pakistani territory.
Border posts have also been attacked. Earlier this month, Afghan government forces twice attacked Pakistani installations, first with Soviet MIG jet fighters and then with two armored vehicles and some 40 soldiers. Western diplomats regard these more recent incursions as Russian pressure on Pakistan to start talks with the Kabul authorities and to halt what Moscow considers to be active support for the resistance movement. President Zia ul-Haq, however, has repeated that his government would not enter negotiations with the Afghan regime until Soviet troops have fully withdrawn.
As for the Pakistanis, there is little they can hope to do to restrain border movement. With such a long, mountainous frontier, only the major passes have police posts. Resistance activity between the two countries can continue almost without restriction. Frontier guards are often all too pleased to shut both eyes in return for a greased palm.
Faced with enormous administrative difficulties in coping with the growing refugee population in Pakistan, the Islamabad government is not keen on provoking unnecessary trouble among its more than 2 million Afghans. As long as the resistance remains discreet, the Pakistanis indicate they will not go out of their way to ease Soviet annoyance.
The Afghans, for example, are reluctant to disclose the exact origin of weapons brought in from Pakistan. "With money you can buy anything you want on the arms market," shrugs Ara Gul, the caravan commander.
There is no way to establish whether the more than 50 Simonovs carried by the partisans in this convoy were purchased in the weapons bazaars or came from Egypt with US help. Nor could it be determined that the Soviet ZPU-2 antiaircraft gun, dismantled and loaded onto eight different horses, came from these sources of from China, where exact replicas have been produced.
For many resistance members inside Afghanistan, foreign assistance from the United States, China, or the Gulf countries is regarded as a joke. Even if outside aid is seeping through, they complain, they do not see much of it.
The Peshawar political groups allow only a trickle to reach fighters inside. The rest is used either to reinforce the resistance under direct control of Peshawar or apparently to line the politicians' own pockets.
For the outside observer, the gulf between Afghans inside the country and those in Peshawar is striking. But for the moment, most resistance groups in the field are obliged to remain affiliated with the political organizations: They need both the limited assistance that does come through and a headquarters outside Afghanistan.
When asked how they perceive the political future of Afghanistan, if and when the communists are overthrown, guerrilla commanders in several Afghan provinces maintain that ultimate responsibility will lie with the political groups.
"Two years ago, a Loya Jirga [a traditional grand assembly] might have worked to create a new Afghanistan," noted one commander. "But the war has changed this. A lot of local leaders have either gone, been killed, or are no longer in control of their areas. The political organizations of the resistance have taken over. But the ones who will decide will not be the leaders sitting in Peshawar, it will be those fighting here in the countryside."
Although the resistance in the Panjshir Valley under the guerrilla leader, Massoud, retains ties with the Jamiat Islami, one of the Peshawar-based groups, local loyalty and respect are the determining factors. Posters of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the overall Jamiat leader, can be seen everywhere, but the local population leaves no doubt that Massoud is the one who counts.
Apart from the Russians, one of the main concerns of Massoud and other guerrilla commanders is the possibility of civil war following a Soviet withdrawal. Although most of the major political organizations coordinate guerrilla activities in the field, the fundamentalist Hekmatyar Gulbaddin faction of the Hezb-i-Islami has repeatedly withheld its support.
There have also been violent clashes between the Hezb and its arch rival, Jamiat Islami. In the recent Panjshir offensive by Soviet and government forces , a force of Hezb guerrillas attacked Jamiat forces in the rear, forcing Massoud to cancel a planned counteroffensive.
Although the highly organized and publicity-conscious Hezb, which reportedly receives hefty support from some Arab countries, has strong support among the refugees in Pakistan, there are indications it is losing ground inside Afghanistan.
Two Hezb commanders and their men recently joined the Jamiat, saying they were in the resistance to fight Russians -- not fellow Muslims. Local populations have complained bitterly about Hezb harassment and thievery as well as the levying of protection taxes. Hezb officials in Peshawar deny such accusations.
But observers feel the organization is holding back during anti-Soviet operations in order to eventually emerge with enough strength to take control of the country -- if and when the communists are overthrown.