Living like wretched troglodytes in the mountains and narrow gorges above their luxuriously green but now communist-occupied valley home, the villagers anxiously scan the skies for intruding helicopters and resignedly wait for the time they can safely return.
''Perhaps the 'Shirouvi' (Soviets) will leave tomorrow,'' mutters a local schoolteacher, who lost his family while fleeing from the Soviet and Afghan government onslaught several weeks earlier. He has no idea whether they are alive or dead.''They have never stayed this long before,'' he says.
Every day there are new rumors. Tanks, armored personnel carriers, and trucks make their way along the narrow dirt road toward the mouth of the Panjshir Valley. The communists are leaving, villagers say. But by the next morning, they are still there and the helicopters and jets continue to bomb the upper regions of the valley.
So far, the Soviets appear to have failed in the military objective in occupying the Panjshir Valley - namely, to destroy the guerrillas of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the region's young and extremely deft mujahideen commander. With more weapons, ammunition, and men seeping into the valley as time goes on, it seems unlikely that the communist security forces will attempt to garrison the valley.
Furthermore, it appears the operation has been an expensive one for the Soviet and Afghan government troops in manpower, financial, and material resources.
But if the resistance does not face an immediate military disaster, the Panjshir itself runs the risk of outright economic catastrophe. A primarily agricultural people, the Panjshiris have been prevented by the continued presence of the security forces from returning to the valley to irrigate their parched wheat fields, apricot orchards, and walnut groves.
Most fields have not been irrigated since the start of the offensive well over a month ago. Two weeks is considered to be a drought; anything longer could imply an entire crop failure.
Limited amounts of supplies such as wheat, sugar, and tea have dribbled in to the refugees in the mountains from neighboring provinces, but resistance leaders now realize that this is by no means sufficient. In some parts, the food shortage has become so acute that Massoud has ordered his guerrillas to share their rations, much of which had been carefully hidden away in caches months earlier.
In the meantime, the hundreds of families who fled the Panjshir when the security forces began entering the main valley May 17 sit it out with their remaining cows, goats, and chickens in the rocky precipices. Their food supplies are running dangerously low.
Entering the Panjshir region along a covert southern route, used by the mujahideen (freedom fighters) to transport weapons, ammunition, and provisions, this correspondent passed dozens of these crowded cliff-face villages.
Stone shelters have been constructed amid the nooks and crannies of towering bluffs and landslides. In some places, where the earth and rock is loose, caves have been hewn out of the mountainsides. In deep ravines well away from the main Panjshir Valley and suitably protected from the air, villagers have set up temporary living quarters in crowded mountain hamlets or shepherd hovels. But even here, they leave their houses before dawn and only return after dusk, for fear of bombardments.
The morale is suprisingly high. There is even a certain pride in the manner in which the men describe how their houses down in the valley have been destroyed by Russian bombs.
But their bravado still does not hide their deep concern.
Massoud has already sent envoys to Peshawar and Islamabad in neighboring Pakistan to appeal for immediate humanitarian assistance - ranging from funds to food and clothing - in order to provide for the some 80,000 beleaguered Panjshiris.
''If we don't get help as soon as possible, we'll be in desperate trouble,'' warned one of Massoud's lieutenants. There is also a strong fear that the Soviets will use chemical defoliants to prevent the soil from being cultivated for years to come.
The Panjshiris would face two equally dismal choices if this came to pass. First, Massoud could oblige these families to return to the main valley and therefore into the hands of the communists. But this would hand the Karmal regime a ready-made propaganda victory.
Second, he could send them to Pakistan as refugees. Up till now, most Panjshiris have resisted leaving their homeland despite the difficult conditions. Were the people to leave, many might never come back and the resistance would be denied one of its most valuable supports.
In an effort to establish credibility among the general population -- not just in the Panjshir but throughout the country -- the Kabul regime has emphatically sought to create the impression that Afghanistan is being undermined by groups of criminal elements supported by the outside. Attempting to exploit the Panjshir offensive as much as possible for its own political benefit, the government has tried to perpetuate the concept of government troops ''liberating'' the people of the valley.
Kabul radio and television has stressed that its ''victory'' against the ''counter-revolutionaries and their masters of US imperialism and Peking hegemonism'' has been a purely Afghan affair. There is little or no mention of Soviet involvement, a common practice with the official media as both Kabul and Moscow maintain that Soviet troops are only providing limited and temporary support to the Afghan armed forces.
The demoralized and shrunken Afghan Army now is thought to stand at roughly 30,000 men, a slight increase over last year due to recent heavy press gang tactics. The Army would rapidly fall to pieces were it not integrated within the present Soviet military command structure in Afghanistan.
The present offensive, for example, involved both Soviet and Afghan troops. An estimated 12,000 men were thrown in during the first 10 days, but then at least several thousand more were introduced when the Russian general in charge of the operation threatened to withdraw unless reinforcements to relieve besieged troops at the end of the Panjshir were not ferried in. From one guerrilla observation post overlooking the valley, this correspondent could see enormous, slow-moving MI-6 transport helicopters, each capable of carrying 70 men or two tanks, flying in from the south during the early days of June.
Although resistance sources maintained that the majority of the troops in the valley were Russian, Western intelligence has pointed out that similar past operations have involved equal numbers of Soviet and Afghan government troops. The present offensive has reportedly included one Afghan commando brigade plus elements of three Afghan divisions, possibly totaling as many as 8,000 to 10,000 men. No reliable information was available at this time about the exact makeup or numbers of the Soviet forces.
Soviet troops are also known to have little confidence in the loyalty of their Afghan military collegues. During the Panjshir operation, up to 1,000 Afghan soldiers are reported to have defected to the resistance, some of them with their weapons. The Soviets then apparently immediately withdrew several Afghan contingents, putting a number of men under arrest.
Last February, when government security forces carried out a major anti-insurgent operation in the Shamali region at the mouth of the Panshir, inflicting huge casualties against both civilians and mujahideen, sympathetic Afghan soldiers opened ranks and permitted many survivors to escape.
Communist attempts to set up a civilian government in the Panjshir have run into numerous setbacks despite the continued military presence. At first, security forces dropped aerial tracts both before and during the bombardments, calling on the Panjshiris to join the government side. Some Panjshiris caught up in the offensive were forced to remain in the villages by the troops, while a certain number of pro-government inhabitants, often villagers with relatives in the party, also stayed behind. But this correspondent saw little sign of the Panjshiris heeding the Kabul regime's call.
The tracts also claimed that the ''traitor Massoud'' had fled with precious stones from the valley's emerald and lapis mines and was in cahoots with two French women doctors who had been working in the Panjshir throughout the winter. The leaflets described the French doctors as ''ladies of ill repute.'' One tract even threatened to completely destroy the valley by using more bombs and gas if they did not surrender.
As far as is known, no effective administration exists in the valley. Abdel Rahim, a senior Communist Party member, was assassinated a week after he was installed as district commissioner in the town of Ruka. On June 14, amid boisterous publicity, including numerious radio and TV interviews, a reported 1, 000 volunteer revolutionary guards, students, and party members left the Afghan capital by bus and truck for the Panjshir in order to establish a political presence. On the road north, they ran into a heavy mujahideen ambush. Several hundred were apparently killed or wounded. Western diplomatic sources reported counting 23 returning trucks piled high with bodies.