The chaikhana (tea house), a dark but hospitable mud-and-stone hostel dominated by a huge, steaming samovar, is packed with local peasants and resistance fighters on their way to the battle zones in northern Afghanistan.
Sipping green tea from colorful china cups, the men loudly debate the prospects of a major communist offensive against guerrilla forces in the nearby Panjshir Valley. In a country where causerie and banter still constitute a major pastime, travelers represent a sought-after source of gossip for many of these isolated farming communities.
But at 5 p.m., the group falls silent and the familiar strains of Yankee Doodle emerge from the thick crackling and whistling of a Japanese shortwave radio set. Then the sonorous voice of the announcer on Voice of America's Farsi service introduces the main points of the evening news. An excited muttering arises when the speaker, quoting diplomatic sources in Kabul, mentions the latest fighting in Afghanistan.
For the foreign observer, the dedicated passion with which Afghans, the majority of them illiterate, follow international events on VOA, the BBC, West Germany's Deutschewelle, and even Radio Moscow is striking.
Apart from visiting journalists and French doctors, the Western-based stations have for a long time been their only direct link to the outside world.
But the Western shortwave services, which also broadcast in Pashto, Afghanistan's second major language after Farsi, have their shortcomings. Reliable information on the situation inside Afghanistan is very difficult to obtain. Many Western diplomatic reports from the Afghan capital not based on first-hand observation are themselves questionable because of the unreliability of local sources.
As in the Soviet Union, movements of Western diplomats outside the capital are severely restricted, so information from distant regions remains sketchy. It is too dangerous for diplomats to enter areas such as the old bazaar, where they could easily be mistaken for Russians. Nevertheless, the stations regularly broadcast these reports and the Afghans are understandably rattled when they hear that they have just been annihilated by the security forces when they are in fact drinking tea.
Initial diplomatic reports about the recent Panjshir offensive, for example, indicated that Soviet and Afghan government troops had won a major victory, inflicting heavy casualties on the guerrillas and establishing a firm foothold in the valley. Although the communists undeniably occupied the strategic region, their own losses were high. Those of the mujahideen, on the other hand, appear to have been negligible.
The Soviets, who apparently withdrew from the Panjshir on June 13, left some 8,000 Afghan government troops and members of Russian motorized units behind. Since then, the resistance is said to have made a series of determined counterattacks, destroying considerable equipment and surrounding several military outposts.
Dispatches from the resistance, visiting journalists, or doctors working for long periods inside Afghanistan that might help provide a more balanced picture often take days if not weeks to reach Pakistan. But as with the diplomatic reports from Kabul, much of what emerges from resistance sources in Afghanistan must be interpreted with a great deal of caution.
Over the past two years, however, an increasing number of guerrilla leaders, realizing that inflated or nonexistent triumphs over communist forces do not necessarily help their cause, have begun to adopt a more credible stance in their reporting. This is enhanced by the simple but highly effective communications network elaborated by the resistance, which involves carrying written dispatches from one part of the country to another. Unless considered secret, they are read aloud at village meetings or chaikhanas along the way. Local commanders then add their own comments and the messenger continues his journey.
VOA is making an effort to provide more reliable and up-to-date news carried from Afghans fresh from inside the country by appointing, in addition to its present English-language reporter in Peshawar, Pakistan, a full-time Farsi and Pashto-speaking correspondent. The BBC, though commanding greater respect among the Afghans than its US counterpart, continues to rely on its Islamabad-based correspondent for its main, albeit second-hand, Afghan coverage.
With the creation of Radio Free Kabul just over a year ago, the Afghan resistance, supported by French and Italian relief organizations, provides a limited form of immediate, normally reliable information and reaction to events. Three clandestine 20-watt FM transmitters that now broadcast nightly from different locations within 50 kilometers of the Afghan capital have caused considerable disquiet among the Soviet-backed Kabul authorities.
The Soviet press has on numerous occasions attacked the station and the Afghan government has forbidden its soldiers to own FM receivers. ''This proves that we have already been having an important impact,'' said Es-Haq, the youthful coordinator of Radio Free Kabul.
But, perhaps most important of all for the resistance, the station has begun to create a greater sense of self-reliance and pride among the local population. According to Western and Afghan sources, its programs, which also reach parts of Kabul, are eagerly listened to by those living within the receiving radius.
Despite repeated attempts by the security forces to bomb as well as jam the transmitters, Radio Free Kabul has managed to keep up with its nightly half-hour Farsi and Pashto programs most of the time. Only during the recent Panjshir offensive did the radio go off the air because of the heavy communist air activity over the areas north of Kabul where the transmitters are situated.
Es-Haq, a serious and dedicated former engineering student who sports a closely cropped beard, maintains that the station is nonpartisan. For some observers, Radio Free Kabul is nothing but a guerrilla propaganda operation, but there does seem to be a conscientious attempt to keep it open to all political affiliations. ''Anyone who has got something to say can come and talk,'' he explained.
Each evening program begins with a citation from the Koran in Arabic followed by its translation. Then there is a revolutionary song, an editorial, and news. The news items are usually provided by local resistance commanders and deal with bombardments, villages hit, Soviet troop movements, and resistance activities. ''We also try to explain the short- and long-term implications of Soviet involvement in Afghanistan and why it is necessary to fight,'' Es-Haq said.
The lack of FM receivers is a major problem for the station, although each village has at least one radio set that can be listened to on a communal basis. ''As it is not really feasible for us to run an AM transmitter for the moment,'' he said, ''what we really need are several thousand FM receivers to distribute around the country.'