Report from Afghanistan: the conflict - and civilian toll - worse than ever

The writer has just spent nearly three months in Afghanistan and the frontier areas of Pakistan - including an 850-mile trek on foot around resistance areas in the northeast Hindu Kush mountains. This was his sixth major trip into Afghanistan since the December 1979 Soviet invasion.

Most of the villages along the western banks of the Kunar River lie deserted, the bomb-shattered mud houses crumbling and the once lush, irrigated fields and fruit orchards little more than listless dust bowls.

For several years now, the nearby mountains and ravines have served as havens for the hidden bases of local guerrilla groups.

The main highway which traces the length of the Kunar Valley attests to the fierce clashes that regularly erupt between Afghan resistance fighters and Soviet occupiers. It is strewn with wrecked government vehicles, including a Soviet tank, the scatterings of spent machine-gun cartridges, and the jagged remains of exploded artillery shells.

From all indications, this year has been the hardest, the most gruesome of the war so far. Not only have the Soviets intensified their operations against the Afghan resistance, but they also have systematically

stepped up acts of terror and intimidation against civilians.

Militarily, the Soviet Army and guerrillas have been going hammer and tongs at each other since early this year. But, as far as can be determined, the conflict remains a grueling standoff.

The Soviets have learned some lessons of the past and have generally improved their fighting capabilities. They are applying more effective tactics and their troops appear better trained in the art of anti-insurgency.

As part of its persistent and often successful propaganda effort, Radio Kabul regularly claims to have annihilated vast numbers of ''antirevolutionaries.'' Only last week, it maintained that its forces killed 23,000 guerrillas in 1984 alone - a figure granted little credence by most observers unless civilians are also included.

While the mujahideen, or holy warriors, as the guerrillas are called, are known to have suffered devastating setbacks in some areas, they have tended to hold their own. According to Western intelligence reports and journalists who have witnessed several attacks against government and Soviet convoys and bases this year, the resistance may be inflicting higher casualties on the Red Army than before. It is thought that the Soviets are also taking substantial losses by conducting more exposed commando-style operations inside guerrilla territory.

For Afghan civilians, however, the future looks grim. Although some regions such as the valleys of Nuristan in the northeast and the central highlands of the Hazarajat have been spared the full thrust of war in recent years, most provinces have suffered badly.

While reliable figures are virtually impossible to ascertain, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children are believed to have been killed or have died as a direct consequence of the war. Aerial bombardments and ground assaults against civilian habitations, executions, disease, and malnutrition provoked by the destruction of food sources are principal causes.

Furthermore, the number of Afghans seeking refuge in Pakistan, Iran, and elsewhere - now estimated at over 5 million and nearly one-third of Afghanistan's prewar population of 15 million to 17 million - continues to rise. For the first time, farmers and nomads from the northern provinces of Kunduz, Takhar, and Baghlan bordering the USSR have been leaving in large numbers.

Analysts consider Moscow's systematic application of terror as part of a deliberate policy to rid Afghanistan of all potential resistance, a form of ''migratory genocide'' ignored by most of the world. This includes the strafing by Soviet MIG-27s on Aug. 18, as witnessed by this correspondent near the Chamar Pass just east of the Panjshair of some 500 Kandari nomads and their animals. The attack resulted in at least 40 dead and dozens of injured.

By massacring civilians, bombing farms, despoiling crops, slaughtering animals, and wrecking fragile irrigation systems, the Kremlin is seeking not only to punish the local population for its resistance sympathies, but also to totally disrupt the economic and social infrastructure of the guerrilla-held areas.

International relief representatives maintain that the plight of civilians in areas such as Paghman, Kandahar, and the Panjshair Valley is critical if not disastrous. Food and medical supplies are short or nonexistent. For many Afghans , winter is regarded as the cutoff period that will decide whether there will be enough food to stay or whether they will be forced to leave.

Despite appeals for outside assistance, many guerrilla groups lack both the resources and structures to help the local population. Several Western relief agencies now are examining the possibility of a large-scale, coordinated aid program to be channeled directly to resistance commanders inside the country rather than through the political parties in Peshawar, Pakistan.

Nevertheless, the Soviet Union's long-term strategy of attrition is clearly relying on the guerrillas' present inability to provide succor. ''In many places , the Soviets have dropped all pretenses at trying to win over the people with a hearts-and-mind program. All that Moscow is offering is a stark take-it-or-leave alternative,'' noted a West European diplomat in Pakistan. Forced to abandon the countryside, Afghans have the choice of moving to the cities which the government finds easier to control or flee across the borders. Either way, the mujahideen may ultimately find themselves operating in broad free-fire zones, totally devoid of human life - areas that previously had provided food, shelter, and perhaps most important, local intelligence.

But Afghanistan's increasingly ruthless war is also a war of surprising contrasts.

Among several resistance-held settlements on the far side of the Kunar's churning, gray waters, there persists a determined struggle to survive in full view of passing military convoys and patrolling helicopters.

The vast majority of the tens of thousands of inhabitants who fled the valley during the Soviet offensives of 1980 and 1981 have yet to return. But groups of caretaker villagers have made a bid to wrest back their farms from the wasteland that much of this area has become.

Ignoring periodic mortaring and occasional sorties by government troops, the villagers have repaired homes, garden walls, and canals; they have replanted trees and even produced enough wheat to permit the water mills to rumble once again.

Yet this air of normality is precarious.

In many respects, the Soviet Union's heightened war has meant a year of decision for the resistance. There is a growing realization that to survive, a rapid change of basic tactics involving improved organization and above all unity is vital.

Certain guerrilla commanders such as Herat's Ismail Khan, Kabul's Abdul Haq, Wardak's Amin Wardak, and the Panjshair's Ahmed Shah Massoud seem to be moving in this direction. Western observers have reported satisfactory cooperation among the political fronts in different areas even among traditional rivals. This correspondent found smooth relations in Kunar Province between groups affiliated with Jamiat-e Islam and Hezb-i-Islami (Hekmatyar faction), both of which are regularly at each other's throats in other parts of the country.

Many mujahed chiefs have failed to adapt to changing conditions while the Peshawar political parties continue to bicker. Their continued failure to establish a united front has further alienated the grass roots.

This year's unprecedented series of coordinated, mass offensives by Soviet and Afghan troops against guerrilla centers such as Herat, Ghazni, Panjshair, Logar, Kandahar, and Mazar-i-Sharif did not bring the victories the Kremlin may have hoped for. But they did show that the concept of concentrated ''guerrilla strongholds'' only invites vehement military reaction.

In their efforts to seal off the border with Pakistan, the Soviets have managed to block major caravan routes for weeks on end. Heliborne troops have also succeeded in laying ambushes (note the recent capture of French journalist Jacques Aboucher), illustrating a degree of lack of precaution among mujahed fronts.

But there are guerrilla moves to diversify the war by expanding it to towns, military bases, and supply lines.

''We have got to make them feel the war throughout the country,'' said one guerrilla commander. ''This will force them to spread out. They will then have to increase their commitments or think twice about continuing.''

Certain guerrilla commanders are weeding out incompetent fighters in order to form smaller, well-trained mobile units. There are also initiatives to appoint a single overall commander for each area to coordinate operation rather than rely on the whims of individual group leaders. This is not an easy task in a movement where personal rivalries often override resistance considerations.

A recent Western visitor to the Afghan capital said that recent attacks on power lines from Sarobi, Naghlu, and other electricity plants had caused severe blackouts. Despite strict security in Kabul and government claims that all is under control, he said, nightly exchanges of small-arms' fire, rockets, and even artillery indicated the extent to which the war has reached the urban areas.

For the Soviets the conflict remains nothing more than a low-level nuisance. While some Western and Afghan sources maintain that the Kremlin has expanded its military commitment by as many as 50,000 men this year, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies says this expansion has not occurred. Its estimate for Soviet troop strength remains at 110,000. What may seem like new influxes, it says, are probably divisions temporarily deployed from Soviet Central Asia.

Despite rising casualties and a substantial financial burden to keep Afghanistan's economy on an even keel, the Soviets feel that if it takes years, or even decades, the resistance will eventually buckle under. As this year's third round of Geneva talks have bogged down yet again, Moscow has no intention of withdrawing nor accepting a peaceful solution except under its own terms. The Afghan resistance, for its part, maintains that it will continue fighting until the communists are forced out.

Overall, resistance morale remains relatively high. But the movement is still plagued by lack of unity, poor organization and training, meager outside support , and little international attention.

Despite claims by US officials that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is running a highly effective and ''daring'' military assistance program to the resistance estimated at $325 million, most observers who have traveled to Afghanistan including this correspondent have not found this to be the case. It is widely held that such executive leaks concerning CIA activities are part of a general disinformation effort by the present administration to conceal their lack of impact.

American military aid has been indeed seeping through, but the weapons and ammunition tend to be of poor quality or insufficient quantity. For example, Soviet-designed weapons supplied by Western and other sources such as 82-mm mortar rounds and SAM-7 missiles have proved to be ineffective. Other supplies such as mines and heavy machine guns have been coming in from China, but appropriate weaponry and, equally important, training to maintain a sustained war of resistance have yet to be forthcoming.

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