The war in Afghanistan is now in its seventh year. Both sides have increased their firepower and honed their tactics, but the military situation remains a brutal stalemate, according to United States analysts. It is a war, they say, like that between medieval city-states: there are resistance and Soviet strongholds, and in between are the vast expanses of the country itself, which no one controls.
The Reagan administration continues to increase its moral and tangible support of the Afghan mujahideen (guerrillas). On Monday, President Reagan met in the White House with four leaders from the Afghan Resistance Alliance, a coalition of seven major guerrilla groups.
The coalition leaders also met with top US congressional leaders. The Afghans are in the US in search of more political and military aid, spokesmen for the group say. Their forces in the field still lack sufficient antiaircraft weapons, they say, despite the reported US decision to supply them with sophisticated shoulder-fired Stinger missiles.
Air defenses have become more important for the resistance because the Soviets have increased their use of helicopter gunships and fighter jet strikes.
The US is reported to have shipped millions of dollars worth of arms to the resistance since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, though administration officials refuse to discuss such covert operations.
Overall, the resistance is ``more capable than ever,'' says State Department analyst Craig Karp in a recent Foreign Affairs article. Two years ago the Soviets failed in an attempt to clean up the Panjshair Valley, a hotbed of resistance activity, he says. The war has since intensified, with the mujahideen increasingly on the offensive, particularly in the prime summer fighting season, he says.
Last June, the resistance captured a major garrison of the Soviet-backed Afghan regime, taking 600 prisoners and extensive supplies. Striking back in April of this year, a large Soviet force captured and destroyed a major resistance depot at Zhawar, in Paktia Province, a network of caves stockpiled with weapons only six miles from the Pakistan border. It was perhaps the mujahideen's largest single defeat of the war, though the Soviets soon withdrew from the area.
``It was distressing to the resistance to be put on the defensive,'' says Thomas Gouttiere of the University of Nebraska Center for Afghan Studies, who has just returned from a visit to the region. But on the plus side, mujahideen have ``learned they can take it,'' Mr. Gouttiere claims.
But even as the resistance increases its ability to coordinate larger bodies of soldiers, bolsters its antiaircraft firepower, and attempts to achieve more political cohesion between factions, the Soviets have become more skilled in guerrilla war. They have learned the importance of small forces, moving quickly, in such fighting, a Defense Department source says, though they still rely on large columns. Equipment has been modified for antiguerrilla warfare: armored personnel carriers have a new, faster-firing cannon, for instance. Overall numbers of Soviet forces have increased slightly over the past year to around 120,000, but there are now some 4,000 elite special force troops in the country.
``The resistance is on a treadmill. The military balance is not improving in their favor,'' says Selig Harrison, a Carnegie Endowment analyst.
At least one Pentagon official -- intelligence specialist Elie Krakowski -- has said publicly that the Soviets are in fact widening the military gap in their favor.
Even when the resistance achieves a military victory, it can't follow with consolidation of control over areas of the countryside, Mr. Harrison says. There is not enough political cohesion among guerrilla groups for them to be, in essence, a shadow government, he says.
The Soviets and their puppet regime control only Kabul and major cities, analysts say. More than two-thirds of the population is beyond their control. The result: the war is one of city-states, contesting battles in a vast no-man's land.