Seven years after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the war remains an enduring - increasingly brutal - seesaw affair with heavy casualties on both sides. The armed resistance to Soviet occupation shows few signs of diminishing, according to returning Western journalists, relief workers, and guerrilla commanders known for their credibility.
But despite their determination, the Afghan guerrillas continue to face formidable and often bleak odds in their struggle, these sources say. The guerrillas themselves say their losses in 1986 were the worst so far. But it remains difficult to get a reliable assessment of the guerrilla war because of the lack of consistent and up-to-date information from all of Afghanistan's 28 provinces.
During the first half of the year the mujahideen, as the guerrillas are known, came under heavy pressure from the Soviet-Afghan security forces, but the mujahideen have reportedly stepped up their own attacks from June onward, particularly in the Kabul region.
Despite propaganda claims on both sides, neither the Soviets and their Afghan surrogates in the capital of Kabul, nor the mujahideen, have been able to decisively alter the war's course.
The guerrillas' recent acquisition of American-made Stinger antiaircraft missiles has dramatically improved their defensive capabilities against Soviet and Afghan helicopter gunships and MIG jets, according to British journalist Radek Sikorski, who says he saw mujahideen using the missiles in October in Nangarhar Province. This confirms recent US reports.
But it is better training and tactics in modern guerrilla warfare that are more likely to make a difference, Western analysts say. According to a number of Western observers who have traveled extensively with the guerrillas inside Afghanistan in recent months, the guerrillas now have better weapons than they did during the first two or three years of the war.
But the new military equipment has not necessarily enhanced the resistance's overall fighting ability. British cameraman Peter Jouvenal, who has made 27 trips inside Afghanistan since the 1979 Soviet invasion, argues that many mujahideen, particularly those based in the Pathan, or Pushtun, provinces have learned little from the war, and are fighting as ineffectively as they did during the early days.
The Pakistanis, who control the supply of most of the weapons from outside sources, ``favor the Pushtuns,'' says Mr. Jouvenal, ``and that is why they have a surplus of weapons. ... In these areas military development has been the worst.''
Observers such as Jouvenal stress that guerrillas operating deep inside Afghanistan have enjoyed less access to advanced weaponry, but are fighting better than the Pushtuns. Commanders like Ahmed Shah Massoud in the Panjshair Valley, Ismail Khan of Herat, and Safiullah of Jhorine in the west, have been forced to adapt more readily to changing Soviet tactics than have the guerrillas who operate closer to Pakistan.
The mujahideen nearer Pakistan - through which most outside aid from the United States, China, and the Arab states is funneled - have little trouble obtaining arms and ammunition, Western observers say. But while some Pushtun commanders seem to understand the need to concentrate on a more mobile form of warfare, others have tended to adopt sedentary, conventional methods.
One example of this was the fortified guerrilla redoubt at Zhawar in Paktia Province. Equipped with antiaircraft guns, rocket launchers, and even captured tanks, the redoubt assumed a symbolic - even a prestigious - status, for a time. But it was of little military value. In April, it was destroyed by united Soviet and Afghan communist forces with heavy casualties all around.
``Perhaps [the Pustuns] learned a good lesson - not to try to keep such a big base and become immobile,'' said Sayed Majrooh of the Afghan Information Center in Peshawar.
Since the Soviet invasion in December 1979, the Kremlin has steadily honed its counterinsurgency strategy in an attempt to crush the country's primarily peasant resistance. It has also sought to broaden the base of its communist minority regime in Kabul, a regime now headed by Mohammed Najibullah, who replaced Babrak Karmal last May.
Soviet officials have privately conceded in meetings in Moscow that their involvement is like a ``bleeding wound.'' Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev recently indicated that Moscow wants out. But European analysts still regard Moscow's efforts as part of a long-term strategy to ``Sovietize'' Afghanistan.
So-called ``migratory genocide'' remains an essential feature of the Soviet strategy in many regions. The strategy hinges on large-scale ground offensives, aerial bombardment, and the burning of crops. These actions, according to international relief sources, are forcing 6,000 to 8,000 men, women, and children to cross the border into Pakistan every month. Afghans today account for roughly one-half of the world's refugee problem; an estimated 5 million people - that's 1 out of every 3 Afghan citizens - have fled the country since the fighting first began soon after the communist ``Saur'' (April) revolution in 1978, according to UN and international relief agency officials.
But Soviet tactics have changed radically on other fronts. They have become far more effective - and far more subtle. The tactics include well-planned ambushes against guerrilla convoys by highly trained ``spetznaz'' (special forces), the mining of caravan supply routes, the buying off of mujahideen commanders, and the ``neutralization'' of villages through threats of retaliation.
According to Rony Brauman, a coordinator for the French medical organization M'edecins sans Fronti`eres (``doctors without borders'') who recently returned from Ghazni Province, the Soviet presence along the country's frontiers has become astoundingly heavy.
``We were unable to travel a single day without encountering Soviet tanks, helicopters, and commandos,'' Dr. Brauman says. ``It was [in] no way like this two years ago. There has been a definite deterioration in security for the mujahideen.'' Guerrilla commanders have commented on the difficulties of moving supplies from Pakistan to Afghanistan, particularly in eastern provinces.
Since early 1981, the Soviets have been hoping to block the border access routes. They are reported to be trying to create a 20- to 40-mile no-man's land (to be patrolled only by soldiers and militiamen) along the entire Pakistani frontier. But with 320 known passes, ranging from traditional caravan trails to goat tracks, many observers consider this virtually impossible.
``It just makes crossing over much more laborious,'' says one British journalist, just back from Afghanistan.
The Kabul regime, meanwhile, has intensified its efforts at national reconciliation, particularly since the rise to power of Dr. Najib, as the Afghan leader is known.
As former director of Khad, the dreaded Afghan secret police, Najib is no novice to divide-and-rule tactics. During his tenure at Khad, he expanded the government militia and secret service informer network by paying exorbitant salaries and by making deals with former guerrilla commanders.
``The government is putting great emphasis on the militia, and in fact has now created two of them - one which works directly with the security forces, and the other one [which operates] locally, [as] a sort of people's police,'' says Dominique Vergos, a French journalist who just returned from Afghanistan. ``This has brought a great deal of pressure on the people, because it is forcing them to take sides.''
Mr. Vergos and others do not believe that this means the people necessarily become supporters of the government. Village leaders often join the government on a temporary basis for convenience. ``These leaders are, after all, protecting the interests of their people, but it is an old Afghan custom to establish temporary alliances if it suits them, and then change again a day later,'' says one observer.
Brauman also reported that in Ghazni, where a significant portion of the population still lives, a certain status quo has been established. Villages under guerrilla control in Ghazni are not touched by the government, but the mujahideen do not use them as bases from which to launch attacks against communist positions or convoys.
Further, the government has been concentrating on attracting the support of the Pushtun tribes as another means of splitting the resistance and securing the border regions. This has involved a major ``hearts, minds, and wallets'' campaign. One reported plan is to resettle some 300,000 tribesmen ``voluntarily'' from Kunar, Laghman, and Paktia Provinces near Pakistan to western regions that border on Iran. Ostensibly designed to reduce unemployment, the resettlement plan is widely seen as a ploy to empty border areas - and thus remove the civilian intelligence network that supports guerrilla supply routes.
The Soviets, for their part, have further expanded their security belts around Kabul and several other major towns. The Soviets have also launched vehement offensives, notably in Paghman, west of Kabul, to hinder guerrilla penetration. But one observer commented that resistance activities in the region of the capital have been far more intense this year than last.
Observers further note that the Soviets seem extremely worried by improved guerrilla capabilities. Various reports indicate that Soviet aircraft began to fly extremely high, and to take off and land at air bases in spiral fashion after the resistance fighters received the shoulder-fired Stinger missles. Soviet aircraft once did that only at the airport in Kabul.