``Our war against the Russians has never been a matter of winning or losing on the battlefield. It is a matter of who can hold out longest against the other,'' comments Brig. Rahmatullah Safi, a veteran resistance commander. The burly former Afghan Army colonel, who now runs a guerrilla training camp at the base of a rocky hill northwest of Peshawar, pauses for emphasis. ``But our struggle in Afghanistan is also a classic guerrilla war. And because we are still fighting, we are winning.''
The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which enters its ninth year this week, has never been an easy conflict to assess. Consistent, reliable information from inside the country has always been difficult to obtain. And, with two foreign journalists reportedly killed in October, Afghanistan has become a much more dangerous war to cover.
On the surface, the conflict remains a bloody stalemate. Few analysts see any possibility of a military solution. The Soviets have failed to crush the resistance. Yet there is little the mujahideen (resistance fighters) can do should the Soviets decide to pursue a limited war of containment, entrenching themselves in the cities and their main countryside bases.
In the end, most observers agree, only a diplomatic or political settlement can resolve a conflict that has already devastated much of that beautiful, rugged land and inflicted untold trauma on its staunchly independent people.
Current estimates hold that a mil-lion or more Afghans have died as a direct result of the war. Some 5 million civilians, almost a third of the country's pre-war population, have fled to Pakistan, Iran, and elsewhere - the single largest refugee population in the world. Between 2 and 3 million Afghans still within the country have migrated to the largely Soviet-controlled cities to escape the fighting, or sought protection in ``liberated zones'' held by the guerrillas.
One significant trend has emerged in the past year of fighting: The mujahideen for the first time appear to be forcing the Soviets to seriously reconsider their commitment to what many observers now regard as ``Moscow's Vietnam.''
``There is no doubt that the mujahideen are in a much stronger position today than ever before,'' says a Western diplomat in Islamabad, Pakistan. ``Their fighting capabilities have vastly improved and morale has never been higher.''
According to diplomats, military analysts, guerrilla commanders, foreign aid workers, and independent observers recently in Afghanistan, the most evident if not dramatic development has been the high toll of Soviet and Afghan government aircraft shot down by the mujahideen. Improved antiaircraft defense systems, such as the US-made Stinger missile, have not only pressured the Soviets into modifying tactics, but have enabled some Afghan civilians to return to their villages.
However, the mujahideen still suffer from problems that have dogged them in the past.
For one, many of their good commanders have been killed and have proved hard to replace. Rivalry and corruption persists among the Afghan political parties based in Peshawar. While field cooperation inside Afghanistan has definitely improved, clashes between certain commanders of the fundmentalist Hezb-e-Islami (Hekmatyar Gulbuddin faction) and other groups continue to undermine the mujahideen's jihad (holy war).
In recent years, the political alliance has lost much credibility and respect among Afghans. United States policy requires that all its aid - an estimated $715 million of military and humanitarian assistance in fiscal year 1987 - be channeled through the Peshawar-based parties. The US program, particularly the cross-border relief operation run by the Agency for International Development, is criticized for lacking coherence, direction, and effectiveness.
West European relief coordinators and certain US officials also maintain that much of the aid is not reaching those for whom it is intended and that the alliance does not represent the resistance as a whole. To be effective, many observers here feel, the aid should go directly to resistance commanders on the inside who have proved themselves.
There have long been signs of major resistance fronts developing in the north and the west. Recently, about 700 to 800 commanders from different parties met in Ghor Province at the instigation of Jamiat-e-Islami's Ismail Khan, a leading guerrilla chief from Herat, to discuss establishment of a regional council, or shura.
Muhammad Eshaq, a political officer of the Jamiat-e-Islami, says, ``Many mujahdieen are realizing that if they join forces, they can do well. If this pattern of war becomes more widely accepted by groups in other parts of the country, the Soviets will find themselves with a big problem on their hands.''
Publicly, most of the Peshawar parties say such developments are good. Yet they view them with concern because of the challenge that men like Mr. Khan may eventually present to their own authority. But better coordination has resulted in some impressive resistance operations. The past 12 months have seen the fall of several strategic Afghan-Soviet garrisons, notably Nahrin, Farkar, Kalagfan, and Kerun in the north.
Fighters become builders
Another important trend of the past two or three years has been the increased politicization of the mujahideen. A growing proportion of the 1,000 to 1,500 resistance commanders are realizing that combatting the Soviets must be a social and economic affair, too. With the help of foreign aid organizations, they have established hundreds of health centers, schools, and agricultural projects in ``liberated areas'' inside Afghanistan.
``For years, the Soviets have condemned the mujahideen for being reactionary and against things like education ... [and] have tried to attract people to their side by offering all kinds of benefits,'' says Anders Fange of the Swedish Committee in Peshawar. ``But the resistance has now understood that it must offer more than just war. They must do something for the civilians if they want to keep their support.''
Most observers remain uncertain as to how the Soviets will react to such changes. Already, Soviet-Afghan agents have stepped up subversion in Pakistan. Bombs, widely believed to have been placed by agents of Khad (the Afghan secret service) and going off every two or three days, have killed between 250 to 300 people.
But the war itself is not going too well for the Soviet-backed regime. The Afghan Army, varying in strength between 35,000 and 50,000 because of defections, remains unreliable. Soviet troop morale, too, is low. The Red Army has had to take more of the brunt of the fighting and is suffering higher casualties. Military analysts and guerrilla commanders say the only really effective anti-insurgent operations are those by professional units such as airborne and special forces.
Prospects for peace
Most indications suggest that the Kabul regime led by Najibullah, former of head of Khad, has found only dismal support for its heralded ``national reconciliation'' program and unilateral cease-fire launched last January. The ruling (communist) People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) has said it is willing to accept a coalition government, but insists on retaining a dominant role. This is considered unacceptable by resistance leaders, who say they will only negotiate with the Soviets.
``Who are these people to even dare think they can offer us a cease-fire? Without the Russians, they are nothing,'' was one commander's dismissive retort.
Long divided by internecine strife, the Kabul party has been split further by talk of Soviet withdrawal. Frustrated by Kabul's lack of success, the Soviets are reportedly considering dropping Najib in favor of a new leader. Observers say Moscow feels a ``new deal'' coalition government may appeal more to a broader spectrum of the Afghan population. But it seems doubtful anyone affiliated with the PDPA would win much support.
Earlier this year, the Soviets hoped to persuade deposed King Zahir Shah to become part of a new political settlement. The ex-monarch refused to act without the backing of the resistance. Despite opposition to his return by fundamentalist parties in Peshawar, many observers see Zahir Shah, at present living in Rome, as the only Afghan public figure with the necessary nationwide support to head a transitional government that could oversee Soviet withdrawal and free elections.
Reports from Kabul say there are already signs of the sort of panic that occurred when the US began moving toward a pullout from Vietnam. Communist party stalwarts, estimated at 6,000 hardliners with another 20,000 ``collaborators,'' are known to be particularly anxious about what might happen if the Soviets leave. Some supporters have taken steps to flee to Europe and North America. Hard-currency dealers report heavy buying of dollars in recent months, while other sources say safe-passage deals are being negotiated with resistance groups in exchange for cash, weapons, or favors such as the release of jailed relatives.
Defeat for the Soviets?
The principal question now facing the Soviet Union is whether it is prepared, and able, to abandon occupation for a settlement acceptable to the majority of the Afghan people or whether it intends to continue its military involvement.
Numerous scenarios abound. Most observers consider it unlikely the Soviets, who have suffered between 30,000 to 40,000 casualties (dead and wounded), will want to escalate their commitment. It now stands at 118,000 to 120,000 occupation troops. Another 40,000 to 50,000 are based inside Soviet Central Asia but are regularly deployed across the border in Afghanistan, Western intelligence sources say.
But the Kremlin has other possibilities. Pessimists note that even with the mujahideen's improved effectiveness, there is still no need to pull out. ``The Soviet generals will need a lot of persuading to abandon their bases at Shind and/or Bagram with all the investment they put in,'' says a Western diplomat in Islamabad.
Other analysts suggest the Soviets might accept an internationally guaranteed peace settlement, but would insist on a halt of supplies reaching the mujahideen through Pakistan and Iran. The Soviets might then seek an arrangement with one or two of the resistance parties, which could result in widespread civil war. ``The Soviets would not need much pretext then, to move in for reasons of security and destroy as many key guerrilla fronts as possible while bolstering their own people in Kabul,'' another diplomat says.
But most analysts stress that whatever the Soviet decision, it will not prove an easy one. A West European analyst says: ``No matter how they dress it up, the Soviets will find it hard not to make Afghanistan look like a defeat.''