Fierce fighting in Afghanistan is greeting visits to the region this week by senior officials from both the Soviet Union and the United States. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze arrived in Kabul Monday, as Soviet and Afghan government forces struggled to break a guerrilla siege around the strategic eastern town of Khost, about 100 miles away.
The Afghan mujahideen (as the resistance fighters are known) have cut off the main highway to Khost and surrounded the town since 1980. Last October they intensified the siege, using US-supplied Stinger and British-made Blowpipe missiles to prevent the military garrison being resupplied by air and bringing it near surrender.
Mr. Shevardnadze's visit coincides with a trip to neighboring Pakistan by US Undersecretary of State Michael Armacost. Pakistani officials are reportedly keen to discuss the US's assessment of Soviet intentions in Afghanistan after last month's superpower summit.
Soviet and mujahideen reports about the fighting conflict greatly. But Western defense analysts, aid workers, other observers, and Afghan sources agree that even if the Soviet and Afghan security forces break the Khost siege:
It is doubtful they will gain any long-term benefits - unless they commit more troops to the effort. The town is expected to remain vulnerable to attacks by guerrillas in nearby mountains.
It would not necessarily be seen as a defeat by the Afghan resistance. The fact that the mujahideen have forced the Soviets to commit one quarter of the combined Soviet-Afghan forces in Afghanistan to this battle - more than 40,000 troops, by some estimates - is an achievement in itself, some analysts say.
Western diplomats say the Soviets are seeking to strengthen the Kabul regime's negotiating position at the next round of United Nations-sponsored peace talks in Geneva in February or March. Moscow has said it is ready to pull out its 118,000 troops from Afghanistan in a 12-month period, provided all foreign aid to the mujahideen is immediately halted. In 1987, the US channeled an estimated $715 million in aid to the Afghans. Pakistan, the US, and the mujahideen want a shorter withdrawal period.
For the past three weeks, the Soviet-Afghan forces have tried to clear the 80-mile land route between Gardez and Khost. The dirt road is difficult for vehicles to traverse even under normal conditions. The guerrillas have laid hundreds of mines and are keeping the Soviets under heavy assault in mountainous areas.
``The Soviets have staked their reputation on relieving Khost, but for us it is only part of our guerrilla strategy to tie down the enemy,'' said a spokesman for the resistance alliance in Peshawar.
While groups of mujahideen are being rushed to Khost to reinforce the estimated 8,000 to 10,000 guerrillas believed to be fighting in the region, resistance sources have reported simultaneous attacks against government positions in other parts of Afghanistan launched to reduce the brunt of the Soviet offensive.
With the government garrison in Khost on the point of surrender because of starvation from the three-month siege, the Soviets were forced to intervene to prevent a guerrilla victory. At press time yesterday, however, the situation remained unclear. Early last week, the Soviets claimed to have ``practically terminated'' the siege. The rebels said on Sunday that their forces were still blocking the Gardez-Khost road, but an eyewitness reported seeing a 40-vehicle convoy advancing toward Khost the previous day, Reuters said Monday.
Soviet television, which has given the offensive unprecedented coverage and has admitted to heavy fighting, has shown Red Army and Afghan troops conducting counterinsurgency operations supported by tanks and aerial bombing. It also showed truck convoys moving along the road and troops clearing mines and stacking ammunition allegedly captured from the mujahideen. But no footage of convoys arriving in Khost was shown.
According to several resistance reports, a Soviet-Afghan armored column, including several dozen trucks transporting relief supplies defended by massive helicopter and jet-fighter support, had succeeded in punching its way to Khost along another route further south.
``We have heard that they have managed to drop some supplies by air and may have landed some planes, but no trucks have got through,'' said Prof. Sayed Majrooh of the Afghan Information Center in Peshawar. ``From what we hear there is also still bitter fighting near Sarana [about 35 miles from Khost], and the road is heavily mined.'' The Soviets have reportedly landed some 1,500 airborne troops along mountain ridges to stop the mujahideen attacking the road.
The guerrillas, who say they have killed hundreds of Soviet and Afghan troops, deny the Soviets have inflicted heavy casualties. Soviet reports say some 2,000 guerrillas have been killed.
Mr. Girardet recently spent two months in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This report is based on interviews conducted from Geneva with sources in Peshawar, London, Paris, and locally.