``If the Russians try to hold on to the north, we will simply keep fighting from the liberated areas,'' declares an Afghan guerrilla commander from Takhar Province, bordering the Soviet Union. Facing new signs that the Soviets may not intend to carry out a full withdrawal of their occupation troops from Afghanistan, resistance leaders and mujahideen - guerrilla fighters - persistently voice their determination to fight until the present communist regime has been overthrown and the last Soviet soldier has left Afghan soil.
Resistance commanders, Western diplomats, and other sources here say there are indications the Soviets have begun preparations for at least a partial pullout of their estimated 115,000 to 120,000 troops.
But Kabul's recent appointment of a new deputy prime minister for northern Afghanistan has led many observers to believe that the Soviets intend to deal differently with the northern provinces than with the rest of the country.
During the past year, the Afghan regime has increased efforts to bind towns and provinces north of the Hindu Kush to Soviet central Asia - economically, socially, and politically. And a week ago, Tass, the official Soviet press agency, reported that Kabul plans to split off portions of two northern provinces to create a new province.
There are also reports that Moscow may seek to turn the north into a communist rump state, with Mazar-i-Sharif as its capital, should the present regime in Kabul fail to hold its own against the mujahideen once the Soviet withdrawal gets under way.
Leading resistance commanders continue to appear unanimous in their refusal to have anything to do with the communist regime in Kabul, despite attempts by chief of state Najibullah to attract mujahideen members into a broader coalition administration through elections announced for next month. The resistance has rejected any participation in the elections.
Most guerrilla commanders interviewed by this correspondent believe that, as soon as the Soviet troops depart, the regime's forces will begin collapsing through defection, negotiated deals, or surrender.
Other commanders, as well as Western diplomats in Kabul, are somewhat more restrained, pointing out that the communists could hold out for months, even years, depending on the level of support they continue to receive from Moscow.
Yet, one commander argues, no matter how long they survive, ``there is no need to negotiate with a dying dog.''
The mujahideen have also made it clear that they know which individuals within the regime's forces, including members of the Afghan government delegation in Geneva, have collaborated with the Soviets.
``If they do not leave with the Soviets, then it will be up to the people to decide what should be done with them,'' states Amin Wardak, a major commander from Wardak Province, insinuating a violent ``purification'' period not unlike that of France following the Nazi occupation.
Ahmad Shah - an American-educated engineer and president-designate of the interim government proposed by the Peshawar-based resistance alliance - voices a similar view: ``There is no question that we will accept even the smallest communist.''
According to sources within the seven-party resistance alliance, a new government will be proclaimed inside ``liberated'' Afghanistan in the weeks ahead.
Despite widespread fighting in various parts of Afghanistan, notably around Kandahar, Urgun, and Takhar, recent reports suggest that Moscow is actively engaged in withdrawal preparations.
The reports of Soviet actions, observers say, seem to support claims by officials in Moscow that the Red Army will withdraw regardless of whether a settlement is reached in Geneva.
(The Geneva talks between Kabul and the Pakistani government have been stalled because of a recent US demand that the Soviet Union halt all military support to Kabul once it begins withdrawing troops. Moscow has rejected the demand for ``symmetry'' with an end to US aid to the rebels, citing its treaty obligations with Kabul. Moscow has instead suggested that Pakistan sign the agreement without the US.)
Soviet units around the southeastern city of Kandahar have reportedly begun abandoning positions or handing them over to the Afghan Army or militia forces. The troops have either regrouped at Kandahar airport or started heading to Shindand and Herat to the northwest.
Red Army forces have launched counterinsurgency operations designed to strengthen security along the main axis routes to Herat and to the north along the strategic Salang highway, both considered vital for any large-scale troop withdrawals from the south.
Reports also suggest that some Soviet units are in the process of being pulled back to Kabul from the eastern provinces and may soon abandon key posts such as Asmar and Barikot in Kunar Province.
Commander Allaoudin, a senior resistance figure from Herat, says that the Soviets have recently withdrawn a battalion from Chaghcharan in the northwest. He also points out that Soviet families and advisors have left Herat's main hotel, where they have lived since the beginning of the occupation.
``We don't know if this means the Russians are departing,'' he says. ``But if they do, we will capture Herat. The Russians control less than half the city, and the [Kabul] puppet regime is not very strong in the western provinces, even if the Russians leave them with many weapons.''
Commander Allaoudin, who serves as deputy to Ismail Khan, the region's leading resistance commander, also claims that the Soviets have dismantled a 200-kilometer (124 mile) fuel pipeline laid several years ago by Red Army engineers from Turghandi to Shindand Air Base. The air base is widely considered by Western defense analysts as one of Moscow's most sophisticated overseas military installations. It is within helicopter reach of the Strait of Hormuz.
The Soviets appear to be trying to bolster the Kabul regime - particularly in areas of the southeast and west where Red Army forces seem to be withdrawing - by stepping up military supplies to Afghan government forces.
Meanwhile, international relief agencies in Peshawar and Quetta have started making contingency plans for the eventual repatriation of the estimated 3 million refugees in Pakistan. (Another 2 million refugees are said to have fled to Iran.)
There are also discussions among governments and relief agencies about creation of a massive task force, possibly under United Nations auspices. The task force would be responsible for rehabilitation of over seven million Afghans who fled the country or sought refuge as displaced persons in the mountains or cities inside Afghanistan.
``What we are talking about is a mini-Marshall plan,'' says Brigadier Khattack, refugee commissioner of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province in Peshawar. ``But the bulk of the people will only return once the political situation [in Afghanistan] is conducive.''