The Soviet Army and Afghan government forces have evacuated northern Afghanistan's strategic Panjshair Valley, making Moscow's principle supply route to Kabul, the Salang Highway, more vulnerable to guerrilla attack, resistance sources said this week. This is considered to be the first major pullout of Soviet Afghan forces from the interior since Moscow began its proposed 9-month withdrawal from Afghanistan on May 15.
According to reports received in Peshawar, an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 troops, half of them Soviets, withdrew from their remaining bases in the Panjshair on May 26. Guerrilla units under the control of Ahmed Shah Massoud, one of the most effective resistance commanders, now claim to have fully retaken the 70-mile long valley.
Western defense analysts note that the departure of the Soviet and Afghan forces will permit the guerrillas to concentrate on other targets. They include the Salang Highway, which is used by the Soviets to transport military supplies, and the sprawling Soviet military air base at Baghram.
It is not known whether Mr. Massoud, who negotiated a 9-month truce in 1983 with the Soviets, has made any agreement permitting Soviet forces to depart unharassed.
Massoud, who heads the Resistance Council of the North, representing guerrilla fronts from seven different provinces, has already called for a ``jorgha'' [assembly] of commanders to discuss stategy. According to resistance sources, the meeting, which is reportedly now in progress at a secret location, includes representatives primarily from Massoud's own Jamiat-e-Islami party. It also includes other political groups, among them commanders from the Hezb-e-Islami faction of rival Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
A beautiful highland region once resplendent with terraced wheatfields, vineyards, fruit orchards, and mulberry groves, the Panjshair has long acted as a defiant thorn in the side of the Soviet occupation. Within easy striking distance of the Salang, the Panjshair represented not only a serious danger for Soviet supply lines, but also an embarrassment for the Kabul regime.
Although the Soviets had partially occupied the valley since early 1982, repeated offensives involving massive air and ground support failed to crush the Panjshairis, who rapidly emerged as leading symbols of the Afghan resistance.
The Soviets leave behind ruined villages and ruptured irrigation canals. Most of the valley's original 100,000 inhabitants have fled to neighboring regions, Kabul, or Pakistan.
Massoud, who has ordered refugees not to return until mines are removed, has already approached foreign relief organizations for assistance in clearing mines left behind by Soviet and Afghan security forces.
Meanwhile, fighting continues in other parts of the country, notably Kandahar and north of the Afghan capital. The Soviets appear to have begun withdrawing from the towns of Ghazni and Gardez in Southeastern Afghanistan. Unconfirmed reports also maintain that Soviet Army forces have begun pulling out of Shindand, which is regarded by military analysts as the most sophisticated of Afghanistan's half a dozen principle air bases.
Both resistance and diplomatic sources have reported a blowing up of a major military arms depot in Herat on May 22. According to the reports, the explosion was caused by a time bomb planted by Army officers collaborating with the resistance. The fire, sparked by exploding mortar, rockets, and other ammunition rounds, lasted for three days. Western diplomats say that East European advisers are being withdrawn from Herat because of the deteriorating security situation.
The diplomatic sources have also reported intense mujahed rocket fire in the southern and western parts of Kabul. They cited Afghan regime fears of increased guerrilla rocket attacks against the capital following the capture of a new longer-range missile not previously used by the resistance.
Contrary to earlier Soviet claims of a complete withdrawal from Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, travellers and resistance sources maintain that large numbers of Soviet Army troops and advisers - as many as 2,000 according to some reports - remain at the airport and in parts of the city.