The hold of Afghanistan's Soviet-backed government appears to be crumbling fast in the countryside, with more than 100 garrisons and posts falling to the Afghan resistance in recent weeks. At the same time, however, the Afghan guerrillas could face a protracted struggle for control of the capital and other towns.
According to a number of Western, third-world, and East-bloc diplomats in the region, Kabul's ruling (communist) People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan could hold on to urban strongholds well beyond the scheduled pullout of Moscow's troops next Feb. 15.
Recently returned foreign observers and resistance sources say that some government forces, notably the militia, have put up a much better fight than initially expected in areas where the Afghan forces are now fighting on their own.
According to latest reports, the Afghan guerrillas were obliged last week to lift their siege of Spin Boldak, an isolated fortified position near the Pakistani border, because of air attacks and bitter resistance by government forces. The fighting also blocked vital supplies to the city, reportedly causing severe food shortages.
As a result, some diplomats say, the takeover of major government centers by military means alone may not be possible and may have to include negotiations with acceptable elements in the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA).
Several key commanders have indicated that clandestine negotiations are already under way with members of the PDPA, the armed forces, and the militia in Kabul and other centers. If prolonged fighting and heavy casualties are to be avoided, the commanders argue, it is necessary to gain access to the cities with the support of pro-government forces.
According to Afghan specialists, traditional wheeling and dealing by both sides is expected to increase in months ahead. Afghan society remains one where tribal, ethnic, and family ties rather than political affiliation still dictate loyalties.
Over the past few weeks, the mujahideen (as the Afghan guerrillas are known) have successfully negotiated a number of defections with government troops and militiamen crossing over with their weapons.
Several failed attempts also have been reported, with defectors picked up and sometimes executed by Soviet or Afghan security forces before they could reach the guerrillas. Other efforts have been sabotaged by informers.
Most guerrilla leaders seem to accept the need for a popularly-backed, broad-based government. One principal commander, Abdul Haq, says such a government could conceivably include middle-rank PDPA members if that was the wish of the people. But under no circumstances, he adds, would the resistance consider sharing power with Afghan leader Najibullah.
For his part, Dr. Najib (as he is commonly known) has been trying to persuade leading guerrilla commanders to join the sort of broad-based, coalition government now being promoted by United Nations special mediator Diego Cordovez. The UNenvoy is scheduled to visit Islamabad and Kabul at the end of this month.
Another major commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud, who is seeking to consolidate his position in the northern provinces, has reportedly responded that he is only willing to negotiate once Najib had gone.
It remains unclear how the resistance intends to create its own government. About eight days ago, the seven-party resistance alliance in Peshawar named a 14-member provisional government. But there is confusion as to whether the resistance plans to hold elections or whether tribal jirgas (assemblies) would be more realistic for a country still at war.
In the absence of any firm direction from Peshawar, the onus for providing leadership seems to be falling increasingly on the commanders.
``They are the ones most likely to establish their authority as `governors' or `warlords' in provincial areas regardless of who controls Kabul,'' a Western diplomat says.
On the battlefront, heavy fighting has been reported north of Kabul but also in several outlying provinces, where government positions continue to fall.
Returning journalists from Kandahar say Afghanistan's second-largest city is under virtual siege by the mujahideen, but that both sides have suffered heavy casualties.
Soviet troops and advisers in Kandahar are still largely confined to the airport, the sources say, where they fire artillery in support of Kabul's forces holed up in town, about four miles away.
Western and certain resistance sources note that as long as the Soviets remain, principal strongholds are unlikely to collapse to guerrilla pressure.
``The regime's strategy seems to be to withdraw from untenable positions in the countryside and consolidate its forces in major garrisons and cities,'' says a Western diplomat. ``We are advising the resistance not to go for frontal attacks against positions they cannot hope to take.''
The Americans, British, and other Western countries backing the mujahideen are advising them to do nothing that might hinder the Soviet withdrawal - such as attacking convoys or, as happened recently, shooting five Soviet officers about to leave the country.
Such incidents, it is feared in some quarters, might provoke the Soviets, to slow down or even halt their withdrawal.
``But so far we see no evidence of this. Our assumption is that the withdrawal will continue with the Soviets out before Christmas,'' says a senior Western diplomat.
According to Moscow, 13,000 troops have been withdrawn out of its original 103,000-strong occupation force. (Most Western military analysts have always estimated total Soviet forces at between 115,000 and 118,000.)
There is still considerable confusion as to whether certain posts have indeed fallen, as claimed by the mujahideen.
Last week, resistance sources announced the capture of Qalat, a provincial capital in southeastern Afghanistan.
Only a fort overlooking the town, the sources said, was still being held by 300-400 Kabul forces. Later, however, resistance sources admitted they were forced to withdraw to the outskirts because of heavy bombardments.
[The Associated Press said Monday that Afghan guerrillas claimed to have captured another provincial capital - Maidan Shahr. The report could not be independently confirmed.]