As the future of the Soviet-backed Afghan regime in Kabul comes to look increasingly somber, Moscow's attention is shifting to one of the regime's most effective opponents - Ahmed Shah Massoud. Soviet Afghan watchers say that Mr. Massoud, a member of the minority Tajik ethnic group, would have difficulty establishing himself as overall leader in Afghanhistan. But they feel that Massoud will at the least emerge as a major regional force.
Massoud is ``very much respected among the Soviet military commanders,'' says Artem Borovik, a journalist who is writing a history of the Afghan war. He is ``bright and diplomatic. His men have good equipment and the best hospitals,'' and also has a ``fantastic'' network of underground command bunkers. Moreover, Mr. Borovik says, Massoud keeps his word.
Offering what he said was his own point of view, Borovik remarked, ``I think he's a good person to negotiate with.'' But, he added, ``I know people who disagree with me.''
Massoud's home base in the Panjshair Valley covers the major north-south highway out of Kabul, as well as two oil pipelines leading to the Soviet Union. The northern Panjshair has proved impregnable to Soviet forces. Borovik says that nearly every year since 1979 the Soviet 40th Army has launched a major offensive against Massoud's strongholds. They have never broken his grip.
Perhaps as a result, the Soviet forces in the area have on several occasions since 1983 negotiated cease-fires with Massoud. Western sources say that he was paid the equivalent of $250,000 by the Soviets for the first truce. They add that he used the money to reequip his troops.
Massoud's officers include an unusually high proportion of graduates from Moscow's Frunze Military Academy, Borovik says. There is, he adds, a rumor that Massoud himself studied at the academy under an assumed name. Borovik also describes him as unusually well versed in the classics of guerrilla warfare: Bases captured from him have yielded studies of unconventional war in such diverse places as Vietnam and the Soviet Byelorussian front during World War II.
Since mid-April, Massoud has had remarkably good press in the Soviet Union. On April 12, three days before the Geneva accords on a Soviet pullout were concluded, one newspaper described how Soviet troops had contacted Massoud, proposing a local cease-fire. Massoud agreed, the paper said. And last weekend the Communist Party daily, Pravda, described how its correspondent had tried - and almost succeeded - in interviewing troops loyal to Massoud.
The attention being paid to Massoud is symptomatic of the deep pessimism that pervades Soviet analyses of Afghanistan.
A major Soviet operation at the start of this year around the Afghan border town of Khost gained time for the Kabul regime, Soviet sources say. (At the time Soviet sources insisted that the operation was primarily Afghan. But the top Soviet commanders - Gen. Valentin Varennikov and Lt. Gen. Boris Gromov - have since been given the highest Soviet award, reportedly for their part in the campaign.)
Instead of making use of the time thus gained, one Soviet observer complained, the government of President Najibullah has slipped even further into factional fighting. For their part, senior members of the Afghan ruling party are reportedly bitterly critical of Moscow's determination to pull out on schedule - by Feb. 15, 1989.
Some observers still credit Dr. Najibullah as a forceful political leader. But many Soviet analysts have moved behind him, to focus on the resistance. They note the growing splits between the Pakistan-based political opposition and field commanders like Massoud, as well as differences among the resistance groups caused by divergent political and ethnic backgrounds.