OBLIVIOUS to the distant thud of artillery fire, the Afghan guerrillas sit by their tents, drinking tea and cleaning weapons. Only 2 weeks earlier, after a fierce battle with Afghan Army forces, the guerrillas had taken control of Abdel Khel, a rocky outpost overlooking Jalalabad, Afghanistan's third largest city. Now they are whiling away the time until what local commanders describe as the final ``program'' against Jalalabad, eight miles away. With the Soviet troop withdrawal from Afghanistan due to be completed today, guerrillas in the east are determined to move quickly - perhaps by Feb. 20 - against Jalalabad, and then on to join the siege against Kabul, the capital.
The Afghan resistance's actions and strategy against Jalalabad will be indicative of how quickly and effectively the mujahideen (guerrillas) will be able to realize their goal of overthrowing the Soviet-installed Najibullah regime. Afghanistan's 10 years of war have cost up to 1 million lives and forced at least 5 million civilians to flee to Pakistan and Iran. Untold millions have been internally displaced by the fighting.
The guerrillas are now growing increasingly impatient with the resistance's political leaders. Based in Peshawar, Pakistan, these leaders have yet to come up with a unified political program or a military strategy. After the suspension last week of a resistance shura (council) in Pakistan, guerrilla sources say field commanders may now enforce their own regional strategy.
This would include: planned military operations against cities, strategic garrisons, and air bases; promoting coups within the Army and government; and appealing to local populations to revolt and join the resistance.
``Now that the Soviets are no longer around to help them, it is clear that a lot of regime forces are simply waiting for the signal to join the mujahideen,'' says a West European diplomat.
Defections to the resistance are on the rise. Recently two Soviet-made MI-26 helicopters and their Afghan crews went over to the guerrilla side in Panjshair.
For all their nine years in the country, Soviet forces were frustrated by supposedly secret counterinsurgency operations being revealed to the mujahideen by senior officers. According to resistance and diplomatic sources, such contacts will now assume key roles in persuading regime forces to cross over to the mujahideen.
Three leading commanders - Abdul Haq, Ahmed Shah Massoud, and Ismail Khan - have pushed for careful planning to minimize bloodshed and destruction of property.
These commanders are intent on having in place a disciplined security force - possibly the Army itself, commanded by pro-resistance officers - to prevent reprisals and summary executions; protect foreign embassies; and intervene in cases of rivalry among guerrilla groups.
Meanwhile, supporters of the ruling People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) are said to be weighing options for survival.
``For some regime supporters, it is a matter of fighting to the death, or getting out while they still can,'' says a resistance analyst in Peshawar.
According to diplomats, several PDPA officials have prolonged their stays abroad or sought visas to other countries. Early this month, the wife and son of Prime Minister Mohammed Hassan Sharq arrived in New Delhi for ``medical reasons.''
But, for the city's estimated 1 million civilians, life is likely to become even more difficult in coming weeks. With all major connecting roads cut off by guerrillas, the city has been forced to depend on Soviet and UN emergency airlifts of food and supplies. But the special UN agency set up to deal with rehabilitation and reconstruction was forced to suspend its airlifts Sunday, when the airline carrier backed out because of security concerns.