Moscow's decision to move combat troops into Afghanistan may weel stiffen the resistance of the Muslim insurgents and result in a longer, bloodier struggle in that country.
That, at least, was the view given this reporter during a tour this fall behind guerfrilla lines in Paktia Province. At that time the Soviet Union had several thousand "adsers" in Afghanistan but no combat units.
Asked then what Muslim rebels would do if Moscow sent thousands of combat troops ot protect its client regime in Kabul, rebel Commander Syed Ishaq Gailani of the National Front for the Islamic Revolution in Afganistan had this reply:
"If the Russians invade, they will die here. No matter how big an army they send, we will not lay down our arms until Afghanistan belongs to her people again."
The National Front is reported, by Pakistani sources, to be the largest of the dozen or so rebel groups, with 70,000 fighters under its command. Mr, Gailani's view was seconded by several Pakita villagers interviewed during the tour of the area.
Ironically, the deployment of 25,000 or more Soviet troops may actually strengthen Muslim insurgents by serving as a catalyst for the unification of the guerilla organizations.
Ali Tabib, a spokesman in New York for the Afghan National Liberation Front (ANLF), stated Dec. 29 that all rebel groups now are working on a declaration of general unification of opposition against the Soviet invasion.
Within 10 days, Mr. Tabib reported, all the key groups -- the National Front, the ANLF, the Islamic Society, the Islamic Party, and the Islamic Revolutionary Movement -- will announce their "organizational unification in a common front against the Soviet occupation army.
"But there is no getting around it," Mr. Tabib added, "this invasion will hurt us a great deal. Personally, I expect between 1 and 3 million casualties to result from moscow's action last week."
The rebel spokeman was confident, however, of eventual victory in the independence war even if that war should last a decade or more.
"History proves," he asserted, "that the Afghan people have the will the stamina, and the know-how to defeat foeign invaders."
That history includes several defeats for invading British armies during the last century, and more recently, 20 months of guerrilla successes against two previous Soviet- backed regimes in Kabul.
"The key will be for us to make this war as costly for the Russians as Vietnam was for the Americans," Mr. Tabib stated. "Then they will have to pull out."
Intesrestingly, few guerilla leaders seem to have been taken by surprise by the Soviet military buildup, though most did not expect this large or overt a move.
"As soon as the US Embassy was taken over in Iran," Mr. Tabib noted, "we thought the Kremlin might see it as a timely opportunity for their own expansionism. We suspected that with Washington handicuffed in Tehran, with Iran concentrating its fire on Washington, and with the world focusing its attention on them, Russia might make a move. They did."