Grave new challenges face Afghanistan President Babrak Karmal and the Soviet occupation forces as bloody intraparty feuding hobbles the government and reportedly sparks dissension in the Afghan Army.
Western diplomatic sources say a politically motivated attempt to replace the commander of the Afghan Army's 14th division left officers "unhappy" and may have caused the defection of unknown numbers of officers and troops to the Afghan rebels.
These diplomats, however, shied away from their earlier reports of a massive Soviet retaliation against an alleged mutiny by the 14th division.
The unrest in the armored division based in Ghazni is an outgrowth of Karmal's Soviet- blessed attempts to purge high-ranking officials of the Khalq (masses) wing of the ruling People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan and replace them with loyalists from his Parcham (banner) faction.
As with 80 percent of the Afghan Army and Air Force, the 14th division is dominated by Khalq officers. Earlier this week, the State Department in Washington and diplomatic missions in the Indian capital cited reports that the division had revolted when Karmal tried to replace their Khalq commander with a Parchamite.
Reports of heavy Soviet air activity in Wardak Province, southwest of Kabul, which reached the Indian capital July 28, followed a lull in both Soviet anti-rebel operation and in resistance activity by the insurgents. Many observers speculated that the Soviets were holding back for the duration of the Olympic Games in Moscow to avoid unfavorable publicity, and that the rebels, in turn, were taking the opportunity to prepare for an anticipated Soviet post-Olympics offensive.
But the new heavy deployment of MI-24 helicopter gunships points to current military operations rather than preparation for later ones, a diplomatic observer said. "Instead, it looks like they might be going after their quarry now," he said.
The unrest in the Afghan Army, however, adds new complications to the Soviets' two chiefs thrusts since they entered the landlocked country in force. Their objectives have been to install a friendly government that could effectively administer the country and gain popular backing, and to stamp out the armed resistance by nationalist tribesmen that has restricted the government's writ to just the main towns and roads.
A patchwork Cabinet of both Khalqis and Parchamites was assembled in a bid for unity and broad popular support. But the two rival factions have been at each others' throats both politically and literally: Assassinations of party workers of both stripes have been nightly occurrences in Kabul and other major towns, according to travelers' reports.
Desertions and defections also have whittled the Afghan Army from its original estimated strength of 80,000 men down to about 30,000 or 35,000, according to diplomatic estimates. As a result, the Soviets have had to throw their own troops into battle rather than rely on the Afghan Army to wipe out the rebel resistance.
In the past, observers believe, soldiers have deserted their units or gone over to the rebel side for essentially nationalist reasons -- not wanting to fight their own countrymen on behalf of a puppet goverment.
But if the latest diplomatic reports are correct, the alleged defections within the 14th division occured for political reasons -- an extension of the Khalq-Parcham infighting that has hobbled Karmal's government.
For the Soviets, such politically motivated defections open up an ominous new possibility. Should the intraparty feud break out and spread through the officer corps, sections of the Khalq-dominated military could wind up fighting the Parchamite-dominated government.
The Soviets would then have to choose between fighting a two-pronged war against both the rebels and dissident Army units, or rethinking their commitments to the Karmal government.