Shotal, Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan
The dust-covered and weary young partisan, a Kalashnikov assault rifle slung over his shoulder, hastily recounts the latest developments from the battlefront.
"The communists still hold the ridge," he says, "but the mujahideen [ guerrillas] are regrouping lower down and awaiting new orders."
Massoud, the resourceful and highly respected guerrilla commander of Afghanistan's strategic Panjshir Valley, 40 miles north of Kabul, listens intently until the messenger finishes. He and his heavily armed companions sit quietly in the mud and stone farmhouse, their hardened, bearded faces etched eerily against the flickering shadows of the gas lantern. They show little concern for the ripping explosions of Russian mortars and rockets that rear into the rugged mountain landscape above the village.
A bright but modest former engineering student still in his 20s, Massoud has displayed such leadership and knowledge of guerrilla warfare that he has earned a reputation here in Afghanistan not unlike that of Che Guevara. He consults briefly with his lieutenants, then draws out a notebook, scribbles a series of orders, and hands them to the messenger with a word of encouragement. Oral or handwritten messages are often the only forms of communication among his country's vast patchwork of resistance groups.
"We shall wait a bit longer," he explains, "and then attack in small units to take back the ridge."
"The Russians don't like to fight at night," he adds with a wry, creased smile that softens his otherwise strict hawk nose and piercing eyes. "We'll also keep them busy by launching a diversionary assault against the Salang highway. We have got to keep hitting them from all sides. They are already getting tired and demoralized."
As part of a massive communist offensive against this resistance-held Panjshir Valley, a combined force of Russian and Afghan commandos seized control only 24 hours earlier of the long, jagged ridge that dominates this bomb-scared village and its terraced wheat fields.
By dawn, however, Massoud's disciplined, olive-denimed fighters, using primarily captured Soviet weapons, fought their way back up to their original mountaintop positions and pushed the communists down into the plain below.
If there is one clear conclusion from this correspondent's recent one-month-long, 700-mile trek through several provinces, it is that the majority of Afghanistan's estimated 200,000 active partisans have developed into a formidable resistance force well versed in guerrilla tactics.
Conditions vary from region to region. But the combat effectiveness of Massoud and the roughly 1,000 well-armed Jamiat Islami guerrillas of the Panjshir Valley illustrates a marked improvement in the overall ability of the Afghan resistance to strike back at the Soviets.
In contrast to the situation just over a year ago when this correspondent last visited Afghanistan, morale among the mujahideen is high. They are better armed, better trained, and better organized.
No longer do they launch large free-for-all attacks against Soviet bases or convoys. Carefully planned strategy, using small but more incisive well-armed units, is now a vital element in what has become an increasingly successful war of attrition against the Soviet-backed central government in Kabul.
Furthermore, despite a continued lack of political unity among the country's seven major resistance organiza&gt;Please turn to Page 6&gt; &gt;From page 1&gt; tions, there is greater readiness to coordinate guerrilla activities.Only tne Muslim fundamentalist Hekmatyar Gulbaddin factions of the Hezb-i-Islami continues to withhold its cooperation.
Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, the stubborn resistance offered by the 80,000 inhabitants still living in the Pahjshir has been more than a thorn in the flesh for the communist government and the Russian forces that prop it up. Much as the Vercors plateau came to symbolize French anti-Nazi resistance during World War II, so the Panjshir Valley has become for many Afghans the core of guerrilla opposition to Kabul.
Three times -- in April 1980, in August of the same year, and again this part January -- the Soviets have launched massive assaults against this long and beautiful valley, itself agriculturally rich but girdled by stark, desert mountains. Up to 80 percent of the valley's houses, shops, schools, and mosques have been destroyed or damaged in air attacks or by tanks rumbling up the Panjshir riverbed during the offensives.
Afghan casualties have been high, particularly among the civilians. The guerrillas have suffered from desperate shortages of weapons and ammunition. At one point, they were forced to retreat into the rocky caves of precipitous mountains bluffs and into the narrow side valleys that cleave into the mighty Hindu Kush. On each occasion, however, the Russians failed to crush the resistance.
And now, this month, a fourth offensive against the Panjshir also appears to have failed. An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Soviet and Afghan troops first began masssing around the towns of Jabal-us-Siraj, Gulbahar, and Charikar at the base of the Panjshir on about Aug. 20. Afghan military officers in the capital who were cooperating with the guerrillas warned that the Russians were throwing in 1 ,500 armored vehicles plus considerable plane and helicopter support. A contingent of Bulgarian troops also war reported to be taking part, but this could not be confirmed by independent sources.
Devastating barrages of mortar, rocket, and cannon fire were launched against villages and guerrilla concentrations in the Kabul plain and around the mouth of the Panjshir Valley, which has been physically walled off by the communists for the past year. This correspondent can witness to the severity of the communist onslaught, being forced to flee with his Afghan guides as the shells fell and seeing the hut he had just left behind blown up along with his abandoned rucksack.
The offensive faltered in the early days of September. Repeatedly harassed by partisan units along the approach roads in and around the towns as well as in the mountains, the Soviets were initially unable to break into the valley itself.
[Although reports remain sketchy at time of writing, the communists apparently broke into the Panjshir Valley in mid-September and briefly occupied two small towns. Earlier this week, Radio Kabul claimed that their troops had occupied the entire valley. It also accused bandits of "destroying homes and crops," and added that "life is now back to normal."
[Western diplomatic sources in the Afghan capital reported otherwise. According to eyewitness accounts they said government troops had, indeed, managed to penetrate the valley but were soon forced out by guerrilla fighters. They also indicated that the communists had suffered severe casualties. Long convoys of tanks and other vehicles, some of which are believed to have been involved in the offensive, were seen returning to Kabul.]
For the first time, said Massoud, "the Russians have begun sending their men into active combat rather than sticking to their armored vehicles."
The resistance also claimed more than 30 Soviet tanks destroyed and at least five helicopters shot down during early stages of the offensive. One of them, they said, was carrying four Russians generals on an inspection tour of the front. They were apparently all killed. This could not be confirmed by independent sources.
Mujahideen casualties were not known at the time of this correspondent's visit to the Panjshir. Several severely injured partisans were brought to a hospital in the Panjshir valley run by French doctors of the Paris-based Aide Medicale Internationale. Two of them died shortly afterwards. Some guerrillas from the front spoke of heavy and bitter fighting around the towns of Gulbahar and Jabal-us-Siraj with many dead on both sides.
In the past eight months, there have been no bombardments in the main Panjshir Valley. But several villages in the side-valleys adjacent to the Kabul plain were badly hit during the latest offensive, causing serious civilian casualties.
It was while visiting this "front" in late August that this correspondent was caught in the brief but brutal pre-dawn mortar attack against Soviet. Three inhabitants were killed and two, including a young boy, injured. Most of the men, women, and children had previously fled to the safety of the surrounding mountains, although a few remained behind to tend the fields and livestock.
Unlike the early stages of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Panjshir guerrillas now have a small number (not enough, they stress) of antiaircraft guns strategically placed among the mountains overlooking the valley. Soviet MIG fighters and helicopter gunships enter Panjshir airspace only at high altitudes. The rusting hulks of Soviet aircraft, tanks, and armored personnel carriers along the river banks or in the fields attest to the growing effectiveness of resistance defense measures.
Although guerrillas exude confidence in their struggle against the Soviets, they are acutely aware that they remain vulnerable targets to any serious and concerted Soviet assault. Massoud has carefully established a clandestine headquarters, maps, and hidden caches of weapons, ammunition, and mines -- in case of a forced retreat.
Since the Soviet invasion, Massoud has trained over 5,000 men at a special guerrilla instruction center in the Panjshir Valley. A number of them have been sent to him by other resistance groups elsewhere in the country. During the training, which lasts two months, recruits are taught tactics, weapon maintenance, and close combat.
"We have no trouble finding the men," he explains, "just the weapons."
Obtaining sufficient arms, particularly sophisticated ones such as surface-to-air missiles or heavy machine guns, as well as ammunition, remains a considerable problem.
Most resistance supplies in the Panjshir consist of captured communist material. This correspondent saw no sign of Western assistance and, reportedly, only one-quarter of guerrilla guns are procured in Pakistan. Many of Massoud's frontline fighters wear captured Russians boots and carry Russian AK-47 assault rifles or the more modern AK-74 Kalakovs.
"We do not regard an attack against a convoy successful, even if we destroy many trucks or tanks, unless we bring back supplies," Massoud explained. "A few weeks ago, we almost ran out of ammunition. But then we captured three truckloads along the Salang highway and now we have enough."
The presence of so much Russian equipment, some of which is not even issued to Afghan government troops, indicates the extent to which the guerrillas have been able to hit the Soviet occupation forces.
"Moscow keeps accusing us of receiving outside aid," noted Ara Gul, a former Kabul policeman and a close aide of Massoud. "But we have received almost nothing. We must really thank the Russians. They are the ones who are providing us with what we need."