''The radio you have brought us is worth more than a thousand Kalashnikovs,'' the partisan commander told French human rights activists in late August 1981.
Barely 15 months have elapsed since its first clandestine broadcast in Kunar Province on that warm summer evening, yet Afghanistan's Radio Free Kabul (RFK) has grown into more than just a vexatious burr for the Soviets.
Supported by a small group of European human rights activists and exiled Soviet dissidents, RFK now has 11 resistance-run radio transmitters (10 FM and one shortwave) in various provinces. The eventual goal is to install a network of 36 stations to cover the entire country. Compact and easily transportable because of the need to avoid communist detection, at least one of the 15-pound FM tranmitters has been established within a 50-kilometer radius of the Afghan capital.
Similar to the haunting ''V for victory'' signal from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony used by Radio London during World War II, RFK opens its nightly broadcasts of news, commentary, prayer, and music programs with the compelling drumming of a tabla (a small Indian drum) and the words in Farsi (Persian) and Pashto (the official national language of Afghanistan): ''Here is Radio Free Kabul of the Afghan mujahideen.''
Usually tagged at the end of each program is a 10-minute prerecorded tape in Russian by such leading dissidents as writers Vladimir Bukovsky or Vladimir Maximov aimed at provoking opposition among the 100,000 Soviet troops occupying Afghanistan.
This war of the airwaves has increasingly irked the Moscow-backed Kabul authorities. In particular, there is known to be growing concern among the Russians about the possibility of resistance broadcasts to the Soviet Muslim populations on the other side of the Oxus River, which delineates much of the Soviet-Afghan border.
''This is perhaps the most extraordinary form of opposition. It is fighting with words and not guns,'' noted Marek Halter, the Polish-born French writer who is a founding member of the RFK committee in Paris. ''During World War II it was Radio London which gave the Europeans the true spirit of resistance. It is what effectively united the opposition movements.''
For some European intellectuals who claim to be ill at ease with the moral question of sending arms without themselves fighting as was the case during the Spanish Civil War, the creation of RFK has enabled them to constructively aid the resistance. The radio network's continued support, they argue, could also provide a means for Americans not willing to involve themselves militarily in Afghanistan to provide direct aid.
Adding insult to injury, however, the Afghan mujahideen have now decided to establish a purely Russian-language station on Afghan soil manned in person by Soviet dissidents. According to Mr. Halter, the European RFK committees will send a team of Soviet exiles (who may not be identified) to an undisclosed location in Afghanistan where they will produce programs using prerecorded tapes and live broadcasts. In many respects, the new station will be like the soldatensender (soldiers' programs) operated by the Western Allies for German troops at the front during World War II.
Since its conception in 1981, RFK has had an enormous impact among the local Afghan population. According to diplomatic, resistance, and other sources, not only are the underground radio programs eagerly listened to in the guerrilla-held areas, but also in the Afghan capital, where the signal received is suprisingly loud and clear. As for the shortwave broadcasts, a recently returned French observer reported picking it up along the Soviet frontier in the northern extremes of Aghanistan.
The network has presented the Afghan resistance with imaginative new possibilities in opposing the Soviet occupation of their country. ''It is vital to have a means of combatting the radio and television which is in the hands of the occupiers,'' said Marparwin Ali, an Afghan university lecturer in Paris when the radios were first launched.
One of the most popular parts of the program, which is transmitted in both Farsi and Pashto, is a 15-minute ''letter box.'' Here queries from listeners in Kabul, the resistance-held areas, and the refugee camps in Pakistan are answered on the air. The letters are often brought in by friends and relatives visiting the areas where the hidden stations are located.
The communist press has consistently attacked the clandestine radio network as an affront to the Soviet Union and the government of Afghanistan. ''The object of this subversive action, of these broadcasts, is to consolidate the counterrevolution, to bring disrepute on the political help of the Soviet Union to the Afghan people,'' commented Izvestia.
Claiming that RFK was founded with the help of the CIA, the Russians were notably vexed last year by the dissident broadcasts to the Soviet troops. When French TV reported the presence of clandestine radio stations in Afghanistan on a nationwide news show, the Soviet Embassy in Paris lodged a formal protest warning that relations between France and the USSR could suffer.
Apart from trying to bombard the radio transmitters, the Russians have also banned the possession of FM receivers among both Afghan and Soviet soldiers. ''It is something the Russians cannot really grasp,'' explained Halter. ''It is not the BBC or the VOA which they're attacking, but the radio of the Afghan people themselves.''
Although the European committees help provide funds, equipment, and technical assistance, the network is run by five of the six Peshawar-based political parties that have signed a basic RFK protocol. In addition to the 11 broacasting units already in existence, they have established a modern and well-equipped studio in Peshawar. Prerecorded tapes are hand-carried to the stations across the border, where local producers transmit a mixture of live and prepared programs.
Overall, the Paris RFK committee maintains, the Afghans need an estimated $ 250,000 to install and maintain the entire 36-station network. Each broadcasting unit costs roughly 25,000 francs ($3,600 US) including transmitter and recording equipment.
''The problem right now is having enough funds to expand and ensuring that the network will develop professional standards,'' Halter said. Although quality varies from station to station, the broadcasts to Kabul heard by this reporter were unusually well-produced.
Receivers are another drawback. Most radio sets found in Afghanistan only have AM, long and short wave, but no FM. The RFK committees in Europe are launching a massive campaign to collect funds to purchase FM radio sets in Singapore and Hong Kong at $15 to $20 each. Using the slogan, ''One Afghan, one radio,'' they hope to swamp Afghanistan with pocket-size receivers.
It is not just a matter of equipment. French volunteer technicians have already gone inside to help set up the transmitters and train local producers. But the war has taken its toll.
In the Panjshir Valley, for example, RFK lost three French-trained Afghan technicians when two were killed and one was captured during Soviet-Afghan attacks.
A new advisory team is expected to return to Pakistan and Afghanistan shortly not only to help set up the new Russian station but also to further develop the network.