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Soviets launch pre-winter Afghan offensive to block supply lines

Soviet and Afghan Army forces are conducting their eighth major offensive against Afghanistan's strategic Panjshair Valley since the Soviets invaded the country nearly five years ago, according to resistance reports from the interior.

The assault by at least 15,000 troops with heavy air and armored support is the second such operation by the Soviets this year.

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According to a letter from guerrilla leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, ''Over 1,500 vehicles, including tanks, penetrated the main valley on Oct. 26 while 300 more entered the neighboring valley of Andarab. This was preceded by a series of bombardments from high altitudes by TU-16 planes operating from Soviet territory.''

The young Panjshairi commander, considered to be one of Afghanistan's most able resistance leaders, noted that Soviet and Afghan government troops, backed by helicopters and armored ground vehicles, had also begun moving up five side valleys adjacent to the Panjshair where highly mobile guerrilla commandos have been operating since early this year.

This latest offensive appears to be part of an overall Soviet strategy to maintain constant pressure throughout the winter, normally a period of little combat, on the more effective resistance front. The fact that heliborne troops reportedly have been dropped along the main caravan route points to Soviet determination to block supply routes until winter conditions make it virtually impossible to travel.

Although Massoud has indicated that he and his men will go on the offensive in coordination with other regional guerrilla fronts to force the invaders to withdraw, Soviet tactics can be expected to cause severe problems for the civilian population. While the mujahideen are well-stocked with food and ammunition in hidden mountain caches, the civilians have little or nothing.

Last April the Red Army launched its most massive onslaught of the valley (more than 20,000 men) as part of a series of operations against prominent resistance centers throughout the country.

Several days before the attack, Massoud evacuated the valley of civilians and resistance fighters but continued to harass government posts and ambush convoys in the Kohistan, Salang, and Panjshair regions. However, the offensive failed in its objective to destroy or at least scatter mujahideen (holy warriors).

In an apparent exercise in frustration, the Soviets launched follow-up search-and-destroy missions Sept. 5 against the mujahideen. They dropped heliborne troops at Dashti-Rawat in the northern Panjshair Valley and along surrounding ridges only to find that the guerrillas had melted back into the mountains.

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According to a French TV team in the region at the time, the mujahideen waited until the Soviets relaxed their guard, then began picking them off. After only three or four days the Soviets withdrew, apparently having suffered considerable casualties.

The French journalists quoted Massoud as saying that the guerrillas had not lost a single man during these operations. He also maintained that the Soviets then pulled out their remaining men from the region leaving only Afghan Army troops and militiamen to hold the six government bases still in the valley.

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