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Afghan peace: no easy task. Even as talks continue, both sides are improving fighting tactics

A CEASE-FIRE in Afghanistan? Soviet troops withdraw? A political settlement? Refugees return? The hopes for all these results are there. But so are the scheming, the rhetoric, and the reluctance to compromise. Despite United Nations--sponsored peace talks in Geneva and Moscow's apparent desire to pull out of Afghanistan, the realities of the Afghan conflict do not point to a settlement just around the corner.

For the British during the 19th and early 20th centuries, skirmishing with Afghan tribesmen or campaigning against czarist Russian ambitions in Central Asia was whimsically referred to as the ``great game.''

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But over the past eight years the war in Afghanistan has become a pitiless contest of endurance and basic survival - not just on the battlefields, but in the corridors of power. It is a war with too many players and too many interests.

Based on recent conversations with Western and Asian analysts in London, Paris, and Geneva, a political solution to the conflict will depend not just on the two parties most concerned - the Soviet Union and the Afghan resistance - but also on Pakistan, Iran, the United States, China, and India. At present, the UN peace talks involve only Pakistan and the Soviet-backed Kabul government.

On the surface, Afghanistan is the story of a Muslim people that rose up in revolt against a repressive minority government. The communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which first seized power during the so-called ``Saur'' (April) revolution of 1978, initially sought to contend with the spreading insurgency on its own. But it soon became apparent that without large-scale Soviet military intervention, the regime of then-President Hafizullah Amin had little hope of surviving.

In the first three months of the invasion, some 85,000 Soviet Red Army troops entered the country, Amin was killed, and the Kremlin installed a puppet leader, the more pliable Babrak Karmal. It then set about trying to crush the resistance, which had spread to all 28 provinces, and to Sovietize the country. But the Soviet invasion added a new dimension to the conflict. For Afghanistan's largely peasant population, the fighting was no longer a civil war. It had become a nationalist partisan struggle, a jihad (holy war) against the infidel invaders from the north.

Today, Moscow's occupation force stands at between 115,000 and 120,000, not including thousands of civilian advisers.

Analysts say Soviet strategy was, and still is, a long-term one. The Soviets have preferred to concentrate on wearing down popular resistance through a brutal war of attrition coupled with a ``divide and rule'' campaign.

NEVERTHELESS, the close proximity of the Soviet Union has given Soviet forces distinct logistical advantages. Supply routes across the Oxus River (Amu Darya) are short. Combat units and aircraft are regularly deployed in counterinsurgency operations from bases inside Soviet Central Asia. For all intents and purposes, the Kremlin considers Afghanistan an extension of the Soviet Union.

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Most observers agree that a military solution to the war is unlikely. Since the invasion, both the Soviets and their Kabul surrogates, and the mujahideen, as Afghan resistance fighters are called, have steadily improved their capabilities. But neither side has succeeded in breaking what has become a stalemate.

Overall, the Soviets persist with large-scale operations, involving helicopter gunship assaults, high-altitude bombing, and armored sweeps against mujahed strongholds. But they have also adopted more effective counterinsurgency tactics, such as commando ambushes against guerrilla caravans or expanded informer networks.

The guerrillas themselves admit that such tactics have made life more difficult. But numerous mujahed fronts have managed sufficiently to adapt their combat methods to keep the pressure on. Improved techniques and increased outside assistance, such as US-made Stinger missiles or long-range Chinese rockets, have significantly enhanced the guerrillas' power. At present, the Soviets are believed by some Western observers to be losing one aircraft a day because of this improved antiaircraft weaponry. Recently returned observers have noted a rise in small, highly mobile attacks against urban centers, bases, convoys, and economic targets such as electricity pylons.

THE Soviets seem perfectly aware that their policies have failed to bring the resistance to heel. Even with the ravaging and depopulation of entire regions, the security forces can claim to hold only the capital, some towns, fortified bases, and the main axis routes. Despite propaganda claims by Kabul, the ruling PDPA has made little headway in genuinely expanding its grass-roots support.

At present, the war is costing the Kremlin an estimated $3 billion a year. At least 25,000 Soviets have been killed and public concern is rising back home. Furthermore, the Soviets are said to be worried about their loss of prestige in the third world, notably among Muslim nations, because of the war.

Such factors are nudging the Soviets toward a political solution. Most West European analysts feel that Mikhail Gorbachev is sincere about wanting to pull out. The Soviet leader has referred to the war as a ``bleeding wound.''

In the view of a British defense strategist, ``We, the West, and particularly the Americans, should do everything possible to help them leave.'' If a peaceful solution is really desired, he adds, Moscow should be allowed to extricate itself without losing face, an approach not generally appreciated by conservative circles in the US.

Pakistan and Afghanistan agree on three points: the voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, the resumption of relations between the two countries, and acceptance of assurances from the Soviet Union, the US, and China of Afghanistan's independence and nonalignment.

But they do not agree on a fourth crucial point: the timetable for withdrawal of Soviet troops. The Soviets who initially proposed a four-year timetable may have come down to two years or less, observers say, and the Pakistanis, who initally demanded four months, may have gone up to six months. US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger has demanded a two-week timetable.

At the same time, most analysts believe the Kremlin is still seeking to retain its influence, if not control, in Afghanistan. As part of a withdrawal agreement, Moscow is insisting that all outside aid to the mujahideen be halted.

``The Soviets are hoping that denying the guerrillas aid will give them enough time to neutralize resistance, broaden government support, and keep a pro-Moscow leadership in Kabul,'' says a Paris-based analyst. To this end, the Soviets are believed to be pressuring the PDPA to form a more representative coalition administration.

At the start of this year, the party launched a ``national reconciliation'' program. Mohammad Najibullah, the former head of Khad (the Afghan secret service) who took over as Kabul's leader last May, said he was ready for ``compromise and dialogue.'' But he also stressed that he still considered the party ``guardian of political life and society in Afghanistan.''

The Kabul initiative - which the guerrillas reject as propaganda - includes a unilateral six-month cease-fire, an appeal for refugees to return, and an amnesty for opponents who renounce their ``terrorist activities.'' So far, the government claims, 15,000 ex-guerrillas and 25,000 refugees have accepted.

Guerrilla leaders, however, are adamant that the Kabul proposal is little more than a ploy to make the resistance appear intransigent. ``What the communists are presenting is nothing new - just old words in a different form,'' contended one resistance source contacted by phone in Peshawar, Pakistan. ``This so-called reconciliation program is dictated by Moscow and is aimed at legalizing Soviet domination.''

The guerrillas further maintain that they have no intention of dealing with Kabul. If there is any negotiating, they say, it will be directly with Moscow.

National reconciliation or not, the Soviets' chances of retaining a pro-Moscow leadership once they have gone remain doubtful. Without Soviet military backing, observers maintain, the party has as little chance of standing on its own today as it did in 1980. At best, according to most indications, the party can barely count on 5 percent of the population. And it is racked by internecine strife.

ALTHOUGH the drying up of outside aid may well hamper guerrilla activities, it will not bring resistance to a grinding halt. During the first three years of the occupation, most mujahed fronts received little or no foreign assistance, yet succeeded in tying down the Soviets. Concerned by a possible sellout in Geneva, guerrilla groups have been stockpiling weapons and ammunition inside Afghanistan.

For Pakistan, there is enough reason to want a rapid political settlement. Though the Soviet invasion at first benefited the government of President Zia ul-Haq by transforming Pakistan into a ``front line'' state and brought it a dramatic increase in US aid, the Soviet invasion is becoming a liability.

The presence of 3.2 million refugees on Pakistani territory is causing considerable friction among local inhabitants. Afghans compete for the same jobs and trade. The rise in the drug traffic from Afganistan has resulted in a serious increase in young Pakistani addicts, and guns from across the border have been used in local riots. In addition, Islamabad's policies toward Kabul have become a major bone of contention with left-wing political opponents, who are calling for recognition of the Kabul regime.

``It's not that we don't sympathize with the plight of Afghans,'' a Pakistani businessman says. ``They are Muslims fighting for their freedom. But we just want to see them go home.''

Any binding settlement at Geneva, analysts contend, will have to include the Soviets and the mujahideen.

According to diplomats, the US as well as China and Iran has exhorted Pakistan not to accept a deal overly favorable to the Kremlin. The Chinese, who provide considerable support to the resistance, have also made it repeatedly clear that a normalization of relations between Moscow and Peking must include complete Soviet withdrawal.

The Soviets have been bringing their own pressure to bear on Islamabad through cross-border air raids and subversion. The Pakistanis are also painfully aware that any settlement unacceptable to the resistance could provoke an explosive reaction. The Islamabad authorities would find it no easy task to forcibly remove Afghans, many of whom are armed, from their territory.

``We could easily face a new Lebanon,'' one Pakistani says.

Covering Kabul London

From the start, Afghanistan has been a difficult conflict to assess. It remains a poorly covered war, with little consistent information reaching the outside.

Journalists reporting with the resistance are hampered by poor communications and difficult terrain, while those granted visas by the Kabul authorities are restricted to the capital with occasional visits to militarily ``safe'' areas. Diplomatic missions are also restricted, and Western satellite reconnaissance can offer only limited insights.

No more than 100 journalists cover the Afghan conflict from inside the country; yet enough reliable evidence has emerged to underline the war's devastating consequences.

Anywhere from 500,000 to 1 million Afghans are believed to have died as a direct result of the fighting. Communist aerial bombardments, ground assaults, and repression of civilians, together with widespread economic deprivation, have forced more than 5 million Afghans, roughly one-third of the pre-1978 population, to flee the country. Most have gone to Pakistan and Iran.

Latest reports indicate that Soviet-Afghan military operations continue to result in refugee influxes across the border.

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