The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan has slowed and might fall short of achieving a 50 percent reduction in occupation forces by Monday, Western diplomats and resistance sources say. There has been intensified guerrilla activity around key highways and cities in recent weeks, apparently comlicating the pullout. Only 32,000 of what the Soviets say are 100,000 troops (Western estimates are 115,00 troops) were believed to have left by end of July. But, says a Western diplomat in Pakistan, ``Even if they don't make [the Aug. 15 deadline], we still think they're pulling out.''
Other diplomats speculate that the Soviets will be forced to speed up their pullout for security reasons once the bulk of troops have been removed. But many Afghans are convinced the Soviets intend to keep backing Kabul with supplies as well as combat troops deployed from inside the Soviet Union. Also, the Soviets have said they will leave behind ``advisers'' - estimated at 10,000 - to assist the ruling communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan.
``We shall only believe them once they have all gone,'' said leading guerrilla commander Abdul Haq recently.
Nevertheless most guerrilla groups indicate they will refrain from directly attacking withdrawing forces, so Moscow will not have an excuse to perpetuate its occupation. But the more fundamentalist groups say they will fight the Soviets wherever they may be.
In recent weeks, the mujahideen, as guerrillas are known, have stepped up actions against Kabul and Afghan government-controlled regional centers such as Gardez, where the Soviets have been obliged to deploy heavy air cover to keep vehicles moving.
With rockets hitting and reportedly destroying aircraft on the ground, Western diplomats say Soviet troops have increased their defense responsibilities around Kabul airport. The Afghan regime also announced the creation of a special security force to protect the capital. The guerrillas are now reportedly operating within 10 miles of the city center. At least 150 rockets were fired into the city during the third week of July, killing both military personnel and civilians. One rocket hit the French Embassy; another landed near the US Embassy compound.
Not all the missiles are believed to have been launched by the guerrillas, diplomats say. Some sources suggest the government may be responsible, in a bid to discredit the resistance for firing indiscriminately into civilian areas.
In a move bitterly criticized by the Kabul regime, Western embassies are in the process of removing all dependents and nonessential personnel from the city. Most East Europeans, too, have reduced their diplomatic representations or withdrawn advisers. Such developments are widely seen by Western observers as lack of confidence by East-bloc nations in the ability of the faction-ridden ruling party to hold its own against the resistance.
Similarly, diplomats feel that Soviet charges last month of direct Pakistani military participation in guerrilla rocket attacks may be an attempt to rationalize the inability of Soviet-Afghan forces to defend the capital and to explain recent military setbacks elsewhere.
At press time, Western and resistance sources in Pakistan were unable to confirm Moscow's claims that it has withdrawn its 2,000 remaining troops from the strategic city of Kandahar.
Resistance sources say the Soviet Army has been bringing in Soviet-trained sarandoy (militia) and Army contingents to replace its forces and defend Kabul's last major stronghold in the south.
As long as Soviet troops remained, many observers have considered it unlikely that Kandahar would fall. These observers are keenly watching the Kandahar situation for indications of what might follow a Soviet departure, as the war develops into more of an Afghan-against-Afghan conflict.
``If the Soviets have indeed left, what happens in Kandahar will prove to be a key to what happens elsewhere in the country,'' says a West European diplomat in Islamabad. Some predict a government collapse within six to eight weeks; others caution that Kandahar's militia forces have already proven to be tough fighters.