Two pair of eyes in Afghanistan; By day, words of unity -- at night, gunfire
The two faces of Afghanistan's revolution can be seen within 900 yards of each other at Kabul airport. Above the main terminal building, the faded outline of January's triumphant greeting to Soviet troops can still be observed. "Welcome to the new model revolution," it says, although the five-foot high letters have long ago been taken down and the sun has bleached the red paint a drab pink.
Just across the airfield, at the eastern end of the main runway, there lies another symbol of Afghanistan's revolutionary conflict: a 40-foot-long Soviet antiaircraft missile, its gleaming 385-pound warhead protruding from tarpaulins and guarded by six Soviet soldiers holding automatic weapons.
The dichotomy between words and action in Afghanistan -- between the breezy assertions of revolutionary unity and progress by the Soviet-supported government of President Babrak Karmal, and the massive quantity of hardware the Red Army has funneled into the country -- has never been so pronounced.
Everyday, Kabul Radio announces that the Karmal government is unified in the cause of the revolution and every night gunfire crackles over Kabul after curfew as Karmal's Parcham supporters wipe out a few of their rival Khalq movement members in their homes. Most evenings now, the radio news also announces that military "exercises" are to take place in the mountains the next day. The population should therefore not be surprised if it hears explosions. Of course, the next day the sound of gunfire and bombing does, indeed, rumble down from the hills -- for the Soviet Air Force is bombing the villages held by mujahideen guerrillas.
The men in the city streets listen to the rocket-fire with equanimity. For them, it is proof that the rebels are drawing nearer, that the "holy warriors of Islam" may liberate the capital. People on the streets approach Westerners with this grotesque optimism. A merchant walked up to me with the news that the rebels controlled almost all of Afghanistan. There is no doubt -- in strictly territorial terms -- that the insurgents dominate the mountains and the great deserted plains of this magnificent, terrifying country.
But if the Afghans took a bus ride down to Kabul's international airport, they might temper their optimism.Soviet MIG jet fighters are taking off every five minutes to attack the rebels in the Paghman Mountains to the west, and MI- 24 helicopter gunships -- four rockets clipped to their stabilizers -- fly off at almost equally frequent intervals to attack insurgent positions near the village of Charikar on the strategic road to the Salang Pass and the Soviet Union.
All last week, the big Antonov and Ilyushin transport aircraft were bringing troops into Kabul. Hundreds of the soldiers were flown in by the Soviet airline Aeroflot. A supreme irony of this devastatingly efficient operation was contained in the official tourist slogan painted in red on the side of the passenger aircraft: "Official Olympic carrier." But from the doors of the aircraft came Soviet combat troops.
I watched them disembark last week, young men for the most part, some with blond hair. They have discarded their Army Cossack-style hats in favor of a new regulation sombrero, a wide-brimmed affair that makes them look a little like Canadian mounted police. One soldier stopped on the aircraft steps, raised his arms to the sun, and said something that made his comrades laugh. But the casualty figures for Soviet troops suggest that some of these men will not be returning home quite so happy.
In May alone, it is estimated that 200 Red Army soldiers died of wounds in Kabul out of a total of 1,000 admissions to the main military hospital and the Soviet clinics in the north of the city.
The State Department still insists that Soviet forces in Afghanistan total around 80,000 men, but a truer figure would be about 110,000. And if Mr. Brezhnev's recent decision to withdraw some Soviet soldiers involves as many as 5,000, then this will equal only half the men sent in to Afghanistan last week alone. [According to Radio Moscow one division or about 10,000 men are being withdrawn.]
But to imply that the rebels are winning -- or that they even surround Kabul -- is a misleading. Resistance to the Soviet intervention is growing at a rate that Mr. Brezhnev could never have imagined last December.
Only the largest towns in Afghanistan are in Soviet hands. The guerrillas control mountain passes, foothills, villages -- even the main roads. But the Soviets could pour in further troops as soon as the Olympic Games are out of the way, and they could -- physically and politically -- crush almost every vestige of open opposition.
They would, of course, incur frightening casualties among the civilian population. But they are already bombing villages in the provinces of Nangahar, Ghazni, Paktia, Kunar and Badakshan. Those Afghans who believe they can defeat one of the most modern armies in the world would do well to remember that in the 1920s -- when the Red Army was young and weakened by civil war -- Soviets troops spent six years subjugating an uprising in the Soviet Muslim republics. And the Soviet Union tends to repeat its exploits rather than look for new initiatives.
All the same, it will soon have to find a government more credible than Mr. Karmal's crippled administration. The Cabinet's internal feuds must concern to the Soviet Politburo as they seek to support what they publicly regard as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.
Mr. Karmal's Parcham movement seems to be safely in the ascendent now. Mr. Karmal has sentenced 13 Khalq members to death for crimes against the state. Three are former ministers in Hafizullah Amin's dictatorship.
The remainder were, for the most part, secret police for whom few Afghans will shed any tears. The irony, is that the former head of Mr. Amin's security police is Assidullah Sawari, a Khalqi who is now Mr. Karmal's deputy prime minister. Is Mr. Sawari kept in power by the Soviets as a possible alternative to Karmal? Or is he tolerated by the President because he can control dissident Khalq members within the administration?
For some months, cynics believed that Mr. Karmal might eventually dismiss Mr. Sawari or that the former secret police chief might be shot dead.
On June 21, Kabul Radio announced Mr. Sawari had been flown to the Soviet Union "for medical treatment."
The writer is a correspondent for the Times of London.m