Striking improvements in guerrilla strategy have resulted in severe punishment for Soviet occupation forces and government troops in Afghanistan. This has occurred despite a continued lack of agreement among the country's patchwork of popularly supported insurgent groups, sources recently returned from Afghanistan report.
The effectiveness of the mujahideen fighters varies widely from region to region. But a composite picture of the situation reveals a rising degree of confidence and combat sophistication among many of the guerrilla groups.
Conversely, both diplomatic and independent foreign observers have reported mounting casualties and a loss of morale among both Soviet and Afghan government troops.
In many parts of Afghanistan, the sources maintain, the Soviets appear to be reacting to guerrilla harassment, attacks, and assassinations with an increasingly defensive siege mentality. Soviet bases are being constantly reinforced with concrete walls, barbed wire, and mine fields.
One Western observer recently returned from northern Afghanistan reported that Soviet forces in Badakshan Province are forced to supply all their strongholds by air. Furthermore, awareness among the occupation troops that the mujahideen take few, if any, prisoners is apparently causing considerable anxiety and nervousness.
Two French doctors from the Paris-based Aide Medicale Internationale (AMI), who have just spent nearly three months providing health care inside Afghanistan , have provided details of the fighting.
Small, but well-organized, groups of mujahideen have been operating in a highly destructive manner against communist forces from their retreats in the resistance- controlled Panjshir Valley 40 miles north of Kabul. The doctors said the guerrillas have been launching almost daily assaults against the Soviets in and around the towns of Gulbahar, Salang, and Bagram.
Military convoys, a common source of weaponry, ammunition, and other supplies for the resistance, have also come under regular fire. In one recent case, the doctors said, two groups of guerrillas totaling 46 men launched an ambush, using grenade launchers, Kalashnikov assault rifles, and several antitank guns. Their target was a Soviet truck convoy protected by tanks and armored personel carriers.
By attacking both the front and the rear of the convoy as it turned a corner along a mountain road, the mujahideen managed to trap the vehicles despite vigorous Soviet air support from accompanying helicopters. According to the doctors, the guerrillas inflicted heavy casualties on the Soviets, but suffered only three wounded of their own.
"Wherever we went [in the regions north of Kabul] we were struck by the smooth organization and effectiveness of the mujahideen," Dr. Philippe Maniere said. "Guerrilla operations always seemed to be planned with patience and care.'
In the Panjshir Valley, for example, there was Massoud, a young Tajik regional commander who has apparently received guerrilla training abroad. He always discussed strategy with his men both before and after each operation.
"They even used super-8 film cameras to record attacks and later showed the shots to the mujahideen with a projector powered by a mobile generator," Dr. Maniere added.
In contrast to the early days of anti-communist resistance, an increasing number of the groups have become aware of the need for more coordination of their military tactics. Most seek to retain full control in sharply defined sectors -- a series of villages, a valley, or even a region. They deeply resent outside intruders who do not accept their authority.
But in the face of Soviet offensives, there is often close cooperation, despite the continued lack of an overall alliance among resistance fronts.
In mid-July, many guerrillas from neighboring areas flocked in to help local mujahideen in the Paghman district in what are considered to have been the heaviest clashes between communist and insurgent forces since the Dec. 27 Soviet invasion. But bitter fighting has repeatedly been reported between the two major fundamentalist groups in the Afghan resistance: Jamiat-e Islam and the Hizb-e Inqilab-e Islam-e Afghanistan led by Hekmatyar Gulbuddin. In many cases, the confrontations have resulted in numerous casualties.
Continued bombardment by Soviet planes and helicopters of Afghan villages has been reported by several sources, including returning French medical teams who have established several field hospitals and dispensaries inside Afghanistan.The bombings have killed large numbers of civilians in Paktia, Kunar, Nanghar, Parwas, Baghland, and several other provinces in recent months.
The mujahideen still lack the necessary weapons such as surface-to-air missiles to combat Soviet air power, these sources say.
"But we were also astonished to find Afghans living almost normally despite the constant threat of Soviet attack," said Dr. Laurence Mounier, an AMI doctor. "Although each village had its share of destroyed houses, the local people continued to cultivate their fields and go about their daily chores."
Many shops were reported amply stocked, including goods such as chewing gum, soft drinks, soap, and other items. The doctors said foods such as rice, wheat, vegetables, and fruit were also available.
These sources did encounter abandoned fields and ruptured irrigation canals in the border areas with Pakistan and in pockets of other areas they passed. In more remote parts such as Nuristan in the northeast, food supplies are reportedly extremely thin. Afghan families in certain villages which had suffered from severe and indiscriminate bombing had just left or were in the process of leaving because of insufferable living conditions.