Afghan rebels brace for attack
Soviet forces in Afghanistan are making preparations for what appears to be a concerted effort to neutralize Afghan resistance fighters in several parts of the country.
For the past few weeks, Red Army troops have been massing around the town of Gulbahar, some 30 miles north of Kabul, the capital. They are expected soon to launch what may prove to be the largest offensive yet against the Afghan resistance.
If so, the attack will bring to an end a temporary truce that has existed for the past 16 months between the guerrillas of the strategic Panjshir Valley and the Soviet occupation forces.
According to resistance and other sources, up to 30,000 troops, mainly Soviet , have been brought in for the operation, double that of any previous one. The reported presence of a high concentration of heliborne assault rangers also indicates that the Soviets may make a special effort to control the surrounding mountain ridges in a bid to block off guerrilla escape routes.
They have already positioned commando units at the northern end of the Panjshir. And initial attacks have been launched against civilians and guerrilla concentrations in the Shomali area at the entrance of the valley, cutting off supply routes from Pakistan.
Similar operations appear to have been planned or already launched against guerrilla strongholds in the Mazar-i-Sharif, Laghman, Jalalabad, Herat, and Khost regions. In the past, Soviet forces have tended to concentrate major assaults on one area at a time.
''From what we gather, the Soviets are going to make the next three months very hot for us,'' one guerrilla source says.
Despite an upsurge in transport flights since March 24 from the Soviet Union to Kabul, Bagram, and other air bases, it remains unclear whether the Soviets have brought in reinforcements or have been simply carrying out conventional spring troop transfers. The present occupation force is estimated at 105,000 to 110,000 men, with an additional 30,000 stationed across the border in Soviet Central Asia.
Recent guerrilla attacks against fuel convoys from the north als may have forced the Soviets to airlift petroleum supplies to the capital.
For Panjshir leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, one of Afghanistan's leading resistance commanders, the impending offensive will be the seventh against guerrillas in the 70-mile-long valley since the original Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. He also expects it to be the toughest.
Although his forces are much better equipped and trained than during previous Soviet attacks, Mr. Massoud has ordered most of the valley's inhabitants to be evacuated. In addition, he has appealed for funds and other forms of aid in order to withstand Soviet pressure over a long period. One of Massoud's principal worries has been his organization's ability to provide for the needs of the valley's remaining 40,000 to 50,000 inhabitants.
During the last big attacks against the Panjshir in May and September of 1982 , the Red Army High Command deployed a combined Soviet-Afghan force of more than 12,000 troops supported by heavy armor, helicopter gunships, and MIGs. The Soviets succeeded in occupying most of the valley, but failed to break the resistance. Nevertheless, the Panjshir guerrillas nearly ran out of ammunition and food supplies and could do little against constant aerial and artillery bombardments.
In January 1983, Massoud accepted a Soviet proposal for a six-month cease-fire. The Soviets agreed to withdraw and refrain from all military activities in the region, but maintained a base of some 800 men at Onawa, near the mouth of the valley. Although Massoud refused to renew the truce when it came to an end, both sides tacitly continued to respect it.
Massoud used the respite to regroup his men, restock supplies, and rebuild destroyed homes. Panjshir farmers brought in their best harvest in six years. More important, the young Tajik leader met with resistance commanders from six provinces, such as Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif, to discuss more effective guerrilla cooperation.
The most visible result of this new regional unity has been a greater sharing of resources and a more coordinated anti-Soviet strategy. Although the truce forbade the Panjshir mujahideen from operating within the confines of their valley, they have launched numerous attacks against convoys, government posts, and other targets along the Salang Highway and in the Shomali region. Some resistance and diplomatic sources suggest that coordinated guerrilla attacks against fuel-supply convoys may have held up the present planned offensives by several weeks.
Since February, the Soviets have been trying to renegotiate the cease-fire with Massoud. But he has refused unless it took a larger area into consideration.
Over the past few months, observers maintain that the Panjshir commander has lost credibility among many Afghans, who maintain that he is trying to avoid fighting, thus putting unnecessary pressure on guerrilla fronts elsewhere in the country. Others claims that he is trying to make a deal with the Kremlin in order to enhance his own position.
Massoud argues that the truce was necessary and that the resistance as a whole has gained through the creation of a more concrete regional alliance. Nevertheless, cynical though it be, some observers suggest a major Soviet offensive may be what is needed to alleviate any doubts about Massoud's true intentions.
And if Massoud fails to accede to Soviet demands for a truce, there is little doubt that the Red Army will pull no punches in this next offensive.