New national folk heroes are emerging from among Afghan resistance fighters to challenge the power of the entrenched, highly politicized rebel organizations here, which are believed by guerrillas in the field to spend more time battling each other than the Soviet invaders of their homeland.
Accounts of the new heroes' exploits are passed by word of mouth from village to village, and their fame has spread to areas far from their centers of operation, according to Western doctors and journalists who traveled through Afghanistan last month.
These fighters include men such as Ahmad Shah Massoud, known as the "Lion of the Panjshir" for his exploits in beating back five Soviet attacks in 18 months on his strategic stronghold in the Panjshir Valley, and Abdul Haq, the commander of urban guerrillas who make the streets of the Afghan capital of Kabul unsafe for supporters of the Moscow-installed government of Babrak Karmal, the recent visitors said.
"They are demonstrating leadership where there is not much shown here," said one longtime observer of rebel activities in this Khyber Pass city on the Pakistani-Afghan border.
He predicted that the strength of the emigre organizations here--now split into two loose federations, one made up of Islamic fundamentalists and the other considered more moderate--would decline with the growth of a new leadership within Afghanistan.
Massoud, a charismatic 28-year-old former engineering student, is the best known of the resistance heroes because his Panjshir Valley base, 40 miles northwest of Kabul, has become a major target for the Soviets.
He appears to have repulsed a fifth major attack that started in May by first drawing a strong force of Soviet and Afghan government troops deep into the 70-mile-long valley and then ambushing them from its mountainsides. Reportedly the Soviet-Afghan forces suffered heavy casualties, although the fighting is still going on, according to the travelers.
Massoud has mastered the techniques of guerrilla warfare so well that other rebel bands send men to the Panjshir for training, they noted.
They also tell of one of Massoud's proteges, another former engineering student in his late 20s known as Zabihullah, who has gained a reputation for operations in the northern Afghan province of Balkh, on the Soviet border. Government officials in the area are afraid to leave their protected enclaves, the visitors reported.
Sayed Jagram is another local leader who is becoming known across Afghanistan. He runs a force that operates in the central Afghan provinces of Ghazni, Wardak and Bamian where the government has little control.
According to reliable sources here, there are more than a half dozen other local guerrilla commanders who are seen as potential future leaders of Afghanistan if the Soviets are ever forced to leave.
They are described as having risen through merit, not because of inherited tribal positions. Moreover, they are not dominated by mullahs--Islamic religious leaders--even though, like most Afghans, they are devout Moslems.
Furthermore, they are beginning to help each other in a way that has not been seen before in the Afghan resistance. Massoud, for instance, was able to call on other tribal bands to help in his most recent defense of the Panjshir. Western journalists traveling from there last month described seeing mule trains carrying weapons and ammunition heading to the Panjshir from areas that usually do not help central Afghan tribes.
"They are forging a new nationalism in Afghanistan," said a Pakistan-based diplomat.
Beyond that, they have become a counterforce to the Peshawar-based political organizations, whose leaders now rarely venture into Afghanistan and who have become largely discredited because of constant bickering.
These internal feuds have worsened the already strained relationship between the political groups here and the fighters in Afghanistan who, according to informed sources, complain they are not getting their share of money and weapons flowing into Peshawar.
This is the only hold the political figures here have over men such as Massoud, Zabihullah and Abdul Haq who have loose affiliations with groups here so they can get supplies, but run their own show in the field.
It is clear that the political organizations here are far better off financially than they were 18 months ago. Their offices are bigger and more luxurious and they now distribute slick, four-color brochures instead of the crudely mimeographed tracts they used to hand out.
The political leaders spend most of their time traveling to friendly Western and Arab nations in search of funds. It is unclear where the weapons are coming from, although there are reliable reports that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency is funneling a small amount of arms into Afghanistan through here. The reported Egyptian connection appears to have dried up after the assassination of Anwar Sadat.
According to informed sources here, the fundamentalist groups appear to have far more money than the moderates, who, like the actual fighters, complain they are not getting their share.
While unity continues to elude the close to a dozen rebel organizations here, they have shaken down into two main groups having the same name--the Islamic Unity of Afghanistan Mujaheddin.
One, known as "the unity of seven," is made up of Islamic fundamentalists and, according to its own literature, the group is undemocratic. The other, "the unity of three," is composed of more moderate groups.