QUICK: how many years have the Soviets been bombing, shooting, gassing, starving and uprooting the people of Afghanistan? The aggression has been going on so long that many people may no longer be sure. But it's the fourth year--and the end is not in sight.
In 1982, the Soviets launched what they hoped would be a final offensive. It failed, because of the bravery of the Islamic Mujaheddin guerrillas and-- in a way even more--because of their support among the people. The guerrillas, using mostly arms taken from Soviet and puppet troops, roam widely in the countryside and, though outgunned, carry the battle to Soviet strongholds in the cities. The civilian Afghan toll, meanwhile, has been high. A fifth of the whole population has been pushed into Pakistan. Yet sanctuary and new recruits for the Mujaheddin remain available.
It is not always appreciated how isolated the Soviets are in Afghanistan. Some 105,000 of their troops are in the country. Only a third as many men serve in the Afghan army; they are little trusted by their Soviet overseers, and recruits seem barely to keep up with defections. Militarily, the Afghan units may be more trouble than they are worth to the Soviets.
Politically, the Soviets and the Babrak Karmal regime are isolated not only in Afghanistan but internationally as well. No single issue has cost the Kremlin more, especially in those left-oriented and Third World places where it is accustomed to easy support--and not least on account of its odious use of "yellow rain." For a fourth time last month, a top-heavy United Nations General Assembly majority demanded that Moscow withdraw in favor of a peaceful solution based on sovereignty, nonalignment and self-determination.
Is Moscow ready, finally, for such a solution? Yuri Andropov received the president of Pakistan, a firm ally of the Afghan resistance, at Leonid Brezhnev's funeral. A Pravda review subsequently seemed to acknowledge the key Pakistani requirement--not to deal with the puppet Babrak Karmal--by failing to mention his name. The Reagan administration has taken a certain grim satisfaction in Moscow's losses in Afghanistan, but the president has also invited the "new leadership" in the Kremlin in effect to lay the episode off on the late Brezhnev and cut a deal. A United Nations emissary is about to go to the region to continue diplomatic soundings. The difficult task of bringing resistance leaders, themselves divided, into the diplomatic circle may be becoming more urgent.
Meanwhile, the Afghan people fight bravely on.