MOSCOW, DEC. 23 -- For the first time since Soviet troops and tanks rolled into Afghanistan eight years ago this week, Moscow provided a detailed report today of a major battle in progress, following up accounts of opposition to the war and of the way it has emotionally scarred Soviet soldiers.
In a briefing on the current fighting, Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov described for journalists the battle to lift the siege of the Afghan city of Khost, which has long been cut off by the guerrillas.
Brief but vivid, Gerasimov told a press conference that in the past two days the Soviet-backed forces have killed or wounded 1,500 rebel troops and advanced to within 24 miles of Khost, located near the border of Pakistan, the home base of the rebel forces.
"Government authorities have to airlift food, but at the same time transport aircraft are fired at," said Gerasimov.
A year ago, the only news of the military struggle in Afghanistan available publicly here was through leaks or from the West. The report today, though, climaxes several months of official Soviet media accounts of the war that have been far more frank.
Gerasimov indicated that the Soviet campaign for more glasnost, or openness, about the war is limited, however. Asked how many casualties Soviet troops have suffered in eight years of supporting the wobbly communist regime in Kabul, he declined to answer, saying that Moscow does not give out such information.
In recent weeks, other Soviet officials have conceded that public dissatisfaction with the war is strong. "It is now obvious the discontent is there," said Oleg Bikov, deputy director of the Institute for the World Economy, in a recent interview. "And we have to respond to that, too."
Since Moscow officially declared its intention to pull out of the war two years ago, the state-controlled press has reported a groundswell of bitter feelings among Soviets during the years when most reporting on the war was taboo. Many Soviets are writing in to ask when the war is going to end, the official party newspaper Pravda reported a month ago.
With the secrecy that used to shroud thorny aspects of the war now lifting, one result is the public emergence of Afghan veterans.
Organizing nationwide for more rights and benefits, profiled regularly in the official media, Soviet veterans of the war, it turns out, suffer many of the same problems that their American counterparts faced when they left Vietnam: psychological stress, resentment from the public and job shortages.
In the early years of the war, media portraits of the veterans highlighted heroism and boldness. More recent depictions indicate the veterans have suffered.
In the popular Soviet film "Is It Easy to Be Young?" a veteran was shown with a limb missing. The official weekly Moscow News ran a photograph of another in a wheelchair, with his head hanging, and an article about a camp on the Black Sea for those injured in the war. They keep showing the rebels "on TV laying down arms," veteran Igor Ovsyannikov told Moscow News, "but the number of heavily wounded is not decreasing."
Official reports of the lingering memories of war horrors are also vivid. "One never knows just how much time will pass from the moment of being wounded until one feels the pain," a veteran said in a dispatch in the official weekly Ogonyek.
Most striking of all in the latest Soviet press reports about the veterans are the psychological difficulties they endure in returning home from an unpopular war.
Fits of violence apparently are common among the veterans, including vigilante activities. When a young man yelled "Hey, crippie" at a wounded veteran in the Ukrainian town of Saki, the veteran killed the youth with a crutch, according to Moscow News. It said, "They crave for a normal human life with what might seem to be ferocity."
When some Soviets resisted the early attempts of Afghan veterans to form their own clubs, they reacted with dismay.
"In Afghanistan they trusted us with machine guns," Oleg Zavyalov was quoted by the official magazine Smena as saying at a veterans' gathering, "but here they don't want to trust us with a basement room."
Besides violence and anger, the psychological impact of returning from the war has led some veterans to depression, crime and postwar shock syndromes, according to various articles and Soviet sources on the war.
With the new openness, a nationwide organization to protect the interests of veterans has been founded. It offered a press conference here last month.
In recent closed sessions with the Soviet Youth organization, party officials apparently have been even more candid. Although Soviet casualties have not been published in the press, some Soviet Youth members say that they have been told that 13,000 Soviets have been killed.
As the Soviet press brings some of the bitterness into the open, it has also revealed the lengths authorities went to in concealing details of the war after the Kremlin dispatched troops there in 1979.
In a Nov. 25 article, Pravda reported that during the early years of the war some of the grave markers of soldiers killed in Afghanistan did not say where or how they died, only that they were "killed in action."
In the official newspaper Liternaturnaya Gazeta today, the mother of a dead soldier complained that a bureaucrat warned her not to talk with others about her suffering.
"About the events in Afghanistan," a journalist wrote in Smena last month, "there is still nothing written in the schoolbook 'History of the U.S.S.R.' "