Afghanistan Confronts Itself

April 18, 1992

First things first in the bloody muddle that is Afghanistan. And the first thing is to celebrate the downfall of President Najibullah, known as "the Ox," the burly Communist who welcomed Soviet invaders 12 years ago and thereby became a traitor forever to millions of his countrymen.

Despite Dr. Najibullah's ability to carry on for a couple of years without Soviet troops and for a few months without Russian military aid, no interim government would have had a prayer for success or peace if he were given a role. He is a pariah. Those who might have thought otherwise, either at the United Nations or in Washington or Moscow, should be enlightened. His treason overshadows whatever advantages his secularism may offer.

The United States must not, under any circumstance, squander the goodwill it built up with the mujahedeen insurgents by equating them with Islamic fundamentalists, Iran-style, who have caused this country much grief. If the history of Afghanistan teaches anything, it is that its rugged and independent peoples set their own course despite centuries of meddling by outsiders.

They no longer have to contend with British colonialists, or serve as the scene of a proxy war between Soviets and Americans. Neighboring Iran on the west and Pakistan on the east have to be reckoned with, as do the former Soviet Central Asian republics to the north. But Afghanistan now primarily confronts itself -- its fierce tribalism, its ethnic rivalries, its home-grown leaders battling among themselves to fill the power vacuum.

The primary combatants are Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary Tajik general who is in negotiations with what is left of the Najibullah regime in Kabul, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the fiery Pushtun leader whose aim it is to dominate, not be left out of, any settlement. Mr. Massoud's forces are closing in on Kabul from the north, Mr. Hekmatyar's from the south. While the Massoud faction seems more adaptable to the kind of interim government desperately sought by the U.N., the Hekmatyar faction is more acceptable to the Pushtun majority in Kabul itself.

So highest priority must be given to arrangements that might head off a clash between these two groups. It would be a tragedy if Afghanistan were to be flung into still another civil war -- this one not between secular Communists and Islamic fundamentalists but between Tajiks and Pushtuns, and the groups that might align with either.

Moscow and Washington, both deeply involved in the first civil war, are morally obligated to prevent a second. With the U.N, Pakistan and Iran, they should try to promote a government of reconciliation. The diplomacy involved will require all the intrigue and bargaining techniques of the bazaar. The alignment of forces will be in constant motion. But the absence of Dr. Najibullah, provided he stays absent, will prove a blessing.

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