Afghanistan in Crisis

April 24, 1992

For all practical purposes, the communist regime that ruled Afghanistan for 14 years no longer exists. What kind of government will replace it is an explosive issue, one that could trigger a second civil war even bloodier than the first.

At this writing, rival rebel forces are poised north and south of Kabul, the defenseless capital, alternately talking reconciliation and war. It is an ominous situation, one that the United Nations with support from Moscow and Washington is frantically trying to defuse. Army generals once loyal to deposed President Najibullah seem to be aligning themselves with the Tajik leader, Ahmen Shah Massoud, even though most of them are of the same Pushtun tribe of Mr. Massoud's fundamentalist opponent, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Neither of these mujahedeen chieftains has any interest in a standing U.N. proposal for an interim government that would include elements of the old government -- one they describe not only as communist but secularist and atheist. Instead they want an Islamic coalition, but one each insists on dominating and instilling with his own degree of Muslim fervor.

While the fate that has befallen Afghanistan in 14 years of bloody fighting will remain forever one of the final crimes of the old Soviet Union (and one that contributed to its fragmentation), the United States now finds itself in awkward circumstances. Of all the various guerrilla forces furnished with an estimated $2 billion in American arms by a Reagan administration eager to wage proxy cold wars against the old Kremlin regime, an estimated 70 percent went to Mr. Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami militants. These included scores of portable anti-aircraft Stinger missiles, some of which may have been sold to Iran.

Yet as the Afghan crisis intensifies, the United States finds itself more comfortable with the more moderate approach of Mr. Massoud and his Jamiat-i-Islami faction. Mr. Massoud has been conferring with army and government caretakers and with U.N. representative Benon Sevan while taunting Mr. Hekmatyar as a "warmonger" who lacks the strength to take Kabul as he has vowed.

Behind this verbiage is the grim danger of tribal warfare by heavily armed groups infused with different ethnic, religious and political aspirations. Kabul itself is near the tribal divide between the Tajiks on the north and the Pushtuns on the south. Pakistan to the east, Iran to the west, the Central Asian republics free of Moscow's yoke to the north -- all are involved.

U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali's decision to interject himself into the Afghanistan peace-keeping effort represents a right but risky use of the power of his office. Here is a perfect example of the superpowers creating a tinderbox, leaving the United Nations with the mission of pacifying a country always resistant to outsiders.

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