Our Man in Afghanistan

DANIEL BERGER

April 25, 1992|By DANIEL BERGER

Afghanistan may safely be taken out of world politics and left to the Afghans. Russia no longer borders it; Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan do. British India no longer borders it; Pakistan does. All Islamic states, sharing peoples with Afghanistan.

There is no ethnicity common or unique to Afghanistan. All are minorities of peoples concentrated elsewhere. Afghanistan is not nation-state so much as an empire covering what the larger empires failed to absorb.

Left to themselves, the Afghans might work things out. Or fight each other to the death. The empires that receded, including the United States, equipped them to do that.

Take Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hezb-i-Islami (Party of Islam), who until yesterday threatened Afghanistan, or at least the region around the refugee-swollen capital of Kabul, with civil war.

He is a known quantity. He was behaving as expected. His group has attacked rivals for years. He said all along what he is about.

It may not be true that, as an engineering student at Kabul University in the early 1970s, he threw acid at the unveiled faces of women students. He calls that oft-repeated tale anti-Islamic propaganda.

But it is true that he founded the Hezb-i-Islami in rejection of the Jamiat-i-Islami (Islamic Society), founded by theology professor Burhanuddi Rabbani, as too broad-based. Mr. Rabbani funneled aid he received to fighting units in Afghanistan including the most effective field commander, Ahmad Shah Masoud.

More than 90 groups were fighting the Russians and their Communist puppets inside Afghanistan. The seven dissident parties in Peshawar approved by Pakistan and aided by the U.S., never called the shots. Mr. Masoud made coalitions on his own judgment and is probably not controlled by Mr. Rabbani.

Mr. Hekmatyar was known by the mid-Eighties for running a "Leninist" party. He demanded absolute loyalty and total control. The biggest beneficiary of U.S. aid, he denounced the U.S. as indistinguishable from the Soviet Union. When insurgent leaders were invited to Washington to meet President Reagan in 1986, he refused to go.

A Pashtun, his motivation is religious not ethnic. He intends to create a monolithic theocratic state. He demanded no less than that as the interim regime. He is a radical fundamentalist, not a traditionalist. He would transform Afghanistan into what it has never been.

So why did the U.S. lavish tanks and missiles on him?

In the Brezhnev era, the U.S. adopted Pakistan's dictator, President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, as a stalwart barrier to Soviet hegemony in the region.

Some 3 million Afghans fled to Pakistan. (Perhaps 2 million fled to Iran, 1 to 2 million died and 10 to 12 million survive in Afghanistan.) They were a fearful burden on Pakistan, they might bring war with them and they might undermine it.

Since some 40 percent of Afghans are Pashtuns (or Pathans), larger numbers of whom form a powerless minority in Pakistan, the dream of uniting them in an independent Pashtunistan is frightening and subversive to Pakistan.

General Zia was supporting Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan for his own motives. His secret police controlled the politics of Afghan exiles in Peshawar. The seven parties he allowed to flourish were overtly Islamic to varying extent, and opposed Pashtunistan.

Mr. Hekmatyar demands a monolithic Islamic state of Afghanistan, excoriates Pashtunistan and emulates the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran politically. He was General Zia's favorite. That made him ours.

This was not deterred by the report that he had conspired to join the Communist ruler, Hafizullah Amin, in an anti-Soviet putsch prevented by the Soviet invasion and death of Amin in 1979.

The rationale for aid to Mr. Hekmatyar, such as it was, vanished. General Zia was blown up in an airplane in 1988. Soviet troops pulled out of Afghanistan in early 1989.

But U.S. policy continued on auto pilot. The coterie of insiders whom Secretary of State James A. Baker III trusts to revise policy was engaged in larger matters. The U.S. ended military aid to Afghan political parties at the start of this year after an agreement with Moscow for mutual cessation.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar agreed only yesterday, reflecting the military situation, to an interim coalition. He will increasingly in coming days (and years?) be branded by U.S. policy-makers as a monster. One of largely U.S. creation. What he won't be is a surprise.

0 Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

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