Kunar Province, Afghanistan — Against a background of sporadic rocket and artillery exchanges, the Afghan resistance official reflected on whether his country's 10-year war was ending. ``If the Soviets withdraw, ... there is no doubt that the Kabul regime will fall. Maybe not immediately, but probably sometime next year,'' he said.
``But that's when our real problems start. A lot will depend on the [resistance] commanders inside. It may be much time before we have peace,'' the Afghan said.
Indeed, as more areas of Afghanistan come under resistance control, it is the guerrilla commanders, waging war inside the country, who seem to hold the key to the future. Until recently, the Afghan political parties, operating in exile in Peshawar, Pakistan, had been looked to for leadership and direction. Increasing numbers of Afghan civilians and guerrillas are, however, becoming disillusioned with the seven main parties. There are two basic reasons:
Leaders of the radical Islamic groups and the more moderate ones have not united on any goals or plans for a future government.
Instances of corruption among the political leaders have increased in recent years. Rank-and-file Afghan fighters and impoverished refugees resent the fact that some political leaders lead a comfortable existence - allegedly through skimming off foreign aid.
``The Peshawar politicians are simply out of touch with what is happening inside the country,'' says Patrick Brizay of the Paris-based Guilde du Raide, which aids Afghans. ``Only the local leaders are really aware of conditions in their own areas.''
And while the Pakistan-based parties vie among each other, jostling for power inside Afghanistan has also begun. Local and regional leaders are actively consolidating their positions. Some are creating administrative set ups, with a view to reconstruction; others are seeking to assert themselves as parochial warlords.
Observers expect leading commanders such as Ahmed Shah Massoud in the north, Ismail Khan in the west, Amin Wardak in the southeast, and Abdul Haq in the east to become more assertive. Most commanders are unlikely to relinquish their authority or weapons to a central government - whether it is entirely resistance-led or a coalition with the communists.
No matter what happens in Kabul, says experienced Swedish relief worker Anders Fange, ``the real power will lie, at least for the foreseeable future, with a vast mosaic of local and regional authorities'' - those who emerged during the war to replace the authority of the central government.
Opinions differ on whether the country will disintegrate further into a purely Afghan-vs.-Afghan war once the Soviets leave.
The ruling People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan has been plagued by bitter, sometimes bloody, factional strife ever since grabbing power in April 1978. On the resistance side, clashes have often erupted between guerrilla groups.
Still, some observers see Afghanistan developing into a federation of regions based on ethnic, tribal, and geographical considerations, similar to Yugoslavia.
``What I see emerging is a federated system with considerable provincial autonomy ... a nation based on Islam but not dominated by Islamic leaders,'' says Louis Dupree, an American professor and a leading specialist on Afghan affairs.
As do some other analysts, Professor Dupree does not believe the Afghan mentality lends itself to extremism. Hence he does not anticipate the establishment of an Iranian-style Islamic dictatorship, despite efforts by Middle Eastern and other groups to back Afghan fundamentalists.
A potential source of conflict, particularly in border areas, is the lucrative and expanding heroin trade, estimated to be worth billions of dollars. While waging war, certain commanders, particularly tribal or clan chiefs, have also pursued the traditional frontier customs of trafficking in guns, contraband, and drugs.
Western antinarcotics officials fear that as the war winds down and civilians return, poppy cultivation in Afghan tribal areas will expand, without a strong central authority to exert control. These officials say the drug trade involves a network of corrupt elements within the resistance, the Pakistani government, the business community in Peshawar and Karachi, Soviet soldiers and officials, and members of the Kabul regime.
Last but not least, the traditional Afghan sense of independence, and fierce pride in maintaining family or clan honor and loyalty, could exacerbate strife.
For instance, on a recent trip in the northern border regions, this correspondent encountered a young commander, with 250 well-armed guerrillas. Educated and quiet spoken, but with a firm air of authority, Ahmed Khalid made it clear that he was not going into Afghanistan to fight the Soviets or the Kabul regime.
Accusing the Hezb-i-Islami resistance party of murdering his brother, a major regional commander of another party, Mr. Khalid said: ``It is my duty to return and deal with those responsible.''
When asked whether such conflicts could only benefit the Soviet-backed Kabul regime, he admitted that ``all they have to do is sit back and watch.''
But, Khalid said, he had no option: ``It is my duty.''
Western diplomats agree that Moscow will continue to exploit anything that might undermine the resistance. There are already indications that the Soviet as well as the Afghan government secret services are stepping up subversive activities, ranging from bribes to assassinations. The aim: to keep the guerrillas divided and garner support for a regime in Kabul, even a noncommunist one, favorable to the Soviet Union.
Such a notion is not entirely far-fetched, as making deals with the enemy is nothing new among Afghans. According to Western diplomatic and resistance sources, a number of commanders have already come to arrangements with the Soviets not to attack departing troops.
Panjshair Valley commander Massoud, for example, is reportedly allowing Soviet convoys to pass without hindrance along the highway to the north. He is said to be concentrating on hitting Afghan government positions and preparing, with other commanders, to move against Kabul.
Second of four parts. Next: The aid Afghanistan needs.