IF Afghanistan were truly the Soviet Union's Vietnam, the war would end with a US client government safely ensconced in Kabul. But here the Afghanistan-Vietnam parallel, always inexact, breaks down. Washington will count its blessings if, once the chaotic political situation in Afghanistan shakes out, the country has a regime that doesn't regard Westerners as infidels. When the Red Army invaded Afghanistan, the United States' goal was clear: to deny the country as a forward staging area for Soviet armed might. On the principle that my enemy's enemy is my friend, the US has staunchly provided military support for the mujahideen. But with the Soviets gone, US interests there are less easily defined, let alone achieved.
Most US policymakers believe that, even with the Soviets out, the Marxist, proxy regime of Najibullah must go, so the US will continue to supply arms to the mujahideen. Despite the surprising defense the Kabul troops have mounted at Jalalabad, experts still look for a relatively quick government collapse. For Washington the question is, what then?
The US is in no position to orchestrate the makeup of the replacement government, nor should it wish to; self-determination for the Afghan people is the only outcome of the war worth the terrible price they have paid, and the only outcome consistent with American principles.
But the United States can and should try to ensure that the next Kabul government is on good terms with it, and that the regime has wide-based support. Only a broadly popular government will be stable and able to undertake the enormous rebuilding job the war-ravaged nation faces.
To achieve these goals, the US must walk a path trickier than those through the Hindu Kush. There are obvious pitfalls in dealing with the faction-ridden interim government patched together by the resistance forces - a government that represents only 15 to 20 percent of the populace - yet it's the only entity that can claim even that much legitimacy.
Also, the interests of the US and Pakistan, which once meshed in opposition to the Soviets, now diverge in places. Pakistan is believed to favor fundamentalist elements in the mujahideen's Muslim coalition, wishing to avoid a regime that could make common cause with India. But in US eyes, a radical Islamic regime in Afghanistan - in addition to being anti-West - would likely intensify ferment among Muslim populations in the USSR, complicating Moscow's reform efforts.
As part of its relief and economic aid to Afghanistan, the US should earmark funds for institution building, especially to bolster democratic traditions. Such funds could be administered by the National Endowment for Democracy, or similar groups.
Helping the fiercely independent Afghans win a war was the easy part. Now the US must try to help them win the peace.