It's Time to Parley on Afghanistan

A NEW military stalemate prevails in Afghanistan. Jalalabad is still controlled by the Kabul government. A major offensive against Kabul is not imminent. The long expected mujahideen offensives in Kandahar, Herat, and the northeast have not materialized. Contrary to the opinion of some experts on Afghanistan, the disappointing military performance of the mujahideen in the past three months has little to do with the heavy snowfall or the rainy season in Afghanistan. It reflects major political divisions within the resistance and the lack of popular support for the provisional government based in Peshawar, Pakistan. Generally, a military stalemate promotes a negotiated settlement. The new military reality in Afghanistan seems to validate this point, as an increasing number of politicians now advocate a political resolution of the conflict. For instance, Rep. Anthony Beilenson (D) of California has already called for an end to American aid to the resistance and to Soviet aid to the Kabul government. He endorses a negotiated settlement and has warned that if the Bush administration fails to act in this regard, Congress might initiate action. Similarly, Pakistan's Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto recently said she would endorse a political solution in Afghanistan.

Greater international support for a political settlement is indeed a welcome development. Only a negotiated settlement can prevent further chaos and bloodshed in Afghanistan. It is essential for the mujahideen to negotiate from a position of strength, however. The only reason the Kabul government is interested in a political solution is its military vulnerability. A withdrawal of American and Pakistani support for the resistance will reduce the military pressure on the Kabul government, resulting in its unwillingness to agree to major concessions. International support for the mujahideen should continue, but the resistance should be encouraged to seek a political solution.

What kind of concessions should be demanded from the Kabul government? Unfortunately, most of the players and commentators seem more concerned with who should rule in Afghanistan, instead of the principles of government. As to principles, the Kabul government has already accepted the dominance of Islam, a mixed economy, and a nonaligned foreign policy.

In addition to these, however, the Kabul government must accept the principle of the sovereignty of the people; agree to political pluralism; accept constitutional protection of individual civil rights; dismantle KHAD, the Afghan counterpart of the KGB; accept the separation of political parties and state institutions, especially the military; and accept a junior role in a transitional government - which would exclude the ruling party from the presidency, premiership, foreign, defense, and internal affairs ministries. (Some fundamentalists within the Afghan resistance also are likely to disagree on some of these provisions. It is equally important to pressure them to accept these democratic principles.)

Before the completion of the withdrawal of the Soviet forces, the Kabul government had informally expressed its willingness to accept many of these provisions, including a minor role in a future coalition government. It was the insistence of the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the leadership of the resistance on surrender of the Kabul regime that prevented a political settlement.

The new military stalemate has somewhat improved the negotiating position of the Kabul government. But its position is still conducive to major concessions, though not surrender. It has been extremely difficult and costly for the Soviets and the Kabul regime to provide supplies to Afghan cities. It is estimated that the airlift of supplies to Kabul costs the Soviets $1.5 million daily. Mikhail Gorbachev is rather unhappy about the high cost of continuing Soviet involvement. If the US, Pakistan, and the Afghan resistance sought a political settlement, the Soviets would most likely pressure Kabul to make concessions.

The Bush administration still supports a military overthrow of the Kabul regime. The continuation of the military stalemate, however, combined with the change in Pakistan's position and the declining popularity of US policy, are likely to force the US to support a political solution.

Such a change would force the leadership of the resistance to seek a negotiated settlement. The US and Pakistan frequently argue that they cannot significantly influence the policy of the Afghan resistance. This is absolutely incorrect. The fact that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and other mujahideen extremists have opposed a political solution does not reflect their inflexibility, but their reading of the mood in Washington, Islamabad, and Riyad. They are in no position to withstand pressure from these powerful allies. They do not have a strong independent social base of power in Afghanistan. They owe their leadership position to the generosity of the Pakistanis, Americans, and Saudis. Mr. Hekmatyer, who is considered as the most uncompromising Afghan fundamentalist, is a very shrewd politician. As long as he remains a player, most probably he would adjust his position to accommodate changes in Pakistan and US policy. He has made such dramatic changes in the past.

Thus, there is a new military stalemate in Afghanistan that encourages a political resolution of the conflict. Pakistan seems to be moving in that direction; the US should do likewise. The mujahideen should negotiate a political solution from a position of strength. The Kabul government is still quite vulnerable and is likely to agree to major concessions. If the US and Pakistan genuinely supported the strategy of political settlement, the Afghan resistance would most likely follow suit.

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