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Afghanistan: Return of Warlords

Power struggle degenerates as infighting mujahideen guerrillas and competing factions of the ruling communists assert rival claims

By Sheila TefftSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 5, 1990



KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

AFGHANISTAN is sliding into a confused and potentially lengthy period of fratricidal warfare. The power struggle between the Moscow-backed regime in Kabul and Western-supported mujahideen (guerrillas) has fragmented, and competing factions of the ruling communists and infighting mujahideen are asserting claims to power.

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Old and new rivalries, political observers here say, will prolong the fighting even if United States and Soviet arms supplies end.

``Afghanistan recalls how China was between the world wars. The warlords prevail,'' says a Western official. ``There are now so many groups which have upgraded their capacity to kill. That is the legacy of this war.''

President Najibullah, meanwhile, is skillfully maneuvering to neutralize his internal communist opponents and coopt guerrilla commandeers in the field with money and supplies of arms.

Before a Marxist coup triggered the Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghanistan was a tumultuous patchwork of tribal, political, and military fiefdoms which resisted a strong central government.

Najibullah's own ruling party, the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), is composed of various clans. Until last month, its tenuous unity had held since the withdrawal of Soviet occupation forces a year ago.

But the latest outbreak of clan warfare came on March 6, when communist dissidents in the PDPA, led by Defense Minister Shahnawaz Tanai, tried unsuccessully to overthrow Najib (as the president is known).

The aborted uprising was rooted in years of rivalry between the urban-based Parchami faction of the PDPA headed by Najib and the Khalqi wing, which has rural support. The coup leader, Mr. Tanai, is a Khalqi. In the coup aftermath, hundreds have been arrested.

``This is basically a clan affair,'' says an Afghan observer here. ``Like the rest of Afghanistan, the situation in Kabul is much more complicated now.''

Divide and rule tactics

Just as Najib played to divisions within the rebel ranks to stay in power during the past year, he now is using divide-and-rule tactics to split his party rivals. He is also trying to wipe out challengers in the armed forces.

Most crucial is the Khalqi-dominated air force, which spearheaded the failed coup and has been key to defending and supplying Najib's urban strongholds.

About 50 of the 500 air force pilots have been detained or forced out, military observers say, raising questions about morale and continued loyalty to Tanai. ``No one knows what Tanai and his boys will do,'' says a foreign diplomat. ``But by and large, Najib will be able to salvage the air force.''

Meanwhile, Najib is trying to give his party a more moderate face to woo the rebels.

The mujahideen have long demanded that the Afghan leader resign before peace talks begin. And Najib has pledged to step down if he is defeated in a national election, although foreign analysts here doubt that the mujahideen will participate.

National reconciliation

Najib is concentrating on his policy of national reconciliation: calling a congress to surrender his party's monopoly of power; pushing through internal reforms; and planning to change the party charter and name.

``Najib is trying to revamp the party,'' says a foreign observer here. ``But it won't convince the mujahideen.''

However, the regime is having success in parts of Afghanistan luring mujahideen into local accomodations in exchange for autonomy. Sayed Mansoor Naderi, an influential Afghan religious leader and wealthy supporter of Najib, is a key broker in the arrangements.

``I bring a lot of mujahideen together from different areas and say, `Give national reconciliation a chance,''' he said during a recent interview at his Kabul estate.

Mr. Naderi uses this influence as well as his 20,000-member private army to keep open the Salang Highway, a key supply route from the Soviet Union to Kabul.

The Naderi family has struck a deal with famed mujahideen leader Ahmed Shah Massoud of the strategic Panjshir Valley. After the coup, Mr. Massoud called on the rebels to unite and launch a final assault on Kabul. But the Naderis maintain he will be ``pragmatic'' and hold off.

``We have reached an agreement with Ahmed Shah Massoud and he with us. He will not bother our area and we won't bother his,'' says Sayed Sadi Naderi. ``The highway is safer now than it was before the Soviets left.''

However, observers say that the growth of private militias under the government's sponsorship is creating as much fear as infighting within rebel ranks.

Foreign diplomats and aid workers in Kabul say it will be tough for many Afghans, armed and hardened by war, to give up battle and return to their farms.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the western city of Herat, which was devastated by Soviet bombing and confrontations between the rebels and the militias.

The government is holding the city with the help of government-financed militias formed by mujahideen who defected for the food, money, arms and ammunition supplied by the government.

``This country is now flooded with guns,'' says a Western aid worker who recently was in Herat. ``And whoever has the gun, rules.''