KUNJAK, AFGHANISTAN — AFTER almost 14 years of civil war and Soviet intervention, many of those involved in the Afghan conflict are prepared for a peace offensive.
The new year could usher in a new era in Afghan history, as the United States and the Soviet Union, the war's two major sponsors, have pledged to halt weapons shipments to combatants starting Jan. 1.
The embargo, it is hoped, will force an end to the fighting and provide new momentum for stalled peace efforts.
But in the Wakhjan Valley, about 35 miles south of Kabul, the capital, both sides continue as if it is battle as usual.
"This is a country full of weapons; it's a country that's very fragmented," says a United Nations diplomat based in Kabul. "Every man with 20 men and 20 Kalashnikovs [rifles] calls himself a commander."
The muddled military situation in the Wakhjan Valley, with its scorched plain surrounded by jagged, snow-capped peaks, reflects the complex nature of the Afghan civil war and why it may prove difficult to stop the fighting. There is no easy road to peace, because there are neither clear battle lines nor lasting loyalties.
"Allegiances can change within hours, or days," the UN diplomat says.
Despite its proximity to Kabul, it takes more than two hours to reach the Wakhjan Valley by vehicle on a badly damaged road. Used and unused artillery rounds and rockets litter the roadside, and little is left standing in most villages along the way.
From his hilltop headquarters, the government's regional commander, Brig. Gen. Fateh Mohammed, says the area has been relatively calm for the last three months.
War weariness already has prompted about three-fourths of the mujahed opposition commanders to stop fighting, he says, adding his troops have made gains recently against the Hezb-e-Islami rebel group, one of three mujahed factions in the area. Government forces have not enjoyed such a favorable position in the valley in years, he says.
But General Mohammed's assessment seemed undercut by the sounds of outgoing rocket rounds and the thud of artillery and automatic weapons fire echoing in the distance.
Indeed, if the government controls the valley it is largely because of mujahideen disunity.
"The mujahideen have problems because of the differences between Pakistan- and Iranian-based groups, plus differences between field commanders and the political leadership," says a Western military analyst based in Kabul.
Mohammed has exploited the situation to conclude cease-fire protocols with two local rebel groups - the Jamiat-e-Islami and the Mahaz-e-mili Islami.
In return for the cease-fire, the government is helping protect the groups from the Hezb-e-Islami, which is trying to gain control of the valley.
The Hezb-e-Islami, the most powerful and fundamentalist Islamic of the opposition groups, is led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who refuses to make deals with the government.
Many foreign observers say the Jan. 1 arms embargo will more adversely affect Afghan President Najibullah's forces, which have depended on Moscow for arms and supplies since the Soviet Army withdrew in February 1989. Nevertheless, the government supports the cutoff.
"We will do anything for peace, but everything must be solved through an inter-Afghan dialogue," says Farid Ahmad Muzdak, deputy leader of the ruling Watan Party.
But government officials at the same time say an weapons embargo will not be effective unless Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, currently the two main mujahideen suppliers, also join in. If Pakistan and Saudi Arabia continue to supply arms to the resistance, the government is prepared to secure weapons from alternative sources, says Muzdak.
According to Mohammed, the departure of the Soviets actually helped the combat preparedness of the Afghan military, while depriving the mujahideen of a unifying factor in waging war.
"When the Soviets were here they ignored the Islamic customs and beliefs, and we had problems with our forces because they didn't want to fight," says Mohammed. "Because we are Afghan, we can manage with each other."
The general's idea of "managing" sometimes involves payments. Many mujahed commanders are bought off, says Mohammed, who has regular contacts, even dinner, with rebel leaders in the valley. "If we don't succeed using other methods, we use money," he says.
The Afghan government also employs tribal militias, which do the bulk of the fighting instead of the regular Army, Western diplomats say. In addition, the government has enticed some rebel commanders to switch sides.
One such commander, Mohammed Oraz, whose Hezb-e-Islami band fought around the northern city of Daulatabad, says there is widespread discontent in his area with the mujahed leadership based in Peshawar, Pakistan. The government convinced him to switch sides by offering food aid to his hard-hit region.
"If the government continues its economic assistance, then we will fulfill our commitments," says Mr. Oraz in Kabul. "If not, the situation can change quickly."
As Oraz speaks, an agent of the widely feared WAD security force sits nearby, scribbling down the commander's comments. The scene underscored the lack of trust the government has for its new "allies."
"The forces are so balanced that neither side can achieve an outright military victory," says Lt. Col. Ghulam Eshan, political commissar of the Afghan Army's 10th Division. "The only way this civil war can end is through negotiations."