A Step Closer to Afghan Peace

THE road to peace in Afghanistan resembles a steeplechase course, and it's still littered with hurdles and hazards that must be surmounted. But a major obstacle was cleared away March 18 when President Najibullah agreed to step down once an interim government is established under a proposed United Nations peace plan.

Najibullah, who was installed as president of Afghanistan in 1986 by the Soviet Union during its occupation, is a lightning rod for antigovernment fervor among the resistance forces fighting the Kabul regime. The former head of the Afghan secret police is blamed for the deaths and torture of thousands of his countrymen. The mujahideen guerrillas have insisted on Najibullah's departure as a precondition to any peace settlement.

The plan that is being hammered out by Benon Sevan, the UN secretary-general's special representative, calls for a meeting of 150 Afghan political and religious leaders in Vienna next month. This group will, in turn, summon an assembly in Afghanistan to name an interim government, which will oversee free elections. Najibullah says he will resign when the interim government is formed.

A date has not been set for the Vienna conference, however. This reflects continuing opposition to the UN plan by fundamentalist Muslim factions of the mujahideen coalition. The fundamentalists, especially the faction led by hard-line warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, still dream of an Islamic regime in Kabul. Influential elements in Pakistan's military and intelligence establishments also seem unhappy with the plan, even though Pakistan recently ended its support to the fundamentalists.

On the other hand, Najibullah's pledge to step down makes it easier for moderate factions of the resistance to participate in the peace process.

Mr. Sevan's proposal will succeed only with staunch backing of the United States and of other countries in the region. Afghanistan, its economy shattered by war, also will require aid if representative government is to survive. For a start, the US should manifest its support of the UN plan by pledging now that the humanitarian aid it provides to the resistance will be channeled instead through the interim government once it is in place.

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