Afghan Turning Point

AFTER the loss of 2 million lives in a 14-year war against Moscow's puppet regime, it will be tragic if Afghan rebels turn on each other over control of their capital, Kabul.

With Afghan president Najibullah deposed, United Nations peacemaking efforts are shifting to the patchwork of ethnic and religious groups surrounding Kabul, which must negotiate among themselves. A tense standoff between the two major groups, headed by Ahmed Shah Massoud and Islamic hard-liner Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, raises old tribal questions: With no enemy, can the mujahideen replace their holy war against Najibullah with a spirit of rebuilding? Can Afghans stop fighting and form a national coalition?

That would be a first, but now is a time for firsts. The end of the Soviet empire puts Afghanistan's future in a new light, offering new possibilities for peace and trade.

The large reality check on the scene is Mr. Hekmatyar's threat to take Kabul by force if the former government doesn't leave by Monday. This is a crass power play. Mr. Massoud has patiently waited outside Kabul and played the statesman, building a coalition of guerrilla leaders and former government soldiers. He has the respect and loyalty of Kabul's citizens and would have an orderly transfer of power. An attack by Hekmatyar, a self-serving zealot who has unfortunately been armed by the West through Pak istan, would create chaos.

The longer Massoud waits, however, the more credit he builds with Afghans and the more he isolates Hekmatyar. The West has little leverage in this standoff, though it must be made clear a coalition government in Kabul will earn significant Western aid. Pakistan has withdrawn support for Hekmatyar and says it supports a coalition. The sooner Kabul reaches a steady state, the sooner three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan can return.

Afghanistan is described by its own scholars as the beginning of the end of everything. It is a fierce, forbidding border of history and culture: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism touch there; it straddles East and West. By emphasizing moderate Islamic ties, Massoud can draw together minority Tajiks and majority Pathans and establish some sense of nationhood. It's time Kabul joined the 20th century.

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