KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — A HUSH spreads across the room as new Afghan Defense Minister Ahmed Shah Masoud steps from behind a curtain, preceded by a radio man with a large communications pack strapped to his back and a video camera mounted on his shoulder.
Mr. Masoud is a slightly built man with a scraggly beard. But these days he enjoys giant-like status in Afghanistan. His recent news conference marked the end of a 14-year David-and-Goliath struggle against communism - a journey that took him from mountainous northern Afghanistan, where he stymied the Soviet Army during its decade-long occupation, to his entry into Kabul two weeks ago following the communist government's collapse.
Along the way, Masoud acquired the reputation as the Islamic mujahideen's most formidable fighter and organizer. He was known as the Lion of the Panjshir for his military prowess against the Soviets in his home region. And over the last few weeks he has been hailed as the Savior of Kabul. Nowadays, Masoud is stressing peace.
"I hope in a short time there will be total peace and order in Afghanistan," he said at the news conference.
Despite Masoud's assertions, prospects for peace still seem distant in Afghanistan, many foreign diplomats say. The Islamic government that has replaced the communist regime has failed to stabilize relations among mujahideen factions, paving the way for continued civil war.
One powerful mujahideen faction, the Hezb-e-Islami headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is refusing to join the new Islamic government and is threatening to attack Kabul. The group's forces, deployed south and east of the city, launched rocket attacks on the capital last week, killing dozens of civilians.
Currently, a cease-fire negotiated by Masoud and Mr. Hekmatyar, who are bitter personal rivals, continues to hold in and around Kabul. But few people expect the truce to last.
Many Afghans and foreign diplomats say renewed fighting is the only way the sharply divided mujahideen factions can resolve their differences. And for all his talk about peace, it is clear that Masoud feels that only the defeat of Hekmatyar militarily can bring lasting peace.
"Perhaps for a short time he [Hekmatyar] will be able to rocket Kabul and kill innocent people," Masoud said. "But soon we will push him so far back that his rockets will not be able to reach Kabul."
The cease-fire was to expire yesterday, but was extended for up to 10 days, mujahideen officials here said. Both sides, however, were reinforcing positions with armor and heavy weapons.
The capital is now protected by a loose coalition of forces, headed by Masoud's Jamiat-e-Islami faction, dominated by ethnic Tajiks, and Gen. Rashid Dostum's Uzbek militia. Those groups come from northern Afghanistan, while Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami faction has its roots in the south. The Hezb-e-Islami comprises mainly Pushtuns, a southern ethnic group that has dominated Afghan politics for centuries.
The problem of dividing power among ethnic groups is the main reason for the continuing tension, foreign diplomats say.
Nearly every group has complained it is not properly represented in the central organs of power, including the interim government of President Sibghatullah Mojadedi and the Islamic Council. But for the time being, every mujahideen faction except the Hezb-e-Islami is participating in the new governing structures, while hoping a more equitable powersharing system will emerge in the future.
Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami is fighting to reestablish Pushtun dominance over Afghan politics, according to a foreign military specialist.
The Hezb-e-Islami has said several conditions must be met before it will join the government, particularly the withdrawal of General Dostum's Uzbek militia from Kabul. A mercenary force, the Uzbeks fought for ousted President Najibullah's Communist government before switching sides two months ago. Though highly undisciplined, and accused of raping and looting as they took up positions in Kabul, the Uzbeks are considered the best fighters in Afghanistan, the military specialist says, adding that without t hem Masoud would be hard pressed to defeat Hekmatyar.
Gen. Abdul Majid, head of the Uzbek forces in Kabul, says his troops will not leave until a firm peace is established.
Meanwhile, the government shows no intention of meeting Hekmatyar's demands.
"Their forces [the Uzbeks] should be appreciated, not insulted," said Masoud, dismissing Hekmatyar's demand.
But even if Masoud eventually is able to break the back of the Hezb-e-Islami resistance, Afghanistan's new government still must overcome many obstacles before order can be restored and reconstruction started.
Though Mr. Mojadedi's interim government was named last week, many ministries are barely functioning, if at all.
One foreign diplomat says that once Hekmatyar's threat is dealt with, new squabbles likely will emerge among the mujahideen factions, posing threats to the formation of a permanent government. In the end, the diplomat says, the ethnic differences may prove insurmountable.
"What may happen is the country may split into two parts - north and south," he says. "The seeds for a Pushtun/non-Pushtun division have been sown." He adds that if one person is capable of keeping the country together, it is Masoud. "He has the organizational ability - he's proven that over 14 years. But this is the most difficult situation he's ever faced."
Benon Sevan, the United Nations' special envoy to Afghanistan, said the fighting will stop only when the various mujahideen leaders put aside personal ambition. "Unless this happens there will be no solution," he told reporters.
"Don't expect miracles," he added. "There are so many groups and so many differences that to expect everything to go smoothly would be naive."