Divided Afghan tribesmen pull together to oust Soviets

Afghan insurgent tribesmen are beginning to realize a united front is essential to win foreign military and economic support to rid their country of communism.

The tribesmen, disillusioned with the disunity of Afghanistan's six major political groups, are pinning their hopes on holding a massive and traditional "momasela loya jirga" (provisional grand council) to provide a united resistance front.

So far, loosely knit Afghan rebel groups have been fighting the Kabul regime with little overall strategy. Private funds have been trickling in. Discord among the Peshawar-based political factions has discouraged foreign countries, particularly the Gulf states, from supplying much-needed military aid.

The meeting seems likely to come off. Jirga organizers claim that more than 900 tribesmen, religious leaders, intellectuals, soldiers, farmers, students, and professionals from Afghanistan's 28 provinces and four districts already have flocked to this dusty, stifling hot, North West Frontier town. Some 1,000 delegates are expected to attend the meeting.

The assembly was first announced Jan. 4, only days after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. But delegates are apparently still making their way by foot, camel , or truck across the rugged mountains of the civil-war ridden country.

Headquartered in a cramped office on the outskirts of Peshawar, jirga chairman Babrak Zai, a French-educated Kabul magistrate, said they hope to begin proceedings before the opening of the May 12-20 Islamic foreign ministers' conference is Islamabad. The Pakistani government must still give them permission to hold the outdoor council.

"We would then like to appoint a special delegation to travel to the conference [in Islamabad] to plead our cause," Babrak Zai said.

All six political factions, five of which are now joined in a feeble alliance , participated in the original meeting calling for a jirga four months ago. Only two groups, however, have come out in full support of the council: Sayed Ahmad Gailani's Islamic National Revolutionary Front and Sebratullah Mojadidi's National Front.

The remaining groups, claiming it is illegal to hold a loya jirga outside Afghanistan and that war conditions make it impossible to establish a true representation of the Afghan people, are known to be pressuring the Islamabad regime into banning the assembly.

Government sources indicate, however, they will allow the meeting to go ahead despite present foot-dragging.

Traditionally, loya jirgas are held only when a consensus of Afghanistan's ethnically diverse tribal groups is needed.

There have been six so far this century. The one currently being planned would be the first ever to be held outside the country.

With the overhead fan in the compound office providing little relief from the oppressive 113 degree temperature outside, a varied group of Pushtun, Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek, Nuristani, Baluch, and Turkoman tribal leaders discussed the jirga's prospects. Although they would prefer to act with the full support of the political parties, they made it clear they would forge ahead anyway.

"The political parties are interested in their own ambitions and not in the struggle of the Afghan people against the Russians," said Muhammad Hasham Zamani , a Pushtun from Kunar Province.

Nodding in grave agreement, Zaied Mohammad Shafi, a former Afghan Army major who defected several days after the Soviet invasion, warned: "If the Russians were to leave now, the political groups would only provoke a crisis even more dangerous and violent than what is happening now."

Referring to recent remarks made in Rome by Prince Wali, first cousin of deposed Afghan King Zahir, that he was prepared to help, the Afghans left little doubt that the royal family could not expect a comeback.

"Any Afghan is welcome to join the cause, but as a freedom fighter like everybody else," said Babrak Zai.

The Afghans are beginning to understand that a united front is urgently necessary if they ever hoped to obtain foreign military and economic support. There is much ill-feeling toward Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini for blackening the name of Islam -- and, above all, for robbing the Afghans of their publicity.

But the toughest task facing the loya jirga will be to establish itself as the true representative of the Afghan people.

Opposition is bitter in some places. Yet despite tribal and ethnic differences, enthusiasm appears to be widespread and growing, particularly among the refugees.

"I was at first extremely skeptical of the loya jirga," noted one Western diplomat. "But it appears to be mushrooming into something formidable. This could well prove to be the first vital step toward some form of definite unity."

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