Divided Afghan guerrilla forces have taken the first significant step toward closing ranks to oust Soviet forces from their country. At a mass meeting here, held under brightly colored tarpaulins to stave off the spring sun's rays, turbaned and bearded tribal delegates in pajama suits and sandals decided:
* To stop their internal bickering and form a united front to fight the Russians.
* To establish eventually a nonaligned, democratic, Islamic republic of Afghanistan.
The holding of a broadly based provisional grand council, or "momasela loya jirga," is one of the most significant developments to emerge among Afghan resistance movements since the communists rose to power under Nur Muhammad Taraki in Kabul two years ago.
The bold step toward political unity comes as Muslim guerrillas were continuing stiff resistance to the estimated 80,000 Soviet troops inside Afghanistan. Reports over the weekend said Afghan rebel insurgents had driven all Soviet and East European technical experts from the battle-scarred country.
Fierce fighting was reported in the rugged Hindu Kush mountainous area in the northeast. Earlier reports from Kabul indicated that at least 60 young Afghans were killed during five days of student anti-Soviet protests. The Moscow-backed regime said May 12 it would put nearly 100 of the protesters on trial and mete out tough punishment.
While the Soviet occupation continues, the success of the Moscow summer Olympic Games remains uncertain. So far, at least 39 countries have decided not to attend the games. But in a major setback to the US, France decided May 13 it would take part. Wet Germany is expected to make its decision May 15.
Rebel leaders here, meanwhile, are hoping to unite opposition on a smaller scale. The loya jirga provides the framework for a provisional government-in-exile that could be formed within the next two or three weeks. But the move will partly depend on the reaction and support of the six major Afghan rebel factions operating out of this bustling North West Frontier town on the main road to the Khyber Pass.
"We must forget our tribal and religious differences," a Hazara leader told the assembly. "You are the heroes of history. With empty hands we are fighting the Russians -- against their bombs, their tanks, and their chemicals."
Amid prayers and cries of "Allahu akbar" (God is greatest), the 916 tribal leaders, mullahs, intellectuals, military commanders, farmers, and nomads made it clear that there could be no negotiation with the Soviet Union until all troops had been withdrawn. One resolution called for annuling all treaties made between the Kabul communist regime and Moscow.
"Just as we defeated the British, we shall throw out the Russians," exclaimed a ferocious-looking, heavy-bearded "kutschi" or nomad leader.
With a unanimous show of outstretched hands and murmured invocations, the delegates voted to adopt a 40-article provisional constitution that would provide the basis for a government-in-exile. They also elected jirga chairman Muhammad Babrak Zai, a former Kabul chief high court justice, president of the provisional revolutionary council.
"This is just a first step," noted the French-educated Mr. Zai. "But it at least gives us a solid structure with which to work in unity."
The delegates must still elect two representatives from each province and district, plus four from the nomad groups. The council will then form committees to deal with foreign policy, justice, information, health, military, and interior matters.
The six major political factions have been given ten days to officially decide whether they will back the council leadership. If they do, each will receive seven council seats and possible committee appointments. Thus the final size of the council will depend on how many, if any, of the political groups join.
Jirga officials, who plan to send a delegation to the Islamic foreign ministers' conference that ends May 20 in Islamabad, are confident several will joint. Seven small political groups have already pledged support.
Still, some of the factions are jealously guarding their positions. They venomously attack the loya jirga, the first held on foreign soil, as "illegal."
"They are not representative," groused a spokesman for Jamiat-e Islam, one of the alliance groups. "They are only a bunch of noisemaking refugees."
Nevertheless, support for the loya jirga is far greater than most of the parties would like to admit. The proceedings appear to have been conscientiously -- though naively -- organized, somewhat like a school prize-giving ceremony.
Ever since the jirga was first announced Jan. 4, Pushtun, Hazara, Nuristani, Baluchi, Tajik, Turkic, and Uzbek representatives have journeyed to Peshawar. So have 35 members from Afghanistan's last elected parliament in 1973 as well as three senators. In fact, the loya jirga had to be postponed three times to allow delegates enough time to arrive.
Delegates were required to bring officially marked identification letters from known tribal or religious leaders in thier home provinces. Despite this precaution, however, each delegate was carefully frisked by armed tribesmen before entering the pale blue compound gate.
The organizers feared sabotage attempts. There have been several bombings in the past ten days, including one against a rebel Peshawar military headquarters. Jirga organizers believe the bombings were communist-instigated and aimed at pressuring the Pakistanis into clamping down on the rebels.
Snarled one delegate, referring to anyone who opposes Afghan rebel unity: "May Allah destroy him."