AMIN Wardak is an anomaly in Afghanistan's history. He is a leader and he is young -- unusual for a society where, for hundreds of years, leadership was wielded by the elders, the men of religion and wealth.
A product of the war against Soviet occupation of his country, Mr. Wardak commands one of the elusive guerrilla armies that have caught the Soviet forces in a stalemate.
Wardak and others like him form the new breed of leader that is now directing the jihad (holy war), a 20th-century guerrilla operation, against the estimated 115,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Although the guerrillas, called mujahideen (holy warriors), remain an army of outgunned, ill-trained men, they have held the Afghan countryside since the Soviet invasion in December 1979.
Last week, the 35-year-old commander left Afghanistan's mountains to engage in a new kind of war -- a diplomatic offensive in the United States, aimed at wresting Afghanistan's seat at the UN away from the pro-Soviet regime headed by Babrak Karmal, and having it awarded to the anticommunist mujahideen.
One of the senior mujahideen field commanders most highly regarded by Western diplomats, the soft-spoken Wardak was under no illusions as to the difficulty of his task.
According to UN sources, he is unlikely to receive the critical support of either the US or Pakistan, where the mujahideen have established their headquarters outside Afghanistan.
``It's a tricky question,'' says a diplomat from a third-world country. ``Both Islamabad and Washington have to deal with the Karmal regime. You unseat them [the Karmal government] from the United Nations. They close your embassies in Kabul. And there are few among the 122 nations who have called for a withdrawal of Soviet troops who want to go cold turkey and cut all links with Kabul.''
Another implicit problem, on which Wardak would not be drawn out, is the divisions among the Afghan resistance. The seven major Afghan resistance groups have long been a fractious and quarrelsome lot. Their political leadership, which is based in Pakistan's border city of Peshawar, has now united into a central alliance again -- glued together by American and Saudi Arabian pressure, but considerably frayed and tattered before it was even launched.
Wardak visited New York as a representative of the common cause. A hereditary leader from Wardak Province, which sprawls to the west and south of Kabul, he is a member of one of Afghanistan's traditionalist parties, the Islamic National Revolutionary Front.
It is through these groups that Washington is reportedly funneling $470 million in covert assistance to the mujahideen this year. However, according to sources in Pakistan and Washington, less than 50 percent of the arms shipments appears to be reaching Afghanistan.
Appropriated, traded, stolen, or hidden as they pass through neighboring Pakistan, the shipments have reportedly gone into the coffers of the Pakistani Army, and been sold or stockpiled by the mujahideen's political leaders themselves -- an insurance, they say, against the day that US assistance may stop.
``For years we've been hearing that the Americans are sending millions and millions of dollars in assistance,'' Wardak says. ``But I can assure you we've seen nothing even approximating that amount. The only impact of this so-called assistance is that the Soviets have heard these stories too. So they increase their troops, and we end up getting it from their side and your side too.''
Wardak charged that he didn't have even one SAM-7 heat-seeking missile -- the mujahideen's chief anti-aircraft weapon -- for all of Wardak Province under his command. He said he was shooting down Soviet helicopters with bazookas and Chinese-manufactured, rocket-propelled grenades. His most sophisticated weapon was a 12.7-mm heavy machine gun, he said, describing it as complicated and ineffective against the waves of Soviet armored helicopters.
He claimed not to be bitter, but he clearly was. ``For most Americans it's a foreign, far-away, forgotten war.''
Sitting in a fashionable private club, dressed in khaki and wearing combat boots, Wardak talked of the Soviet's scorched earth policy: destroying the countryside and forcing Afghans to flee the land, thus depriving the mujahideen of food, safe haven, and a network of invaluable civilian support.
This policy hasn't worked in Wardak, the charismatic leader said, claiming that its population of 500,000 has remained fairly constant since the war began.
This is largely because of the efforts of the Wardak family, one of Afghanistan's largest Pushtun tribes, which has been fighting outside occupiers since the turn of the century, Wardak said. Amin's grandfather, Muhammad-Djan Wardak, led the fight against the British; three brothers and seven uncles are now with the mujahideen. One brother is the commander of Ghazni City, the fifth largest in Afghanistan, and has repulsed brutal Soviet offensives for the last six years.
Trying to dodge questions on his own future political role, the modest Wardak finally conceded that he and the young commanders were in much closer contact with Afghans inside the country than were the traditional political leaders in Peshawar and that they would press for a larger leadership role in the movement.
``The jihad depends on the villagers, so we must keep them on the land,'' says Wardak, whose fledgling civilian administration is doing just that. It now administers 20 schools with the help of the French humanitarian organization Guilde du Raid, Wardak says, and has an underground hospital in the mountains that has been bombed three times by the Soviets, and rebuilt each time.
Wardak says his officials have averted the threat of famine with a reasonable harvest this year, though many families are still living on only bread and tea, having slaughtered much of their livestock which they can no longer afford to feed.
The Soviet campaign to empty the villages has been uneven, UN diplomats say, and the most significant factor keeping Amin Wardak's people on the land is that the Soviets have not yet applied the same amount of pressure in Wardak as they have elsewhere in Afghanistan.
The most recent offensive, the mujahideen commanders say, began last Oct. 2 and lasted only 25 days, but was particularly destructive because the wheat harvest was coming in. ``They came through with 85 helicopter gunships, 2,000 commandos, and the SU-25 fighter aircraft. They killed 250 people -- 70 percent of them women and children -- and the harvest was systematically destroyed.''
Wardak himself was the target of a Soviet assassination attempt on Dec. 15, as he was leaving Wardak Province to visit his family in Pakistan. Ambushed by Soviet heliborne troops, he survived but 157 others were killed, he said.
Despite the heavy toll in this year's winter offensive, the mujahideen still control 85 percent of Afghanistan, Wardak said, and their dogged, determined war will continue ``if necessary for another seven or 70 years.'' Afghanistan observers estimate that the Soviets exercise effective control in urban areas -- which comprise only about 20 percent of the country -- while the guerrillas operate in 80 percent of the countryside.
Last Saturday, Wardak left for Afghanistan, where a spring offensive by the Soviets is as predictable as the mountains' melting snow.
``I came here for three reasons,'' Amin Wardak said. ``To get recognition for the seven-party alliance as the recognized government of Afghanistan; to oust the Afghanistan government from its United Nations seat; and to get the postage stamps that we have been using in Wardak Province for the last four years sanctioned by the Universal Postal Union. It would be the first step in proving to the world that Wardak Province is free.''
The guerrilla leader's arduous campaign recently received a rather unexpected filip from his Wardak Province stamp. An anonymous jewelry manufacturer and stamp collecting buff in the US Midwest has traded $2.5 million worth of gold-plated jewelry for one of the stamps which, despite the presence of Soviet forces, traveled unimpeded atop a letter from Afghanistan to France.