After eight years of relative success, United States policy toward Afghanistan is at a crossroads. ``As long as the Soviets stayed, there was no problem,'' says a West European diplomat in Islamabad, the capital. ``America's policy of providing weapons to the mujahideen [Afghan guerrillas] has obviously produced results. ...''
But with the ongoing Soviet withdrawal, Western diplomats in Pakistan say, there appears to be a virtual vacuum in US policy. It is unclear, they say, whether Washington has a strategy that looks beyond ensuring a Soviet departure.
What's needed now, according to diplomats, international relief representatives, and independent analysts, is US involvement in ending the war between the Afghan resistance and the Soviet-backed Kabul regime; helping Afghans reconstruct their country; and encouraging setting up of a representative government, without trying to impose one from the outside.
But, some sources maintain, several obstacles hinder such a US role:
An overdependence on Pakistan as a channel for aid to the resistance and information about Afghan developments.
US backing for the seven-party Afghan political alliance, which reportedly does not enjoy widespread, grass-roots support among Afghans.
Fundamental differences within the US State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, and among regional specialists on Afghanistan's prospects.
The possibility of diminishing US interest in the region now that the perceived Soviet threat is receding.
A US State Department official in Washington denies criticisms that US regional diplomacy has become ``unclear'' or ``confused'' in recent months.
``Basically, our policy goals remain the same,'' the official says. ``Our first need is to get the Soviets out, but we expect them to meet their deadline [February 1989]. This is a prerequisite for other points in our policy ... the return of refugees, the return of Afghanistan's independent status, and self-determination of its people.''
A US official in Pakistan acknowledges that: ``We're smart enough to know that we're too dumb to try and influence events in Afghanistan.'' As the Soviets, and British before them have learned, too much meddling can only invite disaster, US officials say.
The US Congress is pushing for the appointment of a special Afghanistan envoy with ambassador status. It is more likely that Washington will send out a special assistant on Afghan affairs to the US ambassador in Pakistan.
Sources in Islamabad, Geneva, Washington, and elsewhere say differences among the State Department, CIA, and other specialists hamper policymaking. One view holds that the Kabul regime will collapse by next spring; the other is more cautious about the guerrillas' abilities.
The Americans' claimed reluctance to intervene, however, has meant others are doing it for them - notably the Pakistanis. 3 According to Western diplomats in Islamabad, President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who is imposing strict sharia (Islamic law) in his country, prefers that a new regime in Kabul be fundamentalist, pro-Pakistani, and dominated by Pathans, the largest ethnic group and the traditional rulers of Afghanistan.
But the war has changed power roles, with minorities asserting themselves as equals. ``Never again will they accept the traditional hegemony'' of the Pathans, says Louis Dupree, a specialist on Afghanistan from Duke University and adviser to the US Embassy.
Although there are differences of opinion in Islamabad, Pakistan has supported Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the extreme and fundamentalist Hezb-e-Islami guerrilla faction, as its future man in Kabul. Allegations about Hezb attacks on other guerrilla groups, and involvement in kidnapping or killing Afghans and foreigners, first emerged in 1981. Yet, Western and resistance sources say, Mr. Hekmatyar's group has received far more weapons and funding than any other party.
US officials claim Hekmatyar's wings have long been clipped. They also argue that as he has little chance of ever making it to Kabul, it is not worth upsetting US-Pakistani relations over President Zia's support for Hekmatyar. Nevertheless, US Ambassador Arnold Raphel has received instructions to bring up the matter ``very gingerly'' with the Zia government, diplomats say.
Pakistan still controls distribution of weapons, however, so the US has no means of guaranteeing that aid is allocated on an equitable basis. In addition, a strong pro-Hekmatyar lobby exists in Washington, where Hezb maintains three full-time representatives.
Another example of US reliance on Pakistan is its endorsement of the seven-party Afghan political alliance. Many foreigners and Afghans consider it a corrupt and artificial creation of Pakistan. ``They [the Americans] are trying to boost a political entity that is worthless,'' says one West European aid representative.
Some US officials recognize the alliance's lack of legitimacy. But, says a State Department representative, ``Until something else emerges, we're stuck with [it.]''
Last month, the alliance cobbled together a 14-member transition government, and said it would hold elections within several months. Hoping to act as a conduit for a proposed UN $1.16 billion aid program, the new government is seen as a ``last chance by the parties to maintain their influence,'' a UN source says.
As weaponry becomes less important, the UN humanitarian operation promises to develop into the conflict's main instrument of influence. Power, it is expected, will fall into the hands of those who can provide the people with clinics, schools, agricultural assistance, and money.
UN officials have stressed the aid should not be used for political purposes. ``But it will,'' predicts a diplomat. ``And everybody is going to go for it. The Pakistanis, the parties, the commanders, the Kabul government.''
By continuing to channel aid through the Pakistani-controlled alliance, some diplomats warn, the US could lose out by being perceived as supporting an external government not wanted by the majority of Afghans.