A stalemate in Afghanistan

MORE than five months have passed since the signing of the Geneva accords on Afghanistan, but instead of progress toward a resolution of the conflict, a political and military stalemate prevails between the Afghan resistance (the mujahideen) and the Kabul government. In accordance with the agreements, the Soviets have withdrawn more than half of their forces from Afghanistan. As a consequence of this withdrawal, the communist government in Kabul has had to withdraw its forces from villages near the border of Pakistan to more defensible positions.

The rapid occupation of these villages by the resistance led to speculation about the quick capture of major Afghan cities by the Afghan resistance and the eventual collapse of the Kabul government. Lending credence to these speculations, the resistance captured two government-controlled towns, Qalat and Maidan Shahr, in June. In August, the resistance captured a major city in the north, Kunduz, close to the Soviet border. The Kabul government forces, however, were able to recapture each one of these towns in two to three days.

Despite frequent reports of mujahideen preparation to attack and capture major cities such as Herat, Kandahar, and Jalalabad, the mujahideen have not been able to capture even a single urban center. Indeed, mujahideen commanders now openly admit that a decisive military defeat of the Kabul government would require a long military campaign. But the Kabul government has not only lost control over rural Afghanistan, but the mujahideen are able to bombard even Kabul itself. Thus, a bloody military stalemate prevails whereby the Kabul government and the mujahideen can hurt but not decisively defeat each other.

Such a distribution of military power is usually conducive to a political resolution of a conflict. In Afghanistan, the objective conditions for a compromise are further strengthened by several concessions of the Kabul government: to accept Islam as the religion of the state, to allow political opposition and share power with other groups, and to allow private enterprise along with a strong public sector. In addition, the willingness of the Soviets to respect the independence and territorial integrity of the country is conducive to compromise. For the past year, the composition of the government, which is usually a negotiable matter, has been the remaining major issue of contention.

Despite these favorable conditions, the dominance of the fundamentalists within the Afghan resistance makes a compromise political solution unlikely. The fundamentalists' prime supporter, the late President of Pakistan, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, sought to perpetuate Pakistan's dominance of Afghan politics by insisting on installing Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an uncompromising fundamentalist, as the leader of a post-Soviet-occupation Afghanistan. Such a solution has been unacceptable to both the Kabul government and to the majority of Afghans, including some resistance groups in Peshawar.

Despite the immense importance of the American military and financial support for the Afghan resistance, the United States has not offered a comprehensive peace plan for Afghanistan. It has insisted only on the withdrawal of the Soviet forces and has generally allowed Pakistan to decide on inter-Afghan conflicts. Thus, indirectly, the US has also supported the inflexibility of the Afghan fundamentalist vis-`a-vis the Kabul government. Without direct Pakistani support and indirect US support, the Afghan fundamentalists would not have been able to prevent a compromise solution to the Afghan conflict. Similarly, without Soviet financial and military support the Kabul government would collapse. Thus, the major obstacle to a political solution of the Afghan conflict is the continuation of foreign support for extremist Afghan political groups.

The US is in an excellent position to break this stalemate. Both Pakistan and the Afghan resistance are heavily dependent on the US for financial and military support. Consequently, the US can encourage moderation within the Afghan resistance. President Zia's death strengthens the US position even more. Similarly, the US is in an excellent position to persuade the Soviets to pressure the Kabul government in favor of genuine concessions regarding the structure of authority in a post-Soviet-occupation Afghanistan.

The US should distinguish the interest of the Afghan nation from the interest of the extremist groups within the resistance. The continuation of the political and military stalemate will result in the loss of thousands of lives, further destruction, and anarchy. Unlike the extremists who have put their partisan interest first, the overwhelming majority of the Afghans desire a peaceful, independent, Islamic, democratic, and nonaligned Afghanistan. Only a political resolution of the conflict can bring about such an Afghanistan.

The US assistance to the resistance was essential for frustrating Soviet ambitions in Afghanistan. American initiative for a comprehensive settlement in Afghanistan is even more necessary. Certain objective conditions in Afghanistan are very conducive to a political resolution of the conflict, but these conditions could change quickly. For instance, the new leadership in Pakistan might end its support for the Afghan resistance without any comprehensive peace settlement, encouraging the Kabul government to once again aim at monopolizing the political power. Now is the time for the US, through pressure on its Afghan allies and negotiation with the Soviets, to promote a political compromise. This is the only way that further bloodshed and perhaps years of anarchy can be averted.

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