Pakistan's Impact On the Afghan Conflict

BENAZIR BHUTTO'S visit to the United States last week has focused attention on Pakistan's role in the conflict in Afghanistan - and on charges that the Pakistani military has systematically channeled US arms to factions of the mujahideen, notorious for human rights abuses. If both the US government and Ms. Bhutto are reconsidering their Afghan policies, such abuses against Afghan civilians may finally be curbed. The primary instrument for US-Pakistani policy has been the powerful Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) - whose director, General Hamid Gul, Bhutto just fired. The late President Zia had expanded the ISI's power as a conduit for US arms to the mujahideen. The ISI used its position to favor the Hezb-e Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, over the other mujahideen parties, and the fundamentalists over the moderates in the distribution of weapons and aid. Throughout the war, the US has turned a blind eye to - or even supported - ISI policies, even when they led to serious human rights abuses.

For example, thoughout the conflict, the ISI acted to restrict the freedom of Afghans to make political choices about the future of their country. Supporters of the ex-king Zaher Shah have been excluded from all of the negotiations to form an interim government. On Feb. 8, supporters of Mr. Shah, who had gathered for a peaceful demonstration in Peshawar, were attacked by a mob of Mr. Hekmatyar's supporters and beaten while the Pakistani police stood by. And when Professor Syed Bahauddin Majrooh, a prominent philosopher and poet who had often advocated a political solution based on the return of the ex-king, was assassinated in February, 1988, Pakistani authorities made little effort to track down the murderers. Pakistani police were apparently dissuaded from following leads linking the assassination to Hekmatyar. The apparent impunity with which a prominent supporter of Shah was murdered has certainly intimidated others of similar views.

And even before the departure of Soviet forces on Feb. 15, the ISI had begun pressuring mujahideen commanders to launch indiscriminate attacks on major cities, in violation of the laws of war protecting civilians. Many mujahideen commanders have been opposed to such attacks, fearing high civilian casualties. The recent assaults on Jalalabad and other cities have proved their fears to be well-founded. Civilian casualties in Jalalabad alone number in the thousands. The mujahideen have also suffered heavy losses, and have not yet taken the city, three months after many political analysts predicted its fall.

Bhutto's firing of Gen. Gul signals new resolve on the part of her government to set its own course in the Afghan conflict and work toward a negotiated political settlement to avoid further bloodshed. It remains to be seen, however, whether her view will prevail over those pressing for a full mujahideen offensive in the war for the cities. The withdrawal of Soviet troops has not ended the blood bath in Afghanistan. The killings continue, and as a party to the Geneva Conventions, the US cannot allow its aid to be used to contribute to the staggering civilian toll.

The continuing stalemate in the war has led the Bush administration to rethink US policy towards Afghanistan. As it does so, the administration should look harder at the efforts by the ISI to bring about a result in Afghanistan favorable to the interests of the Pakistani military. US-supplied weapons are now being used in major attacks on Afghanistan's civilian population. Any new Afghan policy negotiated in Washington or Islamabad must include a commitment to avoid the human rights abuses of the past, and ensure that all Afghans finally be allowed a say in building a nation out of their shattered homeland.

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