Long Knives in Afghanistan

THERE isn't a war in Afghanistan; there are wars. And the United States isn't arming just one side; it's arming seven different factions, each with its own goals. The problems this creates for US policymakers was brutally demonstrated July 9 when a band of Afghan resistance fighters - mujahideen - ambushed members of another guerrilla faction. Thirty men, including seven key commanders, reportedly were killed in the attack or subsequently executed. These killings can only set back mujahideen efforts to forge a coordinated military and political front against the communist regime that hangs on in Kabul, five months after Soviet forces withdrew. Trust among some of the guerrilla factions, tenuous at best, will be further weakened.

While deploring the ambush, the State Department says the US will stay the course in Afghanistan until the regime of Soviet puppet Najibullah is replaced by a government more broadly representative of the Afghan people. The attack is not expected to delay new US arms shipments to the mujahideen aimed at restarting the resistance's stalled offensive.

As it goes on arming the resistance, however, Washington should keep pressing for negotiations to end the war. It's hoped that US and Soviet negotiators can make progress when they meet later this month to discuss the conflict. As the major arms suppliers, the superpowers have considerable leverage with the combatants.

In the meantime, the US should devise better procedures for getting weapons directly, and fairly, to the various guerrilla factions. This means, if not replacing, then augmenting the practice of funneling US arms through the Pakistani intelligence service. Pakistan (at least until recently) has favored the mujahideen faction headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a radical Muslim. It was Hekmatyar loyalists who sprang the deadly trap recently. The US should also consider withholding arms from factions more bent on murdering rivals than defeating the common enemy.

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