THE United States government claims we are continuing our support for the Afghan mujahideen in order to help them overthrow the Najibullah government and allow the people of Afghanistan to determine their own future. In fact, our continued support for the unrepresentative ``Interim Government of Afghanistan'' - established by exiled Afghan leaders and consistently manipulated by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia - is prolonging the reign of Najibullah. The real choice ahead is more complex. Do we continue to support the leaders who have become our clients, even at the cost of assuring a continued war between them and clients of the Soviet Union? Or are we willing to encourage the development of an Afghan political process in which clients of all foreign powers - ours as well as the USSR's - would return to the marginal roles they would play without rubles and dollars?
This is not to equate our role in Afghanistan with that of the USSR, still less to equate the resistance with the government installed by Moscow. The mujahideen, whose struggle the US supported, started their fight for their country and religion without help from anyone. The US was right to support them.
But if moral clarity of the major issue obscures our perception of the complex details, we - as well as the mujahideen and the people of Afghanistan - will find ourselves prisoners of our own success.
There are major political forces in Afghanistan largely excluded from both sides. Najibullah's People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) was only the most radical faction within a much broader modernist coalition in Afghanistan. This coalition included the royal and republican regimes and most of the intelligentsia. It was the royal regime, not the PDPA, that introduced and expanded women's education and public employment, made the university co-educational, rendered the veil optional, and established secular schools.
Yet the PDPA claims to be the only representative of modernism in Afghanistan.
The resistance to the PDPA and the Soviet forces has paradoxically bolstered this false claim. All political forces in Afghanistan were forced into opposition. Eliminated by terror and repression from open political competition in the cities, they fell back on the only alternative power base, the traditional rural society.
Furthermore, the need for weapons and international representation forced the resistance fighters into dependence on intermediaries recognized by Pakistan, then ruled by the military regime of President Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq. The US agreed to allow the Pakistani military to choose which Afghan leaders to recognize. The choices they made in 1981 continue to influence which Afghan political forces can play public roles. From the beginning the Pakistani military favored the more extreme Islamic radicals, said to be more effective militarily.
Whether or not this was ever an accurate representation, it is now irrelevant. The Soviet troops are gone. The issue of battle will now determine who will preside over Afghanistan. And it is becoming clearer that, despite the role these leaders played in the resistance, neither the mujahideen nor the people of Afghanistan want them.
Two phenomena since the Soviet withdrawal illustrate this: the mujahideen are reluctant to attack, and the regime's troops are reluctant to defect.
The mujahideen are reluctant to fight because they do not want to risk their lives for leaders they consider unrepresentative and corrupt. They had hoped these leaders would produce a more representative government. But the shura (council) in Islamabad last February showed that they want to dominate others, and can't cooperate. Everyone in Afghanistan knows, even if Washington and Islamabad deny it, that the shura was manipulated by Pakistani power and Saudi money.
Finally, urban Afghans - most of whom have reason to hate those who rule them - also have ample reason to fear those who seek to replace the Kabul regime. The dominance of extremists and the exclusion of mainstream representatives has strengthened Najibullah's claim to represent the only hope for modernism in Afghanistan. The massacres and rapes in formerly regime-controlled areas committed by radical Arab volunteers fighting beside the mujahideen (who also comitted atrocities) have increased fears of what would happen when or if the resistance enters Kabul.
Mujahideen commanders I spoke to near Jalalabad a few months ago shared these fears. These fears, more than Najibullah's policies, explain why defections have not significantly weakened the government.
The way out of the dilemma must combine two elements: a cutoff of external military aid to the combatants (negative symmetry), and the inauguration of a political process of choice.
Washington argues that massive Soviet arms deliveries to Kabul have introduce a new imbalance; the Soviets, however, indicate their willingness to discuss not merely a cutoff but a withdrawal of advanced weapons.
Such a military agreement must be accompanied by a political process leading to the replacement of the present Kabul regime. The United Nations can make a major contribution, as the Soviets consistently prove more willing to work with the UN than with the US or Pakistan.
The exiled former king of Afghanistan, Zaher Shah, whom Pakistan has isolated from the Afghan refugees on its borders can act as an elder, presiding over the transition. He can reassure both the urban population, created largely during his 40-year reign, and the refugees.
It will be a long time before Afghanistan approximates a peaceful, stable country. But the US owes it to those whom it supported not to further contribute to their divisions.