IN the fierce jostling for power among Afghan resistance fighters, Islamic fundamentalist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has emerged as an ambitious and ruthless contender. Head of one of the seven allied political parties based in this Pakistani border town, the 42-year-old leader has defied attempts by Americans and some Pakistanis to reduce his influence and share of foreign military aid.
He has broken with the resistance movement's so-called interim government here. The July massacre of 30 Afghan guerrilla rivals by his Hezb-e-Islami (Islamic Party) has chilled hopes of a united political and military front against the Kabul regime of President Najibullah.
Despite growing questioning and divisions over military policy on Afghanistan, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan are still flooding the resistance fighters, or mujahideen, with weapons.
This supply effort is aimed at salvaging the interim government and forging unity for negotiating and fighting. In a season of military setback and embarrassment, the resistance has failed to budge the Soviet-armed troops of Najib (as the Afghan president is often called) from a major city.
However, many Afghans here now see as inevitable their country's slide into the sectarian fighting that has been a hallmark of life in the country for generations. In the scramble to grab territory and control, many Afghans and foreign observers recognize and even fear that Mr. Hekmatyar will play a key role.
``The war now is for control of Kabul,'' says a Western diplomat in Islamabad. ``Hekmatyar leads a powerful political organization that can be a tremendous nuisance for any government.''
In the months since the Feb. 15 final pullout of more than 100,000 Soviet troops, Hekmatyar has been a thorn in the side of the interim government and its foreign supporters.
Although acting as the interim government's foreign minister, he resisted efforts to broaden its appeal to include Shiite political parties based in Iran and supporters of the former Afghan king, Zahir Shah. His refusal to compromise is rooted in his long-standing favored status with Pakistani military Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which for years under the late President Muhammad Zia ul-Haq controlled Pakistan's Afghan policy.
Head of a small but well-organized group of Islamic conservatives, Hekmatyar has been based in Pakistan for more than 15 years. An engineer by training, he emerged in the tumultuous student politics of the 1960s at Kabul University, which produced many of the leaders of the resistance and the Najib regime.
Imprisoned for the murder of a left-wing student, Hekmatyar was released when Mohammad Daoud Khan overthrew his cousin, King Zahir Shah, in 1973. Hekmatyar then fled to Pakistan.
An Islamic militant who favors keeping Afghan women in purdah, Hekmatyar won the favor of Zia, who hoped to install a pro-Pakistan fundamentalist regime in Kabul. Hekmatyar reportedly has received 20 to 25 percent of American arms distributed by Pakistan's Army.
Those ties are now causing problems as some American and Pakistani officials are questioning the wisdom of years of support for Hekmatyar and his extremist politics. Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who fears Hekmatyar's strong links to Pakistani fundamentalists, has been trying to reduce his influence and wrest Afghan policy control away from the military.
Pakistani observers say the Army is resisting both Bhutto and the Americans, who are pushing for a more equitable distribution of arms.
``Hekmatyar has a long relationship of trust and confidence with the military,'' says Mushahid Hussain, a journalist who closely follows the military. He's considered to be the kind of guy who was needed to deal with the Russians, he adds. ``He's no softy.''
However, the one-time clear favorite of Zia is becoming the bogyman of many Westerners and Afghan moderates. In the capital, Kabul, he is spoken of with the same distaste reserved for strongman Najibullah among Afghan refugees in Peshawar.
Americans and European supporters of the guerrillas are worried about Hekmatyar's increasingly shrill anti-West views. The Afghan's own newspaper in Peshawar is full of vitriol against the United States. ``My brothers, the Russians have been defeated,'' said a recent headline. ``Now we are going to fight against the Americans.''
Hekmatyar has been angered by US attempts to rechannel weapons through the interim government and directly to commanders in the field. Western and Afghan observers say the leader has stockpiled a large supply of arms inside Afghanistan.
``Hekmatyar tends to scream the loudest. He sees it all as being directed against him,'' says a senior diplomat in Islamabad. ``Hekmatyar hasn't grown at all since Feb. 15. He hasn't changed a bit.''
However, due to Hekmatyar's powerful Pakistani contacts and network of disciplined commanders in Afghanistan, Western countries can't afford to isolate Hekmatyar completely. He is known also to get strong support from private fundamentalist forces in Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries.
Ostensibly, by arming commanders in the field, the United States and Pakistan hope to establish loyalties to be tapped in finding a political settlement. But there also is a danger.
``The commanders are armed to the teeth, and each claims to be in charge in individual areas,'' says an Afghan analyst in Peshawar. ``They may just be creating warlords inside.''
Indeed, many Afghans fear that already is happening. The strongest evidence of this came in July when one of Hekmatyar's northern commanders, Sayad Jamal, ambushed a group of military leaders under the legendary Afghan commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud.
Mr. Massoud is allied to the Jamiat-e-Islami (Islamic Society), a party of Afghan ethnic minorities headed by Burhanuddin Rabbani. Hekmatyar, who is from the Pushtun majority, is attempting to capitalize on divisions within Mr. Rabbani's party and also sees Massoud as a major rival, Afghan resistance sources say.
Massoud has retaliated by capturing Hekmatyar's commander and holding him until the interim government can send a commission to investigate the atrocities. Hekmatyar himself has dropped out of Peshawar and is reported to be living near the border.
At the same time, Western diplomats and Afghan analysts give credence to reports that Hekmatyar is trying to engineer a coup against Najib in Kabul.
Meanwhile, a number of resistance commanders have dropped out of the fighting, taken a wait-and-see attitude, and begun talking to the Kabul regime. The mujahideen military initiative has slumped into haphazard rocket attacks which have killed scores of civilians in Kabul and triggered a growing disillusionment among their one-time supporters.
``Everyone hates this tyranny whether it's by Gulbuddin or Najib,'' says an Afghan analyst in Peshawar. ``People are asking why is this happening to us at such a crucial time in our history.''