FLOUR and sugar, not rockets and fighter aircraft, will be the key weapons this winter in Afghanistan's 11-year-old civil war. With snow and cold setting in, Afghanistan appears headed for a rerun of last winter, when many in the besieged capital Kabul went hungry because of harsh weather and rebel pressures on crucial supply routes.
With malnutrition already at high levels, United Nations and private aid workers forecast a desperate season for many Afghans.
The struggle to feed Kabul also poses a worrying political dilemma for the Afghan guerrillas, called mujahideen, and their Western backers, including the United States.
There is a growing realization in Pakistan, where the rebels are based, that if the Soviet-backed regime of President Najibullah (also known as Najib) withstands the winter rigors, the government's chances of survival in the long-run are much better than now expected.
But a siege on the regime's urban strongholds threatens severe hardship for Afghan civilians, already wavering in their support for the bickering rebels.
``This winter is going to be extremely tough in Kabul. It's also going to create big propaganda problems for the mujahideen,'' predicts a Western diplomat. ``You're going to have kids starving in Kabul and the [mujahideen] are going to be blamed.''
``If Najib survives the next couple of months, there are chances of widespread support for him provided the people are given food,'' says Fazle-ur-Rahman, an Afghanistan specialist at the Institute of Strategic Studies here.
By the estimates of Western observers in Pakistan, Najib's regime has stockpiled 100,000 metric tons of grain in Kabul through Soviet airlifts and convoys.
But that won't be enough to meet expected shortages between December and March in areas controlled both by the regime and the guerrillas. Worried by predictions of a harsh winter, 250,000 people have fled the 2 million-strong city of Kabul over the last six months, UN officials estimate.
To meet the anticipated shortfalls, the US and European countries have stockpiled 100,000 tons of grain in Pakistan for distribution in Afghanistan during the winter. They plan to channel food through the UN to the bazaars surrounding Kabul, in hopes that some will reach the needy.
Carrying out that plan, though, raises major questions.
Unable to capture the eastern Afghan cities of Jalalabad and Khost through direct attack, the guerrillas will likely be limited to siege tactics during the winter. That would make food distribution difficult, since ``trying to stop military supplies but letting the food through is very hard to do,'' admits a Western diplomat.
The outlying bazaars have often been targets for bombing and rocket attacks, making food supplies vulnerable, foreign aid workers say. US and Pakistani officials are pressing the mujahideen to limit their attacks, which have lost them support in the cities.
Even if food gets through, the buying power of the average Afghan has lagged far behind the sky-high jumps in food prices in recent months. Fuel for heating, cooking, and transport also are likely to be scarce.
``This is a vulnerable population,'' said a recent study of the Kabul food supply done by the private agency Afghan Aid in Peshawar. With increased fighting and limited bazaar food supplies, ``this population would find itself in a position from which there would be no escape.''
Western officials here warily await the winter's propaganda battle, in which the Kabul regime is expected to blame food shortages on the mujahideen siege.
The regime gives first priority to feeding the military and members of the ruling People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan.
Diplomats in Pakistan charge that the Najib government has exacerbated food shortages by allotting more than 75 percent of available transport into Kabul to military equipment. Still, political observers and aid workers predict US support for the mujahideen could face new scrutiny this winter as the food supplies tighten.
``The United States is heading nowhere with this policy. It's only continuing the conflict,'' says an official with an international aid agency in Peshawar.
Growing questioning of US policy will heighten pressure on the interim rebel government in Peshawar. Although the mujahideen refuse to negotiate with Najib, the Afghan president's strategy and success in controlling dissidence in his party have boosted his staying power, Western officials say.
``Najib's chances of survival are good for another year,'' says a diplomat. ``So far, the Soviets have shown no interest in compromising him. Why should they? He's never looked so good.''
The government of the seven-party Afghan alliance also is running out of time. Its mandate expires in February when, diplomats say, it will have to reform or dissolve in infighting.
That will give new impetus to the slowly emerging international consensus that military aid must end and a political solution found, political observers say.
``If the mujahideen don't make some political headway,'' says a Pakistani analyst, ``then by next spring people are going to be loudly questioning their support.''