WHEN US Secretary of State James Baker went to Moscow last month for talks with the Communist Party leadership, the war in Afghanistan was high on the agenda. Unfortunately, the meager movement in the US-Soviet dialogue on Afghanistan demonstrated once again the Bush administration's unwillingness actively to pursue a negotiated settlement. The US can help bring an end to one of the past decade's bloodiest wars. Yet both the White House and Congress appear content to continue the carnage under a political banner which is losing its meaning to Afghanis.
In February 1989, as soon as the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, Mr. Gorbachev sent a letter to President Bush proposing a cease-fire, a mutual cutoff of arms to the warring parties, and the hope for a peaceful settlement. Bush turned his back on this opening, and for the past year pursued with a vengeance the delusion that the US-backed rebels could overrun the well-armed soldiers of Afghan President Najibullah.
The Afghanis, of course, are paying the price for this delusion. Ten years of fighting have already cost the country 1.3 million lives, mostly civilians. Millions more have been maimed or wounded. More than 5 million have fled the country and are now refugees in Pakistan and Iran. Another 3 million are homeless in their own country. Those who weren't forced to flee their homes face famine and attacks by both the rebels and government forces.
The Soviet Union has paid its own price for its brutality in Afghanistan. While Soviet soldiers no longer die on foreign soil, it is costing Gorbachev as much as $300 million every month to support the Najibullah government. As Gorbachev increasingly struggles with his country's failing economy, Afghanistan is one external burden he would like to get rid of.
But the US has actively encouraged the Afghanis to continue fighting each other. Bush waited nearly a year before initiating his first high-level reassessment of US policy in Afghanistan. He calls the Afghan government illegitimate (though the US still maintains diplomatic relations with Najibullah) and resists when other parties treat the Afghan government as a sovereign power.
Congress, too, watched from the sidelines the repeated catastrophes at Jalalabad, Khost, and Kabul. It, too, heard repeated calls for a negotiated settlement, but nonetheless voted in November to send the rebels millions of dollars more in military aid for this year. The estimated $600 million in military aid Congress approved last year contributed mainly to the deaths of thousands more Afghanis, to more refugees fleeing the country, and to more destruction.
Many rebels are growing tired of the slaughter. Inside Afghanistan some rebel commanders have already reached their own accommodation with Najibullah and have arranged their own cease-fires.
There are specific steps the US should take to help end the Afghanistan war.
First, the US should support an immediate halt in further arms shipments to both the rebels and the Afghan government. If a political solution to the conflict is the ultimate goal, there is no justification for sending more weapons into the country.
Second, the US should support an immediate cease-fire between the rebels and the Najibullah government. The military stalemate and winter snows have effectively halted most of the fighting already. A nod from the White House might allow the United Nations to implement such an arrangement. Without further weapons to fuel the war, both sides would be more likely to accede to such an arrangement.
Third, the US should fully support a power-sharing arrangement as an interim step toward self-determination by the Afghan people. The UN proposal for a government of national reconciliation should have the backing of the US.
Fourth, the US should increase its humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. The $600 million spent last year to prolong the misery of the Afghanis could have been used to rebuild roads, hospitals, schools, villages, and the agricultural base of the country. Only a major international effort will make it possible for the 5 million Afghan refugees to return home and help in the long process of rebuilding their country. They will not return until the fighting stops.
Fifth, the US should support Gorbachev's effort to extricate the Soviet Union from Afghanistan rather than fight it. The Soviets are not seeking a unilateral advantage from a negotiated settlement; the US shouldn't either.
Finally, the US should not pass up another opportunity to bring peace to Afghanistan. In three months, Presidents Bush and Gorbachev are scheduled to meet at their second summit. A joint declaration by the two governments that together they will lead the effort to build a lasting peace in a country so long ravaged by war will be an appropriate beginning to the new era of US-Soviet relations unfolding before our eyes.