THE Afghan civil war long seemed a clear struggle between black and white hats. On one side were the heavies: Soviet occupation troops and their communist Afghan allies. On the other: plucky mujahideen guerrillas willing to fight tanks with old rifles and rocks. But the Soviets pulled out a year ago and the Afghan conflict no longer looks like a John Wayne movie. The mujahideen have not captured Kabul and quarrel bitterly among themselves. Wracked by coup attempts, the Soviet-backed Afghan government no longer seems a dastardly monolith.
As the picture grows murkier, support for the guerrillas is eroding in Washington. The US program for arming the rebels will not enjoy ``automatic and routine continuation'' this year, Rep. Stephen Solarz (D) of New York, chairman of the House subcommittee on Asian affairs, warned the administration last week.
The White House is not waiting for a mujahideen military victory anymore, as officials predict it could be years in coming. ``We believe a negotiated settlement is worth trying,'' said John Kelly, assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian affairs.
Bush officials pin their hopes for a peace treaty on the prospect of a ``shura,'' an Islamic assembly of guerrilla representatives. Such a meeting, tentatively set for later this year, could broaden the resistance leadership. Current rebel chiefs who make up the ``Afghan Interim Government'' have been criticized as too close to Pakistan and not reflective of the wishes of field commanders.
Such a legitimized rebel steering committee could then negotiate a peace treaty with representatives of the Soviet-backed Afghan government of President Najibullah. The goal: some sort of power-sharing arrangement in preparation for free elections.
Najibullah himself, along with his top aides, would have to go, according to US officials. ``We believe the mujahideen would insist he step down,'' Mr. Kelly said.
Critics complain that with Soviet troops gone from the country the US no longer has any reason to interfere. The nominally covert US program of military aid for the rebels, estimated at $400 million a year, has replaced many of the museum-piece mujahideen weapons with everything from modern rifles to shoulder-fired Stinger antiaircraft missiles.
Some members of Congress are promoting the idea of Afghan ``negative symmetry'' - the US will stop arming the rebels if the Soviet Union agrees to do the same for the Najibullah regime.
Last week's coup attempt has only clouded the issue for Washington. With no embassy in Kabul the US has little direct information about the Communist Party split that sparked the coup. US officials say they have no indication that the coup leaders, if they had won, would have moved to end the country's civil war.
If Najibullah still feels threatened, he could be more forthcoming in negotiations, some analysts say. ``The Soviet Union and Najib will both be more anxious for a settlement now,'' says Afghan expert Selig Harrison, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.