Afghanistan: Progress and Impasse

ACCORDING to a recent report from State Department sources, the United States and the Soviet Union have reached an understanding whereby the two superpowers would allow general elections, supervised by the United Nations and the Conference of Islamic Countries, to resolve the Afghan conflict. The report adds that the ruling People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) will be allowed to participate in the elections. This is a major step toward peace in Afghanistan. The agreement involves substantial concessions by both sides. Although two years ago the Soviets agreed to withdraw their forces from Afghanistan and proposed power-sharing between the PDPA and the resistance, they did not endorse the suggestion that elections should determine the composition of the post-Soviet-occupation government in Afghanistan. The Soviets, with good reasons, were apprehensive that genuine elections may eliminate the PDPA from the Afghan political scene. Thus, it is a major concession by Moscow to accept the principle of self-determination in Afghanistan.

The US has made an equally important concession. In the summer of 1988 when the Soviets began to withdraw from Afghanistan, the US expected the weak military position of the Kabul government would produce an inevitable mujahideen victory. Consequently, the US did not consider negotiations with Najibullah necessary. The US refused to allow the PDPA any participation in the political process. Thus, it is a major concession by the US to allow the PDPA to contest the elections.

Despite this step toward peace, an impasse is possible. There is little agreement between participants regarding the exercise of power during the transition. The Soviets have proposed that the Kabul government and the mujahideen continue to administer areas they presently control - but that both sides should observe a cease-fire and let the UN and the Conference of Islamic Countries conduct general elections in both territories, and among the refugees. The US, however, wants Najibullah to relinquish power before the elections. Najibullah opposes this idea.

The UN has suggested the formation of a neutral transitional government composed of prominent nonpartisan Afghans. Such a transitional government, which is expected to have a short tenure, would be responsible for preparing the nation for general elections. However, some critics argue it is difficult to find Afghans who combine political efficacy and political neutrality. Many Afghans suspect the so-called neutral Afghans would use their position to enhance their political careers. Consequently, the Pakistan-based resistance groups strongly reject the UN plan.

A more practical suggestion proposes a transitional broad-based coalition government comprised of the Pakistan-based and Iran-based resistance groups, the nationalist opposition groups (not recognized by Pakistan and Iran), independent political personalities, and the PDPA. Such a coalition would expedite reunification and reconciliation, prepare a constitution, and conduct elections. However, the Pakistan-based resistance organizations have rejected any coalition with Kabul.

None of these proposals are ideal. This deficiency is exploited by some groups who have vested interests in the continuation of the war. They camouflage their interest in ideological terms and argue that any compromise and flexibility is a betrayal of the sacred cause. However, a transitional period based on a political solution has to reflect some compromises. Despite shortcomings, these less than ideal solutions are better alternatives than war. What ought to be emphasized is not the perfection of the transitional period - but a brief transition period that promotes the values of an independent, free, Islamic, and democratic Afghanistan.

The Soviet Union and the US, in concert, can expedite the end of the war in Afghanistan. The overwhelming majority of the people and a large segment of the political elite, especially the nationalists who fear a complete disintegration of the country, desire peace. A genuine American commitment to peace in Afghanistan can mobilize the people in favor of peace. It is a moral imperative for both the US and the Soviet Union not to allow minor disagreements over the exercise of power to impede peace in Afghanistan.

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