AFGHANISTAN'S bickering rebels are running out of time. After almost a decade of supplying weapons to the resistance, the United States is cutting arms supplies. Congressional negotiators recently trimmed $50 million from the $300 million in annual military aid to the resistance, called the mujahideen.
As the arms flow is reduced, Washington and Moscow are moving toward agreement on a peace plan, possibly by the end of the year, analysts say.
``An agreement is within reach,'' says a senior Western diplomat here.
Hit by the hard new realities, mujahideen leaders are trying to overcome deep rifts in their ranks. With Soviet-backed President Najibullah entrenched in Kabul, resistance commanders last summer launched a shura [council] as an alternative to the failed Afghan interim government headquartered in Peshawar, Pakistan.
``The commanders' shura grew out of the belief that what they fought for for years was bring frittered away by the political leadership [in Pakistan],'' says a senior diplomat. ``This group of commanders is not at all inclined to launch an all-out attack on Kabul. But the terms of a political settlement can change, depending upon the military situation.''
The commanders' shura, promoted by the US, now wants to step up military pressure against key targets in the next few months and enhance its position as the diplomatic pace quickens, Afghan officials and Western diplomats say.
``Our strategy for the war is not to start from one point but to attack different weak points of the enemy,'' said Ahmad Shah Massoud, the force behind the shura.
``They know they have to make the best use of this opportunity, because there won't be another one next year,'' says a Western diplomat.
Pakistan, which shelters about 3 million Afghan refugees, also appears to be changing its tune, Western observers say.
Last month, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a fundamentalist Afghan leader and the favorite of Pakistan's powerful military intelligence, failed in a direct assault on heavily defended Kabul. The attack, reportedly back by Pakistani and US intelligence officials, flopped in part because other rebel leaders oppose Hekmatyar and consider attacks on fortified Afghan cities futile.
For years, the Pakistan military has channeled a large share of the weapons from the US, Saudi Arabia, and China to Mr. Hekmatyar. Now Pakistan is trying to broaden its options, military officials say.
It is ready to drop its insistence that a new Kabul government be headed by a fundamentalist, a military spokesman said. But he insisted political leaders in Peshawar, over whom Pakistan has influence, must still play a central role.
``We would support a truly neutral government other than Najib [as the Afghan president is known]. It doesn't even have to be of a fundamentalist nature,'' says a Pakistani military spokesman.
Recently, in what Western analysts see as a concession to the changing reality in Afghanistan, Pakistan played host to Mr. Massoud in an unprecedented visit by the rebel strategist.
Pakistan has been trying to forge a new alliance among the resistance, but has been stymied by the bitter rivalries between Mr. Hekmatyar and other resistance leaders, especially Massoud. Many Afghan commanders resent Pakistani influence and blame Hekmatyar for the internecine fighting that has atrophied the Afghan resistance.
``The message coming out of Massoud's visit here is that Pakistan no longer favors Hekmatyar,'' says a Western diplomat here. ``Pakistan is being more cooperative and realistic on Afghanistan and has decided not to put all its eggs in Hekmatyar's basket.''
Pakistan's flexibility also was prompted by the narrowing diplomatic gap between Washington and Moscow. Diplomats say the two sides are moving closer to a peace plan under which both would cut military supplies to the warring Afghans. They would also seek a cease-fire and a power-sharing arrangement until elections can be held.
Sources say the biggest hangup remains Najib and how much power he will retain in an interim administration. The US is ready to let Najib participate in elections if he relinquishes control of key ministries, observers say.
The Soviets, however, are resisting efforts to spell out the details of a peace framework, diplomats say. Even so, Moscow is anxious to resolve the war, in which it still spends an estimated $400 million to $500 million a month to keep Najib in power.
``It would be surprising if the Soviets and the Americans agreed to anything so tight and precise that the parties couldn't work it out,'' says a senior diplomat.