Looming Afghan Terror?

If the Kabul government collapses without its Soviet patron, Islamic fundamentalists could quickly seize power and start a holy purge

THE downfall of Mikhail Gorbachev and the demise of the Soviet Union are likely to expedite the collapse of Najibullah's regime in Afghanistan. The Kabul government installed by Moscow may not be overthrown by any military action of the mujahideen resistance fighters; rather it may collapse because of financial crisis.

Since the early 1970s, the export of natural gas to the Soviet Union has been the major source of government revenues in Afghanistan, totaling $304 million in 1988. But for the past three years the country has not been able to export natural gas. Anticipating chaotic conditions in the country, the Soviets, before the completion of the withdrawal of their forces in early 1989, closed natural gas wells in Afghanistan.

Consequently, Najibullah's government became almost totally dependent on Soviet financial support. Although the Kabul government claims that it is ready to resume the export of natural gas, the operation has not yet begun. Furthermore, the Soviets have always been the sole customer of natural gas from Afghanistan. Given the current state of political instability in the former Soviet Union, it is unlikely that the Kabul government will be able to count on natural gas as a major source of revenues soon.

Mr. Gorbachev's downfall and Boris Yeltsin's rise are also major political blows to Kabul. Although Gorbachev wanted a political solution to the Afghan conflict and was willing to force Najibullah to abandon the presidency, the Soviet leader also insisted on a solution that would have allowed other members of the Kabul government and the ruling Watan Party to participate in the political process.

Mr. Yeltsin, however, is little concerned about the fate of the Kabul government. In the past few months, he has been willing to deal with the Afghan opposition even at the cost of totally abandoning the Kabul government. Furthermore, given the economic problems of the Commonwealth of Independent States, even if Yeltsin wanted to help Najibullah he cannot afford to allocate any Russian resources to the former allies of the Soviet Union.

Without Russian financial aid and natural-gas revenues, the Kabul government will soon face a financial crisis that may expedite its collapse. Few Afghans will shed any tears over the collapse of the Kabul government. However, the downfall of Najibullah's regime is not likely to bring peace and freedom to Afghanistan; rather, it may facilitate a reign of fundamentalist terror in the country. In the event of a sudden collapse of the government, only the fundamentalists have the foreign support (from Pakis tan and Saudi Arabia), organization, and discipline necessary to fill the political vacuum and to establish their authority in Kabul.

Like the communists in 1978, the fundamentalists will try to eliminate all of their political opponents, including their wartime allies, the moderate resistance groups. Their re-Islamization program is likely to claim the lives of thousands of Afghans whose urban lifestyle they find as too modern, too Western. The fundamentalists have learned nothing from the mistakes of the communists; they are likely to attempt to impose a totalitarian regime.

This outcome can be prevented, however, if the US pushes for an immediate implementation of the May 1991 United Nations plan for the resolution of the Afghan conflict. The UN plan calls for a "transitional mechanism" to prepare the nation for general elections that can be contested by all parties. Benon Sevan, the personal representative of the UN secretary general, has been holding discussions with the various factions on a conference to decide on a transitional mechanism.

The fate of the Kabul government during such a transitional period has always been a controversial issue. Given the recent changes in the Soviet Union, it is likely that the Kabul government will be willing to accept extraordinary concessions. And with the increased danger of a fundamentalist takeover, the desire for a political solution on the part of the moderate Afghan groups in Pakistan, the supporters of the ex-King Zahir Shah, and the nationalists has probably also increased.

IF the US strongly urged the UN to expedite the peace process, a strong coalition between these two groups could emerge, able to negotiate the transfer of power from the Kabul government even without the participation of the fundamentalists.

But there are major differences among the Afghans. Inter-Afghan dialogue is doomed to fail in the absence of UN leadership and strong US support for a political solution. Without prompt action by the UN and the US, the Afghans may suffer from another round of violence - this time a fundamentalist reign of terror.

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