UNLIKE leaders of the Afghan mujahideen resistance groups based in Pakistan and Iran who spent much of their time lobbying for Western arms and support, Ahmed Shah Massoud stayed in Afghanistan and consolidated his position. Now the young rebel leader and former engineering student may emerge as the leader of his war-torn country.
"Massoud is more like a son of the soil," a senior Pakistani official says. "He has only been out of Afghanistan three or four times since the Soviet invasion of 1979, and that is what makes him go."
During the years of Soviet occupation, Mr. Massoud headed an army of 15,000 for the Jamiat-i-Islami, or Islamic Society, and equipped them with Western-supplied arms and assistance from Pakistan, Iran, and Arab countries. His military prowess brought him under the limelight.
Even Soviet officers responsible for military operations in Afghanistan recognized Massoud's political acumen and military skill.
From his Panjshir valley stronghold less than 60 miles northeast of Kabul, he demonstrated a willingness to negotiate cease-fires and later redeploy his men whenever there was an opportunity for military gains. Meanwhile, he gained the support of his people and the respect of some Western and Pakistani officials by setting up schools and basic health facilities in his area.
"Massoud has been cleverly trying to carve out his place in Afghanistan," says one Pakistani official. "Now, it seems that he is close to success."
True to his reputation as the "lion of Panjshir," Massoud moved fast after President Najibullah's downfall April 16. He deployed his forces 40 miles north of Kabul to demonstrate his muscle, and soon began negotiations with members of the Najibullah government to ease them out of power. Now backed by generals and other defectors from the Afghan government, he has announced his intention of setting up a mujahideen government in Kabul.
"Massoud may now head Afghanistan's most powerful alliance seen in years," a foreign diplomat says.
But tactical strength hides what could be the beginning of a new wave of ethnic conflict. For more than 200 years, Afghanistan has been mostly ruled by Pushtuns, the country's largest tribe; other minorities have remained subservient. Now, that may change: Massoud belongs to a Tajik tribe, a factor that could put him at loggerheads with his Pushtun rivals.
"In a country where authority of the ruler depends on loyalty from certain ethnics who've remained dominant over time, one could conceivably face problems if the same community was suddenly to become subservient itself," a foreign diplomat says. Pushtuns comprise 40 percent of Afghanistan's estimated population of 16.9 million, followed by 25 percent Tajiks, 20 percent Uzbeks and Turkmens; Hazara make up the smallest community with 15 percent.
On the eve of the first peace in 14 years, intertribal warfare looms large. Mujahideen sources speak of a possible backlash from the Pushtuns.
For years, Massoud's most ardent rival has been Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Pushtun who heads the Pakistan-based Hezb-i-Islami, or Islamic Party. Mr. Hekmatyar's forces were approaching Kabul from the south at press time. Almost 1,000 Hekmatyar supporters in Peshawar, all males between the ages of 13 and 50, boarded trucks April 19, and amid slogans of Allahu akbar, or God is great, began their journey for Jalalabad to take up arms if they are called to do so.
"Others are going to follow them in the next few days in a show of strength against Massoud," a mujahideen source says. "The next few days may be critical if there is Pushtun versus non-Pushtun conflict."
Along with potential ethnic conflict, Massoud faces other challenges. Almost 14 years of war have devastated large parts of the country. At least 5 million Afghans have been forced to seek refuge in neighboring Iran and Pakistan.
The United Nations launched a worldwide appeal in early April asking for 100,000 tons of wheat supplies to alleviate severe food shortages.
"The silos are empty. Do we start digging cemeteries?" the UN secretary-general's envoy in Afghanistan, Benon Sevan, asks dryly.
The Pakistani government is now trying to update estimates of costs for repatriation and rehabilitation of refugees.
But "with the Western world's interest in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Afghanistan has few hopes of getting much attention," a relief official here says. The future of an earlier commitment from Moscow of $600 million for reconstruction "remains uncertain because of the break up of the Soviet Union," the official adds.
With the turn of events in Afghanistan, it seems increasingly likely that Massoud may head the next government, but his abilities as a ruler are less clear.
"He is an impressive man," the relief official says, "but even with his skills, the challenges he faces seem to be monumental."