THE face-off in Kabul between moderate and radical mujahideen groups is increasing pressure on the ruling coalition in neighboring Pakistan, which has long maintained a high-profile role in the Afghan conflict as a conduit for guerrilla arms and aid.
Last week, the small but well-organized Jamaat-i-Islami (Islamic Society) broke with the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over the government's Afghan policy. The prime minister is backing the mujahideen government in Kabul, while Jamaat activists support fundamentalist leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who refused to join the ruling coalition. Pakistan had long channeled much of its assistance through Mr. Hekmatyar.
Defecting Jamaat members also cite the Sharif government's neglect of Jamaat demands for the speedy introduction of Islamic sharia laws in Pakistan.
The move is unlikely to affect the government's position in the 217-member parliament, where it has a comfortable majority. But intensified confrontation between the two sides could instigate unrest outside the parliament, political observers say.
Young Muslim activists, who turned out in large numbers on the streets of Pakistan during the Gulf war to condemn the Western-backed coalition against Iraq, pose one of the most difficult challenges to the Sharif government, which backed the Western coalition.
"The mullahs have their street power," one leading political activist says on condition of anonymity. "If they decide to go all-out, problems during the Gulf war may come back to haunt us."
The Jamaat is considered to be strong in parts of Northwest Frontier Province which borders Afghanistan, Baluchistan in the west, and rural areas in heavily populated Punjab Province. Statistics on the party's membership are not available, but crowd sizes during local rallies range up to several hundred.
The breakup has been followed by an exchange of bitter words. After the Jamaat announcement, Mr. Sharif accused Jamaat chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed of instigating recent fighting in and around Kabul, the Afghan capital.
A government official, speaking anonymously, later clarified Sharif's accusation, saying that "the Jamaat has been supporting Gulbuddin Hekmatyar against the government in Kabul." Some officials say that the Jamaat has provided supplies to Hekmatyar to help him defeat the mujahideen government.
For its part, the Jamaat has responded to the government's charges with countercharges. Last week during a Friday prayer sermon, Mr. Ahmed said the Jamaat could not remain with the ruling party, "due to the black deeds of the rulers." The Jamaat has also demanded that the government immediately introduce laws which are in conformity with the teachings of the Koran. For example, in recent months the Jamaat has demanded the elimination of interest from all banking transactions.
The announcement has come at a difficult time for Sharif, as his government plans to announce the country's annual budget today, which is estimated to include cutbacks in administrative costs and possible new taxes to fill a deficit of 72 billion rupees ($2.9 billion). Now "the Jamaat may find room to attack the government on its handling of economic issues, adding to their list of demands on Islamization," says one member of the parliament who spoke anonymously.