GROUPS of Afghan mujahideen, or Islamic resistance fighters, that once banded together to oust the Soviets are now locked in a vicious and intractable power struggle that could tear Afghanistan apart.
Since the battle between the new government and opposition forces broke out in Kabul on Jan. 19, hundreds of civilians have been killed and more than 5,000 wounded. Thousands have fled their homes in the combat zones in the southern and western sections of the capital.
The city is now so dangerous that all but a handful of third-world embassies have closed and the only relief groups still operating are the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the French charity Doctors Without Borders.
Rocket, artillery, and tank bombardments have hit all parts of Kabul in a conflict that some observers say has taken on ethnic overtones. No faction seems to be strong enough to win, and with warlords unable or unwilling to find common ground, many Afghans see no end to the turmoil.
With their government unable to help, displaced Afghans find there is nobody to turn to as they flood out of the battle areas, often with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Many curse the mujahideen - both pro- and antigovernment factions.
But many also blame the outside world for ignoring them, and draw bitter comparisons between their plight and those of the former Yugoslavia and Somalia, where the international community has intervened with humanitarian assistance.
Three main factions are engaged in the conflict. President Burhanuddin Rabbani's government is dominated by his Jamiat-e-Islami (Islamic Society) faction, whose strongman, Ahmed Shah Masoud, is defense minister.
Their forces - with ethnic Tajik fighters from the north of the country providing the backbone - are pitted against the radical Hezb-e-Islami (Islamic Party), which is headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and is made up largely of Sunni Muslims from the Pashtun community, the biggest of Afghanistan's myriad ethnic groups.
A week after the fighting began last month, Shiite Muslims from the Hezb-e-Wahdat (Islamic Unity Party), drawn from the Hazara minority, joined the battle against the government.
The opposition factions dispute the legitimacy of President Rabbani's election on Dec. 30, 1992, by an assembly established by the Leadership Council of nine mujahideen groups.
The council was set up to oversee the country's affairs after the overthrow of the Soviet-backed Najibullah government last April. A volley of shells
On Jan. 3, the day after Rabbani was sworn in, rockets began to fall on Kabul. Mr. Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami was blamed. On Jan. 19, government forces began a drive against Hezb-e-Islami positions on the southern outskirts of the city.
Since then, Afghan and outside mediators have been unable to break the basic deadlock. Gen. Hameed Gul, former military intelligence chief in Pakistan, visited Kabul earlier this month, but failed to broker a political solution.
"Rabbani and Masoud are imposing their power and ruling the citizens of Afghanistan by force, and that is not acceptable to any single person in the country," says Wahid Allah, a senior aide to Mr. Hekmatyar.
"The only solution is for Rabbani to stand down and hand power back to the Leadership Council," he adds. "The council would appoint a new interim president until general elections can be held, and we would have a cease-fire. Without that, there will be no truce." Rabbani's retort
But Rabbani insists that his position is legitimate, and argues that the Leadership Council served its transitional purpose and is no longer a valid body.
"Our government was legally elected, and nobody else can impose their will by force," he told the Monitor. "The demands of the opposition groups are not legitimate. The assembly's decision was final and legal."
It is hard to discern any clear political or ideological basis for the conflict: All the factions claim Islam as their banner.
Hezb-e-Islami's brand may be more radical than most, and its supporters accuse Rabbani of frustrating the wishes of the Afghan people for an Islamic state. But Rabbani is an Islamic scholar, and his government has adopted clear Islamic tenets.
"What exists now is an Islamic government, and I'm ready to fight and defend it against these unbelievers and hypocrites who are exploiting and abusing Islam," says Muhammad Azam, a Tajik fighter from the Panjshir Valley, as he traded fire with Hezb-e-Wahdat forces in southern Kabul.
On the other side of the line, Gulam Sakhi, a fighter with the Hezb-e-Wahdat, sees the battle as an effort to save his traditionally downtrodden Hazara community.
"I'm fighting for the innocent and victim people in general," he says. "Everybody is fighting for the same reason. We are fighting against the other minorities which others don't like." Ethnic overtones
Some observers believe the conflict has become a straightforward factional power struggle, with strong ethnic overtones.
"Each group wants to have power, and now you have all the ancient problems that Afghanistan knew, like ethnic and religious problems, rising again to the surface," one senior international observer says.
The Pashtuns, who dominate the Hezb-e-Islami, were the traditional rulers of Afghanistan. But their 6.5 million-strong community has been weakened by the flight of several million refugees to neighboring Pakistan and Iran. Rabbani's Tajik minority now dominates the government.
"I've never seen the Afghans as pessimistic as they are now - they don't believe there will ever be peace," says Alberto Cairo, an ICRC worker who has been in the country for more than two years.
As the fighting goes on, roughly 90 percent of the casualties are civilians, doctors here estimate. Many of those who fled the battle zones had their houses looted by one side or the other. "The fighters are not paid, so they loot," says one foreign observer.
Despairing of their own leaders, many ordinary Afghans beg for outside intervention.
"Without the United Nations, this problem of Afghanistan will not be solved," says Maasoum, a refugee from southern Kabul.