A Country in Name Only: Afghanistan Defies Itself


JEHAN DAD KHAN, a carpet dealer at Kabul's main ''chicken bazaar,''' keeps a close eye on the entrance to his shop, even as he takes a lunch break. Customers who drop by are almost pushed aside as he rushes to lock the door behind them. ''These days are bad. Criminals may come to rob my shop. The government is nowhere,'' he says. The worries of this Pashtun tribesman are shared by many people in this mountainous nation of about 19 million, where 16 years of war and an unstable peace have left a mark across much of Afghanistan. The country is a good example of how the breakdown of government leads to the formation of armed groups determined to protect their interests. Kabul has no electricity and little entertainment. People stay indoors after sunset for fear of being fired upon by small bands of gunmen who stop vehicles at night. Much of the disarray is worsened by a broken infrastructure and the world's largest concentration of land mines. This Central Asian country - the last bastion of Western resistance to Soviet expansion during the cold war - now finds itself increasingly lost and isolated. Many Western nations - led by the United States, which helped the Islamic mujahideen (freedom fighters) during their decade-long resistance to communist rule - are disillusioned by the continuing warfare between factions. ''Who can help a country determined to wipe itself out?'' says one senior Western diplomat in neighboring Pakistan. Even Islamic countries, many of which helped the largely Muslim Afghans fight the Soviet occupation, now find themselves helpless amid few prospects for lasting peace. Despite the urgency for a peace settlement, there are few signs that the latest effort - begun Aug. 3 with a visit to Kabul by Pakistan Foreign Minister Sardar Asseff Ahmed Ali - would be of much help. Pakistan, which channeled most of the Western-supplied arms to the mujahideen, appears to have the support of Saudi Arabia and the Jeddah-based Organization of Islamic Countries. Many observers are convinced that Pakistan is trying to pave the way for the return of King Zahir Shah, the former Afghan king, who has lived in exile in Rome since being deposed in a 1973 coup by his brother-in-law. The effort seems to be pegged on the hope that his return would force the divided Afghan factions to unite behind what they may see as a rare symbol of national unity. However, it's not clear if such a plan would work, largely because of bitter differences between well-armed groups. In recent weeks, fighting has once again flared near the capital between troops loyal to Ahmed Shah Masoud, the former defense minister who supports the government in Kabul, and Gen. Rashid Dostum, another warlord. The two men are fighting to take control of a strategic highway connecting the newly independent Central Asian countries. THE government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani in Kabul accuses the country's neighbors, such as Pakistan and Uzbekistan, of fomenting the troubles by giving arms to opposition groups. Prime Minister Ahmed Shah Ahmed Zai, said recently: ''It is the outside forces that are supporting the opposition today. If we are left among our own, we will solve our problems.'' In the past, Afghan officials have accused Pakistan of helping Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Afghan warlord, and Uzbekistan of supporting General Dostum. Both men oppose the government of President Rabbani. But the Afghan government's position has increasingly fallen in doubt. Since coming to power almost three years ago for a one-year term, Rabbani has gone back on his promises to step down so that a new government representing all the major Afghan factions could come to office. Efforts by United Nations negotiator Mehmoud Mestiri to arrange a transition in March fell apart at the last moment when Rabbani set new conditions. Peace may lie in finding ways to unite this ethnically diverse nation, but government leaders deny that an ethnic divide between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns makes it difficult to find a new leader. ''Afghans are proud of their individual ethnic backgrounds, but this has never been a sore point in the past,'' says one Afghan officials who requested anonymity. ''In our history, we've had many Pashtun kings even though they represent slightly less than half the population.'' Diplomats in Pakistan, however, say that the flow of arms to various groups in the country has aroused nationalistic feelings, making people from different backgrounds more aware of their ethnic identity. Many diplomats also fear that a continued political deadlock may cause more bloodshed and further aggravate the humanitarian crisis. Officials in Pakistan are worried that continued conflict in Afghanistan would only help to prolong the flow of arms and drugs into their country, and that some of those could also be channeled to other parts of the world. Those concerns have increasingly caught the attention of Western experts, especially since the arrest in Pakistan earlier this year of Ramzi Yousef, the main suspect in the bombing of New York's World Trade Center. Pakistani officials familiar with the case suspect Mr. Yousef may have had connections with some Afghan groups and may even have received training in the use of weapons through his Afghan contacts. ''The Yousef case illustrates that the trail of international terrorism could lead back to Afghanistan. The fear is that, faced with an increasingly uncertain and poverty-ridden situation, why should young Afghan men lay down their arms,'' says one diplomat in the Pakistan capital, Islamabad.

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