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Karmal tries to defuse Afghans' ethnic unrest

The Soviet installation of Babrak Karmal as the new President of Afghanistan may bring about some subtle changes in relations among the country's ethnic groups.

In particular, it may result in a shading -- but not a change -- in the traditionally dominant role of the Pushtun in the running of the country.

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Under the monarchy ousted in 1973, under the noncommunist presidency of Muhammad Daoud, and under Mr. Karmal's two immediate communist predecessors, Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin, Pushtuns dominated the government. They continue to do so under Mr. Karmal.

But it was seen as a straw in the wind when Mr. Karmal used Dari, not Pashto (the language of the Pushtuns), for his first public news conference. Dari is the Persian dialect spoken by Tajiks, Afghanistan's second biggest ethnic group -- and by some of the other ethnic communities in the country.

Dari also tends to predominate now in the transmissions of Afghan television, which does not reach far beyond the area of Kabul, the capital. Admittedly, Kabul is largely Dari-speaking; but after the coup that brought communist President Taraki to power in 1978, there had been an initial swing away in television transmissions from Pashto to Dari.

The change with Mr. Karmal as president apparently is connected with differences between the two factions of the communist party on the Pushtun question. Mr. Taraki was leader of the Khalq (People's) faction. Mr. Karmal is leader of the rival Parcham (Banner) faction. Both favored self-determination for all Pushtuns, who live astride the frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Traditionally, Parcham people saw this simply as leading to a greater Afghanistan at the expense of Pakistan. But Khalq supporters envisaged an autonomous Pushtun state under an Afghan umbrella.

In the struggle to enlist the support of the Afghan armed forces -- 75 percent of the Afghan officers are Pushtuns -- the Parcham Party seemed to be making the most headway.

Western diplomats point to the fact that the Khalq's explicit Pushtun nationalist stand alienated it from other nationalist minorities in Afghanistan -- the 2.5 million Dari-speaking Tajiks, the Baluchis, and the Uzbeks.

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"Many people were simply against Amin [as President] because of his strong Pushtun leanings," one diplomat said.

Most political analysts feel that Mr. Karmal will be able to subdue any separatist movement among the country's non-Pushtun minorities.

"Karmal's problem is that he is strongly identified with communism and the Soviet Union," one Western diplomat said. "But he should be able to eliminate anti-Pushtun-motivated feelings against the new regime."

Diplomats in Kabul now fear that in the case of a further escalation in the crisis, Afghanistan's new rulers might wish to revise Pushtun claims on Pakistan.

"The Soviets told the Pakistanis in very clear terms: 'Keep your hands off,'" one vetteran diplomat said. "If Pakistan does not rid itself of the refugee camps, I would not be surprised if the Russians might not claim the Pakistanis are misbehaving and use the Pushtun issue. . . ."


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