Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Afghan Leader Najib Rebounds Solidly After Coup Attempt

NARROWLY surviving last week's failed coup, Afghan President Najibullah is showing his political muscle as he grapples with his troubled party and military. Foreign analysts here say Najib has rebounded solidly from the March 6 coup, assured that Moscow remains firmly behind his regime. Two days after the coup a steady stream of Soviet cargo aircraft landed at Kabul airport, in what was seen as a vote of confidence for the government.

This week before an enthusiastic group of Afghan tribal leaders, a self-assured Najib boasted that Moscow offered him help during the coup. ``I told them thank you for your offer. There's no need now. But if we face a foreign attack that will be another matter,'' referring to Pakistan.

About these ads

Afghanistan's capital is returning to normal one week after mutinous air force pilots straffed key government buildings, barely missing Najib himself - as the president is widely known.

Residents are back in the bazaars, trucks haul debris from damaged buildings, and bulldozers fill in bomb craters at busy intersections.

In the aftermath of the bloody coup, Najib also is trying to put his house in order. Foes have been purged from top posts in his Soviet-backed regime and the bitterly divided People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA).

Loyalists have been promoted to fill the military vacuum left by former Defense Minister Shahnawaz Tanai, the coup leader, and by the Army officers who fled with him to rival Pakistan.

Najib also has renewed his initiatives to split the ranks of the Afghan mujahideen guerrillas based in Pakistan and draw them into peace talks.

He has accused Pakistan's military of fueling the coup and the haphazard alliance between Mr. Tanai, a hard-line communist, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a fundamentalist mujahideen leader. New overtures have been made to lure back former King Zahir Shah from exile, a move popular among moderate rebels.

Najib's political skills, which helped him survive the Soviet withdrawal a year ago, will be crucial as he confronts a new potential military threat in the months ahead, Afghan and foreign analysts say.

About these ads

``The job before Najib now is very clear: While he has to punish some people he has to be political too,'' says a senior diplomat in Kabul. ``Najib can do only one thing and that is push toward the start of political negotiations where his strength lies.''

Diplomats say the coup has complicated and confused efforts to find a political solution to the military standoff in Afghanistan. Since the Soviets left, the mujahideen have not been able to take a major urban stronghold of the Najib regime and have been weakened by bitter infighting.

Before the coup, the Soviet Union was ready to cut its flood of aid to Najib in exchange for an end to United States arms supplies to the Afghan resistance. The US countered it would tolerate Najib temporarily to get peace talks started. But the mujahideen refuse to negotiate with Najib.

While Najib seems entrenched for the time being, Tanai's presence in Pakistan has thrust the controversial Mr. Hekmatyar into the the forefront and deeply angered the other six mujahideen parties based in the Pakistan border town of Peshawar.

Government officials and some analysts are skeptical but nevertheless wary of the proposed ``revolutionary council'' to be set up by Tanai and Hekmatyar. The rebel leader has been a favorite of the Pakistan military, which has been the major channel of US arms to the rebels.

Foreign analysts say the alliance of Hekmatyar and Tanai, both seen as extremists by US policymakers, poses a dilemma for Washington and is a new obstacle to the rebels' contentious efforts to find a united government.

``The whole situation is more complicated now. The political spectrum has a new figure, Tanai,'' says a senior diplomat here. ``It's a new stage for Najib, who is consolidating his ranks. And for the other side, it's a more politically complicated and in some ways gloomy phase.''

Indeed the departure of Tanai creates new opportunities and dilemmas for Najib. The coup culminated months of renewed infighting between the two factions of the ruling PDPA - the Parcham (``flag'') group, which is urban based and headed by Najib, and the Khalq (``people'') wing, which is hard line, has rural roots, and controls the military that was headed by Tanai.

For some months, Najib had suspected Tanai, Afghan and foreign analysts say. Tanai is linked to two previous coup attempts. However, Najib reportedly hesitated to move against him for fear of triggering a widespread uprising within the Army.

Political observers believe that Najib forced Tanai's hand prematurely by launching a trial of more than 120 officers suspected in an anti-Najib plot late last year. While Tanai was able to use the air force with devastating precision, the Army failed to give him crucial backing.

``We have high morale and they couldn't do anything to this Army,'' said Abdullah, a member of Najib's special presidential guard, who showed two journalists through Tanai's devastated office in the Defense Ministry.

By foiling the coup, Najib has succeeded in sidelining Tanai and other critics of his efforts to strike a political compromise with mujahideen politicians and commanders, political observers say.

Najib has pushed party reforms aimed at easing resistance to his regime, associated by many Afghans with a brutal police state.

However, he also faces the touchy task of reconciling party dissidents and taming disgruntled sections of the air force, which has played a crucial role in the defence of Afghan cities.

``With many Khalqis outside the government now, how will he hold the party and the military together?'' asks an Afghan observers. ``Najib is definitely weaker.''

The appointment of Defense Minister Aslam Watanjar, a Khalqi leader in good standing with both factions as well as Moscow, was a first step, analysts say.

Still, the defection of Tanai to Pakistan has made Najib more vulnerable militarily, political observers say.

In the uneasy aftermath of the coup, fears are widespread that Kabul will face a new military onslaught from the the mujahideen in the months ahead.

``Tanai has done damage and left a gaping hole,'' says a diplomat. ``He knew defense secrets, plans and where the weak spots are. In a war situation, that's a lot.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.