Now a Civil War, Afghan Conflict Drags On
The scarred and weary land is no longer a spoil of the cold war, but extremists still eschew a compromise
AN assassin trying to kill former King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan in his exile in Rome on Nov. 4 showed that the struggle for Afghanistan continues, bitterly. The 77-year-old king is not an active player. He is a respected neutral figure around whom both sides, government and resistance, might rally for a transition to free elections and peace. But extremists want victory, not the compromise that could now be within reach.The end of the cold war marked the end of the so-called Great Game that obsessed the British and Russian empires through the 19th century, when the Russian bear was trying to clamber over the northern mountains through Afghanistan to the great British honeypot of India. Washington and Moscow revived the game in the 1980s. The revolution in Iran plunged that country into chaos. The seizure of American hostages in Tehran showed that the United States was powerless to intervene. Moscow saw its chance and sent the Soviet Army into Afghanistan. When Afghans fought back, as they had met invaders since Alexander the Great, Washington supported them with billions of dollars in weapons and supplies. Eight years later, the Kremlin had had its Vietnam. It brought its 100,000 men home and sought a deal with the US. They would both stop arming their clients and promote a settlement negotiated by the Afghans themselves. In the light of experience, Washington could not accept the Kremlin's assurance. The war went on. Last September, the picture changed. The failed August putsch in Moscow removed communist hard-liners from the Soviet scene. Within a month, President Mikhail Gorbachev let the Baltic states gain independence, and announced withdrawal of the Soviet training brigade in Cuba. With these developments, the US could agree to a mutual embargo on arms deliveries to Afghanistan as of Jan. 1, 1992, while restricting the flow of money to humanitarian ends. The United Nations worked for the internal consensus that would lead to political settlement. The outlook was not bad. The two big gamesmen, Moscow and Washington, were cutting bait. China, after supporting the mujahideen rebels while the Soviet Army was in Afghanistan, saw no reason to continue. However, the logic of non-belligerency stopped there. The smaller players have continued the game. Pakistan is not expected to close the weapons pipeline to the mujahideen, especially to the Muslim extremists whom it has always favored. Even if the Karachi government should want to, the Pakistani militar y establishment might not comply. And even if the flow of outside money diminishes, there is plenty inside. Afghanistan has become the world's second largest producer of opium. Saudi Arabia has heavily subsidized one mujahideen faction. The Saudis are worried about Iran's religious radicalism and reviving power in the Gulf region. Iran is increasingly active in the politics of Afghanistan. The Saudis want their interests represented in this arena, and they are not likely to stop sending money. The Organization of the Islamic Conference, dominated by Saudi Arabia, promises to support what it calls the Afghan jihad (holy war) for an Islamic government "by any means at its disposa l." The Afghan resistance is splintered. Its factions range from Muslim fanatics to moderate - but also Muslim - traditionalists. They fight each other as well as the government installed by the Soviet Union. Most of the mujahideen reject President Najibullah and demand his departure before talks on unity can begin. Moscow signals that he is dispensable. Najibullah says he will leave with dignity - if the ultimate election goes against him. Meanwhile, both sides have enough weapons stockpiled for months, if not years, of fighting. Benon Sevan of Cyprus, UN Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar's indefatigable representative for Afghanistan, doggedly pursues peace between leaders who hate and mistrust one another. The average Afghan, he says, is fed up with the war and afraid of the cold, hungry winter ahead. The war's toll so far, in a nation of some 15 million, is 1.5 million killed and 2 million injured, countless widows and orphans, 5 million refugees in Pakistan and Iran, and 2 million displaced internally. Yet relief funds from the world community have been drastically cut as new crises have demanded help. Afghanistan, he says, is the forgotten war. It is, by far, not over.