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ROBERT MacNEIL: We turn now to a concluding chapter in a nine year story: the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Most of the 115,000 occupying troops have left the country. The remaining ones are trying to arrange an orderly exit by the February 15th deadline set in the peace agreement negotiated last year through the United Nations. Their departure leaves the communist government in Kabul facing an uncertain future as rebel Mujahadeen guerrillas move to take over positions vacated by the Russians.
We’ll be talking about the Soviet withdrawal and the country’s future with a former State Department official who helped frame the Reagan administration’s policies and an analyst who’s visited there recently, but first we go to Afghanistan, itself, where Paul Davies of Independent Television News has been covering the Soviet pullout this week.
PAUL DAVIES: A rare sight in Kabul today, Russians soldiers among the last 500 remaining in the Afghan capital, waiting for next week’s deadline for their withdrawal and a welcome flight home. On a day when the United Nations mercy flight was still grounded in Pakistan, the Aleutian transporters were delivering Russian flour for Kabul’s hungry poor. For two weeks now these deliveries have been keeping the bakeries of Kabul open. In the last four days, the Soviets say they’ve flown in 3,000 tons of flour, their immediate target 12,000 tons. The airlift of Russian troops out of Afghanistan is expected to be completed by the end of the week.
They leave behind a city effectively under siege. The daily food queues testify to the effectiveness of the rebel blockade of Kabul. Children wait for hours in the freezing early morning to buy bread for their families. The crisis in Kabul is shockingly illustrated in the malnutrition unit of the Indira Gandhi Children’s Hospital. A week ago only half the beds were occupied; today the unit’s full. The irony is there is food on sale in the Kabul bazaar, but shortages have forced prices up beyond the reach of the poor. Meat is available but at black market prices three times what they were last year. This is one of President Najibullah’s answers to the Russian withdrawal and the gaps it leaves in Kabul’s defenses. Female party members have been encouraged to join neighborhood militia movements.
In a move seen as an admission that not all his forces can be relied upon, the president has formed an elite special guard being trained in the old British army barracks in Kabul. These, we were told, are crack soldiers. They obviously were not at home on the parade ground. These are the troops who will guard key installations and probably the president himself, the government apparently confident they’ll be more than a match for the rebels. Despite all of the weaponry supplied by the Russians, the greatest ally of the Najibullah regime today is probably the weather, the harshest winter for 16 years, making life difficult for their own forces but almost impossible for the Mujahadeen to make a concerted move on the capital.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Now two perspectives on the Soviet troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. They come from Zalmay Khalilzad, who served until last month as an Afghanistan expert on the State Department’s Policy Planning Council. He’s now a senior political analyst with the RAND Corporation in Washington. And David Isby is a defense policy analyst who specializes in Afghan and Soviet military affairs. He’s the author of two books on the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Mr. Khalilzad, how long will Najibullah’s regime survive after the Soviet withdrawal? Did you hear me, sir? Mr. Isby, do you hear me?
DAVID ISBY: Yes, sir.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Then I’ll ask you the question. How long will the Najibullah regime survive in your view after the Soviet withdrawal?
DAVID ISBY: Well, Najibullah, himself, may not survive very long at all. The chances there of a coup in Kabul in the short-term either from the left, from die-hards willing to fight to the bitter end, or from the right, from the army possibly with non-party generals. So Najibullah, himself, could go very quickly. The regime, itself, has some staying power and I think it’s likely to last into the spring and possibly even into the fall. But I think it’s doomed and Kabul will not fall to assault, there’s not going to be a Dien Bien Foo military confrontation, rather, as the regime is defeated in the countryside, especially Kandahar, Harat, more military formations will change sides and eventually the government will probably collapse from within.
ROBERT MacNEIL: I see. But you don’t believe then — it sounds as though you don’t believe that the Mujahadeen the minute the Soviets are gone are going to make a concerted and successful attack on Kabul and take over?
DAVID ISBY: The Afghans are relatively practical. A concerted military attack is going to get people killed, both Afghans on both sides, resistance civilians, and, in fact, they’re going to look to make deals that would lead to a political settlement and these deals have made within the last year. People within the resistance have been reaching out to people in the regime throughout the spectrum, and they’ve been making deals to come over, to defect. This has been done with a great number of political parties, so they’re all looking after their future, so I don’t think we’re going to see a climactic battle for Kabul in the short-term after 15 February.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Mr. Khalilzad, I gather you can hear me now. Do you agree with that, no climactic battle immediately?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, I think that is a possibility, although once the Soviets are out the situation becomes so fluid and predictable that anything could happen. My own judgment is that the Soviet-backed regime does not have enough forces to defend itself against the Mujahadeen. How it will fall is difficult to predict, but it will fall.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Do you agree, Mr. Isby, it will fall?
DAVID ISBY: Yes.
ROBERT MacNEIL: One or other of these factions which stay with Najibullah or succeed him will fall to the Mujahadeen eventually?
DAVID ISBY: I think that by the end of the year the PDPA government or its successor will have fallen and what will emerge will be a government based on the Mujahadeen.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Let’s come back to that in a moment. Let’s ask each of you, starting with you, Mr. Khalilzad, what kind of influence are the Soviets going to try and retain in all this after their troops have crossed the border?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Well, I think in the first instance they’re likely to hope that their current regime will survive for long and sometime in the future a coalition government between the current regime and the Mujahadeen could emerge, but as I said before, that is unlikely. Their regime is likely to collapse. It is possible that the Soviets might continue to provide support for this regime by bombings and by moving the headquarters and the members of this government somewhere in northern Afghanistan in order to extend its life. But if that doesn’t work, as I anticipate it won’t, it is possible that they may seek to promote conflict among various Afghan resistance groups and given the various factions that constitute the Afghan Mujahadeen, they might succeed.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Mr. Isby, do you see the Soviets trying to maintain as activist a role as Mr. Khalilzad does?
DAVID ISBY: It’s important to remember that at Geneva, the Soviets agreed to withdraw their troops. They didn’t agree to lose the war. Rather, Gorbachev has reassessed the value and usefulness of military force in seeing his foreign policies carried out, both Afghanistan and elsewhere, and come to the conclusion that it is a marginal if not outright negative utility. Therefore, the Soviets are going to keep an interest in Afghanistan. They’re interested in the start of the invasion and it’s certainly not going to stop with the withdrawal. They will use internal penetration, they will use ongoing economic ties. They will look to keep as much as possible, if not of the old regime of its institutions, especially the military and the secret police unpurged if that would be possible.
ROBERT MacNEIL: That raises the question now if the Soviets are going to keep meddling, what the United States does. Mr. Khalilzad, tomorrow the president meets his National Security Council. They’re going to take up the U.S. options. What do you think are the main points they’re likely to be considering?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Of course, I don’t know what they’re going to focus on but in my judgment there are a number of questions that are very important at this stage with reference to Afghanistan. First, the U.S. objective for the past several years has been to get the Soviets out. The objective is about to be achieved. What should be our objective after February 15th? The Soviets are also floating ideas such as suspension of military assistance to the Afghan regime and to the Mujahadeen. What should we do about that?
ROBERT MacNEIL: In other words, should the United States stop supplying the Mujahadeen, if the Soviets say they’ll stop supplying the other side?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: That is right and there is also the question of resistance efforts to achieve an understanding among themselves for Afghanistan’s political future. How involved should we be in promoting such an arrangement, and the question that was raised in your program earlier, the U.N. supplies to Kabul, what posture should the United States adopt towards that.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Mr. Isby, President Bush said in his inaugural that he wanted to be a catalyst, the United States to continue to be a catalyst towards a peaceful solution and self-government. How do you see the United States doing that?
DAVID ISBY: Well, I think the Bush administration can help bring about a kinder, gentler Afghanistan in the future. This would come about first by keeping up this covert supply until the war actually comes to a halt. The resistance does need an outside flow of arms simply because the Soviets have transferred so much weaponry in the withdrawal process. Then there is possible U.S. involvement in reconstruction. Mine clearance is going to be crucial to reconstruction. There is somewhere between four and 16 million land mines in Afghanistan. The U.N. is already addressing this issue, but the United States needs to participate.
Finally, the United States needs to help the resistance go through the difficult transition from a largely decentralized guerrilla movement, a series of national liberation movements, to a government. And this means the time comes rolling over what was covert aid into a larger, developmental relief aid program which will help not only the recipients but help make these groups into a government through administering it and handing it out, as well as doing it with private organizations who have been most effective in the past.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Mr. Khalilzad, as you said a moment ago, the U.S. aim up until now has been to get the Russians out. If the Russians leave, should the United States be in there — and the other aim was, of course, leaving the Afghans free to decide their own future — with the Russians gone and the Afghans free to decide their future? Should the U.S. be in there trying to steer that future, backing one faction, trying to create a coalition or whatever, or should it just be standing back there, letting what will happen, happen?
ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Of course, our influence to shape events are going to be decreasing as the Soviets depart from Afghanistan, but I think two principles ought to guide our policy vis-a-vis Afghanistan for the coming several months. One, to bring about a quick end to the Najib regime in Afghanistan and to assist the resistance to achieve that goal, and secondly, to help the resistance come to an agreement about the future political process in Afghanistan in order to avoid an Afghan civil war.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Well, gentlemen, we’ll take this up as the situation unfolds. Thank you both, Mr. Isby and Mr. Khalilzad, for joining us.