TOPICS > Politics

Afghanistan: Country in Conflict

November 17, 1983 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: One of the rare times President Reagan has gotten really angry in public was two weeks ago in the White House briefing room. You may remember it. A reporter asked him the difference between the U.S. action in Grenada and the Soviets in Afghanistan.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN [November 3, 1983]: Oh, for heaven’s sakes. Anyone who would link Afghanistan to this operation — and, incidentally, I know your frequent use of the word “invasion.” This was a rescue mission.

JIM LEHRER: One of the most significant things about the Grenada-Afghanistan analogy and Mr. Reagan’s hot remarks about it is that it marked the first time in a long time that Afghanistan slid back into American public view and mind. It’s been nearly four years since the Russians sent troops and tanks into that small, mountainous nation of great history and great poverty, and the battle goes on between the Afghan government and their Soviet backers on one side and the rebellious Muslim warriors on the other.

It’s a struggle that continues to produce refugees: an estimated three million Afghans have fled so far into bordering Pakistan, and it continues to produce death and destruction. Vicious attacks by the rebels on the Soviet-backed forces followed by equally cruel reprisals on defenseless rebel villages.

Last month this Afghan government convoy was attacked and destroyed by Muslim guerrillas. Forty Soviet soldiers were reportedly killed; the Afghan regulars got a reprieve if they agreed to join the rebels. A day later, two villages believed to be sheltering these guerrillas were said to be leveled by bombs, and then Soviet troops allegedly moved in to gun down the villagers, killing 123 in all. This brutal give and take started four years ago next month.

HAFIZULLAH AMIN, former President of Afghanistan [1979]: We have had friendly relations with the Soviet Union since 60 years or more, and this friendship with the Soviet Union has developed to the brotherhood since the … revolution.

JIM LEHRER: Just a few weeks after this tribute to the Soviet Union, Afghan President Amin was dead, killed in a coup by his vice president, Barbrak Karmal, who took over the government with the help of some 80,000 Soviet troops and their weaponry. On a snowy night in January, 1980, an unhappy U.S. President took the first of several futile steps.

PRESIDENT. JIMMY CARTER [January 1980]: The 17 million tons of grain ordered by the Soviet Union in excess of that amount which we are committed to sell will not be delivered.

JIM LEHRER: The U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. The Soviet grain embargo hurt U.S. farmers and was so politically unpopular President Reagan later lifted it. And all the while, the Soviets stayed in Afghanistan, their numbers growing to more than 100,000 troops. Although the Russians suffered casualties and faced bitter opposition, they seem to have adjusted to the stalemate. Russians and Afghan regulars control the urban areas of Afghanistan, leaving the mountainous wilderness and rural villages to the Mujhadeen, the Muslim holy warriors who wage guerrilla warfare against the invaders.

Afghanistan’s cities, the capital of Kabul in particular, bustle with [activity]. Soviet soldiers can be seen on street corners. Russian civilian technicians are conspicuous in their Western attire. But the Soviets generally keep a low profile, letting the Afghan regulars reinforce the military presence. In an attempt to defuse opposition, religion is not discouraged. Mosques are under construction and Muslims worship freely on their Friday Sabbath. President Karmal insisted that Islam and his brand of Marxism are not mutually exclusive.

BARBRAK KARMAL, President of Afghanistan: No, resolutely no. Principles, the program and the objectives of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan is completely compatible with the progressive Islam.

JIM LEHRER: A more traditional Islam is practiced by the Muslims who have declared a jihad or holy war against the Soviet-backed government. The counterrevolutionary warriors are now bringing the struggle to urban areas, with bomb attacks on schools, theaters and other public buildings. They seek large, symbolic targets, not necessarily military ones, which remain well fortified. The Kabul government says the damage is costly.

SULTAN ALI KHESTMAND, Afghanistan prime minister: We have given a figure that around 24 billion Afghanis worth of damages which have been done by the bandits and the terrorists here in our country. Almost half of the schools have been destroyed, and almost half of the hospitals also have been bombed and destroyed.

JIM LEHRER: Yet the rebels remain hopelessly outgunned by the Soviets and Afghan regulars. Helicopters and tanks take the war to defenseless villages where simple adobe-type structures are vulnerable to assault. The Soviets appear to remain mired in a stagnant struggle, one they would like to get out of, and the present Afghan government fully expects them to leave.

MOHAMMED DHOST, Afghanistan foreign minister: When we are sure that the interference and intervention completely have stopped, and of course the refugees have returned peacefully to their country, and of course then we will take this question of withdrawal … of the Soviet armed forces from Afghanistan with the Soviet Union. This is a matter strictly between the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and the Soviet Union.

JIM LEHRER: A further update on what’s happening in Afghanistan now from Syed Majrooh, director of the Afghan Information Center in Peshawar, Pakistan. He is an Afghan who collects information from refugees and guerrilla fighters,and is considered one of the most knowledgeable sources on events in Afghanistan. He is in the U.S. now for consultations with U.S. officials and other interested parties, and is with us tonight from the studios of public station KQED, San Francisco. What signs do you see, if any, of the Soviets’ desire to get out of Afghanistan any time soon?

SYED MAJROOH: I think the sign for them to get out we don’t really see evident signs, but I think they are more in trouble inside Afghanistan. Especially since last year the resistance was able to increase its activity, to increase its efficiency. The resistance for the first time was able this year to infiltrate inside the Kabul city and other urban areas, and it has increased also its attacks on the convoys going along the main highways. And we think that the Soviets are — have paid already, and will be paying a very high price for the invasion of Afghanistan.

JIM LEHRER: But the Soviets, of course, are in a position, if they wish, to come in there with much more military might and destroy the opposition. Why do they not do that?

SYED MAJROOH: I think what they are doing is the most destructive operation now. You know, they are systematically destroying the countryside, especially the rural areas — this systematic destruction of the villages. They have disrupted the people’s agricultural life. Now there is a very serious food shortage inside Afghanistan. And then these operations are constantly generating refugees. You know that now there are about three million refugees in Pakistan, about — over one million in Iran. It means that one-third of the country’s population is out of the country. And what we have lost since the coup of ’78 — April, 1978 until now — over 200,000 civilians died, and among this 200,000 there were 30,000 of our most qualified people, the best educated people were arrested, put in prison and killed.

JIM LEHRER: What is the military ability, among other things, of the rebels to continue this fight?

SYED MAJROOH: I think I’ll not call them rebels. I’ll call them rather resistance fighters.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

SYED MAJROOH: These resistance fighters are more — they have more experience; they have learned how to become more efficient. Of course they need better equipment, especially they are still — one rebel weak point is that they have nothing against aircraft, and the Soviets are using extensively their air superiority. They are, especially this gunship helicopter. For the rest, I think the resistance is more able to cope with the land route than the Soviet army.

JIM LEHRER: I see. Well, thank you very much. Robin?

ROBERT MacNEIL: For another perspective on the situation in Afghanistan, we have Eqbal Ahmad, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies here in New York. He closely follows events in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Soviet policy in the region. Mr. Ahmad, do you see any sign that the Soviets are looking for a way out?

EQBAL AHMAD: If the reports from the United Nations are any indication, yes. It is my understanding that the Soviet Union has, by and large, agreed to four points. Five. Five points, none of which seem at the moment to be acceptable to the United States and the government of Pakistan. They are, one, the Soviet Union appears to be agreeing, along with the Afghan government, to broaden the Afghan government to include elements from the opposition.

ROBERT MacNEIL: In other words, a kind of coalition government, you mean?

EQBAL AHMAD: A coalition government. Second, the Soviet Union has expressed willingness to work out a timetable for the return of the refugees in Pakistan.

ROBERT MacNEIL: Who number now, how many?

EQBAL AHMAD: The Pakistan government and the Afghan dissidents claim three million, as you heard Mr. Majrooh say. My estimation is that the number is probably closer to 1 and a half to two, than to three.

ROBERT MacNEIL: Still a lot of refugees.

EQBAL AHMAD: Still a lot of refugees.

ROBERT MacNEIL: So what are the other points, briefly, that the Soviets you think agree to?

EQBAL AHMAD: Three, the Soviet Union is reported to be insisting on maintaining the regime of Barbrak Karmal as heading the government within the broadened coalition. Four, the Soviet Union is willing to work out, coincidental with the return of the refugees, a timetable for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. And, five, both the Afghan government and the Soviet Union have indicated a willingness to settle the dispute over the boundary between Pakistan and India, which has been between Pakistan and Afghanistan, which has been a long-standing dispute. The broad outlines of that settlement is the Duerand Line, which Mr. Bhutto and the previous government had already agreed on.

ROBERT MacNEIL: Now, why is this not acceptable to the West and Pakistan? Can you tell me briefly why that is not acceptable?

EQBAL AHMAD: Well, for a number of reasons. The United States under President Reagan has not seemed to indicate a policy of achieving detente with the Soviet Union. Therefore the United States is pursuing essentially a policy of fighting the Russians to the last Afghan, and if possible, to the last Pakistani. Why would the Pakistan government, however, be sensitive to American pressures or American opinion? That’s the second question that arises. The answers to that are complicated, but in simple terms, one, the Pakistan government today is an exceptionally isolated military dictatorship, frightened of its own population. Two, therefore it has become increasingly dependent on military and economic aid from the United States. Beginning with the Afghan crisis in 1979, it made a contract for $3.5 billion worth of aid, and it fears that if the Afghan crisis was not there the basis of American support will have dwindled.

ROBERT MacNEIL: I see. Let’s go back to Mr. Majrooh. What do you say to this thesis that the Soviets have offered the outline of a settlement, but the United States and Pakistan — and the United States particularly — doesn’t want to get into that because it wants to see the Russians fought to the last Afghani?

SYED MAJROOH: Oh, yes. Our perception is a slightly different. We appreciate, of course, the effort of Pakistan for the negotiation for a peaceful settlement because we know that we need a political solution for the Afghan problem. And we think that the best frame for this solution is the United Nations. But we are not very sure of the sincerity of the Russians in this discussion. And the other point is that the Afghan resistance is fighting against two things. One is the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan. We want them to get out. We want that our friends help us to make them out, not to make them stick in Afghanistan and to pay for their mistakes. However, is fighting for the liberation of the country.

ROBERT MacNEIL: Are your freedom fighters or resistance fighters, as you call them, are they interested in a coalition government between Karmal and their forces, or do they want the Soviets out totally and Karmal out totally?

SYED MAJROOH: No, that was the second point I was going to mention that — our second point that the resistance is fighting is the Marxist regime imposed in Kabul. And the resistance will never be able to make any kind of concession to any kind of Marxist regime in Afghanistan.

ROBERT MacNEIL: So, Mr. Ahmad, if it’s not just the United States but the resistance fighters themselves don’t want a coalition compromise.

EQBAL AHMAD: I think Mr. Majrooh has made a very good point. The resistance fighters also — at least, say, four out of the eight groups that make the resistance in Afghanistan — are not amenable at the moment to this particular outline of the settlement. And so the United States —

ROBERT MacNEIL: So it’s not just the United States that’s —

EQBAL AHMAD: Not just the United States.

ROBERT MacNEIL: Let me ask —

EQBAL AHMAD: However, I think it should be — it should be underlined that without the support of the Pakistan government, more than the United States, the resistance will be nowhere.

ROBERT MacNEIL: What do you say to Mr. Majrooh’s statement that the resistance fighters need more arms, and particularly need weapons against the Soviet aircraft? Do you think the United States should give them more arms to increase the bargaining power?

EQBAL AHMAD: It is my understanding that the United States is on the brink of giving these missiles, especially the SAM-7s — the big push at the moment is for SAM-7s. It’s the Pakistan government that is somewhat divided over whether or not to play that one.

ROBERT MacNEIL: Let me just ask — we have just a moment. Do you know about that, Mr. Majrooh, or do you share that hope that the United States is about to give you those SAM missiles?

SYED MAJROOH: I’ll not be able to give you precise information about this question, but anyway you know the need is there. The need is there. That is our only argument against Soviets in Afghanistan is our efficiency — military efficiency.

ROBERT MacNEIL: We have to leave it there, Mr. Majrooh. I thank you very much for joining us from San Francisco —

SYED MAJROOH: Thank you.

ROBERT MacNEIL: — and Mr. Ahmad in New York.

EQBAL AHMAD: Thank you very much.