Rebels Without a Cause
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ROBERT MacNEIL: We start tonight by revisiting the war in Afghanistan; it continues relentlessly even after the departure of the Soviet occupying forces at the beginning of the year. Most Western experts thought that the American-backed rebel Mujahadeen would quickly oust the Soviet-supported government but that has not happened. Instead various guerilla factions have started fighting each other. With reports emerging today of two separate battles among Mujahadeen groups in the north and south leaving several hundred dead. We will discuss the war and the choices facing Washington after this report on the stalemate from Peter Gill of Britain’s Thames Television.
PETER GILL: Afghan air force helicopters lift off from an army base near Kabul. They fly at tree top height to avoid sophisticated anti-aircraft missles but they can now be hit by small arms fire. Helicopter pilots in Afghanistan need to be alert. This according to Western prediction was one journey that journalists should not have been able to make. It was the Kabul government’s way of demonstrating which side controlled Afghanistan’s most strategic link. The helicopters took us north of Kabul towards the mountains of the Hindu Kus. We followed the Salang highway originally built by the Russians and now the Kabul government’s supply life line to the Soviet Union. If the road can be kept open, the guerillas will fail in their objective of starving Kabul into submission.
Once in the mountains, we were put aboard armored personal carriers to see a 20-kilometer sketch of the highway. It well deserves the nickname “ambush alley.” In their nine-year embroilment in Afghanistan, the Russians fought to keep the Salang open and the Mujahadeen guerillas fought to close it. The debris of war is everywhere. This stretch of road was blocked by a guerilla force until a month ago. In the past entire supply convoys have been halted, shot up and burned out. Petrol tankers are a particularly favorite target; without fuel the government army stops and not a villager moves. As the Russians prepared to pull out they destroyed every community on the highway. The Russians created a desert in Afghanistan and failed even to establish peace.
On the day we went to the Salang this stretch of road was undoubtedly open. A guerilla attack could just as certainly close it again but in the meantime Kabul’s army is winning its spurs. A few months ago these soldiers were written off. There is now something to celebrate, entertainment for the troops from Kabul. The song, of course, is about love. One of the West’s errors was the failure to see how the Soviet Union had revived the Afghan army. When the Russians took over the war this army became a demoralized, defection-ridden rubble. Fighting on without the Russians has seemed to have raised their spirits. I asked their commanding officer if he was confident they would keep the rebels off the road.
BRIGADIER MOHAMMED SHAFI: We are sure because we have taken one of their strongest posts in this area.
PETER GILL: So what has happened to the Mujahadeen units that used to operate in this area?
BRIGADIER SHAFI: At the moment they have fled behind the Salang highway about seven kilometers from here.
PETER GILL: But a new pattern may be starting to emerge to the conflict in Afghanistan. It takes account not just of the military balance but of Afghanistan’s intricate tribal politics as well. One of the ways in which the government has been securing this vital highway has been an extraordinary series of deals with local guerilla commanders. The commanders stop their fighting in exchange first for being allowed to run their own affairs and secondly — and here is the sweetener — for a share of all the goods, food and petrol that comes down from the Soviet Union by convoy on this highway.
The Afghan capacity to talk as well as fight may one day reduce the conflict, but the Mujahadeen guerillas still expected a rapid military victory. The fall of a key city would bring the rebels to power. The eastern city of Jalalabad has been the target of the largest guerilla offensive in a decade of war. Jalalabad is closest to the Mujahadeen’s source of weapons in Pakistan and guerilla leaders promised that it would fall within days and become their provisional capital, but the battle for Jalalabad seems to have been a big miscalculation. Government air force bombing has been deadly and the guerillas have committed major resources to the battle.
But they have failed to become a force capable of capturing a well defended town. They have taken up to 10,000 casualties. Government determination to resist was seriously underestimated and now expert observers are crediting the Afghan army with a very professional defense. The Russians entered Afghanistan in 1979 because they thought the communist regime would collapse. The collapse was averted and survival is still under-pinned by Soviet arms. Kabul’s refusal to fall means that the war in Afghanistan has now entered a grim new phase. With Russian soldiers back behind their own frontiers the conflict here has reverted to the civil war that preceded the Soviet intervention of a decade ago.
The difference and the tragedy for Afghanistan is that the two super-powers are arming their friends in the field as never before. Both the Soviet Union and the United States are apparently prepared to fight, as one cynical expression puts it, to the last Afghan. The saddest and commonest refrain in Afghanistan that the continuing war is less a conflict among the Afghans than a war of outsiders. On the Kabul side the pride of one super power is fully engaged. A defeat for the regime would be a serious blow for Soviet standing among its allies, so Kabul will be supplied with what it needs. This aircraft began a new food airlift in to the capital but for every food shipments there are many more arms shipments; each flight protected by anti-missile flares. The government receives the most sophisticated weaponry it can handle to combat the Mujahadeen. Scud beam missiles sent to Afghanistan only last November fired from Kabul to hit guerilla concentrations around distant cities. Forty were fired in one day this week.
PROFESSOR FRED HALLIDAY, London School of Economics: The Russians are supplying arms to the Kabul regime and they have made very clear that they intend to keep their commitments for military aid and economic aid to the Kabul government. But the Russians are also looking to broaden the Kabul regime and they are appealing to the West and Pakistan without any success to set up some sort of coalition government. But what they are really saying is if you don’t set a coalition government now the chances of their being a coalition will be much less.
PETER GILL: American Stinger antiaircraft missiles being loaded on a Mujahadeen pack horse. Stinger supplies may now have been halted because of fears that the guerillas were passing the weapons on to Iranian groups but the provision of other weapons continues uninterrupted. The Afghan connection is the CIA’s largest ever operation. So the pride of the other super power, the United States, is also fully engaged in the outcome of the Afghan conflict.
PROFESSOR HALLIDAY: The Americans have not altered their policy. They are still going for a military solution in Afghanistan. They are saying that it is going to take longer. It might take two or three years but they are going to put more weapons into Afghanistan, they are still encouraging the Pakistanis to go in to Afghanistan and support the guerillas. So therefore the Americans have retreated from their most optimistic strategy but have come up with a new one. They are talking about stamina, the long haul, a war of attrition. But they are saying in the end Jalalabad will fall, Kabul will fall. So they are still very much in there and they are not looking for the kind of compromise that the Russians are looking for.
PETER GILL: On Kabul’s perimeter, units of the Afghan army are geared up for defense. In three months there has been no major guerilla attack, not even one, to divert attention from Jalalabad nor has their been an internal insurrection. Despite the air of normality, Kabul lives on a knife edge. The unreliability of supplies threatens to take poverty into starvation. These bakeries are making bread from government flour trying to feed a city population that maybe has doubled because of the war. But the government can only send to the bakeries what reaches the city in aid from the Soviet Union. The bread here costs a subsidized 8p a loaf and is all that most people can afford. In Kabul there is political fallout from all the years of shortages and disruption brought on by the war.
We found a terrible war weariness made worse because the Soviet withdrawal seems to have brought peace no nearer. We had expected a dutiful loyalty towards the regime, instead we encountered indifference and some hostility. Even a wish to accommodate the Islamic conservatism of the Mujahadeen. The Mujahadeen say they are fighting for Islam, a holy war against godless communism, but again there are no rigid battle line. Mosques in Kabul are often hit in rocket attacks; an elderly man died in this one. Sweeping the streets of Kabul, another semblance of normality, but everything here is expectation and uncertainty, a war with an end in view. The prospect of an outright guerilla victory in Afghanistan is now receding. Sooner or later that may prompt a reassessment by the Mujahadeen and their Western backers.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Now we have three views of the Afghanistan situation. Teresita Schaffer is deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian affairs. Robert Neumann is a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Last year he headed the Middle East task force for the Bush presidential campaign. He is now director of the Mideast Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Hedayat Amin-Arsala is the finance minister of the Afghan interim government, the resistance government in exile. Previously he was with the World Bank. Secretary Schaffer, what went wrong? This is not the scenario the U.S. government intended, is it?
DEPUTY SECRETARY TERESITA SCHAFFER, State Department: Well I think that you have to consider that we are not in the business of setting time tables for what happens in Afghanistan. A lot of estimates were publicized at the time that the Soviets withdrew some of them have turned out to unrealistic, some of them perhaps not. There were people saying the regime may not last five minutes others were however were saying six to twelve months. This is a political process that is going on and I don’t think that I can sensibly sit here and predict to you when it is going to end.
ROBERT MacNEIL: The British report characterized American government policy as still looking for a military victory. Is that fair?
TERESITA SCHAFFER: I don’t think that is a fair characterization. What U.S. policy has been is to look for a comprehensive solution, one which will permit an independent Afghanistan to emerge which can live in peace with its neighbors which will provide sufficient stability for the refugees to return in dignity and honor.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Is it not correct that it is still U.S. policy to remove Najibula or have him removed or resign either through a military victory by the Mujahadeen or his own resignation?
TERESITA SCHAFFER: It certainly, it is the U.S. view that there can not be a stable solution as long as the Najib regime remains in power but that is based on an assessment that the Afghan resistance which is after all engaged in this conflict will simply not settle the Najib regime or with Najib.
ROBERT MacNEIL: And yet some parts of the resistance have accommodations with the regime as that report indicated?
TERESITA SCHAFFER: That report did indicate some forms of partial accommodation but I don’t think that you can go from there and say that you see a political solution in the outline.
ROBERT MacNEIL: In view of the way events have developed is the administration considering any modification of the policy?
TERESITA SCHAFFER: The administration, I think, holds firm to its goals as I outlined them earlier.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Mr. Amin-Arsala, in the view of the interim government what has gone wrong?
HEYDAYAT AMIN-ARSALA: Well, the main thing that has gone wrong are the expectations that were built before. Everyone thought, the media in particular, made the point that the regime would fall after about two weeks or a week, whereas we in the resistance never thought that. We thought that it will take some time. What we were confident about was the regime will be either forced to resign or will ultimately be overthrown. We never gave a time frame for that.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Are you still confident of one of those two alternatives?
HEYDAYAT AMIN-ARSALA: Oh, absolutely. I don’t have any doubts that either the regime will have to resign or it will be overthrown. Well, if anybody is interested in peace which the Soviet Union is talking about, if they are really interested in peace in Afghanistan or in that region of the world they would have to stop the support that they are providing to the regime. Massive amounts of support which has effected, of course the conflict to some extent but with that support I am sure that the regime can not survive.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Many observers are saying that neither of those two things will happen that there can’t be a military victory one or the other and the longer that Mr. Najibula is not forced to resign the less likely it is that he will because he consolidates his power, he has prospects of broadening his base and the scenario or your hopes are less likely to be realized?
HEYDAYAT AMIN-ARSALA: Well first of all let me say that we are not interested in any sort of clear cut military victory, I mean, I would prefer to see Najibula resign and his regime to resign so that peace can return to Afghanistan and that peace can be given a chance but as long as he insists on keeping power by force then we have no choice but to fight.
ROBERT MacNEIL: What would you not do what Moscow says it wants to do and that is negotiate a settlement that would lead to some kind of coalition and save a lot of lives?
HEYDAYAT AMIN-ARSALA: Well I mean that regime was imposed on our people they have become a cause of killing of over a million and a half people. They have become the cause of people going into exile and the total destruction of the Afghan economy. So I think the people of Afghanistan will [not] tolerate us to sit with that kind of regime and negotiate with them. As I said earlier if they are prepared to resign and they do resign then of course there is a possibility of a future negotiations.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Ambassador Neumann how do you view this and U.S. policy and should it be changed?
ROBERT NEUMANN, Former Ambassador to Afghanistan: Well I am not a member of our government nor the Afghan government so I have a little more freedom to express myself. Let me say first of all those of us who viewed the situation and shortly after the Soviet withdrawal never thought there would be a military victory but that a great part of the Afghan army would surrender to the resistance. And it began to happen but then the dissention with in the resistance government, the killing of some prisoners of war who surrender to one group and were killed by the other and so forth stopped that and now we are in for the long haul.
Secondly, Najibula who is an, I agree with Mr. Arsala entirely, the Najibula would be quite unacceptable to the resistance or to anybody. But there are elements in the PDPA and the quasi-communist party of Afghanistan that has not drenched their hands in blood and who might be acceptable in a broader government but I have to say also that the exile government is not representative of a large part of Afghanistan. I don’t mean of Najibula and his group, of course not, and I wouldn’t expect them to but other shortages there and especially the close connection with the Pakistan hand in directing has not been an advantage.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Is that emphasis in the interim government only a few of the many factions, as critics and observers in addition to yourself have pointed out, is that rendering the force of the Mujahadeen ineffective now. Is that what is behind the failure to defeat Najibula?
ROBERT NEUMANN: I think their conduct with each other, not opening the door to others is what is responsible for them. The original organization of the seven groups in Afghanistan was really enforced more or less by the Pakistanis to serve as a conduit for supplies through the various commanders. It was not an attempt really at a national representative group. Now that took place under entirely different circumstance and now it would be useful if they were more representative. But the struggle for power takes place not just on this side of the Potomac. It is part of the political picture in any area and we know for instance in France and other countries when the enemy disappeared there was considerable dissention.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Secretary Schaffer, does the U.S. feel as many observers in addition to Ambassador Neumann has pointed out that the interim government that Washington backs is not representative enough to be effective, representative enough of all the factions in the Mujahadeen?
TERESITA SCHAFFER: The U.S. government certainly believes that the AIG, the Afghan Interim Government is not a perfect instrument. There are groups that are not represented within it. There has been a good deal of criticism of its ability to exercise internal discipline and of its ability to forge a really close relationship with the people inside Afghanistan who are carrying on the struggle but it is the one entity which exists as an effort to achieve resistance unity over all and it is the one body which has attempted to provide an alternative focus for Afghanistan. And on that basis we would like to see it strengthen itself and we would like to see it develop into a more effective body.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Mr. Amin-Arsala is your interim government making any effort to broaden its support by trying to bring in some of the other groups?
HEYDAYAT AMIN-ARSALA: Yes of course. First of all we are reaching some of the commanders inside Afghanistan and at the same time we are trying to reach some of the elements that are in Iran. It is of course not an easy and quick process that we are working on it and I hope we will be able to sole our problems.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Ambassador Neumann how optimistic are you? You hear what Mr. Amin-Arsala said that eventually Najibula will be defeated or will resign. How optimistic are you that this U.S. policy is going to work ultimately?
ROBERT NEUMANN: Well for anybody working in Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs the word optimism is sort of strange but the fact is that I am not very optimistic unless the government were to change very considerably and gave some confidence to the Afghan people and especially the refugees in Pakistan that they could safely return. A former king for instance, one of the national personalities who might play a temporary role but there are some others. Not very many.
ROBERT MacNEIL: And Secretary Schaffer, the British reporter characterized both Soviet and American policy at the moment as willing to fight to the last Afghan. What is your comment on that?
TERESITA SCHAFFER: I think that it is a rather cynical view.
HEYDAYAT AMIN-ARSALA: It is also wrong.
ROBERT MacNEIL: It is wrong?
TERESITA SCHAFFER: I think that is an incorrect view absolutely. Our policy is based on the judgement that you can’t have a stable solution as long as the Najib regime is in power. That reflects what we take to be the view of the Afghans involved and I think that is a very important consideration to keep in mind. The Afghan resistance is not urging us to stop supporting their effort and as far as we can determine the Afghan regime in Kabul is not urging the Soviet Union to cut off military supplies.
ROBERT MacNEIL: So the prospect is for an indefinite continuation of the present situation?
TERESITA SCHAFFER: I don’t like to put prospects for continuation of the present situation. I think that it is a dynamic situation but I don’t think I can responsibly give you a deadline by which everything will tied in a nice red ribbon.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Well thank you very much for joining us Secretary Schaffer, Mr. Amin-Arsala, and Ambassador Neumann.