Politics in Pakistan: Key to Afghan War? : Bhutto’s Popularity Signals Change Is in the Air, but No One Is Certain

Times Staff Writer

The outcome of the six-year-old civil war in Afghanistan may not be determined on the rocky battlefields of that country, but rather in the increasingly unpredictable political arena in neighboring Pakistan, according to Western diplomats interviewed here.

The return of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto to welcomes by huge crowds, including a massive reception Monday in a key frontier province, has convinced many diplomats that a mood exists for change after almost nine years of rule under Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq.

“Pakistan will change. The basics are there for a social revolution,” a senior Western diplomat said. “The question is whether Zia will last until 1990. If he does, things won’t be much different with Afghanistan. If he does not, then we cannot predict what could happen.”

“It has been said many times,” another Western envoy said, that “the key to the Afghan war is in Pakistan.”


Zia insists that new elections will not be held until 1990. Bhutto and all other opposition leaders have called for new elections in the next few months.

Strategic Geography

Any political change in Pakistan is considered critical to the future of Afghan resistance efforts. A landlocked country wedged between the Soviet Union to the north, Iran to the west and Pakistan to the south and east, Afghanistan is a battleground between moujahedeen rebels fighting an estimated 120,000 Soviet troops.

A measure of both sides’ exposed position came in the reported battle this week for Zhawar, a key rebel underground base near the Pakistani border. According to reports, Soviet and Afghan troops reportedly destroyed the base. However, on Wednesday, the U.S. State Department said the rebels were still holding their own.


The Soviet news agency Tass had said Tuesday that Soviet and Afghan journalists visited the destroyed base, a large network of caverns protecting some of the most important guerrilla supply routes into Afghanistan. The Soviets gave no date of such an attack or attacks.

But on Wednesday, State Department spokesman Charles Redman said in Washington that the Soviet effort “has not been a success.”

“On the contrary, the resistance appears to be more than holding its own,” Redman declared.

Zhawar rebel commander Jalaluddin Haqqani told the Reuters news agency that Communist forces left the mountainous area around Zhawar on Tuesday and that his men were in control.


Covert U.S. Programs

The loss of such a facility would underline the status of Pakistan as a conduit for weapons and supplies. Most arms are provided by the United States, China and Saudi Arabia through covert intelligence programs operated from Pakistan. Last year, the American CIA spent more than $250 million on supplies for the Afghan rebels, according to U.S. sources. Some reports place the American commitment at more than $400 million.

But even at the lower figure, the funding exceeds by far the total proposed U.S. commitment in Central America. Thus, the covert U.S. spending is the largest since the Vietnam War.

However, such a supply effort--which includes tons of small weaponry as well as more sophisticated arms--requires the cooperation of the Pakistani government, something the United States has received from Zia. Partly in return, the United States has proposed a $4-billion multiyear aid package for Pakistan after a $3-billion package expires this year.


However, increasingly hostile positions put forth by most Pakistani opposition parties has Western officials here worried.

The diplomats and other Western observers of Afghanistan here are relieved that Bhutto herself has refused to take an anti-government stand on the Afghanistan question. With the exception of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party and the Muslim fundamentalist Jamiat-i-Islami party, all other opposition parties advocate a softer line toward Afghanistan, including direct peace talks with the Soviet-backed Kabul regime of Afghan President Babrak Karmal.

No Direct Talks

Zia’s government has steadfastly refused to negotiate with the Karmal government, arguing that it is a puppet that remains in power only because of the Soviet troop presence. Instead, Pakistan supports the indirect U.N.-sponsored peace negotiations, to which both the Soviet Union and the United States are parties. A new round of those talks is scheduled to begin May 5 in Geneva, at which a proposed Soviet timetable for the withdrawal of its troops will be discussed.


Bhutto--despite strong pressures within her party to advocate a change in policy toward the Afghan conflict--has so far refused to make it an issue since her return May 10. In fact, her statements have not greatly differed from those of her archenemy, President Zia, under whose rule and court system, her father, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was executed in 1979.

Asked about direct talks with the Kabul government in a recent interview, Bhutto said: “The Pakistan People’s Party wants a settlement that safeguards Pakistan’s interests, which are the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the return of Afghan refugees.”

Her position has surprised some observers here, who see the Bhutto party as a left-leaning organization with strong anti-American sentiments. “I think the stance she has taken is very right of center,” said a former official in her father’s government, who is now a professor at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

How long Bhutto, 32, will be able to maintain this stance is another question. The pressures of more than 3 million Afghan refugees, one-fifth the population of Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion, is beginning to tell on the Pakistani economy, particularly in the border regions of Baluchistan and North-West Frontier province.


Hospitals in Quetta, Baluchistan’s provincial capital, and in Peshawar, capital of North-West Frontier province, are overflowing with casualties as Afghan and Soviet troops have intensified military campaigns nearby. Peshawar has also been racked by a series of bombings, including one last week that destroyed a restaurant favored by rebels.

Another Form of Pressure

Some Western analysts contend that the border offensives have been specifically designed by the Soviets to exert pressure inside Pakistan and thereby affect the political climate. “The border campaign puts great pressure on local ministers in the border provinces,” one Western diplomat said.

People in these areas are becoming increasingly weary of bearing the brunt of the Afghan conflict, he went on. Reflecting the popular mood, several senior officials in North-West Frontier province have urged a change in the official position against direct talks with the Afghan government.


After getting a large, unexpectedly enthusiastic greeting in Peshawar on Monday, Bhutto acknowledged the internal pressures caused by the Afghan conflict.

“I am concerned about the domestic implications of 3 million Afghan refugees here,” she said in an interview with an Islamabad newspaper. “They are straining the social fabric of the frontier province. The impact is greatest and most immediate there.”

Moments of Opportunity

While the debate over Afghanistan policy continues inside Pakistan, which is enjoying a democratic revival after Zia ended eight years of martial law in December, the Soviet and Afghan government forces have made significant military gains.


The annual spring Soviet offensive, which last year began in May during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, started in early April this year. The heaviest Soviet efforts have been exerted in Paktia province, where Western aides express serious worry about the reported capture of the Zhawar rebel base.

“I’m pretty sure it is lost,” one Western official said of Zhawar, a mile-long, fortified series of caves and bomb shelters that was a frequently visited showcase for the Muslim guerrilla forces. The base included fully equipped machine shops and a guest house for foreign visitors, usually journalists reporting on the Afghan conflict. There was even a video room and a hot shower.