Anxiety Rules Kabul as Residents Await Word on Soviet Troop Plans
As President Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev enter their historic summit conference, the mood in this dusty, mountain capital on the other side of the Earth has been one of anticipation and nervousness.
Signs of summit anxiety in old Kabul could be found Monday in the famous Shazada money market, where any currency can be traded freely in the booths of turbanned money lenders who sit cross-legged on Persian carpets. The Shazada exchange is one of the few markets in the world where the dollar’s value has risen recently; the ruble is down.
Meanwhile, uncertainty about the future of this backward land has caused the Soviet-backed ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, to tone down its pro-Soviet, revolutionary rhetoric.
Eight months ago, at the anniversary parade for the 1978 revolution that brought the People’s Democratic Party to power, foreign journalists watched as the party staged an agitprop skit that depicted Uncle Sam being driven to the ground and killed by the “rising masses” of Afghans.
By last week, however, Afghan leader Najibullah, former chief of the secret police, was praising the summit and the two leaders, Gorbachev and Reagan. Further, he presided over a traditional Afghan loya jirgah (grand assembly) last week that adopted a new constitution stripped of revolutionary jargon and injected with Islamic religious verbiage aimed at attracting U.S.-backed resistance groups to the government.
In the money markets, in the foreign missions, even among the lower ranks of the party apparatus here, there existed a palpable sense that city Afghans--the Dari-speaking Kabulis who have provided the only popular base for the ruling party--were positioning themselves for an inevitable Soviet withdrawal.
For some who have been most loyal to the Soviet-backed regime, including thousands who have studied in the Soviet Union and speak Russian, this meant reinforcing their connections to the Soviets. A new Soviet-staffed, Russian-language primary school opened here recently with three times as many Afghans applying for admission as there were seats available.
Others Likely to Follow
“When we leave,” observed a Soviet journalist who has lived here for three years, “thousands of people are going to want to come with us.”
His comment reinforced another made earlier by a Western diplomat in New Delhi.
“When the withdrawal occurs,” said the diplomat, an expert on Afghanistan attached to an embassy in the Indian capital, “you might find a large number of Afghans in a central republic of the Soviet Union.”
The diplomat was referring to the majority-Muslim Soviet republics of Turkestan, Kazakhistan and Uzbekistan that border Afghanistan and share many of its cultural and linguistic traits.
For others here, lower-level party members, government clerks and soldiers likely to be left behind in a Soviet withdrawal, it was a matter of distancing themselves from the hard-core party members and their Soviet sponsors.
“I try not to be too much for the government or too much against it,” confided one English translator attached to the government news agency, Bakhtar. Although he belongs to the 200,000-member party, modeled on the Soviet Communist Party, he said he has never been fully accepted since he studied English, not Russian, as a foreign language.
Not Enough Cadets
Mohammed Akram, 47, commander of the new Afghan Military and Political University, admitted that the army is only able to recruit 350 cadets for the 400 places at the two-month-old school. Being a student at the supposedly elite school means being identified as hard-line party members--not a desirable label if the party is thrown out of power.
Throughout Afghanistan, there has always been the fear that this nation of 15 million people--4 million of whom live in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran--is just a chip in a much higher-stakes game between superpowers.
Nervousness about the summit and its possible consequences for Afghanistan was heightened here last week after both Reagan and Gorbachev said Afghanistan would be featured in the discussions.
Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) warned Sunday that the Senate might not ratify a nuclear arms treaty that the superpower leaders are set to sign today “if there is not real progress towards pulling Soviet troops out of Afghanistan.”
“I believe that ratification of the treaty will be difficult,” Byrd said, “if the end of Soviet occupation in Afghanistan is not in sight--meaning withdrawal within a year from the conclusion of the Senate vote on the treaties.”
Serious About Leaving
The overwhelming consensus among Eastern and Western diplomats based in Kabul is that the Soviets are serious about leaving, even if it means abandoning the fervently pro-Soviet party that they have helped prop up for nearly eight years since they first sent in troops in 1979. The Soviet troops now number about 115,000.
“The Soviets will leave,” said a Turkish diplomat here. “It could be 12 months, 16 months or 18 months--that is not important. But they will leave.”
The most popular phrase in diplomatic circles these days is “end game"--as in “We have entered the end-game phase of the war” or “the Soviets are moving their end-game pieces.”
Probably nowhere is evidence of the end game more graphic than at the Shazada market, where local residents wishing to hoard dollars have driven up the currency’s value in contradiction to the trend at other world markets. The dollar has never been higher here.
The official rate of exchange at banks and hotels is 55 afghanis per dollar. But at the wide-open Shazada market, one of the wildest and freest money markets on earth, traders will pay 180 afghanis on the dollar.
One recent visitor was even encouraged to write a personal check off his hometown bank in Texas.
Meanwhile, the Soviet ruble, usually valued around the world at about 80 cents, is worth only 16 cents here.