Cut Off the Arms Flow and Let Afghans Unite : With Soviets Gone, U.S. Should Demand a Referendum for Self-Determination

<i> Ashraf Ghani, formerly a lecturer at Kabul University, is an assistant professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University</i>

The Soviets have left Afghanistan, making the collapse of the besieged puppet regime in Kabul just a matter of time. President Bush has a unique opportunity to define a positive agenda for the future of that country, yet for now he has chosen to merely affirm that the United States will continue to supply the Afghan resistance with military assistance.

Rather than additional means of destruction, the Afghan people are most in need of constructive measures. The Bush Administration could insist that the Afghan people be given the right to self-determination and take the initiative by channeling future economic assistance only to a government so freely chosen. By doing so, it could help thwart blatant Pakistani and Iranian attempts at determining the future of Afghanistan and at fanning the flames of civil war.

The Afghan people have no desire that the United States micromanage their politics. Rather, they wish that the United States would stop colluding with the Pakistani generals in choosing the cast of political actors and writing the script for the future of their country.


Over the years Washington has been entrusting Pakistani military intelligence with the distribution of more than $2 billion in military and financial aid and with the allocation of Stinger missiles to the Afghan resistance.

As long as the Soviet army was occupying their country, Afghan refugees had no choice but to accept the price exacted by Pakistan. Pakistani generals not only insisted on picking seven individuals acceptable to them to act as leaders of the resistance based in Pakistan; they also considered it their privilege to decide how and when to favor any of these groups. Local leaders inside Afghanistan, in need of arms and money, had no choice but to declare affiliation with one of these parties. The departure of the Soviet forces, however, frees the resistance inside Afghanistan from this dependence. Should a legitimate interim government emerge, one reflecting the aspirations of the Afghan people and committed to the reconstruction of the country, the commanders are likely to support its authority.

But the situation as it stands now finds Islamabad frantically trying to give its seven-party alliance the mantle of legitimacy by convening a consultative council, or shoora . Simultaneously, Tehran is adding a sectarian dimension to the already intricate balancing act by demanding a significant role for eight Shiite parties that are based in Iran. Reports filtering out from inside Afghanistan also tell of Pakistani generals who have been urging resistance commanders to attack the cities, regardless of the bloodbath and the chaos that are sure to ensue. Only the restraint shown by commanders of the resistance has thus far prevented the execution of these plans.

In the absence of an interim government truly representative of the Afghan people, there is no incentive for the peaceful surrender of Kabul and other cities still in the hands of the Soviet-backed regime. Nearly 3 million civilians, locked in besieged Kabul and already on the brink of starvation, are sure to suffer tremendous losses should the encircling resistance groups attack the capital.

Surely the slaughtering of civilians of Kabul is not what the Bush Administration wants its “kinder, gentler America” to contribute to.

There is still time for Bush to act decisively by delaying any shipment of arms and clearly supporting a political solution. The President can call for a referendum under the auspices of the United Nations --a logical choice following the Geneva accords of last April that made the withdrawal of the Soviet forces possible. The referendum would be held simultaneously in Pakistan, Iran and the parts of Afghanistan that are free of the Soviet-backed regime.


Such a referendum would ascertain the relative weight of each of the 15 pro-Pakistani or pro-Iranian parties, as well as that of independent groups or leaders. It would allow the emergence of a responsible and accountable leadership that the Afghan people could call their own.

After all, let us not forget that, aside from the nine years of Soviet occupation, Afghanistan can boast of nearly 300 years of recorded history of self-rule. And, as one resistance commander has been quoted by Western correspondents, there can be no compromise on “liberty, dignity and honor.” If Washington ceases to view Afghans as mercenaries in its anti-Soviet crusade, it might be able to understand their longings for independence, peace and prosperity.