Afghanistan’s renegade defense minister, Shahnawaz Tanai, declared Thursday that “the fight is not over,” but his bloody attempt to overthrow President Najibullah’s Soviet-backed government this week has driven deeper divisions into the ranks of the regime’s enemies, diplomats and independent analysts said.
As shops, offices and the airport reopened in the Afghan capital of Kabul, leaders of the Islamic guerrilla movement that has been battling the regime for a decade from neighboring Pakistan rejected Tanai’s appeal for an alliance.
“How can we extend our support to a Communist?” asked fundamentalist moujahedeen leader Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, referring to Tanai, a veteran army general and hard-liner who has bitterly opposed Najibullah’s offer of negotiations with the Islamic rebels for years--until Wednesday’s apparent failure of his coup attempt.
Amid independent reports that Najibullah’s forces had reclaimed control of all major cities and installations, senior Pakistani officials also attempted to distance themselves from Tanai, who was forced from his stronghold by heavy fire and flew his family to safety in Pakistan aboard a commandeered Afghan military helicopter Wednesday afternoon.
On Wednesday night, Pakistani authorities confirmed that Tanai had come to Pakistan but, hours later, senior Foreign Ministry officials announced that he had gone back inside Afghanistan with the moujahedeen rebels.
The moujahedeen’s rejection of any alliance with Tanai and his remaining mutinous forces came soon after that announcement, leading one Afghan expert to comment, “Everyone lost this one.”
The Islamic state of Pakistan has staunchly supported the moujahedeen since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December, 1979. It has provided refuge to more than 3 million Afghan refugees, harbored moujahedeen bases and administered a multibillion-dollar U.S.-financed arms and ammunition pipeline to the rebels.
On Thursday, though, the government in Islamabad appeared utterly confused about the aftermath of the coup, which Najibullah has publicly charged was engineered by the Pakistani military intelligence agency, the Interservices Intelligence Directorate. That is the agency that has coordinated the moujahedeen’s logistics and administered the U.S. arms pipeline since the war began.
In Washington, the State Department also appeared to have been blindsided by the long-rumored coup attempt and its result, with senior officials telling a congressional committee and journalists that the situation remains “unclear” or “confused.”
When Tanai’s coup began, with devastating bombing runs on Najibullah’s palace and other key government buildings in downtown Kabul on Tuesday, both Islamabad and other pro- moujahedeen governments appeared to be playing the role of cheerleader.
Pakistani officials and Western diplomats in Islamabad told reporters early Wednesday that Tanai’s forces had taken over Bagram air base, 30 miles north of Kabul, which is the regime’s largest and most strategic air force installation. Later they conceded that the base was, in fact, destroyed in aerial bombing runs ordered by Najibullah.
On Thursday, they said there were unconfirmed reports that Soviet pilots had flown the bombing runs on Bagram.
At the same time, though, the same sources added that heavy fighting was reported around Kabul Airport, when, in fact, the airport was reopened Thursday morning to both incoming military flights and outgoing civilian aircraft, none of which encountered any fire.
Radio Kabul put the death toll at 56 and said 200 people were injured in the fighting. It also reported that Najibullah had replaced four members of the Supreme Defense Council, as well as Tanai. A diplomat based in Kabul quoted the president as telling a news conference: “The microbes, the radicals among us, have been cleansed. We don’t have any more factions. We are more united than ever.”
Dazed passengers arriving in New Delhi on Thursday night on the first civilian flight out of Afghanistan since the coup began confirmed that there had been no damage to the airport and that life in the city had returned to normal.
In Pakistan, diplomats and senior officials declined to speculate on Tanai’s next move. All asserted that the Soviet-trained general’s whereabouts are unknown, although they insisted he is no longer on Pakistani soil.
Tanai himself said he was “inside Afghanistan” in the two-minute taped message released by intermediaries in Islamabad on Thursday.
“This is a call for Afghanistan’s Muslim people and the army and the real (ruling) party members,” Tanai declared in a voice recognized by Western reporters who have met him in Kabul. “Najib(ullah) and his dictatorship will fall. For this and for national unity, we have risen up.”
Initially, fundamentalist moujahedeen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar had come out publicly in support of Tanai’s coup. Independent analysts said that was, at best, a tactical alliance between a hard-line Stalinist and a committed Islamic fundamentalist. Pakistani authorities even said Tanai spoke with Hekmatyar on Wednesday after he fled his rebel base.
But, on Thursday, Sayyaf, who has sided with Hekmatyar in the past, flatly rejected Tanai’s call for support saying, “He is no different than Najib.”
The public split between the two most fundamentalist leaders of the already fractious, seven-party moujahedeen alliance served only to deepen the disunity that has plagued the rebels in their bid to overthrow Najibullah.
Deep divisions between the fundamentalists and moderates in the moujahedeen also led the failure of last year’s ill-fated attempt to form a representative government-in-exile in Pakistan.
When asked about the effect of Tanai’s coup on the rebels, though, most Western diplomats said Thursday that Najibullah is the biggest loser.
In crushing the coup, the Afghan leader was forced to kill veteran air force pilots and destroy a key air base. Military analysts said that his uncertain control over the air force, which participated heavily in the coup attempt, has left his counterinsurgency machine crippled, at best.
“Of course, the only question is whether the moujahedeen can capitalize on it,” said an Asian military analyst in New Delhi. “If not, then it is true--everybody loses.”