Beleaguered Kabul Looks Toward Summit for Help in Ending War : Afghanistan: Najibullah hopes to avoid another Lebanon. But the issue is likely to be only a footnote to the U.S.-Soviet meetings.


Flanked by dozens of submachine gunners in business suits in a decaying movie theater surrounded by tanks and soldiers, Afghan President Najibullah took the stage this week to convince the world that his harsh, Soviet-backed regime has seen the light of democracy.

“We are not Communists any more,” the president declared of his traditionally Marxist ruling party, which allowed 115,000 Soviet occupation troops to spend a decade destroying the country in a continuing war that has left a million Afghans dead and 5 million others refugees. “Now, we want only peace.”

Citing his regime’s new-found commitment to political pluralism, capitalism and free elections, Najibullah appealed to the United States and the Soviet Union to reach an agreement at this week’s Washington summit that will help end a war now threatening to transform Afghanistan into another Lebanon.

At his speech Monday to his handpicked loya jirgha, or grand assembly of elders, Najibullah tried hard to cast his regime as a group of reformers committed to following the path of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.


Just one problem--hardly anyone is listening. Despite the hopes of millions of Afghans throughout the world that Presidents Bush and Mikhail S. Gorbachev will somehow solve this nation’s complex crisis in the next few days, the Afghan issue is expected to be little more than a footnote to the summit talks.

At best, Soviet and U.S. analysts said this week, the two leaders may agree in principle on a timetable to end both Soviet arms shipments to Najibullah’s regime and the vast, five-year CIA arms pipeline to the Islamic Afghan rebels known as the moujahedeen. But even then, senior diplomats on both sides said, such an agreement, known as “negative symmetry,” is likely to remain secret.

In any case, diplomats from both Washington and Moscow say that the heavily armed factions on both sides of the Afghan conflict are now so torn apart from within that the superpower potential for ending the bloody conflict has been greatly reduced.

“When the Americans say it is impossible to influence the moujahedeen, to some extent it is true. And the same is true for us,” said a Soviet diplomat. “When we had 115,000 troops here, we had some way to persuade them. But now, the situation is more complex, all we have is an embassy in Kabul, and our influence is limited.

“Now, it’s up to the Afghans themselves to listen to each other.”

But few have been listening.

From their base in the Pakistani border city of Peshawar, the leaders of the seven major moujahedeen parties have been issuing dozens of contradictory pronouncements that have all but ended U.S. hopes of bringing unity to their ranks.

Many rebel commanders inside Afghanistan have simply stopped fighting, while four of the most powerful of them met earlier this month to formulate a plan to break with the U.S.-backed parties in Peshawar.

“No one is fighting a holy war inside Afghanistan any more,” said one resistance leader who asked not to be identified by name. “They’re only fighting over the opium fields and the heroin.”

Despite the rebel disunity in Peshawar and Najibullah’s show of democracy this week in Kabul, it was clear from dozens of interviews in the besieged capital that the regime is not much better off than its armed opponents.

The strongman president did survive a bloody coup attempt two months ago by his former defense minister, Shahnawaz Tanai, but the armed forces and the ruling People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan remain deeply divided from within.

Just last Sunday, thousands of troops in full combat gear suddenly appeared throughout the capital, and several reliable sources said that Najibullah loyalists barely averted another military rebellion by rounding up dozens of coup plotters that day.

While plots continue in army ranks, of which 65% are members of the ruling party, there is also growing resentment in the party’s powerful Politburo. Party hard-liners are angered by Najibullah’s crusade to recast as born-again capitalists and pluralists the same party that overthrew Afghanistan’s monarchy in 1978 for Soviet-backed socialism.

The new government that the party officially formed last week was a classic illustration of the conflicting forces now at work within the regime. When Najibullah unveiled the new 36-member Cabinet, a spokesman proudly declared that less than half of its ministers are ruling party members--"to democratize the social and political life of the Afghan people,” he said.

But most independent analysts in Kabul said the Cabinet was made deliberately weak. To assume his post, the new premier, a non-party former governor named Fazlul Haq Khaleqyar, had to be carried out of a hospital, where he is recovering from gunshot wounds received in an assassination attempt last month.

And the three key ministries of defense, interior and state security, which control the three branches of regime’s armed forces, remain in the hands of trusted Politburo members.

“Maybe there really is the desire for a move to change things, but so far you just don’t see it,” one European diplomat said. " . . . They (the regime) don’t have access to any new people to introduce real changes.”

Similarly, the debate on the new government last weekend in the halls of what was once considered a “tame” party-appointed parliament also reflected what many diplomats consider “largely cosmetic changes.”

For three days, a total of 102 delegates sharply criticized everyone from reappointed Foreign Minister Abdul Wakil, a Politburo member who many diplomats expected would be removed from the Cabinet, to the party official who recently staged an official beauty contest in Kabul amid rebel rocket barrages.

But actually, the party had instructed parliamentary delegates to be especially vocal during the debate, to provide a show of democracy, and the Parliament’s deputy chairman, Zahoorullah Zahoori, who belongs to a rival leftist party, conceded that no one criticized Najibullah because “under the rules, we have no right to criticize the president.”

Indeed, the only genuine sign of democratic change in Kabul these days may be found in a grimy little office on the second floor of the abandoned Afghan Tours Hotel, where a political dissident, Prof. Mohammad Asghar, explained his newly formed National Reconciliation Society.

“We are against both the regime and the moujahedeen, " Asghar, 74, said. “The so-called moujahedeen are fighting each other and not united, and what we are seeing here in Kabul today is not real democratic change.