COLUMN ONE : Afghans--Adrift in Soviet Past : Kabul is left in the ruins of a crumbled empire. A Soviet aid cutoff is expected to bring down the regime--but even its critics fear the ensuing power vacuum.
Mukhtar, a 12-year-old orphan of Afghanistan’s raging civil war, was studying his Russian lessons on the floor of a dingy dormitory room at Kabul’s Orphanage of the Homeland on Wednesday when a visitor dropped in.
The stranger wanted to chat about Karl Marx, V. I. Lenin and the recent events that have radically transformed the superpower that has looked after Mukhtar since he lost his mother, father, uncle and brothers to war.
“Why are you studying Russian?” the visitor asked.
“So if I ever leave Afghanistan, I can speak to the people. This is the most important language of the world,” the boy answered shyly.
“Do you know about the big changes in the Soviet Union?” he was asked.
“Yes. A coup happened. The king was removed. But the king came back. I don’t know if it was good or bad,” Mukhtar replied.
“Have you ever heard of the United States?”
“I don’t know about it. Only that it is a world, not just a country, and that it dropped an atom bomb on Iraq this year.”
“Have you ever heard of Lenin?”
“Yes, he was a great Russian king who made good wars and built the Soviet empire. We read about it here in the books.”
As if frozen in time, Mukhtar and his Soviet-financed orphanage now seem like ideological relics in the ruins of the crumbled Soviet empire, Communist footprints left behind in a border state the Kremlin tried for so long to rule.
Mukhtar is one of 1,000 orphan boys whose care, feeding and indoctrination at this Afghan government center have been paid for by a crueler, unkinder Soviet Union. They are the wrenching human flotsam both of communism and the brutal conflict that began with the Soviet army’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the same year Mukhtar was born, and the retaliatory U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.
But now, they are symbols of a nation poised closer than ever to the brink of anarchy. In the span of a few weeks, they, like the totalitarian regime of President Najibullah struggling to stay in power here, have been orphaned again--this time by the death of the ideology that saved and nurtured them.
The fate of this land laid to ruin by more than a decade of surrogate warfare between the Soviet Union and the United States has been all but lost in the extraordinary turmoil triggered by the failed hard-line coup to the north.
Already there has been a clear disruption--perhaps a suspension--of critically needed supplies to the capital. The Soviet fuel, food and arms that keep Najibullah in power and more than 1 million Afghans in Kabul from starving have all but stopped arriving. The result: Prices for everything have skyrocketed. Fuel supplies have all but dried up, leaving most Afghans deeply afraid of the winter ahead.
A cutoff of Soviet aid almost certainly will drive Najibullah from power. Moscow has provided billions of dollars in arms and economic aid to prop him up after it withdrew the last of its 110,000 occupation troops on Feb. 15, 1989.
But even his harshest critics here fear the ensuing power vacuum, which would open the way either to anarchy or the U.S.-backed moujahedeen, the Muslim fundamentalist rebels who have been battling the regime since the Soviet invasion in late 1979.
The Soviet coup was staged by some of Najibullah’s staunchest supporters and crushed by some of his worst enemies. The ruling party in Kabul initially appeared stunned and confused by the sudden and rapid series of developments last month.
Many of the president’s hard-line supporters celebrated openly during the 72 hours of the Soviet coup, partying and pressuring Najibullah towards publicly congratulating the coup-makers. Ultimately, Najibullah refused, saying the coup was an internal Soviet matter.
“At least (Soviet President Mikhail S.) Gorbachev and (Russian President Boris N.) Yeltsin can’t hold that against Najib,” observed one Asian diplomat in Kabul this week.
Then the coup failed, to the secret delight of the majority in this overwhelmingly anti-Soviet nation. Unlike Mukhtar, many have remained immune to the regime’s incessant propaganda.
But they had little time to celebrate. Almost immediately came the fear that the new order in Moscow would be hostile to Najibullah, put in power by the Soviet KGB and for many years the head of Afghanistan’s own version of that dreaded security organization.
Yeltsin, who led resistance to the coup in Moscow, was one of the harshest critics of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan and then of the continuing aid; he has publicly called for a ban on all military supplies to Najibullah’s army and his vast security machine.
Said one Afghan technocrat who served in Najibullah’s Cabinet for several years: “After the coup failed, I told some of the hard-liners here, ‘Why don’t you follow your Russian friends and just shoot yourself?’ But then the half-joking stopped and this sense of real fear set in. The winter is ahead. What if Moscow really does cut everything? No one here will survive.”
The quasi-independent Weekly News appealed in a recent editorial for a continuation of Soviet aid and an increase in international assistance to Afghanistan:
“It is the responsibility of the Soviet Union, which is the main cause of the misery of the Afghan people, to carry out their moral and legal obligations to Afghanistan,” the newspaper declared.
Noting that the Afghan regime so far has answered fears of winter famine only with empty promises, the newspaper urged Najibullah’s government to “forget the deceitful means of reassurance and adopt real measures to attract international aid, because at stake here is the fate of millions of human lives.”
Indeed, tours of Kabul’s dusty and decaying markets this week revealed that even the elite of the ruling party are beginning to measure their lives in liters of fuel, kilograms of wheat and the very narrowest margins of survival.
Gasoline is selling for $5 a gallon; 10 slices of bread now cost $1, as does a single kilogram of cooking oil. The prices all represent a doubling or tripling in the past few weeks. The nation’s currency, the afghani, has lost half its value in the last two months alone. All this in a nation where even the best-paid party worker makes just $10 a month.
“Not even we can afford to live anymore,” said one party member who works occasionally for the secret police, known here as Khad.
This source confided that many in the party and Khad want the strongman president to step aside and make way for Afghanistan’s exiled king, Mohammed Zahir Shah.
“Even my son is now using dirty words when he talks about the president,” said the source. “He is no longer acceptable to us. He is no longer acceptable to Moscow. He is no longer acceptable to anyone.”
An Asian diplomat with close contacts in the regime said: “For 13 years, these people have really had to live hand-to-mouth, and somehow they survived. But now it’s cutting into his (Najibullah’s) main base of support.”
” . . . The main thing is, how do they feed their army,” the diplomat continued. “They’ve already dug into their strategic reserves. There’s enough for only five or six months more, and then they reach rock bottom for the army. It’s a panic situation now, and the regime is really just in a siege mentality.”
A senior diplomat from a nation that belonged to the former East Bloc and used to support Najibullah added that most analysts feel that the leader may well be in his final days, now that his Soviet backers are either in jail, dead or in hiding.
“He has stayed so long because there were no alternatives and he enjoyed the support of the KGB and the Soviet army,” said this diplomat of the Afghan leader, who is nicknamed “The Ox” for his uncanny ability to survive eight years of war, coup attempts and internal party cabals.
“Now the Soviets will make a new decision. They will not like to have a government of Islamic fundamentalists here,” he said, referring to the moujahedeen , “but they will now work, I think, with the Americans to find a democratic alternative.
“Everyone here just hopes that it comes soon. Time is very short. And anarchy is very close outside the city.”
Bush Administration officials in Washington said last week that if a joint U.S.-Soviet initiative fails to find a political solution for Afghanistan within three to six months, this war-ravaged nation is headed for bloodshed and chaos that would eclipse even that of Lebanon.
Few here believe that there is that much time, that even a semblance of order will last six months. Already, the war-torn countryside is fast becoming a land of a thousand kings and a thousand armies, ruled by no one.
A growing anarchy and violence have forced a radical scaling back of operations by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, the two outside aid agencies most active in trying to ease the horrors of a war that has ruined as many as two-thirds of the nation’s villages.
In the last few months alone, Red Cross delegates have been kidnaped and held for ransom by gangs of bandits and renegade moujahedeen groups in several regions of the rugged countryside. In one case, the attackers deliberately fired seven bullets into the red cross painted on the side of the agency’s Jeep, killing two Afghan employees.
A Red Cross nurse was raped when another armed gang, believed to be a renegade government militia group, attacked the agency’s staff house in northern Afghanistan. And last week, a Swedish U.N. worker trying to open a clinic for the disabled in the northern province of Badakshan was seriously injured when an air force jet dropped a bomb nearby.
“It’s coming from all sides,” said one Western aid worker in Kabul. “A lot of it is because of the militias. The regime bribed them to join the government after the Soviet pullout, but now the regime has run out of money to pay them. So they’re moving in a big way into opium smuggling, hijacking, kidnaping and--well, you name it.
“Afghanistan is now the most dangerous country I know of on Earth.”
When asked whether the United Nations, which is spending tens of millions of dollars on rehabilitation projects in Afghanistan, is now able to function even at minimal levels, the aid worker replied, “We’re not really operational at all. . . . Nothing is being achieved.”
What is more, she added, “Now, even the moujahedeen commanders are saying, ‘We’re fed up with all this war and with the U.N.--with everyone.’ There’s a sense of hopelessness. They don’t know what they want anymore. They don’t believe in anything anymore. And that’s fuel for anarchy when you consider (that) almost everyone now has an AK-47" assault rifle.
In an effort to prevent such a power vacuum from spreading to Kabul, Najibullah’s regime launched a domestic and international propaganda campaign that plays on fears of the twin threats of anarchy and Islamic fundamentalism.
“Let’s assume that the government does have this potential for collapse,” Farid Mazdak, deputy secretary of the ruling party and a key presidential adviser, conceded in an interview this week. “When the anarchy starts to spread, the government forces may even be able to stop it, but it will be very costly--it means war in every street, because a great portion of the forces on both sides are war-minded.
“And there is another alarm: If the Afghan problem is not settled urgently, then Islamic fundamentalism will grow, taking over not only in Afghanistan but throughout Soviet Central Asia, all the way to Kashmir.
“All this region of the world will become an Islamic continent, and this continent will be ruled by fundamentalists. Is this what Moscow wants? Is this what Washington wants? Do you want the Cold War to re-emerge against the Islamic world so soon after it ended in the East Bloc?”
In Washington, Bush Administration officials have expressed the same concerns in private but do not seem willing to go public with them. A better measure, perhaps, of the level of concern is that, according to Administration officials, the President is prepared to cut off the economic and military aid that the insurgents still receive as soon as it is clear that Soviet aid has similarly ceased to the Najibullah government.
Meanwhile, Mazdak, who is the Afghan regime’s point man in its recent effort to alter its image along the lines of Gorbachev’s perestroika policy, does concede that powerful vestiges of the ruling party’s icy, hard-liner past remain well entrenched.
Saying that Najibullah’s decision not to congratulate Moscow’s coup-makers was “not an easy one,” he added: “We have gone through 13 years of war. We have more than a few people with war psychology, our own militarists, yes.”
A critical question is whether the forces within the ruling party that favor reform are strong enough to proceed, dismantling the institutions put in place by the now-discredited hard-liners within Moscow’s KGB and the Soviet army, perhaps including Najibullah himself.
The secret police remain so strong in Kabul that most residents still speak in whispers. The fear of Khad remains at least as strong as that of imminent famine. The jails remain full of alleged dissidents. And no one risks violating an 11 p.m. curfew enforced by checkpoint guards who shoot to kill.
“The main goal is to find a democratic alternative for the country before it’s too late, and, for that, it is necessary to remove all the totalitarian institutions that remain in its way,” said Zaher Tanin, editor of the Weekly News and a man who, according to his own staff, has worked for Khad.
“Will they just turn in their guns and go away without a fight?” Tanin smiled. “Well, I cannot answer that.”
Times staff writer Norman Kempster, in Washington, contributed to this report.