From the archives: Guerrillas’ supporters waver

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- The board of directors of the smugglers’ bazaar sat cross-legged on pillows and prayer rugs, discussing the far-reaching impact on business of the rebel offensive in neighboring Afghanistan.

As fierce fighting raged about 90 miles to the west, Haji Mohammed Yousef, the oldest and wisest of the shopkeepers in the Barra Smugglers’ Bazaar, talked of refrigerators and television sets and the economics of one of the world’s most lucrative smuggling routes.

“This offensive, you see, has cut the road,” said the white-bearded Yousef, 65, who is president of the recently formed smugglers’ union. “Before, we were getting thousands of Russian refrigerators, air conditioners and TV sets every week.

“Now, nothing. The fighting is too heavy. The people have all fled. The trade is finished. And now the people on both sides of the border are starting to starve. Believe me, if this continues, there will be big trouble for everyone.”

The Afghan rebels’ offensive to capture the strategic city of Jalalabad, which intensified early this month, has left hundreds dead and forced tens of thousands of people to abandon their villages and flee to Pakistan.

The Jalalabad assault, launched in the wake of the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan last month, is billed by the rebels and their U.S. and Pakistani supporters as the most important battle of the nine-year-old war. It is the first attempt by the moujahedeen, as the rebels are known, to capture a major city that could serve as a seat for their provisional government.

But the battle has become a stalemate. The fighting is now limited to an exchange of missiles and artillery and virtually incessant bombing by government aircraft, and some of the rebels’ staunchest supporters, the smugglers and tribesmen along the border, are beginning to waver.

For their part, the smugglers have lost the Kabul-to-Peshawar route for cheap Soviet goods, which meant millions of dollars a day to the Islamic border tribes that have harbored the moujahedeen and their clandestine bases and arms depots and have provided a covert pipeline for U.S. arms for the rebels.

Hardship May Bring Dissent

But the economic displacement caused by the offensive may trigger anti-government dissent--and possibly armed conflict--in Pakistan, according to Pakistani business leaders and local officials in the strategic North-West Frontier province.

“If this financial tap dries up, we will be in big trouble,” said Syed Asif Shah, the senior government official in the Khyber Agency, 1,200 square miles of semi-autonomous tribal land that lies between Peshawar and the Afghan border. “It is a two-pronged problem. My ability to feed and influence the tribes becomes eroded, and their ability to feed themselves is eroded. And it now seems that the worst part is that (the rebels) are fighting a war that seems not to have a conclusion.”

Since the war began, the border tribes have been the key to Pakistan’s successful support for the rebels. Over the centuries, the tribes have been known to side with the regime in Kabul, but since the formation of an independent Pakistan in 1947, the government in Islamabad has taken pains to keep the tribes under its control.

The key to Pakistan’s control of the rebels has been money, and in recent years, the government concedes, the money has come from smuggling.

Tax on Smuggled Goods

Asif Shah said Pakistani law and other formal agreements with the tribes permit him to levy a government tax on the smuggled goods as they enter the main road to Peshawar.

“We then use this money to purchase information and as political leverage in keeping order in the tribal areas,” he said. “If two tribes are fighting, we buy one of them off to stop it. If there’s a murderer or kidnaper running loose in the tribal areas, we use the money to persuade the tribal elders to surrender him to us.

“But now that the smuggling route is closed, my revenues have all dried up, and already the trouble is starting.”

The crime rate has soared in the tribal areas in recent weeks, Asif Shah said. Abductions for ransom, car theft and burglary--long taboo in the tribal areas--have doubled, and the local government agents have no money with which to do anything about it.

Critical of Guerrillas

The tribal elders , known as maliks , are complaining, and in a tone increasingly critical of the moujahedeen .

“This so-called smuggling has been a very heavy trade between Afghanistan and our people, and now our people are going jobless,” said Malik Mir Aslam Khan Affridi, who is president of a loosely knit political group known as the Movement for Tribal Unity. “This Jalalabad fighting is very bad. Not only is the trade finished, but thousands of people have died. And we believe the moujahedeen cannot succeed in this.

“This is no longer a jihad (holy war). The Russians are gone, and we now have two Islamic brothers fighting, killing from both sides and hurting both sides. These moujahedeen are now a very heavy weight on our tribes, and we will have to see how long we will take this.”

Like most tribal leaders in the frontier region, where officials estimate that every one of the million or so tribesmen now has a sophisticated weapon, Mir Aslam Khan Affridi said his tribe has enough weapons and ammunition for a small army.

Veiled Threat to Rebels

“I have rocket launchers,” he said. “I have many Kalashnikovs (Soviet AK-47 assault rifles). I even have a cannon. Every man here has a gun, every kind of weapon. It would not be wise for these moujahedeen to keep up this fighting for Jalalabad.”

Although no such threats are heard at the smuggler’s bazaar, the frustration is just as pronounced.

“Why all this fighting for Jalalabad?” said the smugglers’ elder, Haji Mohammed Yousef. “Jalalabad does not have that much value anyway. Why are they wasting their time there?”

Ali Nawaz Khan, the general secretary of the bazaar’s newly formed businessmen’s union, said: “What we say, and what the tribal leaders say, is that both parties should sit down and negotiate with each other. They should not fight. There should be direct negotiations between Najibullah (the president of Afghanistan) and the moujahedeen . If they keep fighting, everyone loses.”

Smugglers Formed Union

Alarmed by their losses, the smugglers of the bazaar last month took the big step of forming a union in an effort to pressure the Pakistani government into using its influence to reopen the road, and to settle financial disputes among the bazaar’s shopkeepers.

Before the road was closed, Nawaz Khan said, shopkeepers had advanced large sums to agents in Afghanistan who had been buying the Soviet appliances in Kabul and selling them to Pakistani agents at prices far below what was being charged for Pakistani goods. Now the appliances are stuck in Kabul and Jalalabad, and the Peshawar shopkeepers are out millions of dollars. Many can no longer pay their bills.

“The problem here is bankruptcy,” the general secretary said. “So many are bankrupt--maybe 40 or 50 shopkeepers in the past month. We act as a kind of jury, bringing together the party who is owed and the party who is owing. The idea is to keep them from settling it another way, by killing each other.”

But it is the shopkeepers who are suffering the most in a bazaar that the union says was grossing more than $1 million a day before the smugglers’ route was closed.

“We are dying here,” said one shopkeeper, Ghulam Jan, looking around a tiny shop in which there were just three battered Soviet refrigerators and no air conditioners in stock. “We’ve had to double the price of everything we had in reserve, and now no one wants it. Pakistani appliances are cheaper. And, of course, this could not have happened at a worse time. Summer is almost here.”