Afghanistan descends into medieval conflict: A lethal mixture of treachery and arms is bringing chaos to the nation, writes Raymond Whitaker, Asia Editor

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THE career of Abdul Momin, the army general-turned- warlord who died in a helicopter crash in northern Afghanistan this week, demonstrates why the country is unlikely to see peace soon.

General Momin once served the Communist regime of President Najibullah. His 70th Brigade helped to secure Mazar-i-Sharif, the main town in the north, for the government. When the general deserted to the mujahedin, along with the ferocious Uzbek militia commanded by Abdul Rashid Dostam, it began the train of events which led to Mr Naji bullah's downfall 20 months ago, a sequence in which the final blow was the seizure of Kabul airport by General Dostam's Uzbeks. Their foothold in the capital has frustrated the mujahedin governments that followed, but until recently there was little they could do about it.

President Burhanuddin Rabbani, however, has steadily been buying off his opponents, and saw the chance to weaken General Dostam by persuading his principal associate to change sides a second time. When the uneasy alliance in Kabul finally collapsed in bloodshed on New Year's Day, General Momin came in on the government side. His surprise attack on General Dostam's forces in Mazar-i-Sharif made it impossible for the Uzbeks to hold on to Kabul airport.

General Momin did not live to collect whatever reward he had been promised, but even his opportunism pales beside that of the extreme Hizbe Islami leader, Gulbuddin Hek matyar, who poured rockets and shellfire into Kabul for months in pursuit of his demand that the Uzbek militia should leave, and whose forces are now lending them support. The prospect of a Hekmatyar- Dostam alliance has driven other factions towards the government, and the realignment of forces taking place has spread the fighting.

Some 10,000 people have died in the capital since the mujahedin takeover in April 1992, but the latest clashes are the bloodiest of all, with hundreds believed to have been killed in Kabul and Mazar-i- Sharif during the past six days. Both sides have been using jet aircraft to bombard the others' positions in the capital, and fighting on the outskirts has prevented many inhabitants from escaping.

The Uzbeks have retreated to the ancient citadel of Bala Hissar, while the government uses the newly taken airport in an attempt to bomb them out. 'There are only 3,000 to 4,000 Uzbek militiamen, but they are so heavily armed that they can take a large chunk of Kabul with them if anyone tries to launch a frontal assault,' said an aid worker.

'What makes this outbreak worse than others in the past 20 months,' he added, 'is that for the first time there has been heavy street-fighting in the heart of Kabul, as well as clashes in Mazar-i-Sharif, untouched until now.'

The latest upheaval in Afghanistan results from General Dostam's increasing dissatisfaction with President Rabbani and his main military commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud, who are both Tajiks. The Uzbek leader is said to have complained that they were running the government purely for the benefit of their own community.

For once, however, ethnic divisions appear to be a restraining force: Mr Hekmat yar, the most powerful military leader among the Pashtuns, the largest group, is believed to be withholding all-out support for the Uzbek fighters. The northern alliance that has until now kept the Pashtuns out of power is falling apart, and it suits the Hizbe Islami leader to wait and see where his advantage lies.

The prospects could hardly be worse for ordinary Afghans, millions of whom have already been displaced. The government has caused runaway inflation and halved the value of the currency by constantly ordering more banknotes from Russia to pay off its allies.

Mr Rabbani and his supporters are attempting to portray the struggle as one against diehard Communists, but Afghanistan has now sunk into a lethal combination of medieval treachery and modern weapons. Many must wish that Mr Najibullah, who is believed still to be in the United Nations building in Kabul where he took refuge 20 months ago, had stayed in power.