Old soldier on peace mission

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The Independent Online
AS THE man who ran the CIA's arms conduit to mujahedin guerrillas fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Hamid Gul, the former chief of Pakistan military intelligence, has more experience with war than peace.

Restless in retirement, the old soldier set out across the Khyber Pass last week on a quixotic, private mission: to try to forge a ceasefire between the rival Afghan factions battling over the smouldering ruins of Kabul.

Since late January, more than 1,000 citizens in Kabul have died in fighting between the government and two rebel groups, the Iranian-backed Hizbe Wahadat and the fundamentalist Hizbe Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former protege of Lt- Gen Gul.

The former intelligence chief said this week that he had secured a truce between the warring sides. But Afghan ceasefires are not known for their longevity: they tend to dissipate at the first sign of a falling rocket, and over the past month, hundreds of rockets have rained down on Kabul. It is doubtful whether Lt-Gen Gul can succeed where more powerful mediators, such as Pakistan's Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, and Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, have failed.

At best, Afghans can hope the ceasefire lasts long enough for a trickle of badly needed food and medical supplies to reach Kabul - and let more refugees flee the dying city. Relief officials over the border in Peshawar claim that since the mujahedin ousted the Moscow-backed regime last April, more than 70,000 Afghans have poured into Pakistan.

International aid agencies cut back relief after gunmen belonging to the Hekmatyar faction two weeks ago murdered four UN officials, including a Briton. Diplomats are still trying to work out whether this was an act of mindless brigandry or something more sinister.

A withdrawal of the international aid agencies, who run hospitals and relief services in Kabul, would knock out one of the few remaining props to President Burhanuddin Rabbani's government. The UN has temporarily suspended its Kabul operations, prompting observers of Afghanistan to wonder about the fate of the deposed president, Najibullah, who was hiding inside the UN compound.

The same vigour that Afghan guerrillas showed in defeating the Red Army is being applied to slitting each other's throats. With the end of the Cold War, Washington and Moscow no longer seem to care what happens in Afghanistan. But others do. Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia are all stirring up the ethnic and religious animosities dividing Afghanistan's warlords. One aid official in Peshawar said: 'It's going to get a lot worse before it gets better. Rabbani's power is waning and there's growing instability not only in Kabul but all around the country now.'