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Intriguing changes of fortune.

IN WHAT APPEARED at the time to be a triumph for regional diplomacy, peace brokers from Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan persuaded the warring Afghan leaders to compromise and form a coalition government in March. But this proved merely the latest incident in a long saga of foreign intrigue.

Over a year after the fall of the Communist government in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to fuel a bitter power struggle which has brought a rain of rockets rather than peace to the capital. Yet, ironically, after more than a decade of backing Islamic mujahedin groups, their money could help former Communists return to power.

Most important as far as guns, manpower and administration are concerned is not the Islamic government under President Burhaneddin Rabbani and his defence minister, Ahmad Shah Massoud. Nor do any of the rebel mujahedin factions stand out. Rather, the dominant group is the inappropriately named National Islamic Movement under the former Communist militia commander, General Abdul Rashid Dostam.

The powerful and ruthless northern coalition of an estimated 120,000 fighters was instrumental in the fall of President Najubullah's Communist government after it mutinied last year. Although nominally on the same side as the present government (having recently been appointed deputy defence minister), Dostam remains aloof from the bickering in Kabul and is clandestinely feted by Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan.

In what is seen as a more pragmatic approach to the conflict, Riyadh and Tehran have compared the bickering mujahedin factions to Dostam and realised his secular administration is a haven of stability in a political storm.

Saudi Arabia appears to have other interests, however.Although it made a token gesture of giving $150m to Rabbani's government last year, Riyadh continues to back their rivals. The main recipient has been the Hezb i Islami of Gulbudeen Hekmatyar, a persistent and combative thorn in the side of the embattled administration. His forces, in league with the Shia Hezb i Wahdat i Islami, have pushed the government close to collapse after several heavy bouts of rocket bombardments and street fighting.

Hekmatyar has sticking-power despite lacking mass popular support. Moderate mujahedin groups looked on in dismay when he continued to receive Saudi funding after his vocal backing of Saddam Hussein during the Gulf crisis.

Saudi Arabia has sought to pursue its Gulf rivalry with Iran into Afghanistan. Riyadh has essentially adopted the same political line as Pakistan, pumping in an estimated $2bn to fundamentalist mujahedin groups since the downfall of the Najibullah regime in April 1992.

Under the late President Zia ul Haq, Pakistan was keen to encourage a jihad in Afghanistan and beyond into Central Asia. Weapons, distributed by Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence, went mainly to fundamentalist, primarily Pushtun, mujahedin leaders, such as Hekmatyar and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, who were seen as pliable. Today this is still the line except, by also backing Dostam, Riyadh is demonstrating a more pragmatic approach.

Dostam has received red-carpet treatment on private trips to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, as well as substantial funding, according to one of his aides. Asian diplomats in Kabul claim Riyadh may be happier with the stability that this former Communist may be able to provide, in preference to the limited control it can exert over the volatile mujahedin.

Iran has also been backing Dostam, sending regular supply flights to his airbase at the northern city of Mazar i Sharif. Iran's chief surrogate is Abdul ali Mazari, leader of the Shia Hezb i Wahdat i Islami coalition, a bitter opponent of Rabbani's government. Allied with Dostam, and (surprisingly) with Hekmatyar, Mazari's ongoing clashes with the Sunni Pushtun members of Sayyaf's Ittihad i Islami are the most visible signs of the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

As the mujahedin pursue their endemic squabbles, Dostam awaits his chance of seizing power with the help of Hezb i Wahdat and the moderate groups. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran are all discreetly backing a man who, perhaps because of his ruthless reputation under Najibullah, may stand the best chance of bringing stability to Afghanistan.

In ideological terms this would be a fight between former Communists, backed by the secularists, and the Islamists. Riyadh and Tehran have noted that former Communists campaigning under nationalist banners have made a comeback over the border in Central Asia.

This new battle has already begun. In April, rebel groups in the southern city of Kandahar, a stronghold for moderate, pro-king groups, began fighting the government forces for control of the city. Elsewhere former Communists and rebel leaders are plotting behind closed doors.
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Title Annotation:the possible return to power of former communists in Afghanistan
Author:Gearing, Julian
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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