Intriguing changes of fortune.

Author:Gearing, Julian
Position:The possible return to power of former communists in Afghanistan

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...

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