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Moscow's Man in Kabul Crucial to Soviet Pullouts

October 19, 1986|Tad Szulc | Tad Szulc, a former foreign correspondent, is author of "The Illusion of Peace."

WASHINGTON — A 39-year-old physician who combines wide secret-police experience with unusual political talents is the Soviet Union's greatest hope for victory in the long-stalemated war in Afghanistan. His impressive performance as Afghanistan's new Soviet-backed leader is among the reasons why the Kremlin began its first troop withdrawals from Afghanistan last week.

This new leader, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Najibullah, likes to be called Comrade Najib. Western intelligence specialists believe that it was on Gorbachev's direct orders that Najib in May was named the general secretary of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which is the ruling communist party.

Najib replaced Babrak Karmal, whom the Russians installed as the country's chief when they invaded Afghanistan in December, 1979, although the ineffective Karmal has retained the post of president of the Revolutionary Council. The regime is now run by a "collective leadership" composed by Najib, Karmal and Premier Soltan Ali Keshtmand, but there is no doubt that Najib is top dog.

His mission appears to be to set in motion what he calls "national reconciliation," representing the greatest communist effort in the seven-year-old war to break the political backbone of the anti-Soviet guerrilla resistance movement, and at the same time upgrade the quality of the Afghan army and security services.

Najib is a trusted man. He graduated from Kabul University's medical school at the age of 21 in 1965, immediately joining the illegal PDPA, and rapidly advancing in the hierarchy. In 1978, he went to Moscow, and when Karmal was placed in power by the invading Russians, Najib became head of the State Information Service, the KGB-designed new secret police known as KHAD. In 1981, Najib entered the party's Politburo, and last January became a Cabinet minister after KHAD was raised to the status of Ministry of State Security.

In his five months as Afghanistan's supreme leader under Soviet aegis, Najib has clearly delighted his sponsors with his whirlwind political activities, holding meetings with tribal and religious chieftains and personalities as well as with military commanders in an unprecedented fashion in Afghanistan's communist history. Described by foreign diplomats who have seen him as charming and dynamic, Najib has traveled across the war-rent mountainous country, delivering dozens of speeches, preaching unity and--most significant--refraining from mentioning communism while emphasizing Afghanistan's Islamic religious traditions.

Najib's strategy of seeking to undermine politically the moujahedeen armed resistance to communism and the Soviets was launched as the opposition movement was beginning to weaken anyway in the last year or so, with nearly one-fifth of the Afghan population in foreign refugee camps, and those at home exhausted by the endless war that patriots know they cannot win.

On July 28, Mikhail S. Gorbachev announced plans to withdraw six Soviet army regiments from Afghanistan--fewer than 7,000 men from a total of nearly 120,000--and most Western intelligence experts were convinced at the time that he would not have risked even such a cosmetic political gesture if he did not have confidence in Najib that, as an analyst remarked, the new leader would help to "Afghanize" the war.

(Pakistani President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq said Wednesday he doubts the Soviets are reducing their force in Afghanistan at all. Pakistani intelligence indicates the Soviet Union has sent 15,000 new troops to Afghanistan during the past three months, Zia said.) In fact, specialists think that the decision to make Najib boss in a fresh and sophisticated approach to the internal situation was part of Gorbachev's broader plan, including the first troop withdrawals--announced just before last weekend's summit meeting in Iceland--aimed at finding a solution for the Soviet quandary in Afghanistan.

The July announcement was timed with the latest round of the U.N.-sponsored negotiations between Afghanistan and Pakistan on regional peace, but evidently not enough had developed in these Geneva talks to warrant orders by Gorbachev to begin repatriating Soviet forces.

Though by timing the announcement to the summit Gorbachev was obviously taking advantage of a propitious political occasion, the groundwork for this move was laid when Najib was chosen to try to bring peace to Afghanistan on Soviet terms. In the meantime, the Soviets made it clear that additional withdrawals would occur in 1987, if Pakistan ceased to allow the guerrillas to operate from sanctuaries on its territory. This is part of another aspect of the Gorbachev "peace plan": to force Pakistan, even by armed intervention, to end its support for the moujahedeen fighters. Actually, the Afghan regime and Pakistan agree on outlines of a political solution, but the negotiations have been paralyzed by the absence of a Soviet military withdrawal schedule.

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