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Praise the Afghan Symmetry --and Keep Passing the Ammunition

April 10, 1988|Rone Tempest | Rone Tempest is The Times' correspondent in New Delhi.

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — The successful Geneva negotiations on Afghanistan last week, calling for Soviet troop withdrawal, finally revolved around notions of "symmetry."

Not part of the Afghanistan vocabulary until recently, symmetry is the favorite new word of Reagan Administration officials and conservative politicians like Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey (R-N.H.), who visited the Pakistani capital last week to reassure himself that things were proceeding symmetrically regarding the massive American arms supply to Afghan rebels, known collectively as the moujahedeen , or holy warriors.

The Humphrey idea, one shared by at least 76 of his colleagues, according to a Senate vote Feb. 29, is that the United States, as a potential guarantor of the United Nations-sponsored talks between Pakistan and Afghanistan, should not close off its Central Intelligence Agency pipeline of arms to the moujahedeen until the Soviet Union has cut off its supplies to the Afghan regime in Kabul.

Or, conversely, if the Soviet Union insists on continuing to supply the Najibullah government, then the United States should likewise continue to supply the rebels. Either way, it would meet the definition of symmetry, at least in the current diplomatic context.

Now the Geneva negotiators have reached that accommodation, to allow both sides to keep the arms and aid flowing.

Actually, it is a mainly symbolic issue. Arms and ammunition are not in short supply on either side of the conflict, according to military and political experts who have carefully observed the war here. Both the Kabul regime and moujahedeen appear to be awash in weaponry. Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Yuli M. Vorontsov admitted as much to Pakistan officials when he visited here Feb. 10.

"He told us the Soviet Union had given the regime plenty of equipment," a senior Pakistan official recalled recently. "He told us the problem was not equipment but the ability of the regime and its troops to use it."

Western correspondents who visited Kabul in December saw huge warehouses and open air storage depots of new equipment, and witnessed dozens of cargo planes arriving every day.

On the rebel side, the group that has complained most vociferously about a shortage of weapons and ammunition, the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan (NIFA), is famous among journalists for shooting off thousands of rounds of ammunition just to impress television cameramen, often miles from any potential fighting. A photographer for an American news agency recalled having to return to a Pakistan base camp with a NIFA contingent because the rebels had fired most of their ammunition before entering Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, credible intelligence sources have been saying for the past year that rebel groups were busy hoarding weapons, possibly in anticipation of renewed tribal warfare after the war ends. Even worse, some rebel groups are believed to have sold some of their weapons to Iranians and other forces not friendly to the United States, including the sophisticated and effective Stinger missiles used to down Soviet aircraft in Afghanistan.

Nonetheless, both the Americans and Soviets appear to have been engorging their supply lines for months to rush in as many weapons as they could before the settlement was reached. The CIA program in Afghanistan, using Pakistan as a willing conduit, is by far the biggest American covert operation since Vietnam.

Western diplomats in Kabul reported Tuesday that for the past two weeks there has been increased air traffic and large convoys of Soviet trucks moving into the city. "Many depart and leave under cover of darkness," one diplomat said. "Afghans have reported heavy nighttime Soviet resupply operations."

Since the arms-supply taps are open wide on both sides--symmetrically as it were--that should guarantee plenty of weapons to kill everyone in Afghanistan several times over. After all, its prewar population was only 15 million, and as many as 1 million may have died already.

While they have been fighting the Soviets, the loosely affiliated rebel forces have served U.S. foreign policy handily, embarrassing the Soviet Union and inspiring near-unanimous solidarity in the West on the Afghan issue. Yet many of the stronger rebel groups represent fundamentalist Islamic strains not dissimilar to those in Iran.

With one war apparently at an end, the same holy warriors that the United States has armed to the teeth could easily redirect their anger toward the West. Then how long should the United States continue supplying arms to the rebels?

An answer might be found in statements Western officials made a month ago, before the "symmetry" issue muddied matters on the home front. In background sessions, senior Western diplomats insisted that the goal of continuing the weapons supply was somewhat limited, mainly to ensure that the moujahedeen had enough guns and bullets to capture Kabul and remove the Najibullah regime after Soviet troops withdraw.

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