KABUL, Afghanistan — Through a decade of war, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostam commanded the fiercest Afghan militia division, up to 40,000 heavily armed mercenaries known as the Jauzjan, who were used as storm troopers by the Soviet Red Army and Kabul's authoritarian regimes against a nationwide, U.S.-backed Islamic rebellion.
Now, with peace at hand, Gen. Dostam is in open revolt against Afghanistan's strongman President Najibullah and the army commanders he once loyally served.
Recently, he and his men hijacked 50 truckloads of ammunition, linked up with two other powerful militia commanders in the north, and now, at 60,000 strong, they control fully one-third of the nation's provinces--Afghanistan's entire border region with the former Soviet Union.
During those same war years, even a hint of opposition from within Najibullah's ruling party was unthinkable. But, in hushed tones and with his radio turned up, a senior ruling party member sat the other day in a room 50 yards from Najibullah's presidential suite and said: "All of these steps in the north are to get Najibullah out. He will not go quietly. But go, he must. We have our sleeves rolled up, and we are ready for the fight."
So is Najibullah.
The man who has ruled Afghanistan with an iron fist, first for the Soviet occupation army and later for the former Communists in his party, conceded in an interview with The Times that the situation in his war-ravaged country is deteriorating rapidly.
"Now, we are at a turning point, a transition from war into peace," Najibullah said. "I have faced in my time many big waves . . . and I have learned in this time not only how to swim well but how to pass through the waves.
"But these are the circumstances of this turning point now. . . . And I have said that at the time we turn toward peace, a Satanic ghost will move. This is what is happening now."
Indeed, as U.N. special envoy Benon Sevan arrived in Kabul on Saturday with hopes of completing a peace plan that could end one of the world's most intractable wars--a Cold War conflict that left 1 million dead, 3 million disabled and 5 million refugees--this remote South Asian nation appeared near collapse.
Against the backdrop of the mutinous standoff in the north, Najibullah's long-bankrupt government has been unable to feed even his senior party workers and members of the elite secret police who have protected his regime through a harsh, lingering winter.
With the mountain peaks surrounding Kabul still covered with snow, stocks of grain for the regular army are so low that there are reports of renegade units' looting villages in a province south of Kabul in search of food--and clothing as well.
Professors at government-run Kabul University went on strike last week, boycotting final exams, to protest Najibullah's inability to provide them an additional week of bread rations. Riots have erupted outside flour-rationing shops for other government workers. Street crime is soaring in Kabul, as is highway robbery on vital roads linking the capital with free-market food supplies in Pakistan and former Soviet Central Asia.
With the nation's long-anemic economy now in ruins--a dollar today fetches three times the amount of local currency that it did a year ago--Najibullah's own party leaders have launched unprecedented attacks on his crumbling regime. So brazen has that criticism become in recent weeks that the president accused some of his closest advisers of betrayal at a major party meeting recently.
He reportedly acknowledged in that meeting the toll being taken on him by the country's troubles by conceding, "Two years ago when I addressed you, my mustache was black. Now look, it is white."
There are constant rumors of imminent coups and crackdowns. Once-loyal party men speak only with loud music in the background, a tactic aimed at jamming the wiretaps of Najibullah's secret police. Factions are splitting and new alliances are forming daily.
Increasingly, the plots and counterplots threaten to reignite old hatreds and mistrust among Afghanistan's three major ethnic groups: the majority Pushtuns, the large Tajik minority and the Hazaras. These divisions are being manipulated by ruling party leaders in tactics that ultimately could divide the nation into three separate parts.
As Najibullah's deputy party leader, Farid Mazdak, said in an interview, "I don't think the people will bear it if the U.N. peace plan is delayed from now until later. The sooner the better . . . because, if this plan fails, there is no chance for anybody. . . . Afghanistan will simply disintegrate and cease to exist."
The heart of the U.N. plan, which has engaged envoy Sevan in more than a year of shuttle diplomacy between Kabul and the headquarters of the Islamic \o7 moujahedeen \f7 rebels in Pakistan and Iran, calls for a meeting of credible, "non-controversial" Afghans who can select an interim government to replace Najibullah.