A tank, a tank, my kingdom for a tank

Anyone trying to understand what is happening in Afghanistan could do worse than to read an account of the battle of Bosworth Field in England in 1485. As Afghanistan now, England was in a state of civil war. The faction of the king, Richard III, was being challenged by the faction of his rival, Henry Tudor. Richard foolishly relied on the loyalty of the Earl of Northumberland, and hop[ed that two local warlords, the Stanleys, would stay neutral. When battle was joined, Northumberland failed to support Richard and the Stanleys joined Henry. Richard was abandoned on the battlefield, giving Shakespeare one of his best-known lines, ``A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse''; and Henry became king.

In the present battle for Kabul, the Afghan capital, the opportunist warlord who has changed sides is Abdul Rashid Dostam. He has stopped supporting the president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, and has moved his forces to help the president's bitterest opponent, Gulbuddin Hikmatyar. It sounds outrageous, the president is pained, but no one is very surprised. Self-interest is an acceptable morality, as it was in medieval England, even though tanks and aircraft have replaced horses as the instruments of warfare. Mr Dostam has changed sides before, ratting on, and bringing down, his former master, the communist president, Najibullah (now in hiding in Kabul).

All this, it may be argued, is sad for the Afghans, but does it matter to the rest of the world? Afghanistan could be deemed to have had its share of attention. For nine years, while the Soviet army was in occupation, it had the status of an international problem. In newspapers and on television David-and-Goliath stories were told of battles between the invaders and the holy warriors known as mujahideen. The previously obscure towns of Kabul, Herat and Jalalabad fell easily from the lips of instant experts. Then, suddenly, the invaders were gone: driven out by the mujahideen, some said; or brought home because the Soviet centre was cracking, said the historically minded, just as Rome's legions abandoned the outposts of empire when Rome itself was in trouble. Anyway, problem over.

If only it were. Kabul, which thrived even during the years of Soviet occupation, is now in ruins. More than 10,000 people have been killed since the Islamic factions, divided by religious and ethnic differences, started fighting among themselves two years ago. This week, the eighth in the latest round of fighting, the contenders were digging trenches in preparation for a long struggle of attrition. Mr Hikmatyar's men were trying to stop food entering the city so that Mr Rabbani's men would be starved into surrender.

That is the human problem. The global problem is that Afghanistan as a state no longer exists. It is a great hole in the center of Asia, watched over by outsiders wondering if they might gain some advantage from the conflict within.

Iran and Pakistan ostensibly both want peace, to rid themselves of the many thousands of Afghan refugees who have taken shelter in their countries. But while both countries support the idea of a united Islamic government in Afghanistan, fundamentalist Iran wants ascendancy for the Shia factions (representing about 12% of the population), while Pakistan favours the Sunnis (about 87%). China also formally supports peace but is worried that any strong Islamic government would give support to restless Chinese Muslims. Even in the West, which armed the mujahideen in its fight against the Soviet army, there are fears that a stable Afghanistan would release thousands of guerillas to make trouble elsewhere, possibly in Bosnia if that conflict continues.

India believes the guerillas fighting its security forces in Kashmir have been trained in Afghanistan. Russia is worried that the mujahideen might reinforce Muslim dissidents in former Soviet states of Central Asia. One of these states, Tajikistan, which has a civil conflict of its own, gave warning on February 21st that it would attack Afghan bases that were supporting Tajik rebels. On the pretence of ``restoring order'' in Afghanistan, it is possible that some future Russian leader, some Zhirinovsky, will revive his country's dream of Afghanistan as a route to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, and Moscow's soldiers will again cross the Oxus river.

Both Mr Rabbani and Mr Hikmatyar have called for the United Nations to sort things out, each presumably hoping for a settlement to his own advantage. But this is a conflict where the UN cavalry are not about to ride to the rescue. Richard III's death on the battlefield ended the Wars of the Roses and was the start of modern England. Afghanistan seems not yet ready for a clean break with its warring past.

The Economist, 26 February 1994, p. 38