Holding the road


The Afghan government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani has at last had a success in the civil war. It has severely battered the forces of its chief enemy, an alliance between an ex-communist and an Islamic extremist. And in doing so it has come close to breaking a blockade that threatened to starve the capital into submission.

Despite peace agreements in 1992 and 1993, fighting between the forces of Mr Rabbani and his main enemy, the nominal prime minister Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, has continued off and on. Mr Rabbani's position began to look shakier than ever when Abdul Rashid Dostam, a former communist general, abandoned him on January 1st and joined up with Mr Hikmatyar. Mr Dostam, an Uzbek based in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, who gets support from President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, controls the third most powerful force in the country.

Mr Rabbani's forces, under Ahmad Shah Masoud, hero of the resistance against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, held off a fierce assault on the capital Kabul by the new allies in January. Having failed to capture the capital, Mr Dostam then moved on to attack the town of Kunduz.

Kunduz is a crucial part of the supply route from Tajikistan to Kabul. The mujahideen guerillas who run Kunduz have tried to stay out of the civil war. They have even been fixing the local roads, paying for the work by taxing passing traffic. Mr Dostam's assault interrupted this peaceful work. Despite heavy losses, he managed to take the town.

In early March, Mr Masoud called in reinforcements. He was helped by the people within who fell on the Dostam soldiers, cornering them and killing them in the back streets of the town. Corpses of Dostam men littered the streets several days later. The government claimed that 300 of the enemy had been killed. Last week they showed this correspondent 320 prisoners and said they had another 200. Losses on this scale are rare in the civil war. Before the defeat the Dostam forces in the area amounted to perhaps 3,000 men.

Since the Kunduz battle, government forces have pushed on into areas that Mr Dostam used to control. They have dislodged Mr Dostam's allies from posts along the only all-weather road that runs northwards from Kabul through the Hindu Kush mountains. Mr Masoud's goal is to secure this supply route to the Tajikistan border at Sher Khan. The Tajik and Afghan governments have signed trade agreements to allow in food and fuel. But the Dostam-Hikmatyar alliance, having been thwarted in its efforts to seize Kabul, is doing its best to block the road. The power struggle in Afghanistan now centers on who controls this supply line.

The Economist, 26 March 1994, p. 41