In a growing recognition that an 11-year policy aimed at overthrowing the Soviet-backed government of Afghanistan is outdated, the Bush administration has not requested funds for the Afghan rebels in its proposed 1992 budget, senior administration officials say.
In interviews last week, the officials stressed that the administration reserved the right to request funds for the program as the budget process continues over the next two months. President Bush had repeatedly vowed to continue aiding the rebels as long as the Soviets aided the government.But some senior officials appear to be open to the possibility of a unilateral cutoff of aid. "The continuation of Soviet aid is a key factor, but to say our decision is contingent on a Soviet cutoff is going a little too far," a senior administration official said.
There are a variety of reasons for the administration's thinking, officials say.
First, the administration is increasingly unhappy with Afghan rebel leaders whose political goals are at odds with those of Washington.
Although the overthrow of the government of President Najibullah in Kabul has been the consistent goal of American policy, some administration officials say that the Afghan president has begun to look more moderate, describing him as less distasteful than some of the rebel leaders that the United States has long supported.
Second is an increasing awareness inside the administration that the conflict in Afghanistan is essentially a civil war, not a superpower clash by proxy. The chief proponent of this view is Brent Scowcroft, Bush's national security adviser, who has warned from the time of the Soviet withdrawal in February 1989 that the conflict would take on the look of a civil war, and that the American policy would become harder to defend.
Third is the decline of the cold war. As the Persian Gulf war illustrated, Washington and Moscow can cooperate closely on a regional issue, and administration officials are hoping that the same good feeling between the superpowers will have an effect on the Afghan conflict.
Finally, even though many lawmakers continue to support the rebels, there is a rising chorus on Capitol Hill in favor of ending the program, citing, among other issues, concern about the direction of American policy, the support that rebel leaders gave Saddam Hussein in the gulf war, evidence that rebel commanders participate in or sanction drug trafficking, and the cost of continuing the war.
Another complicating factor is that the relationship between the United States and Pakistan, which has served as the conduit and coordinator of the American assistance, has been severely strained since last year over Pakistan's development of a nuclear weapon and the resulting American cutoff of aid. Tensions between Pakistan and the United States have interfered with the operation of the Afghan rebel pipeline.
Administration officials tried to play down the political significance of the failure to request funding for the rebels.
They said that it was normal to defer requests that must be submitted secretly to the intelligence committees, and that there was still time for the administration to request funding if it chose to do so. But lawmakers said it was highly unusual not to request funding for a program if the administration wanted it to go forward.