PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN, AUG. 4 -- Several times a week, the ambulances rattle over barren mountain passes from Afghanistan bearing wounded soldiers from a sporadic and largely forgotten war.
They carry young Afghan mujaheddin rebels like Mohammed Sadiq, 24, a veteran of more battles against Soviet and Afghan government troops than he claims to remember. He lies in a hospital bed here with three fingers of his left hand shot off and a foot wrapped in a bloody bandage.
Sadiq said he knows that much of the world has lost interest in the Afghan conflict, and that the United States and Soviet Union are talking privately about a political settlement of the war, which erupted when pro-Soviet leftists staged a coup in 1978 and escalated when Soviet troops occupied the country from late 1979 to early 1989. He said he has heard that U.S. aid to rebels like himself -- which sources say amounted to about $300 million last year -- may soon be curtailed or cut off.
He also said he really doesn't care: "The people of Afghanistan started their holy war with nothing -- old guns, swords and axes, such things. Then the help came and we got better weapons. If they stop the help, it will not affect us. We will continue to fight.
"The rest of the world saw their own benefits in Afghanistan," he added. "They are stopping because they don't see the benefits anymore."
Across town, a prominent Afghan exile sneered at the idea that most Afghans want the mujaheddin rebels to continue their bloody and seemingly futile military campaign against the Soviet-backed leftist government of President Najibullah in Kabul. "The holy war is over, finished," the exile declared.
Nobody really knows how many of the estimated 5 million exiled Afghans and the uncounted millions of others living inside the war-torn country want to continue their 12-year fight against the Kabul government to the finish. In Afghanistan, the evidence is mixed: mujaheddin rebels continue to rain long-range rockets on Kabul and pressure other government positions, but the fighting is often slack and uncoordinated and increasingly pits one mujaheddin faction against another.
For now, the alternative to war is a plan that virtually all Afghans active in the resistance denounce as unacceptable: a role for Najibullah -- a former avowed communist and secret-police chief who these days portrays himself as a pious Moslem and staunch Afghan nationalist -- in an internationally supervised political settlement of the conflict.
The United States and Soviet Union have been working unusually hard in recent weeks to carve the outline of such a deal, according to U.S. officials, in which Najibullah might remain a figurehead leader during a transition period leading to elections. But the United States hasn't talked to its Afghan allies about exactly what it has in mind, leaving Afghans here to wonder whether Washington is preparing to walk away from their war with a smile and a handshake.
The basic problem for the United States and the mujaheddin has not changed since Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan 18 months ago. Rather than marching into Kabul in martial triumph as they expected, the rebels have been stuck here, where their exile government has established its headquarters beneath the Khyber Pass. Far from presenting a united political front, the Pakistani-backed alliance has been paralyzed by bickering and has projected no single leadership deemed capable of assuming power in Kabul.
Every attempt by the rebels to unite politically since the Soviet withdrawal -- including an ambitious plan for elections in rebel-held areas of Afghanistan announced amid fanfare earlier this year -- has collapsed.
"Najibullah is not surviving because he is strong, because people like him, or because people are willing to fight and die for him," said Abdul Haq, a well-known mujaheddin military commander. "It's only because there is no political alternative."
Disgusted by the inaction of the exile government leaders based here, commanders such as Abdul Haq and mujaheddin leaders based inside Afghanistan have begun to organize their own rebel council. At their most recent meeting, more than 300 armed rebel military leaders turned up. But while Abdul Haq and some U.S. officials are optimistic that the new military council could eventually provide a modestly unified rebel leadership, other Afghans and diplomats remain skeptical, noting that the commanders are divided by the same tribal, ethnic, religious and ideological differences that have stymied the exile government. Also, Pakistan opposes the creation of any rival leadership to that of the Peshawar-based exile government.
U.S. and Soviet officials say they would like to stop spending so much money on the war -- a problem particularly acute for the Soviets, whose outlay to keep Najibullah in guns and food is estimated by U.S. officials at between $3 billion and $5 billion annually. And both sides now talk of a desire to achieve a political settlement that will leave Afghanistan stable, independent and able to repair its decimated cities and countryside.
Speculation in the U.S. press that the two superpowers would announce a framework for a permanent political settlement of the Afghan war at talks between Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnaze in the Siberian city of Irkutsk this past week proved unfounded. But in explaining the absence of a final deal, U.S. and Soviet officials were quoted as saying the problem wasn't any fundamental disagreement, but rather their inability to sell their plan to Kabul.
Pointing to his unexpected staying power, Najibullah -- now in the Soviet Union on what Soviet and Afghan government officials have variously described as "medical leave," "a vacation" and "consultations" -- insists that he has earned his office. Soviet officials have said they don't want to push Najibullah out openly, fearing the signal that would send to other Third World allies.
The U.S. relationship with the rebels is complicated by increasing hostility toward the United States from Islamic fundamentalist factions of the resistance, particularly the heavily armed and well-financed one led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Denouncing the United States as devilish and anti-Moslem, Hekmatyar has vowed to oppose with arms any political settlement imposed by his former sponsors in Washington.
These days, however, Hekmatyar has problems of his own. He was discredited in the eyes of many exiled Afghans by what they regarded as his unholy alliance with former Kabul Defense Minister Shanawaz Tanai in a failed coup attempt in February. More than half the members of Hekmatyar's influential executive committee resigned, reportedly over their chief's tactics and dictatorial ways, according to Afghans and Western diplomats.
Still, Hekmatyar's faction, favored by some important Pakistani intelligence officers who control the flow of guns and money to the mujaheddin, is seen here as a well-heeled force that could probably wreck any superpower settlement if it were determined to do so.
"We are entering now into a political phase of holy war, and politics, as you know, takes a long time," said M. Abdelhay Soliman, director of an Arab-financed relief group here. "If this conflict is not decided in the battlefield, it will take years to solve it around the table."