WASHINGTON -- The administration appealed Thursday to U.S.-armed Afghan rebels to act with restraint as they drew to within a rifle shot of their goal of controlling the capital of Kabul and seizing President Najibullah.
Although President Bush and Ronald Reagan before him chose Afghanistan as one of its test cases in the battle against communism, administration officials exhibited no exuberance as the bloody Afghan conflict reached its endgame.
'Fighting is violence, fighting is death, and that usually happens with guns,' State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said. 'But people who are armed, please, in this situation where the leadership has just resigned, stepped down, whether it's in Afghanistan or anywhere else, you have an instant vacuum, you could have chaos, you could have confusion, please do not resort to violence.'
The fate of Najibullah, a Soviet puppet for six years until his communist sponsors withdrew from Afghanistan in March 1989, was unclear.
As rebel forces entered Kabul, some reports said he had fled while others said he had been arrested or was in hiding. Administration officials could shed no light on his fate.
Tutwiler said, however, that more than one country would be willing to offer political asylum to Najibullah. A State Department official speaking under conditions of anonymity said neither the United States nor Russia was among them.
While Foreign Minister Abdul Wakil claimed the 45-year-old Najibullah had fled the country in secrecy, his actual whereabouts was unknown. His wife and three daughters are in New Delhi, where his brother-in-law is ambassador, but Indian officials said earlier that Najibullah had not requested political asylum.
'There are countries where he could seek asylum, but we are not going into any details at this time,' Tutwiler said.
The ruling Homeland Party stripped Najibullah of all his powers Thursday, accusing the head of the Afghan government of 'demagoguery and deception' and saying he was an 'enemy of peace' because he had fled the country in secrecy.
The decision to strip the president of his powers came after he attempted to flee the country in Thursday's predawn darkness. He was blocked at the airport by military officers sympathetic to a coalition of former army troops and rebels.
The move, announced by Wakil, amounted to a takeover ending Najibullah's six-year hold on power but apparently continued the nearly 14-year reign of the Communist Party in the central Asian country.
Wakil claimed the power of the country was now vested in the leadership of the Homeland Party.
The rugged, startlingly beautiful mountains and plains of Afghanistan provided the backdrop for the former Soviet Union and the United States to battle over philosophical real estate. The Soviet Union backed Barbrak Karmal and Najibullah after him, while the United States put its money on the fractious rebel movement.
Both nations placed considerable military punch behind their rhetoric.
But it became clear from the beginning that this would not be a conflict of traditional setpiece battles. The rebels, like the elusive snow leopard of the mountainous Hindu Kush, struck at will then disappeared into the hills.
The Soviets, swooping down on rebel enclaves and firing rockets from their massive Hind MI-24 helicopter gunships, seemed to gain the upper hand during the early 1980s. But control of the nation shifted after the United States began sending heat-seeking Stinger surface-to-air missiles, used with deadly accuracy against Soviet helicopters and jet fighters.
Following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, U.S. officials said Najibullah's days were numbered. But with the dogged determination that is as much a charateristic of the Afghan people as their love of a spirited stallion or a good fight, Najibullah against all odds held on.
His fall, however, and the possibility of chaos in Afghanistan has left the United States pleading for its clients to act rationally and avoid further bloodshed.
'First of all, the exuberance in Washington was when the Red Army left ... It was what we were in this for,' a State Department official speaking under conditions of anonymity said. 'Our second goal is for the Afghans to decide who their leader will be. What the Mujahideen have been fighting for they are near achieving and they can achieve it peacefully.'
'It's time for the fighting to stop. We'll rejoice when peace comes to Afghanistan.'