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Taliban poised to launch unrest in Islamic nations - The Asian Age

Joseph Fitchett (International Herald Tribune) ()
September 29, 1998

Title: Taliban poised to launch unrest in Islamic nations
Author: Joseph Fitchett (International Herald Tribune)
Publication: The Asian Age
Date: September 29, 1998

Behind the exchange of threats between Iran and the Afghan
Taliban is a new geopolitical pivot: the ultimate control of

After two decades as a bloody quagmire, the fractious land seems
on the point of being united under the control of the hardline
Taliban, US and European specialists said. "Time is running
out," said Mr Olivier Roy, France's leading specialist on
central Asia, before this hardline group achieves a state free
of any political compromises or power-sharing with their less
militant rivals, now defeated.

The fear is that a Taliban-run Afghanistan will become the
launching pad for a new wave of destabilising Islamic radicalism
potentially more dangerous than the Iranian revolution.

The Taliban are Sunni Muslims, sharing the basic faith of the
vast majority of people in Islamic countries, so their hardline
message could be contagious in the consciousness of nations such
as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, undermining the position of both
these pro-US governments.

Because the Iranian mullahs belong to the Shia minority among
Muslims, their calls for revolution in the name of Islam were
always suspect in the eyes of many Muslims.

"Now you've got the Taliban, a fresh generation of radicals and
Sunnis to boot," a former CIA case officer said, "who are
challenging the Iranian revolution today and tomorrow will use
their new credentials to destabilise Pakistan and conservative
Gulf states."

For years, Afghanistan has been a vacuum of power where outside
powers waged proxy struggles. That political dynamic could
produce a powerful backlash if the Taliban consolidate their
grip and then radiate destabilising influences through a vast
oil-rich zone from West Asia to Central Asia.

Such regional ambitions among the Taliban seem to be confirmed
by their decision to harbour Osama bin Laden, the Saudi
terrorist who has vowed to attack Americans throughout West

Underscoring the geopolitical stakes, Afghanistan has figured
prominently in US government and corporate planning about routes
for pipelines and roads opening the ex-Soviet republics on
Russia's southern border to world markets.

What has triggered the current concern about Afghanistan,
including Iran's bellicosity, was the Taliban's success in
recent weeks in seizing two towns, Mazar-e-Sharif and Bamiyan,
which were the last significant strongholds of the country's
small Shia population.

In the captured towns, six Iranian diplomats were found and
killed in an act of sectarian hostility. Iranian leaders
reacted with a vow to curb the Taliban before they can
consolidate their state.

Iran by itself has scant chance of changing the course of events
in Afghanistan, so its public stance seems aimed partly at
mobilising Iranian opinion and partly at seeking help from other
countries. Indeed, the ex-CIA agent said, the emergence of a
Taliban-run state "creates major anxiety in every surrounding
countries - or should."

Neighbouring countries - Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan,
Uzbekistan and Tadjikistan - all have populations that are
mostly Sunni or important Sunni minorities. Already, their
border zones with Afghanistan are unruly areas, barely under
government control and crowded with political tinder in the form
of refugees and Taliban operatives.

Their presence could be exploited by a militant regime in Kabul
that felt secure enough to try destabilising its neighbours by
inflaming religious passions. If Sunni populations are stirred
up, all of these countries would face the spectre of sectarian
clashes, separatism and even civil war

With so much at stake, Mr. Roy said, there could be "a reversal
of all the basic alliances in the region," meaning that Iran and
three of its foes - the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia
would stop vying for influence in Afghanistan and instead focus
on trying to contain the Taliban.

The ideological gulf between Iran and these three other
countries remains too wide to bridge for any public readiness to
envisage cooperation on security issues, but discreetly managed,
tacit coordination could amount to a test of Iran's moderation
and US interest in dialogue if Teheran has mellowed.

It would be a wrenching change for Washington, Riyadh and
Islamabad, because these countries, to varying degrees, backed
the Taliban as part of the Afghan guerrilla forces fielded
against the Soviet occupation of their country. Now there are
few options left for containing the Taliban, specialists said.

The danger convinced the Clinton administration to start public
diplomacy on Afghanistan this week at a meeting in New York
that, significantly, included Iranian officials. The formal
session proved abortive, and US officials declined to say
whether the consultations surrounding it provided some back-
channel communication with Teheran about each side's intentions.

The scope for de facto cooperation seems very limited, Mr Roy
said, because it would require stronger leadership than seems
feasible in Washington and Teheran. Yet, alone, neither
government seems to have much leverage.

Despite its threatening tone, Teheran does not want to invade
Afghanistan, Mr. Roy said. Even though the Iranian Army vastly
outnumbers and outguns the Taliban, Iranian forces would have no
hope of defeating the Afghans, who would simply melt away and
wait out the attackers in the hostile Afghan environment,
specialists agreed.

Iran's most valuable asset is air power, which would not face a
serious challenge from the Taliban. So Iranian warplanes could
effectively support ground operations by Ahmed Shah Masoud, the
guerrilla leader who commands the only remaining organised
resistance to the Taliban.

He appears to be short of equipment and losing manpower, but his
fortunes could revive if a major cross-border resupply operation
were mounted from neighbouring Uzbekistan.

Mr Masoud, in those conditions, could probably keep a northern
zone out of the Taliban's control, according to intelligence

But success would depend on US financial and political
involvement, the sources added, and Washington seems likely to
be ultracautious about a semi-clandestine operation on this

Old clandestine ties, which ceased years ago, the former CIA
agent said, have helped obscure the Taliban's growing anti-
Western militancy in US thinking.

As recently as this summer, the Clinton administration was
talking with the Taliban about potential pipelines to carry oil
and natural gas out of Turkmenistan to the Indian Ocean by
crossing Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Lobbying for the project in Washington, Unocal Corp., a US
company, generated interest in Congress, especially among
hardeners who liked the idea of outflanking Iran and Russia with
the pipeline.

The planned investment died a few weeks ago, industry sources
said, because of US dismay at Taliban intransigence on
international issues, including their protection of Mr bin

Still, a state department official said, "The Saudis and the
Pakistanis are urging us to recognise the Taliban and give them
the seat in the United Nations on the theory that acceptance
will gradually make them more moderate."

The top priority for Washington, the specialists, said, should
be changing Pakistan's policy. According to the former CIA
agent, "Pakistani intelligence services have remained deeply
involved with the Taliban, apparently with a secret agenda of
helping them come to power In Kabul."

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