After nearly a decade of disentanglement from the conflict following the withdrawal of Soviet occupying forces from Afghanistan, major-power interests are once again on the rise in that war-torn country. The United States and Russia, which engaged in a proxy war for the soul of Afghanistan in the 1980s, have finally found common ground in their opposition to what has been created in the intervening period: the Pakistan-backed ultra-orthodox Islamic Taliban militia. In a summit in early June, the two powers agreed on the need to contain the Taliban as a perceived source of support for the spread of "Islamic militancy" and "international terrorism." This is a development that may also resonate well with Iran, the Central Asian republics, India, China and the European Union, all of which have grown apprehensive of the Taliban for varying reasons. By implication, Pakistan now faces greater prospects of isolation than ever before, given its persistent refusal to abandon its sponsorship of the Taliban. This development has the potential, if carried forward prudently, to change the dynamics of the Afghan conflict toward a viable resolution, and at the same time help save Pakistan from becoming a menace both to itself and to the region. It could also help the United States to generate an appropriate strategy to play a constructive role in fostering stability and security in South, Central and West Asia.
Troubled by its protracted military engagement to pacify Islamic opposition to its rule in Chechen and by the growing Islamic activism in its former Soviet Central Asian republics, Russia has grown increasingly wary of the Taliban. It has castigated the militia for aiding cross-border Islamic militancy into the former Soviet Central Asian republics and for providing assistance to what it has called the "Chechen Islamic rebels." It has been profoundly perturbed by recurrent bursts of Islamic opposition activity in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which in August 2000 was also manifested in a (reportedly Taliban supported) protracted armed attack by an Islamic group, made up of Uzbek, Tajik and Chechen elements, on parts of Kyrgyzstan bordering Tajikistan. The attack resulted in a major military confrontation at the cost of many lives. It alarmed not only the Kyrgyz government and its Central Asian counterparts but also Moscow which has assumed responsibility for the security of the borders of Central Asian states with Afghanistan. Russia has also been incensed at the reception that the Taliban have given to the Chechen Islamic fighters, allowing them to open a mission in Kabul and use Afghanistan as a training and conduit base for their anti-Russian resistance in Chechnya. While beefing up its border guard defenses along Afghanistan's borders with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Moscow has threatened to launch air strikes against Taliban positions in Afghanistan and called for tougher U.N. sanctions against the Taliban. As a corollary, it has become more receptive towards the anti-Taliban forces in northern Afghanistan, led by Commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, representing the ousted government of Burhannudin Rabbani, which still occupies Afghanistan's seat in the U.N. General Assembly.
Although publicly at odds with Russia's handling of Chechnya, Washington has increasingly come to appreciate Moscow's concern about the Taliban. This comes against the backdrop of a topsy-turvy approach by Washington to the Taliban phenomenon. When in 1994, Pakistan, or more specifically its then interior minister, Nasseerullah Babar, as well as its military intelligence - the ISI - generated the Taliban (some claim with help from the CIA), Washington was quite content to remain conspicuously silent about the development. It turned a blind eye to the militia's extremist ideological disposition and medievalist practices. It appeared to have been persuaded by Islamabad's argument that the Taliban would serve its interests as both an anti-Iranian Sunni force and a stabilizing factor in opening up Afghanistan as a viable corridor through which the United States and its allies could find profitable access to the resources and markets of the newly independent Central Asian republics. This was an argument that was also embraced by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the only two other countries apart from Pakistan that have recognized the Taliban as a government. In this, Riyadh was motivated by its regional Sunni sectarian rivalry with Shiite Iran. Abu Dhabi was influenced by the bargaining leverage that the Taliban could provide it in the territorial dispute over the Gulf islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs. Washington's silence and the Saudi and UAE provision of ample funding proved instrumental in enabling the Taliban to secure rapid territorial expansion in Afghanistan, forcing the Rabbani-Massoud Islamic government out of Kabul to the north by September 1996 and allowing the Taliban to gain control over much of Afghanistan.
It was only in 1998, however, that Washington felt impelled to change course. With a number of experienced personnel assuming senior positions in the State Department, especially Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering, the administration found itself with little choice but to voice criticism of the Taliban. It condemned not only the Taliban's prejudicial version of Islam -discriminating against women, Shia Muslims and non-Pashtun ethnic minorities in Afghanistan - but also its tolerance of narcotics production and drug trafficking and support of Islamic extremists. The situation dramatically changed with the August 1998 bombing of American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es-Salam. Washington accused the multimillionaire Saudi dissident Osama Bin Laden, who had once been side by side with the United States in opposing the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, of masterminding the bombing. It launched a cruise-missile attack on Bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan and demanded his extradition. However, the Taliban's refusal to budge on their protection of Bin Laden brought the chickens home to roost for both Washington and Riyadh. Whereas the latter froze relations with the Taliban, the former has been trying ever since, though in vain, to persuade Pakistan to use its leverage to secure Bin Laden's handover.
For a brief period in September-October 1999 it appeared that Washington was making some progress over the matter with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who for the first time publicly accused the Taliban of supporting sectarian violence and fueling Islamic extremism in Pakistan. However, within days of speaking out, the prime minister was deposed in a coup, led by General Pervez Musharaf, bringing to power the very forces (the military and the ISI) that had been the real shapers of Pakistan's Afghanistan and Kashmir policies since the early 1980s. Indeed, initially, General Musharaf expressed support for the formation of a broad-based government and a peaceful settlement of the conflict in Afghanistan. He also indicated to President Bill Clinton during the latter's brief stopover in Pakistan in late March 2000 that he would seek to use Pakistan's influence with the Taliban to advance the Bin Laden issue. However, by May he had modified his position. While seeking to deflect growing criticism of his inability to address Pakistan's deep-seated social and economic ills and to return the country to democratic rule sooner rather than later - some of the very factors on which he had drawn to justify his military takeover - General Musharaf has increasingly been swayed by the influence of the military and the growing militant Islamic forces that have swept Pakistan itself. These are, of course, the very constituencies that have effectively interacted with the Taliban to serve as organic sources of mutual nourishment.
Musharaf has consequently backed away from his original promise to pressure the Taliban, much to Washington's annoyance. It is clear to Washington that neither Bin Laden and his associates, nor their Taliban hosts, would have been able to carry out "off-shore" operations without the consent of Pakistan, their only outlet to the world. Washington's impatience was echoed in the State Department's annual Human Rights Report for 1999. It not only accused the Taliban of supporting "international terrorism," but also named Pakistan as the country where "Kashmiri terrorists" receive support, justifying the imposition of U.S. and (limited) U.N. sanctions against the Taliban, and also putting Pakistan on notice for similar actions. A further attempt by Thomas Pickering, who visited Pakistan in late May, to iron out differences with Islamabad yielded very little.
To the contrary, the military leadership has finally dropped some of Pakistan's past pretense of non-interference in Afghanistan. General Musharaf recently made clear that it was in Pakistan's national security interest to support the Taliban as a cross-border force dominated by ethnic Pashtuns, who populate both sides of the long Afghan-Pakistan border. In a BBC interview on August 2, he declared that "we have a certain national security compulsion and our national security compulsion as far as Afghanistan is concerned is that the Pakhtoons [sic] of Afghanistan have to be on Pakistan's side." He therefore contended that it was imperative for Pakistan to support the Taliban as the "representative" of Afghanistan's Pashtuns. With regard to Bin Laden, he has urged the United States to enter into direct dialogue with the Taliban, a stand upon which Pakistan has often insisted as a way of gaining broader international recognition for the militia. He has also warned that any air strike by Russia against Taliban targets could only benefit the anti-Taliban forces and escalate the war in Afghanistan. In so doing, General Musharaf confirmed what had been suspected for a long time by many analysts to be Pakistan's policy of exploiting Afghanistan's mosaic composition to promote cross-border ethnic clientelism as a means of serving wider regional interests.
The net effect of this policy, begun under Pakistan's military ruler General Zia ul-Haq (1977-88), has been to promote the political supremacy of the Pashtuns as a historically dominant force in Afghanistan. It has thus pitched the country's Pashtuns against its non-Pashtuns, transforming the Afghan conflict into an ethnic one. Pakistan has aimed at securing a client government in Kabul as a reward for assisting the Afghan Islamic resistance to the Soviet occupation for three major purposes. The first is to secure strategic depth against its archenemy, India, in Afghanistan so that, as Musharaf has put it, Pakistan will not face two hostile fronts (one in Afghanistan and one in India) at the same time. The second is to put a permanent end to the longstanding Afghan-Pakistan border dispute and Afghanistan's past support for the creation of a "Pashtunistan" entity out of the Northwest Frontier and Baluchistan provinces of Pakistan. The third, since the independence of the Central Asian republics, is to ensure some clout for Pakistan as an important player in the region.
Another development that has now made the Taliban irrelevant to the advancement of U.S. interests is the militia's anti-Iranian character. Originally, as relations between the United States and Iran were highly antagonistic, with Washington determined to contain Iran, and as Iran's relations with America's GCC allies, especially Saudi Arabia, were grounded in regional rivalries, the Taliban could easily appeal to Washington and its Gulf allies. However, this factor is no longer a major point of consideration. Since the advent to office of President Mohammed Khatami in mid-1997 and his push to reform the Iranian Islamic system in order to generate an "Islamic democracy" and "Islamic civil society," with principles of "civilizational dialogue" and cooperation underlining Iran's foreign relations, the situation has changed. Although U.S.-Iranian diplomatic ties remain ruptured, a steady thaw in other areas between the two sides is in progress, as illustrated by the participation of the U.S. secretary of state and the Iranian foreign minister in a meeting on Afghanistan chaired by the U.N. secretary-general in September 2000. If the current trends are any indication, a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement is no longer a remote possibility. In conjunction with this, Iranian-Saudi relations have also registered a marked improvement in the last few years. The two regional rivals have leaned increasingly towards wider bilateral understanding and cooperation. Although Iranian-UAE relations continue to be tense because of their territorial disputes, Iran is no longer viewed as a major threat to any of the GCC countries.
This is equally true of Iran's position in Central Asia. Tehran's close ties with Russia, which has emerged as Iran's principal arms supplier, its constructive role in mediating a settlement between the ruling secularist and Islamist forces in Tajikistan, and its restraint from siding with Islamic opposition forces in other states in the region, have proved to be quite reassuring to the regional leaderships, as well as to Moscow and, for that matter, to Washington. Meanwhile, Khatami's Islamic reforms have successfully revealed the Islamic extremism practiced by the Taliban and in many parts of Pakistan in the worst light possible. Although for reasons of domestic and regional political expediency the Khatami government has lately tried to open a dialogue with the Taliban, in principle it cannot approve of either their brand of Islamic extremism or Pakistan's intrusion into Afghanistan. In the final analysis, the Khatami leadership can establish formal ties with the Taliban only when the militia has changed its medievalist behavior, reached a settlement with the opposition, including the 15-percent Shiite segment of the Afghan population, and demonstrated independence from Islamabad. The prospects do not appear to be bright for the realization of any of these objectives in the foreseeable future.
Given the fact that for the United States Iran is a much bigger strategic and economic prize than Pakistan, there are compelling reasons for Washington not to pursue its past anti-Iranian policies. It is now in the interest of the United States to underline two important points: its opposition to the Taliban's brand of Islam and Pakistan's continued nourishment of the militia, and its support for Khatami's reforms as the best means of improving prospects for a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement. In addition, a move in this direction could also inject more vitality into U.S.-Indian relations. A marked shift in American policy toward close ties with India is already underway. This has recently been underlined not only by President Clinton's successful visit to India and the U.S. urging of Pakistan to refrain from inflaming the Kashmir dispute, but also by a joint U.S.-Indian declaration to cooperate in the area of "international terrorism." This declaration essentially reflected America's concern over Pakistan's involvement in causing the Kargil war of 1999 with India, its continued support for the Taliban, and the links between the Taliban and Kashmiri Islamic nationalists fighting for independence from India. A point that New Delhi may have successfully driven home to the Americans is its claim that Pakistan's intelligence was behind the Kashmiri militants' hijacking of an Indian Airlines passenger plane in December 1999, and that the Taliban were complicit in that incident.
While the Indian, Iranian, Russian and Central Asian opposition to Pakistan's involvement in Afghanistan has already led to close cooperation among these actors, any further steps by Washington to tighten the cordon sanitaire around Pakistan could prove to be instrumental in bringing about three developments. The first is that it could result in wider policy coordination (although with only indirect participation by Iran, as long as there are no formal relations between Tehran and Washington) to secure a viable resolution to the Afghan conflict. At present, there is a serious power imbalance on the ground in Afghanistan. The Taliban are substantially advantaged by Pakistan's full and unwavering support, the steady flow of human support from Pakistan's religious groups and schools, and Bin Laden's wealth and personal fighters as well as by the revenue that the militia generates from illicit dealings such as poppy growing and drug trafficking. Their opponents continue to remain badly under resourced. The Taliban have fractured along the lines of tribal, regional and personality differences, but the opposition suffers from greater problems than this. Its lack of sufficient resources has confronted it with acute logistical and defensive difficulties. This has deterred it from expanding its territorial control beyond the northeastern provinces and providing more than limited support to local uprisings elsewhere in the country. As long as this remains the case, and the regional and international actors remain ambivalent towards Pakistan, the Taliban and their Pakistani backers will have little incentive to settle for a negotiated conclusion of the Afghan conflict, and the United Nations will have little leverage to play a meaningful role. For that matter, peace efforts mounted from outside, whether by the ex-Afghan King Zahir Shah to convene a Loya Jirgah (the traditional Grand Assembly) or by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to promote a settlement, are unlikely to produce any meaningful result.
Washington seems to have finally recognized this disparity as hampering the process of achieving a negotiated settlement; it has recently taken a few small steps that attest to this recognition. It has lately permitted the Afghan opposition loyal to Commander Massoud to open an office in Washington on behalf of the Rabbani government. Although this office is not a replacement for the Afghan embassy that was closed down two years ago because of an internal dispute over whether it should represent the Taliban or the Rabbani government, it does signal a change in the U.S. approach. It is also intimated that a dialogue may have been initiated between Washington and the Massoud side in an attempt to assess the opposition's defensive capacity. Furthermore, a mission representing the head of the European Union, Jed by the French General Mori lion, has paid a “goodwill visit" to Massoud in the Panjshir Valley, signaling the possibility of the EU engaging in some policy coordination with the United States. Meanwhile, despite former Russian president Boris Yeltsin' s criticism of the American cruise-missile attack on Afghanistan in August 1998, his successor, Vladimir Putin, appears to be more than willing to coordinate efforts for a tougher international response to the Taliban. Moscow will be pleased to support a U.N.-sanctioned fuel embargo against the Taliban, which would be mandatory for Pakistan to observe and could easily paralyze the militia's war machine, pro- vided the embargo is monitored closely. The steps in this direction have so far been very symbolic and amount to nothing substantial. If the objective is to restore some balance in the fighting capacities of the Taliban and the opposition, then a lot more needs to be done. The higher the cost of the war for the Taliban and Pakistan, the greater the chances of their opting for a negotiated settlement, as the Soviets did after their air force took a heavy toll in the wake of America's supply of Stinger missiles to the Afghan Islamic resistance forces (the Mujahideen) from 1986. Whatever assistance is provided to the opposition, it must, of course, be proportionate to the need to open the way for a negotiated settlement, to end rather than prolong the bloodshed in Afghanistan.
The second is that despite Musharaf’s claim that the Taliban are a security imperative for Pakistan, a negotiated settlement of the Afghan conflict, with the objective of creating a broad-based, representative national government, may well be the only way out of the mess in which Pakistan has placed itself. Given Pakistan's virtual economic bankruptcy and its problems of law and order, corruption, social fragmentation, sectarian violence and massive human-rights violations, which have already buttoned down even Musharaf's military rule, the cost of its involvement in the Afghan conflict is something it can do without. It is reported that in financial terms alone the Afghan war has so far cost Pakistan some $4.5 billion. This, together with the widespread religious militancy and associated social and political difficulties and international isolation that the war has generated for Pakistan, warrants that the problem be settled promptly. The high costs cannot be justified by the need for "strategic depth," something which now in relation to a nuclearized Pakistan and India is worth very little. There seems to be a view in the Pakistani leadership that a back down from supporting the Taliban could require Pakistan to pay a very high price in domestic backlash. The point is that if Pakistan's involvement in Afghanistan is not terminated soon, the costs of containing its effects on Pakistan may prove to be even higher. There is no sound logic in Pakistan's involvement; it is on the verge of making the same mistakes that other earlier adventurers into Afghanistan made.
The third is to help America in nurturing a post-Cold War strategy that could assist it to improve its standing in the region without too much risk of getting involved in any direct military conflict. The United States shortsightedly and insensitively disentangled itself from Afghanistan following the Soviet pullout. It had done this once before, in the mid- l 950s, when it turned down Afghanistan's repeated requests for economic and military aid for the post-World War II modernization of the country. However, the price that it ultimately paid for that refusal was the need to counter the Soviet invasion of the country two-and-a-half decades later. Its neglect of post-communist Afghanistan has now landed it with the terrible problems of "international terrorism" and regional instability. These problems have not only ensured the perpetuation of bloodshed and destruction in Afghanistan, but also now threaten the very existence of America's foremost former regional ally in the fight against communism: Pakistan. Pakistan has dangerously turned into a nuclearized "state of concern." Washington's dilemmas in dealing with this actor cannot be underestimated. Effective pressure could move Pakistan in one of two directions: it could either jolt its leadership out of its present destabilizing dispositionary mode and force it on a constructive path of behavior, or burden it to the point of implosion and disintegration. However, given Pakistan's prevailing national circumstances and past responses to outside pressure, its leadership may realize the first scenario rather than allowing the second to happen.
In either case, the United States is in need of developing a sound strategy towards South, Central and West Asia. A serious move to bring about a resolution of the Afghan conflict, with support from Russia, Iran, India and the Central Asian states, is most likely to benefit not only the cause of long-term stability but also wider U.S. interests in the region. A failure to do so may cause America to regret the passing of a valuable opportunity. In the present climate of regional changes and U.S. geostrategic requirements, the prospects for a settlement of the Afghan conflict are not quite as dim as they might perhaps seem. However, the achievement of a settlement will very much depend on how responsibly and promptly the United States will provide the needed leadership and to what extent the receptive regional actors will be prepared to act.