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Afghanistan: Analysis From Washington--The Complex Islamic World

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 7 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The victory of the Islamicist Taliban militia in Afghanistan has sent shockwaves across the international system, transforming diplomatic relations in southwest Asia, political arrangements among the former Soviet states, and Western attitudes toward the Muslim world.

Perhaps the most immediate international consequence of the Taliban victory has been an expansion of diplomatic contacts between Pakistan and Iran. Last Thursday, Iranian Foreign Minister Alik Akbar Velayati and Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto agreed that their countries would coordinate their policies dealing with the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

Whatever this agreement may mean for Afghanistan, it represents a major diplomatic breakthrough for Iran. On the one hand, it further reduces Iran's diplomatic isolation by allowing Tehran to line up with the international community in opposing the brutality of the Taliban militia in Kabul.

And on the other, it increases Iranian influence in southwest Asia by expanding Tehran's influence in Islamabad and thus reducing Western and especially American influence there and throughout the region. Thus, by denouncing the Islamicism of Taliban, Tehran is now in a better position to promote its own version of Islamic radicalism.

Equally significant if somewhat further away are the consultations taking place between Moscow and the Central Asian countries. All these countries are frightened that Taliban-style Islamic groups could emerge and thereby destabilize the situation. And all, save Turkmenistan, met at the end of last week to consider how they should respond to the Taliban victory in Kabul.

But because each of these states has its own agenda, no quick agreement on what to do is likely.

Although it has no common border with Afghanistan, Russia is taking the lead in pushing for a concerted response to the Taliban triumph. The Russian government has at least three reasons for doing so:

Moscow appears genuinely concerned about instability in the region and wants to reassure its population that the Russian authorities are doing something to prevent such an outcome.

It hopes to position itself at least rhetorically on the side of the West concerning Afghanistan.

It hopes to use Central Asian fears to expand its influence among the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

Among these states, Tajikistan, located next to Afghanistan and already in the midst of a civil war, is the most frightened, the most eager to see concerted action, and the most willing to see the introduction of additional Russian forces to block the threat.

Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are also frightened by the possibility of an upsurge in Islamicist politics in their countries, but appear less eager to see any introduction of additional Russian troops, at least not yet.

And Kazakhstan, the furthest away and the least threatened by militant Islam, is pushing a peace initiative for Afghanistan, a move that would give Almaty new diplomatic credit and avoid the further expansion of Russian influence in the region.

But Taliban's international impact has already extended far beyond the immediate region. On the one hand, the distaste many in the West have experienced in reaction to the brutality of the Taliban militia has reinforced longstanding anti-Muslim feelings of many Western populations and governments.

Such attitudes serve a number of political interests, but they also reduce the influence of the West on the Muslim world, a development that makes the further radicalization of the latter more rather than less likely.

But on the other, the fact that so many Muslim countries -- including even Iran -- have condemned what is going on in Afghanistan has led some commentators and diplomats in the West to begin to revise their earlier notions that the Islamic world or at least its radical segment is all of one piece.

Instead, ever more officials in the West are acknowledging that the Islamic world is every bit as complex and differentiated as any other cultural grouping in the world. And they are urging a more complex and differentiated policy as a result.

Should they succeed in changing the policy of the West toward the countries and movements of the Islamic world, the Taliban victory in Afghanistan could be said to have had at least one positive result.