Prague, 30 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - Despite changing fortunes on the battlefield and international attempts to mediate settlements, one thing did not change in Afghanistan or Tajikistan throughout most of 1996 -- in both, seemingly endless fighting dragged on.
In Afghanistan, the Islamic Taliban militia made sweeping gains, culminating in the capture of Kabul in September. The capital fell with startling speed when the Taliban -- which had been besieging it for months -- swept in only a few days after decisive military gains further east. The government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani and Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar fled. The Taliban, with other territorial gains in 1996, now controls two-thirds of the country.
The fall of Kabul sparked a strong reaction in neighboring central Asian states and in Moscow. Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin quickly flew to Almaty for a meeting with the presidents of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev warned that the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) would take what he called "adequate measures" if the Taliban pushed to the 1900-kilometer-long Afghan-CIS border. Uzbek President Islam Karimov went further, calling for open CIS support for northern Afghan warlord Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek.
The Taliban's 1996 victories -- as striking as they were -- could not bring an end to fighting in a country which has seen nearly constant bloodshed for 17 years.
The main contingent of the former government's forces, under the command of General Ahmad Masoud, quickly regrouped in the northern Panjsher Valley. Dostum soon joined them in a loose alliance. After the fall of Kabul the Taliban had made overtures to Dostum, a man they had earlier vilified for his alliance with Moscow when the country was under Soviet occupation. But the general, after a Taliban attack, joined with what has emerged as an anti-Taliban alliance. It now also includes forces under former Herat governor Ismail Khan. Khan, like the former government, has ties to Iran while the Taliban emerged from Islamic schools in Pakistan and is supported by Islamabad.
After the fall of Kabul, the Taliban first moved against Masoud in the Panjsher, some 150 kilometers north of Kabul. It was Masoud's stronghold throughout the years of Soviet occupation, and his greater familiarity with the rugged terrain gave his forces an advantage. By early October they had pushed the Taliban away from the valley's mouth, and eventually back to within some 20 kilometers of Kabul.
The Taliban, meanwhile, made gains in late October against Dostum in the northwest. But they were later pushed back there as well.
Even before the recent setbacks, many analysts were saying that the Taliban would have trouble gaining control over the whole of the country. Part of the explanation is that the group is dominated by ethnic Pushtuns. Though the single largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, the Pushtuns apparent dominance within the militia reduces its ability to win support in regions where other ethnic groups predominate.
It also remains to be seen whether the Taliban's stricter interpretation of Islamic law will begin to undermine support in regions already under its control. The population in these areas may appreciate the greater order -- particularly the relief from lawlessness -- which the Taliban brings. But civilians may tire of prohibitions against education and employment for women and against cultural activities the Taliban says are impure. They may also resist a required adherence to religious practices.
Across the border in Tajikistan, there is more reason to hope that an end to bloodshed may be reached. Five years after a civil war erupted between the forces of current president and former communist Imomali Rakhmonov and a coalition made up mostly of Islamists, the two sides are engaged in negotiations.
In early December Rakhmonov met in northern Afghanistan with the man widely regarded as the main Tajik opposition leader, Said Abdullahoi Nuri, and the two agreed to a ceasefire. After initial violations, the truce appears to be holding.
The two men are scheduled to meet again on December 19, this time in Moscow.
But anyone weighing prospects for a lasting settlement, or even a sustained truce, must take into account the many previous ceasefires that have been violated almost as soon as they have been reached. The main stumbling blocks to a political settlement will likely be the makeup of any National Reconciliation Council, as well as its actual responsibilities.
The opposition -- particularly following significant military gains in central and eastern Tajikistan during 1996 -- will likely insist that the council have considerable power over Dushanbe and throughout the country. They will also likely demand that the opposition at least hold equal representation on the council with Rakhmonov's government.
A political settlement may also be complicated by the fact that other groups opposed to the government must be accommodated. They include the National Revival Movement led by former Prime Minister Abdumalik Abdullajonov, which was formed during the year by political figures from the northern Leninabad region. In December, Abdullajonov met with Nuri in Istanbul, but no formal alliance was announced.
And it's not only Tajiks who have to be appeased in the course of any peace process. The Russian government, which has some 25,000 troops in the country, is not only a mediator to the conflict. It is also an interested party. Maxim Peshkov, a Russian official involved in mediation efforts, recently told AFP that Moscow has its own demands regarding any reconciliation council. He said it cannot act as a replacement for any of Tajikistan's governmental institutions.
Away from the battlefield and peace talks, 1996 was a grim year for the people of Tajikistan.
The London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) released a report in November estimating that the country's economy would shrink by nearly 6 percent in 1996. The EBRD predicted that the decline would continue -- if less steeply -- in 1997, a hard blow for a country that is already the poorest in the CIS.
Observers say human rights conditions also deteriorated in 1996. The international group Human Rights Watch, in its annual report released in December, called it the worst year for human rights in Tajikistan since the outbreak of the civil war. The group cited intensified fighting, attacks against returning refugees and minorities, and a series of politically motivated attacks and assassinations.
One thing is true of both Afghanistan and Tajikistan: Years of fighting have brought years of hardship. Analysts say only an end to fighting can bring any hope for a significant improvement in the lives of average citizens in the two devastated states.
(Abbas Djavadi of the Tajik Service and OMRI's Bruce Pannier assisted with this report.)