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Afghanistan: Outside Powers Aid And Abet Fighting -- Part 1

  • Charles Recknagel

While fighting continues in Afghanistan more than a decade after the Soviet withdrawal, international organizations have repeatedly called on regional powers to stop their armed support for the country's rival factions. But there are few signs any of the regional nations -- notably the Taliban's major backer, Pakistan -- intend to do so. In part one of a two-part series on Pakistan and Afghanistan, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at why Islamabad views supporting the Taliban as critical to its strategic interests.

Islamabad, 5 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As spring comes to Afghanistan, both the ruling Taliban militia and opposition alliance are preparing for the annual surge of fighting that accompanies the onset of warmer weather.

Both sides have received substantial new supplies and technical help during the winter from the foreign powers that back them.

Russia, Iran, and India are reported to have channeled through Tajikistan arms and ammunition to the Northern Alliance force led by commander Ahmed Shah Masood, who this week is in Western Europe seeking additional support.

Pakistan has provided new supplies of ammunition to the Taliban, plus the skilled technicians needed to refit the militia's aging Soviet-era tanks and aircraft for battle.

The heavy involvement of outside powers in the Afghan conflict has prompted repeated calls from UN peacemakers to stop stoking the conflict with military aid.

Yet, even though all of Afghanistan's neighbors are officially part of the UN-led peace process -- along with the U.S. and Russia -- Afghanistan is now set to experience its 12th consecutive year of fighting since the Soviet Union withdrew in 1989.

None of the outside powers admit publicly to giving more than moral support to Afghanistan's warring factions. But all say that they have important stakes in the conflict's outcome.

Russia and several of the Central Asian states say they want to assure the Taliban's brand of militant Sunni Islam does not spread beyond Afghanistan and endanger the region's stability. Iran says it wants to guarantee the security of its Afghan Shiite co-religionists, whom the Taliban consider beyond the pale of true Islam.

Pakistan, the Taliban's chief supporter, has been even more precise in explaining its role. Chief executive General Pervez Musharraf last year said it was in Pakistan's national interest to support Afghanistan's Pashtuns, the nation's largest ethnic group, from which the Taliban draws its strength. Musharraf also called on the Taliban to create a more representative government in Kabul that would include minority Tajiks, Shiia, and Uzbeks -- all of whom oppose the militia.

The Pashtuns make up 40 percent of Afghanistan's population and have historically dominated its governments. Pakistani analysts say that Islamabad backs them for several strategic reasons.

One reason is a desire to secure a strong ally on Pakistan's western flank against arch-enemy India. Islamabad accuses New Delhi of having sought to turn Afghanistan against it -- particularly during the Soviet occupation of the country, when Moscow and New Delhi enjoyed good relations.

Another concern is that an unfriendly Pashtun government in Kabul might back territorial claims against Pakistan. Historically, Kabul has insisted Pakistan's semi-autonomous Pashtun tribal belt in its Northwest Frontier Province and Baluchistan should be allowed to opt either for independence or to join Pakistan or Afghanistan. That stance led to border clashes between the two states in the 1950s and 1960s.

Pervaiz Iqbal Cheema, head of the private Islamabad Policy Research Institute, says that Pakistan views the Taliban as the first regime in Kabul in many decades that is sympathetic to Islamabad.

"This is probably the first [Afghan] regime which is sympathetic to Pakistan. I am not even using the word 'friendly,' but [rather] which is sympathetic to Pakistan. This is the first time in the entire history of Afghanistan that they are sympathetic to Pakistan and Pakistan feels slightly safer in terms of its backyard."

He continues:

"Previously there was always a danger because [the Afghans] were very close to the Indians and the Indians had propped up all kinds of issues. One of the major ones [was the idea of a greater] Pashtunistan, and Pakistan was always feeling sandwiched between Afghanistan [and India] and then came Soviet-controlled Afghanistan and again it was the same situation because the Soviets were close to India."

Cheema says that Pakistan also wants a close ally in Afghanistan in order to gain what military analysts call "strategic depth" in any future confrontation with India, a country with which it has already fought three wars. He says being able to count on a friendly Afghanistan to shelter Pakistani warplanes or even give them operational bases is particularly important now because Islamabad's other traditional allies in the region, notably Iran, cannot be counted upon to do so.

"In the 1965 [India-Pakistan] war, Pakistan was helped by the Iranians in the sense that most of our planes were [sent there] because Pakistan was not all that [well placed] in terms of [strategic] depth. So many of the planes were taken out of here and they were stationed in Iranian airports. I can't expect that if now the crunch comes that Pakistan will be easily able to convince the Iranians to allow them to station their aircraft there, whereas I would expect that the Afghanis would probably do it."

At the same time, Islamabad counts on the Taliban to allow Pakistani militant groups to operate military camps in Afghanistan, where they train fighters to take part in the guerrilla war in India's Muslim-majority province of Kashmir. The militant groups -- to which Islamabad says it provides only moral support -- are battling New Delhi in support of indigenous demands to secede.

But there are economic reasons, too, for Pakistan to hope the Taliban will eventually win the endless fighting in Afghanistan.

Ahmed Rashid is the Islamabad correspondent for the Hong Kong-based "Far East Economic Review" and the author of a book on the Taliban. He says that many in Islamabad hope that a Taliban victory would trigger a much-postponed Western interest in building energy pipelines from Central Asia through Afghanistan to Pakistan.

"There is a belief in official circles that once the Taliban conquers the whole country there is going to be instant recognition for the Taliban, especially from the Central Asian states, and somehow this will allow the Western oil companies to set up pipelines as they wanted to do in the mid-[19]90s. Afghanistan offers the shortest route for Turkmenistan to reach the vast markets of India and Pakistan for its gas as well as the oil, and Karachi would provide a very good oil outlet for Turkmenistan."

Islamabad sees such pipelines as an economic bonanza that would earn Pakistan profitable transit fees and supplement its own rapidly dwindling energy reserves. Pakistan's gas-field reserves are reported to be running out, and the country could face shortfalls in production by 2010.

Western oil companies, including the U.S.-based Unocal, have explored pipeline options through Afghanistan. But in recent years they have been frightened away by widespread U.S. and international condemnation of the Taliban's repression of women and sheltering of suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden.

With the Taliban currently under UN sanctions to force the Taliban to turn bin Laden over for trial, Pakistan today is more alone than ever in its continued support for the militia. Only two other states, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, recognize the Taliban. All others regard the government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani -- ousted by the Taliban more than four years ago -- as still representing the country.

That diplomatic impasse leaves both Pakistan and the countries backing the anti-Taliban alliance to hope that this year finally brings a battlefield solution to their problems. It also guarantees that the new spring campaign season will be as hard fought as all those which have preceded it.

(Part 2 of the two-part series on Pakistan and Afghanistan looks at how the conflict has boosted regional smuggling, creating strong economic interests for maintaining the status quo.)