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Afghanistan: Analysis From Washington--Afghan Clients And Foreign Patrons

Washington, 14 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the Afghan civil conflict threatens to draw in outside powers in ways that may divide the international community.

This danger reflects the conjunction there of three distinct factors: the past ties of various Afghan groups with foreign supporters, the current political utility for some of calling attention to those linkages, and the economic and geopolitical stakes various countries have in the outcome of the Afghan civil war.

The current fighting in Afghanistan, of course, is the direct result of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which destabilized the country.

While they were there, the Soviet forces sought to build alliances with various Afghan factions. And to counter Moscow and its supporters, Western countries as well developed alliances with a variety of Afghan groups who opposed the Soviet-installed government in Kabul.

And as they did so, the Soviets and the West often found themselves in an analogous position with regard to the Afghans they supported. Each regularly found itself providing assistance to Afghans whose general worldview it abhorred -- albeit for different reasons -- and whose only virtue was their willingness to fight Afghans who were backing the other outside power.

Following the Soviet defeat and withdrawal, the West also withdrew its support from anti-Soviet Afghans, and many political leaders and analysts expected that Afghanistan would as a result move toward stability. That has not happened. Instead, the various groups, although now without outside support, have continued to fight.

But these earlier ties continue to have propagandistic and practical consequences. Because the West had earlier supported many of those who now fight under the radical Taliban militia banner, those opposed to the expansion of Western influence in the region, such as Moscow, have found it useful to portray Taliban as somehow linked to the West even though there are no genuine connections at present.

And because Taliban's opponents often had links to the Russians, many in Taliban have found it useful to talk about this past in order to isolate these groups by playing on the religious and patriotic feelings of the Afghan population.

Not surprisingly, such charges and countercharges which are superficially plausible because of the nature of the earlier stage of the Afghan conflict have been replayed in the international media, particularly in the Middle East.

But these earlier ties now have some practical implications as well. Whenever there has been a major shift in the military balance inside Afghanistan -- such as the occupation of Kabul by the Taliban militia -- both the various Afghan groups and the countries involved in the region have renewed their search for allies and support.

The Afghan groups, both pro-and anti-Taliban, have looked abroad for support, frequently if not always to their earlier patrons. And in at least some cases -- such as Russia, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan -- these foreign countries have been quite willing to listen and even to become engaged because of their own interests in geopolitical control, stability, or the export of natural gas.

But as the two sides reestablish these patron-client relationships, they do more than gain support for their respective positions: They unwittingly create the conditions for a broader political conflict, one that could easily divide countries that up to now have sought to cooperate rather than compete in the post-Cold War environment.