Prague, 22 May 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A revolt led by a commander from the forces of warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum in Afghanistan's northwestern Faryab Province has provided the Taliban movement with an unexpected opportunity -- which it has been quick to exploit.
What began as rumors of an isolated incident now seem likely to draw Afghanistan's neighbors deeper and more openly into the conflict.
On May 19 reports began to filter out of a rebellion launched by one of Dostum's commanders, General Abdul Malik, in Faryab Province. The sole source for the reports initially was the Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) agency located in Peshawar, Pakistan. As Pakistan and AIP are known to favor the Taliban, the Islamic movement now in control of two-thirds of Afghanistan, the veracity of these reports remained as much a question as the events in northern Afghanistan. However, these reports were confirmed by independent observers in the area and by May 20 it became apparent that Dostum and his forces were locked in combat with forces which last week were considered allies.
Abdul Malik's motivation is not absolutely certain. Some reports mention that his brother was assassinated last year, possibly by orders from Dostum. Other reports say Malik's friend was killed only last week, again on orders from Dostum. Radio transmissions from the Taliban-occupied capital of Afghanistan, Kabul, say Malik discovered Dostum's plot to divide Afghanistan and feeling some sense of duty to country, revolted.
All that is sure in this is that Malik has indeed revolted and his action has spread beyond only Faryab Province. The governor of Samangan Province and his 15 bodyguards were killed on the first day of the revolt. Besides Samangan, fighting has been reported in Jozjan and Kunduz Provinces and it appears likely that for a brief time there was fighting in Mazar-i-Sharif, where Dostum's headquarters are located.
Dostum has not been seen since the revolt began, but reports that he was killed early in the fighting have not been confirmed and now appear to be false.
Possibly acting on a deal struck with Malik prior to the outbreak of hostilities on May 19 -- or more probably seizing the moment -- the Taliban launched an offensive across a wide front. In some places the Taliban are supporting Malik's forces but the Taliban are also attacking in central Afghanistan's Bamiyan Province where the Shi'ite forces of Hezb-i-Wahdat, part of the anti-Taliban coalition, are located.
Some reports say that bomber planes have made attacks in Badakhshan Province, in territory under the control of ousted President Burhanuddin Rabbani and his military commander Shah Masoud. They are allied to Dostum.
The disinformation campaign being waged is as fierce as the reported combat on the ground, so it's difficult to know for sure what the situation is now. Still, it is likely that the Taliban are advancing. They had been strengthening their forces in anticipation of late spring offensive, and the revolt by Malik has played right into their hands.
Dostum has reportedly sent a team to negotiate with Malik hoping to draw him back into the anti-Taliban coalition, but the fate of traitors, even when they are repentent, is well documented in Afghanistan. The situation means that Dostum's forces are fighting on two fronts, against Malik and against the Taliban. Masoud is reportedly sending reinforcements but their numbers can not be large, since Masoud himself is occupied on his own front.
As fighting moves northward Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbors are bracing for a Taliban push which may bring the Islamic movement closer. Tajikistan's defense, security, and interior ministries held an emergency meeting on May 20 to take measures along the border. Tajikistan armed forces are conducting military exercises near the border with Afghanistan this week.
Refugees are already reported fleeing the cities of Afghanistan's northern provinces and are heading toward the Amu-Darya, the river dividing Afghanistan from the CIS states of Central Asia. For Tajikistan the sudden appearance of the Taliban at the border would be a disaster. Peace talks are scheduled to begin today between the opposing factions who have fought a five-year war in Tajikistan. The two sides have been slow to achieve a genuine peace and their attention is better directed at establishing peace in their own country.
Additionally, less than two weeks ago Burhanuddin Rabbani was in the Tajik capital at the invitation of Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov. Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik, also met with the Iranian president who was visiting Tajikistan and the three met again in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, at the Economic Cooperation Organization conference. A promise was made by the three Persian speakers to hold yet another meeting in Tehran next month. None of this went unnoticed by the largely ethnic Pushtun Taliban, who addressed a note of protest over both the meeting of the Tajik and Iranian presidents with Rabbani and the fact the Taliban were not invited to the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) conference as the rightful representatives of Afghanistan (Rabbani assumed the role of head of Afghanistan at the conference).
In light of these developments any Taliban success is considered a loss in Dushanbe and Tehran. The two states were always wary of the Taliban but may now have crossed the point of no return.
Uzbekistan has long been warning of the dangers the Taliban would represent if the movement approached the border with the CIS and has openly, but quietly, supported Dostum. Again at the ECO conference last week, Uzbek President Islam Karimov called on Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to state publicly that Islamabad would no longer support the Taliban. As Sharif did not supply this statement, Karimov said there would be "outside support" to Dostum in the event it appeared the northern provinces would fall to the Taliban. He may soon have a chance to prove this.
Russia has a consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif and preparations have already been made to evacuate Russian personnel to Termez in Uzbekistan. The consulate is still reporting that the situation in Mazar-i-Sharif is calm. Evacuating personnel is not the main worry for Russia, which has more than 10,000 soldiers in Tajikistan guarding the border with Afghanistan. But for the present Moscow is not saying much about the problems in Afghanistan.
If events continue and the Taliban advance it will be difficult for the neighboring countries to ignore the problems. None of them wish to take an active hand but few of them want the Taliban as neighbors.