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Afghanistan: Winners And Losers In "The Great Game" -- Analysis

Prague, 27 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - For nearly twenty years, peace has never been so close in so many regions of Afghanistan as right now. By defeating the Warlord General Dostum in northern Afghanistan, the Taliban movement forces now control as much as 90 percent of the country, maybe more.

It's a hard peace, one few would dream of, but it does represent an end to hostilities between large armed forces. Of course, Ahmed Shah Masoud and his forces are still holding out, there are other isolated pockets of resistance and Dostum is already vowing to return - but the anti-Taliban forces seem cut off from supply lines and are pressed by Taliban forces from almost every direction now. General Dostum may yet return, but for now he is in Turkey and little likely to influence events from there. So, the Taliban with its unique interpretation of Islamic law is, at the moment, are masters of Afghanistan.

Justice has been quick and severe in Taliban-controlled territories, but the leadership has promised to ease their rule when the country is at last unified. To some extent, this will have to be true for Afghanistan to function in the world community.

Whose partnership or friendship the new government will seek poses the most interesting question. Some states may be big winners in peace-time Afghanistan - and others are bound to see their influence in the region diminish.

The Taliban have been espousing a strict and often merciless form of Shariat or Islamic law. The amputation of limbs as punishment for crimes is nothing new in the history of Islamic societies, nor is the head-to-toe garb women are forced to wear. Other precepts, such as the prohibition on flying kites and against using paper bags, seem to emanate from the religious leadership of the Taliban more than from Koranic verse. But the neighboring states, particularly the Central Asian states of the CIS have worried that the Taliban influence, if not the Taliban themselves, will cross the borders into the CIS. While accepting this as a legitimate fear, it cannot be overlooked that the opposite is equally true. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan and Iran are Afghanistan's neighbors, and, in each, the idea of proper behavior as a Muslim is different.

Pakistan has long been suspected of supporting the Taliban from the first, and Islamabad's recognition of the Taliban as the legal government of the country tends to confirm these suspicions. Connections have been made also with the U.S. , Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan. Saudi Arabia recognized the Taliban government the day after Pakistan did. These countries are rumored to funnel support through Pakistan to the Taliban, except Turkmenistan, which has bordered Taliban-controlled territory for about two years . The pipe-line deal for shipping Turkmen oil to Pakistan via Afghanistan involves the U.S. company Unocal and the Saudi company Delta, and represents thousands of millions of dollars.

That these countries needed stability in Afghanistan to realize this project also lends credibility to rumors of American and Saudi aid. It can be expected that Turkmenistan and somewhat later, the U.S., will recognize the Taliban government, which may also confirm their role in Taliban successes during the last two and a half years.

What this would mean is a drastic re-orientation of the region economically and also politically. The installation of pipelines through stable Afghanistan to countries with warm-water ports changes the influence several countries will have, or be able to keep. The Central Asian countries with fossil fuels or natural gas, such as Turkmenistan, Kazakstan and Uzbekistan, would have a route for exporting, which totally bypasses Russia, and possibly deals Iran out as well. No longer dependent on Moscow for export routes, the CIS Central Asian states could become more independent from Russia. If the Taliban do not attempt to cross the Amu Darya, which divides Afghanistan from its northern neighbors, and refrains from trying to spread its brand of Islam northward also, the security threat dies in the CIS Central Asian states.

The Tajik peace talks are yielding results and stability may be coming to that country in the near future. Russia would have little reason to keep border guards in a reconciled Tajikistan with a stable neighbor to the south. The border treaty signed with China in April supposedly guarantees peace from that quarter, and Russia and Iran are on friendly terms after many years of distrust. What reason would Russia have for maintaining a military presence in the region?

Certainly the Taliban themselves will not have reason to desire any Russian presence in the region. Many in the Taliban leadership remember well the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and, more recently, the threats which came from Moscow as the Taliban proceeded further north.

Iran's diplomatic posturing should prove one of the interesting aspects of the process which is just beginning. The Taliban's imposition of their unique form of Shariat has given them an extremely tarnished image. For at least the short term, this is likely to continue as resistance is finally crushed. There won't be any easing of policies until the Taliban leadership can see the situation in the country is under control. This should feature prominently in headlines during the coming months.

In contrast, Iran's presidential election last Friday provided a surprise with Mohammad Khatami winning a landslide vote against the parliamentary speaker Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri. The former Culture Minister has been described as a "relaxative liberal," and even jokingly, "Ayatollah Gorbachev," but it is conceded that his success at the polls was due in great part to the youth vote. More than half of Iran's population is under 30 years of age, and, so, the memory of revolutionary fervor which ousted the Shah in 1979 is vague or garnered from history books. Iran may seize this moment, when a neighboring Islamic state appears far more disagreeable to the international community, to make overtures to previously hostile countries.

The country stands to lose much financially if the Afghan-to-Pakistan export routes open soon. And with money and technical knowledge coming from countries like America, Saudi Arabia and possibly Japan - which would have every reason to want oil shipped from the Indian Ocean - the pipeline projects toward the southeast would likely be completed long before projects oriented westward run through Iran and Turkey.