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Afghanistan: Taliban Tries To Consolidate Hold On Rebel Stronghold

Prague, 28 May 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Fighting in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif is raising doubts about the ability of the Taliban to impose its will on the former opposition stronghold it so easily seized over the weekend.

Latest reports from Mazar-i-Sharif -- once the headquarters of Afghanistan's ethnic Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum -- say that after heavy fighting today the Islamic Taliban militia has been driven out of many parts of the city. The reports come just four days after Taliban forces entered the city bloodlessly when Dostum's foreign affairs director, General Abdul Malik, led a mutiny and allied with the Taliban.

Correspondents say the fighting in the city may have been sparked by the Taliban's efforts to disarm former Dostum's forces, which previously fought against the militiamen in Afghanistan's ever-changing pattern of battlefield alliances. There are no reports that the fighting indicates a resurgence of support for Dostum, who has fled to Ankara but has vowed to continue his struggle against the Taliban.

Instead, the fighting may be due to apparent cultural differences between the residents of Mazar-i-Sharif and the Taliban, who are said now to control more than 90 percent of the country.

Even before fighting broke out yesterday, it was clear there were tensions between the ethnic Pashtun, mostly southern Taliban and the mostly Tajik and Uzbek residents of Mazar-i-Sharif. Most of the city's 200,000 residents are more closely related to the peoples of Uzbekistan and Taijkistan across Afghanistan's northern border than they are to the Pashtun, who are ethnically linked to Pakistanis.

Aggravating the tension are differences in Islamic traditions between the two sides. The Taliban have indicated they will impose strict fundamentalist rules upon Mazar-i-Sharif, a city where many men are prone to drinking alcohol or betting on sporting contests, and where women study in coeducational schools and work freely. The Taliban has said coeducation is to end, and their newly found ally General Malik has said female students will not be able to attend schools until separate ones are built.

The Taliban's apparent setback in consolidating its control over northern Afghanistan comes as the three-year-old movement appears close to militarily winning Afghanistan's civil war. With Dostum's ouster, only two major forces remain of a once-powerful, anti-Taliban northern alliance. One is a Shiite faction which fears persecution by the Sunni Taliban and holds the strategic Shebar pass in the Hindu Kush mountains. The other is the force of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the former defense minister of the ousted government of president Burhanuddin Rabbani, whose troops occupy the northern Panjshir valley.

The ease with which the Taliban co-opted one of Dostum's generals and removed Dostum's army from the northern alliance has already spurred several countries to recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan's official government. Pakistan, which has backed the Taliban since its emergence in Pakistani-based Koranic schools, extended formal diplomatic recognition this weekend and was followed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Pakistan's prompt recognition of the Taliban carries considerable political significance. It appears to reflect Islamabad's assumption that the Taliban will win the Afghan power struggle and unite the country. It also implies Pakistan's hope that the friendly Taliban government will facilitate a direct link between the ports of southern Pakistan and Central Asia's oil and natural gas reserves. Correspondents say the Taliban's control of Afghanistan has so far been limited to cities and roads, but is enough to make realistic prospects of building transit pipelines to Pakistan, creating viable alternative to those through Russia or Iran.

Moscow yesterday reiterated its concern over a Taliban victory, saying it is still "premature" to consider recognizing the Taliban regime. Tehran today reacted to the Taliban's recent successes by again calling for an end to fighting as it has ever since the Taliban defeated a pro-Iranian milita earlier in the civil war.

But it is in the newly-independent Central Asian republics where nervousness over a Taliban victory may run the highest. Central Asian governments, still headed by former Soviet establishment, fear that a victory by the fundamentalist Islamic Taliban next door could incite fundamentalist groups elsewhere. This could herald the onset of politically destabilizing trends and, at the very least, might cause a disruptive influx of refugees.

Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan this weekend tightened controls along their borders with Afghanistan, while Kyrgyzstan has begun erecting shelters to accomodate any spillover of refugees.