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Afghanistan: Pakistan's Gamble On Taliban Looking More Risky

Prague, 4 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- There has been little doubt for a long time that Pakistan has been supporting the Taliban movement, which controls the majority of Afghan territory including the capital Kabul.

The movement draws its fighters from Islamic religious schools centred on Pakistani-based Afghan refugee camps. Most of these Afghan refugees have been in Pakistan since the days of the Soviet occupation of their homeland.

Pakistan was suspected of involvement with the fundamentalist Taliban from the first days of the movement's arrival on the Afghan scene in 1994, and the subsequent repeated entrance of Taliban fighters into Afghanistan from Pakistan has made Islamabad's "covert" support one of the worst kept secrets in contemporary politics.

But late last month, just when it seemed the Taliban would finally capture the last remaining areas of Afghanistan held by their opponents, Pakistan made what in hindsight was perhaps a diplomatic blunder. It recognized the Taliban as the official government of Afghanistan. But then anti-Taliban forces unexpectedly counter-attacked and pushed the Taliban fighters back to their positions prior to late May.

The Taliban have suffered severe losses in the fighting, and the front is still moving southward towards Kabul. Amid the renewed chaos there is mounting evidence that Islamabad -- flinging aside its concerns about accusations -- is taking a much more visible role in supporting the Taliban.

The Taliban's military move into the northern provinces held by warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum coincided with the apparent defection from Dostum's ranks of one of his leading commanders. The commander mutinied and within a period of several days Dostum fled to Turkey. The mutineer, Abdul Malik of Faryab Province, spoke words of friendship and solidarity for the Taliban, describing himself as one with the members of that religious movement.

But as the Taliban brought their forces into the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Dostum's former stronghold, it became obvious within hours Malik was not one with the Taliban. Fighting broke out between Malik's troops and the Taliban, in which the Taliban were repulsed from the city and then cut off from returning to Kabul by General Ahmed Shah Masoud's forces to the south.

Caught between the forces of Malik and Masoud the Taliban forces which had entered Mazar-i-Sharif triumphantly only days before appear to have been nearly annihilated. It didn't escape notice that Mazar-i-Sharif was the first city the Taliban have been pushed out of since they began their campaign in 1994.

Masoud's forces also attacked southward, retaking what is left Baghram and its airfield 60 kilometers north of Kabul. The city has changed hands several times in the last seven months.

In order to bolster Taliban forces and so retain Kabul, an extreme measure was taken by the Taliban leadership. They decided to let "school out" in Pakistan. The Taliban are religious students who are well armed and trained, but many still carry on studies at their religious schools in Pakistan. According to some estimates there are 600 "Islamic students" crossing into Afghanistan every day. Some are reportedly air lifted to Kabul and travel from there to the front lines. Most reports indicate that is a shorter trip to the front every day. The Afghan Ambassador to India said if troops are flown from Quetta, Peshawar, and Malakand to Afghanistan it cannot be Afghan planes that are carrying these fighters. Of course, this ambassador represents the government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was ousted by the Taliban, and so is not the most impartial source of information.

In the course of this most recent fighting the anti-Taliban coalition has captured hundreds if not thousands of men from the Taliban army. The Afghan ambassador to Kazakhstan, again a Rabbani man, has invited the international media to see for themselves Pakistani soldiers captured in recent fighting.

This report came from the Tehran Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which also supports Rabbani and is therefore suspect too. The Taliban countered in their radio broadcasts from Kabul, saying that Iranian military experts are with Masoud. That was the reason hinted at for the Taliban closing the Iranian embassy in Kabul this week.

Pakistan's support for the Taliban is often mentioned by some press as being a potential double-edged sword. Helping to create a fanatical army to conquer the neighboring state sounds like a major risk. Might not such an army one day turn on its former patrons?

For both Pakistan and the Taliban, the latest battlefield setbacks are a threat. While it is doubtful that the Taliban, well armed and, seemingly, well funded can be defeated any time soon, the fact is that they have lost major engagements for the first time. Their previous victories were relatively without blood, and the further they were able to extend their territory, the more they were able to take on an aura of invincibility. It was this image, rather than their combat ability, which won them battles.

Central Asian history shows that the states which survived the longest were run by strong men with exactly this aura. Mahmud of Ghazna, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, and many other examples are abundant in the history of the area. They ruled because not only because they crushed their opposition, but because people believed it was futile to resist such leaders.

The Taliban are operating using this same tactic. If their rule has been oppressive it has also been effective. Few reports of local insurrections in areas under Taliban control have been heard. The religious police enforce tight order. While it must be admitted that crimes such as robbery, rape and such have nearly disappeared in Taliban-controlled regions, their rigid system of Islamic law can not be appealing to a significant segment of those under their rule.

So long as the Taliban win militarily they ensure their position as leaders of Afghanistan. If they are defeated on the battlefield several times the questionable loyalty of some of the population could be worse than the tanks and guns of the Taliban's opponents.

And where would such troops flee to if not to Pakistan? That's the danger to Pakistan, a country which has enough religious conflict already without the homecoming of large numbers of such longtime fundamentalist guests.

If the first country to recognize the government of the Taliban doesn't want to play host any more to an army of angry young men, to what lengths will it go to ensure they stay in their own state?