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Afghanistan: Taliban Takes Mazar-i-Sharif; Russia's Role Questioned

Prague, 11 August 1998 (RFE/RL) - The Taliban movement, widely described as the Afghan fundamentalists, last week captured Mazar-i-Sharif, the only major city not under their control. This means that there could be little, if any, open opposition to the Taliban retaining the region. More importantly, there has been no noticeable reaction from neighboring countries, with only Iran showing signs of disapproval.

Ever since the capture of Kabul in September 1996, Taliban has been fighting against a coalition of desperate Afghan groups which, prior to the prior to the arrival of the Taliban, were fighting among themselves. The ethnic Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum commanded one faction from his capital in Mazar-i-Sharif; Ahmed Shah Masoud, an ethnic Tajik, has had forces in the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul; and there were also the Hezb-i-Wahdat and Hazara Shiites.

The governments of the neighboring Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia and Iran supported one or more of those groups during the last two years. However, personal rivalries and ethnic differences made any attempt to mount a unified effort to defeat the Taliban nearly impossible. This fact alone probably accounts for the lack of either action or even strong criticism by any of the neighboring CIS countries.

Last month the New York Times reported that Russia was "secretly engaged in the new Afghan war." While stopping short of any suggestions that the Russian government was actively involved, the paper implied that private groups inside Russia might have been funding various factions fighting the Taliban. The Russian government denied the implication, but the report focused international attention on Russia's possible role in Afghanistan.

During the first weekend of August the Taliban launched an attack on Sheberghan, the location of General Dostum's headquarters. The attack was successful and Dostum was forced to destroy his last military aircraft and the air field in Sheberghan. This left the Taliban airforce in total control of the skies over in northern Afghanistan.

Last week Anatoly Kvashnin, head of the Russian General Staff, and Boris Pastukhov, a deputy Foreign Minister, went to the Uzbek capital Tashkent for talks with Uzbek Defense Minister Hikmatulla Tursunov and Foreign Affairs Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov. The talks produced a statement calling on the Taliban to stop all military activity and offering mediation between the Taliban and the alliance fighting them.

The offer was rejected. The Taliban's Radio Voice of Shari'a condemned the Russian-Uzbek statement, saying it "contravenes all accepted international norms and it follows from this statement that their purpose is to defend the remaining communists..."

On the same day the UN Security Council held an emergency session to discuss the Afghan situation. While condemning the fighting, the council called on all states to refrain form interfering into Afghan affairs, stop sending military equipment and ending arms supplies to the warring sides.

The next day the Taliban launched a dawn offensive on Mazar-i-Sharif and as of Monday August 10, the city is reported to be completely under Taliban control.

Iran, which has had fourteen of its diplomats in Mazar-i-Sharif taken captive by the Taliban, is complaining bitterly about the development. Russia has only made statements warning about the consequences for the Taliban of crossing the CIS border. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which both share a border with Afghanistan, have been relatively silent.

The Taliban have said repeatedly they have no intention to take their fight beyond Afghan borders.