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Afghanistan: Less Pakistani Aid To Taliban May Not Weaken Militia

Pakistan's new ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, is showing strong signs of being serious about reducing Islamabad's aid to the Taliban. But analysts say the new policy is unlikely to change the balance of power within Afghanistan.

Prague, 17 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Since taking office in a coup last month, Pakistan's military ruler Pervez Musharraf has given strong hints he will reduce Islamabad's support for the Taliban.

Musharraf has called for a truly representative government in Afghanistan, and the Pakistani army has begun a crackdown on cross-border smuggling, which has long been a main revenue source for the ruling Afghan militia.

Most recently, his government has shown no signs of balking at enforcing the newly imposed UN sanctions against Kabul. The trade sanctions, which went into effect this weekend, are designed to force the Taliban to extradite Osama bin Laden, the man indicted for bombing two U.S. embassies in East Africa last year. Bin Laden, a Saudi national, is in Afghanistan as what the Taliban calls a "guest."

Musharraf has strong incentives for scaling back Islamabad's traditional support for the Taliban. Pakistan is in difficult economic straits, and the general supports moderates who want stronger ties with Western lenders and investors.

But any movement away from the Taliban is likely to face strong resistance from Islamic militant groups in Pakistan. One sign of the forms that resistance could take came on Friday (Nov. 12) when unknown assailants fired six rockets at UN and U.S. facilities in Islamabad. The attacks came two days before UN sanctions went into effect and on the one-month anniversary of the general's popular coup.

Both the Taliban and Pakistan's largest Islamic groups quickly denied responsibility for the attacks. But the United States has not ruled out any suspects, including the Taliban.

Paul Wilkinson is chairman of the Center on Terrorism and Political Violence at Saint Andrew's University in Scotland. He told RFE/RL by phone that he believes Musharraf is serious about cutting back relations with the Taliban despite the risks of violence at home. Wilkinson says one reason is the desire to curb Islamic militancy that could spread from Afghanistan into Pakistan.

"He knows that the development of Pakistan's economy depends on good relations with the major industrial countries ... and I think that he also is aware that the spillover of militant Islamic terrorism into Pakistan's own territory endangers unity and order in his own country."

Several Pakistan-based Islamic groups, including the largest, the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, have training camps inside Afghanistan. And some 5,000 of Pakistani militants fight beside the Taliban to help conquer the 10 percent of Afghanistan still outside Taliban control.

Wilkinson says that Pakistan has traditionally supported the Taliban because Islamabad decided the Taliban would be a friendly and constructive neighbor in a country which has been wracked by decades of civil war. But, the analyst says, in more recent times the Pakistani authorities have seen danger in the increasing presence of Afghan-inspired fighters in Pakistan.

"Pakistan has been suffering an increasing amount of domestic terrorism, and most of this is associated with the extreme Islamist groups and in some cases rivalries between these groups. [The rivalries] have very often been [between groups] bitterly opposed by different interpretations of the Sharia [Islamic law], there is also the long-running conflict between Shi'a and Sunni Muslims in Pakistan, which has in its extreme form taken the route of terrorism."

Wilkinson says that if Musharraf carries through his apparent commitment to scale back relations with the Taliban, the militia could be hard hit economically.

Afghanistan's industrial base is in ruins, and the Taliban depends on trade and smuggling across the Pakistani border for everything from weapons to consumer goods. At the same time, Afghanistan is a leading exporter of opium, and much of it is smuggled out across the same border. Most of the Taliban's other neighbors -- Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan -- regard the Taliban as a threat, while Turkmenistan takes a neutral position.

But the analyst does not believe a reduction of Pakistani aid would significantly affect the current balance of power within Afghanistan in either the short or medium term. The reason is that the Taliban already has stockpiled enormous supplies of weapons with which to wage war on the remnants of the opposition northern alliance.

"The Taliban has now built up quite a lot of resources, a plentiful supply of weapons, [and] money gained through the drug trafficking. So, there is no question, I think, that they will be able to survive and continue to press on with their efforts to gain control of the last ten percent or so of Afghan territory."

He continues: "They are strong compared to any other rival faction in Afghanistan ... And I don't myself think that the cooling of relations between Islamabad and [the Taliban stronghold of] Kandahar would somehow lead to the Taliban losing their dominant position in Afghanistan."

For the same reasons, the analyst says that the international sanctions on the Taliban designed to force the militia to extradite Osama bin Laden may also have little effect. He says that because so much of the Taliban's revenue is earned through smuggling, the Afghan economy is largely immune to the UN measures to shut down air traffic to Kabul and freeze Afghan assets abroad.

Wilkinson says that even as the UN applies sanctions, a strong debate continues in Western policy circles over whether an offer of aid might not be a more effective incentive to extradite bin Laden.

"I think that [the Taliban] are to a large extent immune to the kind of conventional sanctions on trade and investment. It might well be sensible for the outside world to try and build bridges and to try to persuade, to influence the Taliban leadership to become more flexible and pragmatic in their relations with other states."

So far, the Taliban has repeatedly stated it will not turn over bin Laden, despite recent signs the militia would welcome his moving elsewhere. Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Omar said late last month that bin Laden is free to leave Afghanistan if he wishes but no attempt will be made to force him from the country.