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Afghanistan: Economic Woes Lead To Growing Islamic Fundamentalism

Governments of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia have expressed concern about growing Islamic fundamentalism in the region. RFE/RL's Tajik Service talked to leading expert Ahmed Rashid about the effects on Central Asia of the rise to power of Afghanistan's Taliban rulers.

Prague, 17 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Taliban's apparent ability to quickly generate or coerce popular support for its extremely orthodox version of Islamic law is a major source of alarm for Afghanistan's neighbors. All those neighbors are Islamic countries, but most are moderate compared with Afghanistan. And all these neighbors have domestic political oppositions that, they fear, could turn in desperation to the Taliban for support.

The mainly ethnic-Pashtun religious student movement burst onto the scene five years ago when it came into Afghanistan from Pakistan. Now the Taliban controls at least 80 percent of the country, and the harsh form of Islamic law, or Shari'a, it brought has been widely criticized by Western governments as violating human rights, particularly the rights of women.

Ahmed Rashid is a well-known authority on events in Central Asia and the author of many books and articles. RFE/RL's Tajik Service recently spoke with Rashid about the impact of Afghanistan's Taliban movement on the CIS republics of Central Asia.

Rashid said it is not the Taliban, but rather the poor performance of the Central Asian economies, that is the main threat to security.

"The real answer to this is the economic crisis in Central Asia. The point is that none of these economies are doing well. All these regimes, Uzbekistan, even Kazakhstan with its oil and gas, all these regimes are doing very poorly economically. There is an enormous amount of unemployment and joblessness and precisely with their high level of education, when you put it together with joblessness you do create dissent."

Rashid said the governments of these states, too, are responsible for creating their own enemies.

"There is no political avenue for political expression in these states. Political opposition has been crushed. There is no avenue for political parties or political expression, which means that everything tends to go underground. And when the political opposition goes underground, it becomes radicalized. And that is what happened especially in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The opposition has gone underground and come under the influence of this network of mosques and madresehs (religious schools) and has become Islamicized."

Turning to the issue of Afghanistan's Taliban movement, Rashid says it not exactly the Taliban itself, but rather the chaotic situation in Afghanistan in general, which aids radical groups in Central Asia. Rashid points out, however, that the Taliban is to a large degree responsible for the situation in Afghanistan.

"I think the issue of the Taliban is not so much the actual influence of the Taliban in such movements as the Islamic Movement in Uzbekistan. It is more the fact that the Taliban and the situation in Afghanistan allows these groups to be given sanctuary. These groups can come into Afghanistan, nobody bothers them, they can train, they can collect weapons, they can deal in drugs, they can raise money from drugs. It is basically a territory which is under nobody's control."

Many analysts have said there can be no true peace in the region until there is peace in Afghanistan. For the last few years, the Taliban and the Northern Alliance that is opposing it have been fighting for total conquest. Although the Taliban made great progress for the first three years, over the last two years its forces have been advancing and retreating along a line 40 to 60 kilometers north of Kabul. Rashid says the Taliban may advance no further and may even be thrown back.

"The Taliban are clearly wanting to conquer the rest of the country and to defeat the rest of the opposition. But we have seen in 1999 that they failed very badly. Actually, they have made no progress at all over the last 12 months. And now the opposition forces are being well armed, resupplied, and I think it will be very hard for the Taliban to defeat them."

Attempts at talks between the two sides have failed miserably. Rashid explains that some of the stumbling blocks are ethnic rivalry and the Taliban's perceived failure to include the opposition in a peacetime government.

"The Taliban refuse to talk to the opposition until the opposition accepts the leadership of the Taliban, which is unacceptable to the opposition. The other factor is that the Taliban do not really have any political mechanism by which they can bring in the non-Pashtuns -- Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras, Turkmen. The opposition, these groups, cannot accept Taliban leadership and the Taliban are not prepared to show some flexibility in bringing them into the Taliban power structures. "

Both in his conversation with RFE/RL and his recent article in "Foreign Affairs," Rashid said the Taliban does not show any sign of moderating its stiff rule. The movement has proved very poor at running the country, and problems are breeding in areas under Taliban control. Afghanistan produces three times more opium than the rest of the world put together, according to Rashid, and almost all of it is cultivated in Taliban-controlled areas. As a result, he says, the number of drug addicts in Iran, Pakistan and western China are now counted in the millions.

The Taliban has also been criticized for hosting Osama bin Laden, who stands accused of international terrorism. And bin Laden is not the only reputed terrorist in Afghanistan.

Most of Afghanistan's neighbors are aiding one faction or another in the war. Until they concentrate seriously on bringing the conflict to an end, Rashid says, war will continue. And that means Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan will have to reckon with the Taliban across their borders.

(Abbas Djavadi and Farangiz Najibullah of the Tajik Service contributed to this report.)