The Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist movement that controls 80 to 90 percent of Afghanistan, has launched a long-anticipated summer offensive to recapture the rest of the country. The fighting has been fierce, involving more than 100,000 men on five fronts. Civilian casualties have been high, since neither the government nor the opposition seems to care who they target. That indifference typifies the civil war that Afghanistan has lived through for the last 20 years.
In theory, that last parcel of territory is all that stands between the Taliban and international recognition. Although it controls most of the country, the fundamentalist government is recognized only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The opposition Northern Alliance, led by Mr. Ahmad Shah Masood (a former Taliban general) and ousted President Burhanuddin Rabbani, are recognized by the United Nations and all other governments.
In fact, when it comes to international recognition, territorial control is not the issue: Taliban policy is. There are two sticking points. The first is the government’s oppressive human-rights policies, especially its attitude toward women. They have been forced indoors, obliged to don traditional Muslim shawls, the chador, and denied opportunities to work and be educated. Female foreign aid workers are subject to many of those restrictions, too.
Women have borne the brunt of the Islamic offensive against “Western contamination,” but men have not been spared. Schools, hospitals and government offices have been closed. All light entertainment has been banned. The government deals harshly with all lawbreakers; amputations and summary executions have been condemned by international human — rights-groups. While Islam-based law is one thing, outright repression is another.
The second worry is the Taliban’s support for other fundamentalist groups. The government seems ready and willing to export its brand of Islam. That has neighboring countries up in arms — literally, since they are supporting the opposition — as well as governments in Moscow and Beijing, who fear the spread of the Islamic contagion in their own distant regions.
Of special concern is the sanctuary that has been given to Mr. Osamu bin Laden, the terrorist leader who allegedly orchestrated attacks against U.S. embassies in Africa last summer that killed 224 people. In retaliation, the U.S. launched cruise missile attacks on suspected bin Laden terrorist camps in Afghanistan and other facilities in Africa. The U.S. has stepped up its campaign against Mr. bin Laden: In addition to a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture, it has imposed economic sanctions against Afghanistan for providing him shelter.
The Taliban continues to stand by Mr. bin Laden. Yet, amid fears that the U.S. is preparing another series of airstrikes, Mr. bin Laden last week announced that he was leaving Afghanistan to spare it further attacks. The Taliban says it will work with other governments to find Mr. bin Laden a home, but they cannot be too sad to see him go, as the spotlight will now shift away from his base in Jalal-Abad.
Unfortunately for the government, the opposition movement is not going to be so easily dealt with. The Northern Alliance is well armed and dug in. The timing of the latest offensive may have been a surprise, but the fact that it was coming was not. Arms have been pouring into Afghanistan since U.N.-brokered peace talks broke down late last month. Although the Taliban can muster 100,000 men, the Northern Alliance can muster about one-third that amount, and they have been quick to go on the offensive themselves, launching artillery barrages against Kabul, the capital. History offers the Taliban little hope: No guerrilla movement has ever controlled the entire country. When Soviet forces entered the Panjsher, the opposition’s remaining stronghold, during their occupation of the country in the late 1970s, they were massacred.
The best solution to the Afghan situation is a brokered deal that would bring the Taliban and the opposition together in a coalition government. Given Afghanistan’s deep religious and ethnic divisions, there is little faith that the Taliban — mostly Pashtun and Sunni Muslims — would be impartial. Their record thus far certainly does not inspire much faith. That, and the country’s inhospitable terrain, are the two reasons why a negotiated settlement is probably Afghanistan’s only hope. The country’s war-weary residents would accept the U.N. proposals, but no one seems to ask their opinion. That in itself is a troubling sign for the future.
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