ISLAMABAD — The fresh military victories scored by Afghanistan’s Taliban militia in the past few weeks have once again thrown into doubt the prospects for a stable government in the war-torn central Asian country. Despite controlling more than 90 percent of Afghan territory, the Taliban is no closer to gaining much-needed international recognition or conclusively eliminating resistance from its foes, even after a series of resounding military successes.
The recent fighting in Afghanistan marks yet another phase in the 20-year conflict that began when Soviet troops occupied the country in 1979, in support of a newly installed communist government in Kabul. But even after a decade following the departure of the Soviet troops, fighting between rival groups of Mujahedeen (Islamic warriors) continues unabated, with little prospect for a negotiated settlement to lead to lasting peace.
The Taliban are predominantly of Afghanistan’s Pushtun tribal descent, up against the so-called Northern Alliance, which consists of the country’s non-Pushtun tribal minorities. Literally translated, the word Taliban means students, suggesting that the Taliban graduated from any one of the hundreds of Islamic religious schools in neighboring Pakistan, before being sent to war. For such students, a life spent fighting the jihad (holy war), marks the climax of human existence, and therefore a matter of great satisfaction.
Even with modernization gradually beginning to cloud tribal differences in many other industrial societies, Afghans still consider it a matter of pride to associate themselves with their tribes, keeping up traditions that are centuries old.
For the outside world, the periodic fighting continues to intensify concerns for the region surrounding Afghanistan. The “six plus two” conference in Tajikistan, the central Asian country, last month, brought to the surface some of those security concerns from the participating delegates. The conference was joined by the six countries that share borders with Afghanistan (Pakistan, Iran, China, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan) along with the United States and Russia, the two major external powers.
The conference, however, saw Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban militia failing to reach a peace agreement with the Northern Alliance. Diplomats say that the Taliban was also told by U.S. officials attending the talks that their government would not receive international approval unless its image began to improve. The Taliban is widely criticized for their record on human-rights abuses such as the treatment of women, who have mostly been confined to the household.
Other concerns include occasionally tense relations with neighbors such as Iran and the central Asian republics. The U.S. concerns also include the refuge given by the Taliban to Osama Bin Laden, the Saudi Arabian millionaire dissident who has been hiding in Afghanistan for several years. Last year, the U.S. bombed three sites in Afghanistan, suspected to be training camps set up by bin Laden for training Islamic militants to carry out armed attacks. The U.S. bombing campaign followed the bombing of two of the U.S. embassies in East Africa, suspected to be the work of bin Laden’s followers.
Locked in a complicated strategic-political tangle, Afghanistan’s problems have been intensified by its resounding economic troubles. In the world of mine warfare, Afghanistan has a prominent position, being one of the world’s most heavily mined countries. As a result, large parts of the countryside where crops and other agricultural activities once flourished, have been turned into wasteland. Some of the 5 million Afghans who moved to Iran and Pakistan as refugees and subsequently returned home, have found little to do on their almost barren soil. Many Afghan traders who fled in the wake of the Soviet occupation have still not returned home, leaving a vacuum behind for the future of business and trading activities.
Afghanistan’s international isolation and continuing war has led to a sense of fatigue among its Western donors. The United Nations has had little success in its attempt to seek more aid for reconstruction of Afghanistan from Western donors, many of who take the view that large inflows of funds would only be wasted if fighting continues.
The Northern Alliance appears to have sensed the vulnerability of the Taliban on the diplomatic front. Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former Afghan president and member of the alliance, still claims to head the rightful government of Afghanistan. His representative still occupies Afghanistan’s seat at the U.N., an apparent sign of the Taliban’s isolation. Earlier this month, Rabbani in a letter to Rafiq Tarar, the Pakistani president, urged Pakistan to prevent Pakistani religious activists from entering Afghanistan to assist the Taliban.
Western diplomats say that Rabbani’s letter was partially meant to embarass Pakistan, which denies that any of its citizens are fighting on Afghan soil. However, Rabbani’s letter suggested the wider problem of countries surrounding Afghanistan, that are interfering to make certain that one side or the other wins the military conflict. Rabbani’s message was preceded by claims from Taliban officials that Iran had armed and trained troops fighting for the Northern Alliance.
The next two to three months are likely to see intense fighting in Afghanistan before the winter snows set in and prevent military activity along the mountainous passes. But even a Taliban victory over its rivals would leave one point certain; another round of warfare is likely to begin next spring when the snow begins to melt away, especially if Afghanistan lingers on in the absence of a credible peace agreement that binds all of its rival groups.
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