ISLAMABAD — More than 20 years after Soviet troops marched into Afghanistan in support of the last communist coup, the central Asian country’s turmoil is unending. Descriptions such as “extreme impoverishment,” “a lost generation” and “the ultimate pariah state” are just some of the ways that Afghanistan gets referred to in diplomatic conversations, mainly the consequence of years of rule by the Taliban regime.

For much of the Western world, the Taliban are known to be the world’s most fanatic Islamic regime, winning fame by forcing women to leave work and stay at home, closing down girls’ schools, forcing men to sport beards and banning such means of entertainment as flying kites or playing chess.

Pakistan, next door, has lived with most of the fallout from the Afghan war. More than 3 million Afghans came to Pakistan as refugees after the war began. Many returned to Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal, but a large number chose to stay in Pakistan. While estimates vary on the size of the Afghan population in Pakistan, independent analysts say there could be perhaps as many as 2.5 million Afghans still in Pakistan.

The character of Pakistani cities that are close to the Afghan border has undergone a major change due to the influence of Afghan tradition and culture on daily life. Perhaps the most devastating consequence for Pakistan has been the proliferation of a large number of drug addicts on its own soil, Additionally, the fighting in Afghanistan has fueled Pakistan’s domestic market for illegal firearms. Many of the soldiers who acquired arms supplied from the West during the war against the Soviet Union eventually chose to sell them in Pakistan.

While the world laments that more than a decade after Moscow’s decision to withdraw its troops, there’s little prospect for peace in Afghanistan, Pakistan lives with the consequences of that reality.

The Taliban have conquered almost 90 percent of Afghan territory, but they have virtually no international recognition. Even Afghanistan’s seat at the United Nations is occupied by a representative from the former government, whose leaders are also the supporters of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance — a coalition that is opposed to the Taliban.

Faced with a difficult set of realities across the border, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s military ruler, has announced his intention to travel to Afghanistan soon to meet with Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban regime.

Musharraf’s proposed visit to Afghanistan comes at a crucial juncture in Pakistan’s history. In recent months, Pakistan has been under pressure from the United States, which has urged Musharraf to use his country’s influence to get the Taliban to cooperate in the global fight against terrorism.

The Americans are especially keen to seek the extradition of Osama bin Laden, the Saudi militant who lives in exile in Afghanistan. He is sought by the U.S. in connection with allegations that he ordered the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa two years ago. The Taliban have refused to hand over bin Laden to the U.S., arguing that he is a “guest” in their country.

Some officials in Islamabad believe that the impending decision by U.S. President Bill Clinton on whether or not he will visit Pakistan during his forthcoming visit to South Asia in March may take a number of factors into account, including Islamabad’s resolve in fighting terrorism. While Musharraf may not succeed in extracting any immediate promises from Omar regarding bin Laden, Pakistan may benefit from gestures such as a commitment by the Taliban to close down training camps on their soil.

But even with progress in the short-term, Pakistan faces the long-term prospect of instability in Afghanistan, the effects of which would continue to harm Islamabad in years to come. The continued fighting — the next round is expected this summer — and the economic distress are a lethal combination that ensure that Afghanistan will remain unstable in years to come.

Additionally, new global concerns over Afghanistan’s role as a hub for narcotics trafficking are likely to hurt Pakistan. While Pakistan has successfully clamped down upon heroin production laboratories on its own soil, it continues to be a transit point for heroin leaving Afghanistan bound for other parts of Asia and the Western world.

The annual drug report by the U.N.’s International Narcotics Control Board for 1999, released last week, claims that Afghanistan’s opium production of 4,600 tons last year, was almost double the production from a year before. The down-side for Pakistan is that being a transit point for heroin flow has produced a striking rise in the numbers of domestic drug addicts.

It’s no surprise then that Afghanistan, a country of 25 million people, is likely to remain mired in controversy, creating fears for countries across the globe. Phrases like “a lost generation,” “lost hope” and “lost nation” do not even begin to describe the conditions there.

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