Afghan tribes take on the Rambo myth

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WHEN THE Hollywood moguls dedicated Rambo III - in which Sylvester Stallone single- handedly liberates most of Af-ghanistan from the Soviet Union - to the country's "brave people", they felt they were celebrating men who had fought a just war against an evil enemy. Such certainty would be unlikely now.

Ten years ago today, the last Soviet tanks clattered out of Afghanistan and the West celebrated Communism's greatest defeat. Within a few years the Soviet regime would collapse and the Cold War would be officially over.

Yet Afghanistan is still racked with bitter conflict. Although its 20 million people survived nearly two decades on the front line of the Cold War, they are now blighted with every conceivable stress and strain that tears at the fabric of the modern world. Ethnicity, oil, religious sectarianism, Islamic extremism, terrorism, drugs or simply territory - you name it, in Afghanistan somebody is fighting over it.

Unhappily, most of the fighters are sponsored by countries who are pursuing their own interests on Afghan soil. At least six countries are known to be supplying munitions or money to the factions who fill the mountain valleys and the desert plains with the sound of fire from rockets and Kalashnikovs. At least a dozen other countries are indirectly involved.

The unholy broth of Afghan politics has three main ingredients: ethnic strife, religious animosity and crude economics.

The Taliban, the hardline Islamic militia that now control 80 per cent of the country, largely represent the majority Pashtun tribes. They are Sunni Muslims and receive support from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, both Sunni countries. The opposition forces represent Afghan-istan's ethnic minorities -Tajiks, Uzbeks and the Mongol-descended Hazaras - who receive support from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. They are largely Shia Muslims and are aided by Iran - a predominantly Shia country.

All the central Asian republics, and Moscow, are worried that the Taliban harbour expansionist ambitions. But money may be the real key to the continuing conflict. For several years a number of multinational conglomerates have wanted to build a pipeline from the oilfields around the Caspian Sea through Afghanistan to Pakistan and the Arabian Sea. The financial benefits to the states involved are potentially huge. One of the main reasons the Pakistanis have supported the Taliban has been the belief that the militia are the only people capable of maintaining security along the pipeline route.

In this morass, the Americans have been stumbling in a way Rambo did not. Initially seeing the Taliban as a way of countering Iran's interests they have now turned against them. Not only have the Taliban failed to halt the massive production of opium and heroin but they have been sheltering a substantial number of active terrorists. The 75 cruise missiles that were fired into the east of the country last year achieved nothing and American interests in the region look stymied.

There are probably fewer than 50,000 armed men in Afghanistan. However, because of them, and their puppetmasters, the whole country is condemned to poverty, anarchy and a grim cycle of destruction.