Afghanistan's neighbours unite against Taliban

Central Asia
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The Independent Online

Senior diplomats from Russia, India, Iran and other countries hostile to the Taliban in Afghanistan held an emergency meeting in Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan.

They planned to discuss the role of the anti-Taliban alliance of Afghanistan's neighbours as the United States prepared to retaliate for the attacks in New York and Washington.

In the past the anti-Taliban group has supported the Northern Alliance, the sole remaining opposition to the Taliban in Afghanistan. But Ahmed Shah Masood, the Northern Alliance's charismatic leader, was killed or badly wounded by a bomb last Sunday, just as his retreating forces might have been revived by foreign aid. The Taliban is not short of enemies, but Masood, who built his military prestige during the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, was its only opponent with an army in the field.

"I think the alliance will almost certainly disintegrate," said Robert Templer of the International Crisis Group's Asia programme. "Masood really did fight battles and didn't just bribe his opponents to go away. It won't be much of a military force without him."

Outside Afghanistan, notably in Russia and Iran, Masood was the only opposition leader with any credibility. The new military commander of the Northern Alliance, which consists mainly of ethnic Tajiks, is General Mohammed Fahimkhan, who does not have the prestige of Masood. Mr Templer said the Northern Alliance does not have wide popular support.

At first glance the Taliban faces a formidable array of enemies who are willing to help the US pursue those responsible for the attacks. But the meeting in Dushanbe brought together a disparate group of powersthat have little in common apart from dislike of the Taliban.

Russia still has a division of troops in Tajikistan, which shares a long common border with Afghanistan. President Vladimir Putin has long spoken of joining the US in tracking down "international terrorism", which he blames for the war in Chechnya. The Kremlin has also offered help to central Asian states such as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan which are fighting guerrillas.

The Iranians regard the Sunni Muslim Taliban with extreme antipathy because of its oppression of the Shia minority, known as the Hazara, and the murder of Iranian diplomats.

Uzbekistan fears guerrillas from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has raided its territory. Tajikistan is the main conduit for heroin from Afghanistan and also fears the export of Islamic revolution. India does not want Islamic rebels trained in Afghanistan to cross into Indian Kashmir.

The position of some states in the region is ambivalent. China has good relations with Pakistan and recently signed an economic agreement with the Taliban. But it also fears the spread of Islamic revolutionary ideas to Xinjiang, its largely Muslim province.

Russia has been leading the charge in opposing "Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism". Immediately after the attacks in the US, Mr Putin said: "What happened today underlines one more time the importance of the Russian proposal to unite international forces in the fight against terrorism. That is the plague of the 21st century. Russia directly knows what terrorism is and for that reason we understand the feelings of the American people."

American calls for international solidarity against "terrorism" fit in well with Russian policy on "terrorism" in Chechnya. But central Asian states worry about becoming too dependent on Russian military support to combat what at this stage are minor guerrilla incursions.

Mr Templer says that despite declarations of solidarity, the states that ostensibly stand shoulder to shoulder against terrorism and fundamentalism regard each other with deep suspicion. A decision to set up a joint research institute into terrorism in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, foundered because nobody would pay for it.

The key to any move against Osama bin Laden, other radical Islamic groups in Afghanistan or the Taliban is likely to be Pakistan. The Taliban is, after all, largely the creation of the Pakistani intelligence service. Only the Pakistanis have the knowledge and the manpower to eradicate radical groups in Afghanistan, unless the US intends to use ground troops.

The US does not need Russian material support. But the daily Vremya Novostei said that in talks in the past few days between the Kremlin and the White House it looked as if there was a political agreement reached similar to that in 1991 before the military operation against Saddam Hussein. "The Americans do not need our assistance, but a guarantee not to interfere," it stated.

Moscow will find it easy enough to act in concert with the US over Afghanistan. But it would be much more worried if US actions were directed against any of seven states – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Cuba, North Korea and Sudan – with whom it has had close relations.

In one respect the situation resembles that after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Even more than then, nobody wants to make an enemy of Washington.

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