Leading Article: Containing the fires of Afghanistan

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The Independent Online
THE RENEWED outbreak of fighting in Afghanistan may not seem to matter very much to anyone but the unfortunate inhabitants. The superpowers have largely lost interest in a country that was once of crucial interest to Britain as a barrier to Russian expansion towards the Indian Ocean and later became one of the most important areas of confrontation in the Cold War.

At that time, and particularly when Russia took over the country in 1979, world peace seemed almost to depend on the struggle for Afghanistan. Now the unhappy country has become the scene of tribal battles too complex for anyone but experts to understand.

Yet outside powers are still deeply engaged, and the outcome of the fighting will be important for the political and religious complexion of Central Asia, Russia's unstable frontier with the Islamic world. It is even possible that Afghanistan will cease to exist, torn apart by the tribal and religious attractions of its neighbours, thereby ending roughly 250 years of turbulent history.

The main internal division is, as it was long before the Russian invasion, between the Tajiks and the Pashtuns. After the overthrow of the Communist regime in 1992, the Tajiks largely held Kabul while Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, now prime minister, was driven out to the provinces, where he tried in vain to unite the Pashtuns. Now there are about six factions fighting in Kabul and at least 10 in the country as a whole. Mr Hekmatyar has (probably temporarily) joined forces with Rashid Dostum, a former Communist general, to overthrow President Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Saudi Arabia has generally supported the Pashtuns because the Tajiks speak Persian and are therefore regarded as susceptible to Iran, which has given tactical support to General Dostum. Iran does not want to antagonise Uzbekistan, which has also supported General Dostum because he is an Uzbek as well as a former Communist. Pakistan generally backs the Pashtuns but dropped Mr Hekmatyar in 1992, although the Pakistani military continued to help him. In February 1993, Mr Rabbani and Mr Hekmatyar agreed on a ceasefire in Islamabad under the auspices of Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, but General Dostum was not included. This fragile peace has broken down.

Outside powers cannot solve a dispute of this complexity but they can do their best to contain it. Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan have many differences of their own, but they might find some common ground in putting a firebreak around Afghanistan. They would be wise to do so.