Benazir Bhutto denied yesterday that her government had helped the Taliban militia to seize control of neighbouring Afghanistan, and said she "hoped to exercise a moderating influence" on the fundamentalist movement, which has imposed sharia (strict Muslim law) and forced women into purdah. But, the Pakistani Prime Minister said, "if a government emerges in Afghanistan, we have to work with it".
"When the Taliban closes girls' schools, I am unhappy," Ms Bhutto said at a lecture in London. "This was conveyed to them, and I was told some of the schools had reopened." Although Pakistan recognised the movement as the new Afghan government barely a day after it captured the capital, Kabul, last week, she insisted her government had remained neutral, and was still waiting to see whether the Taliban could assert control over the whole country.
Ms Bhutto, who has powerful opposition from fundamentalists at home, admitted that the Taliban was a "militant" organisation whose effect on women and on the more liberal atmosphere in Pakistan would have to be considered. "We will find out whether it is a tribal movement, or whether it is an expression of people's desire for peace," she said. "We have to let Afghans determine their own future, whether it is good, bad or ugly."
The Pakistani government, she said, had wanted a peace brokered by the United Nations and the West, but international attention had been diverted by other conflicts such as Bosnia's, leaving a vacuum which the Taliban had filled . "Let us now see if they can bring peace to Afghanistan for the first time since 1979."
Pakistan has long wanted to open trade routes across Afghanistan to the developing economies of central Asia, and suspicions remain that Islamabad's Inter Services Intelligence organisation, which frequently operates outside civilian control, backed the Taliban. Ms Bhutto said there would be economic benefits if the region were more stable, but added: "We didn't expect the Taliban to take over Kabul."
In many ways, the Taliban might be more acceptable to Islamabad and even to Washington than they are to the majority of Afghans. With unseemly haste, the Clinton administration has also given support to the Taliban, even as the corpse of former dictator, Najibullah - supposedly under UN protection - was still dangling from a Kabul lamppost.
Diplomats in Islamabad and New Delhi said that the Americans are not displeased by the Taliban conquest of Kabul, despite the refusal of the militia's ruling six-man council to behave according to the minimum acceptable norms on human rights.
Washington views the Taliban as useful in preventing the spread of Islamic revolution from neighbouring Iran, since Kabul's new lords belong to the Sunni sect and consider the Shia of Iran to be little better than heretics. Washington also looks upon the Taliban as useful allies in the international war against drugs.
The Clinton administration is also counting on the 20,000-strong Taliban militia to also deal harshly with the various Islamic revolutionaries and terrorists, from the Middle East, the Gulf and even Chechnya, who have been using Afghanistan as a sanctuary and arms bazaar.
Yet the Taliban may prove to be dangerous partners for the West and for Pakistan. Instead of containing Iran's thrust into South and Central Asia, the Taliban's extremism may provoke it. A large Shia community known as the Hazaras lives in Kabul and central Afghanistan, and Iran is worried that these Shia might fall under the Taliban's persecution. If this happens, Iranian forces might be drawn militarily into Afghanistan. Pakistan, which supports the Taliban, might then spring into the fray.
Several opium lords were executed by the Taliban, but drug enforcement experts claim that last year Afghanistan flooded the European, US and Eastern markets with over $75bn (pounds 48bn) of heroin. Much of this poppy was harvested in fields under the Taliban's supposed command.
The Taliban believe in wielding the sword - or Stinger missile - in Allah's name. India is worried that the Taliban might soon export its holy warriors into Kashmir.
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