The Taliban forces have recently brought most of northern Afghanistan under their control, expanding their domain to nearly 90 percent of Afghanistan’s territory. Having pushed back the ethnic Uzbek, Tajik and Shia Muslim forces of Afghanistan’s “northern alliance,” the Taliban seem poised to establish themselves along their country’s borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Pakistani arming and training of the Taliban has proven more effective than Iranian, Russian and Uzbek support for the northern alliance.
The Taliban leadership has renewed earlier assurances that its views on religion and social organization are not for export. Those views stem in large part from Pushtun tribal customs, rather than “Islamic fundamentalism.” At the same time, the Talibs have threatened to attack logistics bases and airports made available by Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to the Afghan northern alliance.
The Tajik and Uzbek governments depict the Taliban as Islamic fundamentalists bent on expansion and profess concern over a possible extension of Taliban operations across the border. The cries of alarm seem designed to strengthen the case of Russian hard-liners who favor a strong political response and some limited military measures.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry has taken the lead in calling for countermeasures, with First Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Pastukhov issuing lengthy alarmist statements. Pastukhov professes to believe the unsubstantiated claims of Moscow’s Afghan proteges that Pakistanis are directly involved in combat. His statements also take at face value Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s professions of concern that the Taliban aim to annex Samarkand and Bukhara to Afghanistan. The Foreign Ministry and Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov personally have drawn praise from Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov for their response to the situation.
In contrast, the Russian military are displaying restraint and caution. Defense Minister Igor Sergeev has sidestepped Tajikistan’s request for an emergency meeting of the Russian and Central Asian defense ministers to deal with the Taliban offensive. Sergeev has suggested a September date and a more general agenda. Defense Ministry and Federal Border Service generals have indicated that no plans are being made to increase the forces stationed in Tajikistan. The commands of Russian army and border troops in Tajikistan have both played down alarmist reports. They have indicate that while the troops are being maintained in a state of combat readiness, they do not anticipate Taliban offensive operations. They have also pointed out that no significant refugee flows are in sight, and that should refugees appear, they are likely to be opponents of the Taliban.
Turkmenistan, which also borders on Afghanistan, has in the last two years coexisted well with the Taliban who control part of the adjacent Afghan territory. Turkmenistan, the Taliban and Pakistan have a common interest in projects to lay oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian Sea to the Indian Ocean. Iran and Russia oppose those projects. The Turkmen statements emphasize the country’s neutrality and seek to defuse alarmist reactions from other quarters.
Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, two countries that do not border on Afghanistan, are similarly displaying restraint, declining to treat the situation as one of crisis. (Russian and international agencies, August 10 through 13)–VS
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