Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 3 Issue: 1

The Taliban Threat to Central Asia

By Aleksei Malashenko

The capture of Afghanistan’s capital Kabul by the Taliban in September 1996, and the rapid spread of their influence over three quarters of the country was not expected by many politicians or experts. But in spite of this, the success of the "Taliban" fundamentalist movement has internal causes, flowing directly from the situation in Afghanistan, and external causes, which are closely interwoven with them. These causes have both deep historical roots and more recent ones, which originate in the events which took place in and around Afghanistan over the last fifteen years.

Let us begin with the internal causes. There are several of them. Above all, there is interethnic tension which has divided this country for a long time. At the epicenter is the tension between the Pushtuns, a group to which the Taliban belongs, the Tajiks (in the northeast), and the Uzbeks (in the north). The Turkmen enclaves in the northwest of the country traditionally refrain from participating in these conflicts, but nonetheless, they also have their own interests. The Pushtuns, who have delegated some of their rights (and obligations to maintain internal stability in Afghanistan) to the Tajiks, and — to a lesser extent — to the Uzbeks, occupy the dominating place on Afghanistan’s political Olympus. But at the same time, over the last two centuries there has been a mixing of peoples, especially at society’s highest level, where people have learned, and are still learning, to find a common language. An indirect confirmation of this is the fact that many politicians and leaders in Afghan society, already in the last century, began to identify themselves not by their membership in an ethnic group, but by their place of residence (i.e., Kabul). The Pushtuns maintained their dominant position even after the April "revolution" of 1978, when the quasi-Communist regime of Muhammad Taraki came to power, and later, in spite of a whole series of overt and covert coups d’etat, inspired by the Soviet Union. (It must be noted that the most reasonable and authoritative advocate of good relations with the Soviet Union was King Zakhir-shah, who considered the USSR to be the natural guarantor of his country’s stability and security, but was nevertheless overthrown by the Afghan revolutionaries.) In spite of the differences in slogans the struggle within the Popular-Democratic Party of Afghanistan (which ruled until 1990) between the "Khalq" and "Parcham" factions, in a certain sense, led to a clarification of relationships between the various Pushtun groups.

The situation within the Afghan opposition, where, during the years of resistance to the Soviet occupation, the contours of interethnic cooperation between the Tajik groups of Rabbani and Shakh Masoud, Gubelddin Hekmatiyar’s Pushtuns, and Dostum’s Uzbeks, as well as other, smaller groups, began to reveal themselves. In essence, the war against Soviet troops was, to a certain degree, a factor which united Afghans and overcame ethnic and other contradictions, although in the end, it could not overcome them completely.

The "premature" conclusion to the occupation of Afghanistan due to perestroika in the USSR, and the success of Shakh Masoud and Rabbani, who had consolidated their power, gave the Tajik tribes (and also the Uzbek Dostum) an advantage in the coming redistribution of power in the country. The reaction to this is the first reason for the Pushtun Taliban’s march on Kabul.

The second reason is that the Rabbani government had been unable to solve any of the country’s socio-economic problems. In this situation, the Taliban had every reason to come forward with their own way to save the country. They proposed an Islamic path to solve all their difficulties. In view of the fact that the Islamic ideology of national resistance has long been popular, it is no surprise that those who advocated radical religious positions proved especially successful. Taliban’s slogans were understood by a significant portion of the population, which saw following "true Islam" as the way out of their permanent crisis. It is clear that the proclamation of the Shariat as the fundamental law was more popular in Afghanistan than the attempts of pro-Soviet rulers Muhammad Taraki, Babrak Karmal and (to a lesser degree) Najibullah, to instill Marxism.

The third reason for the rapid success of the Taliban movement lies in the popularity of radical Islam. The delight of the sellers in the bazaar, laborers, marginals, and refugees dreaming of a return to their homeland more than balances the fear that Kabul’s teachers and engineers have of the radicals.

Time will tell how strong the Taliban’s position really is, but the movement seems to have all the necessary prerequisites to maintain its authority and power.

But we must stress once again that both the political engagement of Islam and the tension between the Pushtuns and other peoples, above all, the Tajiks, have deep historical roots, and the present situation will hardly help in "uprooting" them.

Now, let us turn to the external causes of the Taliban’s victory. First of all, it was supported by Pakistan. It is well-known that the Taliban movement, which was first recruited from students at Islamic educational institutions, was formed in Pakistan, and not without the help of the corresponding Pakistani services. The Taliban’s arms come, to a significant extent, from the same source. Their units have Pakistani military instructors. The Taliban’s enemies have shown journalists Pakistanis taken prisoner in the course of battles. It would be absurd to deny Pakistan’s interest in strengthening its position in Afghanistan. This desire is understandable, as is its intention to rid itself as soon as possible of the hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees, which clearly do not contribute to the stability of Pakistan’s western provinces.

Even Pakistan’s president Farouk Ahmed Khan Legari had a hard time denying Pakistan’s involvement in the Taliban’s activities; nobody believed him, including Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbaev, when Legari tried to explain this during the course of his visit to Almaty in October. Incidentally, [former] Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto was more frank than her president and openly admitted that the Taliban was originally launched by Pakistan, with the help of the US intelligence services.

The second, albeit indirect, external cause of the Taliban’s success is the understanding attitude (bordering on covert sympathy) which the US takes towards their activities. One piece of evidence to support this is the very restrained statement that President Clinton made after the victory of the Islamic radicals. Pakistan, a long and reliable ally to the United States, would hardly have supported the Islamic radicals so actively without consulting Washington. American policy has traditionally been marked by a sharp antipathy to radical Islam. But it seems that in recent years, the United States is behaving in a more flexible and well-thought-out way towards political Islam. If the Taliban is able to further its success, it has every chance of receiving Washington’s tacit neutrality, and Washington, in turn, can expect that its own interests in the region will not suffer, even if there is a further radicalization of Islam.

(This can serve as the basis of all sorts of speculation. For example, one may say that in supporting the Taliban, the US is trying to remove Russia from Afghan affairs completely. But it is not that simple. In doing this, Washington has not only undermined its present partners — Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbaev and (especially) Uzbek president Islam Karimov — who have systematically scared the world with the threat of Islamic extremism to the region; it has also driven them closer to Russia.)

The third cause is a purely economic one, but it is also linked with the American presence in the Middle East. The Taliban’s activities have taken place while preparations have been going on for the construction of a natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan (and further), most of which would pass through Afghan territory. Turkmenistan’s main partner in this latest "Contract of the Century" is UNOCAL, a company based in California, which stands to gain $2 billion from this contract and the possibility of controlling the most promising pipeline in the region. In October, the company’s leadership said that the Taliban was probably the only force which could guarantee the integrity and stability of Afghanistan. And UNOCAL’s partner in building the pipeline — Turkmenistan — through the lips of its president Saparmurat Niyazov, has shown eloquent indifference to the Taliban’s activities.

It is curious that both the Clinton administration and the leadership of UNOCAL have consequently publicly "corrected" their positions, to deflect accusations that they were openly supporting the Taliban. UNOCAL’s president Chris Taggart was especially emphatic in doing so. We have already discussed the Pakistanis’ attempts to deny their involvement with Taliban.

In a word, even without having the formal right to accuse anyone of supporting Islamic radicals, one may say that these radicals are counting on the good graces of influential political forces. In this context one cannot but pay attention to the fact that the new round of Islamic radicalism in Afghanistan has aroused concern in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, which in turn, will draw them closer to Russia. And clearly, any event which makes the newly-created Muslim states feel warmer towards Moscow suits Russia. Two months after the Taliban took Kabul and the failure of their breakthrough to the north through the Salang Pass, after the unsuccessful attempts of Shakh Masoud, Rabbani, and General Dostum to come to an agreement, the situation remains unclear. Everyone says that negotiations are necessary, under UN auspices, but they all continue to hope for their own final military and political success.

But it seems that the purely Afghan aspect of these events is fading into the background before the question of what the appearance of the Taliban on the scene means for the whole region. Is the triumph of the Islamic radicals a mere flash in the pan, or is it a tendency which could lead to profound changes in the region?

Will Afghanistan be preserved as a single state, or will it fall apart? And would its collapse mean the beginning of a general re-drawing of borders in the region?

If "centripetal" forces prevail, and present enemies are able to reach an agreement, the status quo in the region will be maintained. The return of King Zakhir-shah to the throne would be an extraordinarily important internal precondition for stability. This idea is extremely popular both among rank-and-file Afghan citizens and among its multi-ethnic elite.

There is another alternative: that Afghanistan will preserve its territorial integrity de jure, while de facto, it will be transformed into a confederative conglomeration, in which each sector has its own ruler, ruling at his own peril. But a confederative structure would be only a temporary palliative measure, and not a guarantee of the stability, much less, the territorial integrity, of the former kingdom. But some specialists think that a confederation could be a step towards the consolidation, and the eventual restoration of the Afghan state. In particular, this opinion is held by the authoritative Russian scholar Vyacheslav Belokrinitsky.

The discussion of what the collapse of Afghanistan (which many people talk about, but few believe will actually happen) would bring in its wake is virtually apocalyptic in character. But, unfortunately, there are good reasons for believing that it might happen. So, scenario number two is the collapse of the Afghan state. In this case, the country would break up into a minimum of three parts — a Pushtun part, a Tajik part, and an Uzbek part. The six "Uzbek" provinces in the north, consolidating into a single state formation, would, for a time, play the role of a buffer between Central Asia and the uneasy political field of Afghanistan. But in the long-term, due to their ethno-cultural ties, they will begin to pull towards Uzbekistan (by the way, Rashid Dostum, even now, does not conceal his pro-Tashkent sympathies). Then, there will be a real chance for the "Greater Uzbekistan" which nobody in Tashkent speaks of openly, but many think about.

The northeastern "Tajik" provinces will "interact" even more energetically with former Soviet Tajikistan, which will lead to a broadening of the intra-Tajik conflict, and a redistribution of the forces in the battle in favor of the Islamic opposition. Only Allah knows what sort of territorial and political claims the United Tajik Opposition will then press. But there can be no doubt of the effect an opposition victory would have on neighboring states. And it is also obvious that Russia will do its best to prevent a union–even if it is temporary — of the Tajiks on both sides of the river Panj. If it fails, the 201st Division and the Russian border guards will have to leave the Pamir. And if that happens, it is unclear where they will be able to draw their line of defense — which includes their defense against drug traffickers.

And what will happen to the Pushtun part of the former kingdom of Afghanistan? Will the Afghan Pushtuns become the center of gravity for Pushtuns living in neighboring states, above all, in Pakistan? And if so, wouldn’t that call into question the territorial integrity of Pakistan itself?

I am probably over-dramatizing here. But on the other hand, isn’t it true that in the last five years, the world has seen the disappearance of large and small states, leading to hitherto-impossible consequences? And isn’t this scenario being played out in the political and military headquarters of countries which have "common" interests in the Middle East and Central Asia?

Finally, the last question which is being discussed by politicians and experts: how great is the Taliban’s expansionist potential, and is there any threat of its moving northward — into Central Asia, or perhaps even further, up to the territory of the Russian Federation? This is discussed most often in the Russian opposition (nationalist and national-Communist) media.

It is aroused, for example, by the fact that the first deputy leader of the Islamic Revival Movement of Tajikistan, Davlat Usmon, in a meeting with the leadership of Taliban in October, discussed the question of coordinating their efforts in the fight against the regime of Tajik president Emomali Rahmonov. Nadir Khachilaev, the leader of the Union of the Muslims of Russia (who has recently been elected to the State Duma) also met with Taliban representatives.

Clearly, the Taliban presents no direct threat to Russia. Moreover, some people among the movement’s leadership support the idea of normalizing relations with Moscow…

But the fact that the success of the Islamic radicals could have a demonstrative effect on similar-minded people in Central Asia is another thing entirely. And from this point of view, the increased activity of Islamic groups in the region presents a real threat.

The events of the fall of 1996, in our view, confirm the following truths:

* the situation in the Middle East and in Central Asia remains, and will long remain, unstable;

* any particular conflict (within a single state) has a tendency to spread to neighboring states and therefore —

* borders in the region are not set in stone;

* Islam remains a legitimate part of the political process, both on a national and on a regional level.

It cannot be ruled out that the success of the Taliban movement may prove to be a stage in the changing of the general disposition of political, military, and strategic forces in the region.

Aleksei Malashenko is an expert on Islam, affiliated with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.