Neighbors have their own designs on Afghanistan

The Taliban's push to take all of the country also pits Iran against

"Pity the nation" famously described the agony of Lebanon in the 1980s.

The same might be said of Afghanistan in the 1990s - a mountain land of intense emotions, legendary hospitality, and hidden dramas that has largely fallen off the media map.

This month Taliban forces in Afghanistan are desperately trying to finish off the last pocket of opposition to their rule in a country ravaged for eight years by tribal and civil wars. The Islamic fighters, who control more than 90 percent of a state that is a key to Central Asia and lucrative oil trade, want recognition as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, and to thus qualify for aid and loans.

Several weeks ago, the Taliban appeared on the verge of winning. Their forces, aided by Pakistan, drove the ragtag Northern Alliance army of the charismatic Ahmed Shah Masood into the forbidding Panjshir Valley, his base.

But a brutal night counterattack sent the Taliban columns back to Kabul, the capital. Since then, the Taliban and Mr. Masood, who held off Soviet forces for years from the Panjshir Valley, have been fiercely fighting back and forth - with no end in sight, but with some 150,000 refugees streaming all over the region.

This week, for the first time, the Kandahar headquarters of the reclusive Taliban leader, Mohammed Omar, were rocked by a large truck bomb that killed 10 people - though no group has claimed responsibility.

Failed peace talks

Peace talks in Tajikistan sponsored by the UN in July broke down, as they have for years. And in recent days Pakistan-sponsored talks have faltered, with the opposition asking Pakistan to halt their backing of the Taliban.

While Afghanistan's own proud tribal culture and the Soviet invasion of the 1980s would have been enough to continue the country's destabilization, experts say the nation is now riven as much by the interests of its neighbors, chiefly Pakistan and Iran. Pakistan, backing the Taliban, seeks to add to its "strategic depth" by turning Afghanistan into a kind of proxy state with a shared Sunni Islamic cast. Iran, backing the Northern Alliance, seeks to block attempts by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to "contain" its reach into Central Asia. (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are the only states to recognize the Taliban.)

Add to this the inability of the United States and the Taliban to reach any kind of accommodation over the deportation of Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi radical Islamist who lives in Afghanistan and is suspected of masterminding the bombing of two US embassies in East Africa.

Two weeks ago the US froze the assets of Ariana Airlines, an Afghan firm - and rumors about another US attack on suspected bin Laden terrorist-training camps in Afghanistan, like those that took place a year ago this month, have swirled.

Sources in Kabul and recent visitors report the Taliban genuinely don't feel the issue of Mr. Bin Laden is worth permanently sundering their relations with the United States. Taliban leaders are divided over the question and some told reporters this month they welcome discussions with US officials whom they worked with closely during the struggle against the Soviets in the 1980s.

But the Taliban cannot, "as a self-proclaimed Islamic republic, turn over a brother Muslim to the US, particularly not in public," argues Frederic Grare, an Afghan expert affiliated with the French embassy in New Delhi.

The US is reluctant to back a group that US officials say shows no interest in curbing the export of terrorism, and that finances itself partly through the vast poppy fields in the Afghan valleys. Some of the mujahideen that attacked Masood in late July had earlier been part of the Pakistani-based incursion into Indian-controlled Kashmir in May.

Dearth of other leadership

Yet experts see no immediate alternative to the Taliban. The Taliban, who are ethnic Pashtuns that live in southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, rose in 1995, largely backed by the Pakistani secret service, the ISI.

They brought law and order and a strict code of Islamic ethics to a country that had been riven with banditry, local wars, rapes, and general anarchy. The US at first supported the Taliban, but the support cooled, partly due to the Islamic zeal of the Taliban, who imposed medieval-style restrictions on women.

Last year, in a series of bloody and vindictive victories, the Taliban captured the strategic northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. With Pakistani military help, including thousands of youth who came from the Islamic madrassas, or schools, in Pakistan, the Taliban soon controlled all but the Panjshir Valley. Pakistan stoutly denies its involvement with the Taliban.

But even UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi stated publicly this summer that he witnessed numerous Pakistani advisers and soldiers in Kabul.

Currently, Masood and Burnadiddin Rabbani, who is still the recognized president of Afghanistan, operate nearly as much out of Tajikistan as Afghanistan. Both are veterans of the Afghan wars of the 1980s. They argue that Afghans will rise up in support of the Northern Alliance once it is more commonly realized how closely Pakistan is backing the Taliban. In Dushanbe, Tajikistan, last week, Pakistani efforts to mediate peace talks with the Northern Alliance were met with scorn by Masood and his diplomatic cadre.

"We told the Pakistanis, 'You are backing the Taliban, you send regulars to Afghanistan, you arm and train extremists, we don't believe in your mediation, you are only trying to distort public opinion in the West,' " says Masood Khaliti, the Afghan ambassador still recognized in New Delhi, who is also Ahmed Shah Masood's brother.

But Alliance forces lack ammunition and supplies, and are not strong enough to fight anything but the same kind of defensive war Masood fought against the Soviets, analysts say.

What goes unsaid amid all the diplomatic wrangling and attempts by outside powers, including Pakistan, to influence the Taliban - is that the Taliban simply don't listen to foreigners any longer, says Dr. Grare. "The Afghans have been told by everyone else for so long what to do - the Arabs, the US, the Russians, the Pakistanis, everyone - that they just simply aren't listening to anyone but Afghans anymore."

Meanwhile, life in the country itself is "very dire," according to Elizabeth Winter of the British Relief Agency. Acute food shortages, poverty, and disease are reported by the International Red Cross. In last year's UN standard of living index, Afghanistan ranked at 170th - out of 174 states measured.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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