As Afghanistan approaches its 20th winter of war, its nightmare grows ever more bizarre and dangerous. The fundamentalist Islam at the heart of the civil war threatens to spread throughout the region. Foreign powers, purporting to devise a political solution are, in fact, feeding the conflict with money, men, and weapons.
The Taliban isn't monolithic and not a unifier, except by compulsion. It did suppress warlords and criminal gangs who had orchestrated anarchy, and it did bring a welcome, if stark, security to the area it controls. But it brutally enforces its version of Islamic values: isolation of women, long beards for men, flogging, stoning, and amputations for petty offenses. The Taliban has faced rebellious acts in its five-year march of conquest over 90 percent of Afghanistan, and may see more. The centralized regime cuts across the loose-knit fabric of local and tribal authority. It is ethnically Pashtun with little regard for the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazara, and other groups in Afghan life. Its fanatical brand of Sunni Islam is actively hostile to Shi'ism.
Moreover, the Taliban has a war mentality, a belief that it can win what it wants on the battlefield, refusing to seek consensual peace. It has slaughtered thousands of opponents and their families. In this summer's offensive in the northeast, it has driven out more than 150,000 people, destroying houses and crops, and systematically wrecking vital, centuries-old irrigation systems.
A more alarming aspect of Taliban extremism is that the Taliban's Islam does not recognize national boundaries when it comes to helping co-religionists, as against India in Kashmir. During the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, thousands of Arabs learned guerrilla warfare in Afghanistan. Some of them later turned up in Algeria, Egypt, and elsewhere - even the Philippines - and engaged in terrorism, "liberation struggle," or Islamic Jihad. Today, Afghanistan's neighbors fear that the Taliban is training disaffected nationals to infiltrate them. And, who knows what its "guest" Osama bin Laden is up to?
Last month, August President Boris Yeltsin of Russia and Jiang Zemin of China joined leaders of Central Asian republics for a summit conference on the danger of religious extremism and separatism. China is worried about the large, Muslim Uighur population of its westernmost Xinjiang province, which has a history of sometimes violent ethnic unrest. Russia and Central Asia fear Islamic penetration of their poverty-stricken, frustrated populations, and also the heavy traffic in drugs.
A more pressing fear is that the Afghan war will spread. In a way, it already has. The UN Security Council has vainly exhorted the parties to make peace. Two years ago, others, known as the "Six plus Two" group, took on the job of finding a formula. They are Afghanistan's six direct neighbors: Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China and Pakistan, plus Russia and the US. Some have their own divisive agendas. Iran, outraged by the Taliban's mistreatment of Afghanistan's Shia community, has sent weapons and money to the opposition. Russia and China support the old government. It is Pakistan that practices the most active intervention. During the Soviet occupation, Pakistan was the main conduit for billions in US and Saudi money and weapons to the mujaheddin fighters. Islamabad wanted a friendly, Sunni, Pashtun Afghanistan. Its shadowy Interservices Intelligence Directorate then kept the help flowing, at first to its favored mujaheddin, and then to the Taliban. Now, short of money, Pakistan has sent arms and men.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan recently expressed dismay at the quantities of arms sent to the warring factions by their backers in the Six plus Two. The civil war, he said, was becoming a "transnational conflict."
What this could mean, with Pakistan and India having nuclear weapons, should be enough to stimulate a real peace effort. There is no sign yet that it will.
*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society