The election of Mohammed Khatemi in Iran and the military successes of the radical Islamist Taliban in Afghanistan have no causal connection. Yet, together, they send a signal to the United States.
Each affects American interests in terms of drugs, terrorism, and oil. However, over the years, Washington has tied itself into a knot that keeps it from influencing either. Now might be the time to loosen the knot, mindful that the deck is slippery and the wind high. Less than two weeks ago, the Taliban appeared to have won military victory. Now, it has been pushed back but remains the dominant factor in the Afghan puzzle.
In classic diplomacy, governments seek a counterweight to a real or potential source of danger. Iran and the Taliban are bitterly at odds. Play them off against each other? A crackbrained temptation. The story of the Iran-Iraq war is warning enough. Also, this is neither the time nor the place for classic diplomacy. Too many players are in this new Great Game, and the pace is too quick. But there is an opening, slight though it may seem today, for constructive American initiative.
Thus far, Washington has aimed its policy in the region against Iran. It has clearly tilted toward the Taliban. The Taliban's gross, almost incredible violations of human rights receive little more than perfunctory disapproval in Washington. The brutal oppression of women, the medieval punishment of crime, the prohibition of instrumental music, flying kites, keeping canaries, and much more are expressions of a Neanderthal Islam rising out of a rural illiteracy.
The State Department disputes none of this and expresses concern about the maintenance of terrorist/militarist training camps, as well as narcotics production and trafficking. Afghanistan is thought to be the world's largest opium producer, and opium becomes heroin. Nevertheless, says the State Department, "much of the populace has accepted Taliban rule ... because they are desperate for peace and a semblance of normal life. The Taliban have brought a modicum of peace to Afghanistan, but at a real price." There is no objection in principle to recognizing a Taliban regime.
Afghanistan is no longer the battlefield where the US spent billions helping the mujahideen defeat the Soviet Union. Today, it is on the new Silk Road to Central Asia.
The wealth is in the immense natural gas and oil deposits of Turkmenistan and the oil fields of Kazakstan. Many more billions are to be made on a gas pipeline through Pakistan to the sea. The US strategy has been to bypass Iran and bolster the independence of the Central Asian republics by freeing them from the alternative of running their vital export through Russia.
At the same time, the Taliban dynamic upsets the status quo. There is no reason to think it wants to invade or to push its ideology northward, but its advance could drive refugees into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Heavily armed refugees, with their own agenda, would be a danger - so much so that Russia and the Central Asian states have announced their readiness to take "close common action." Russia has troops on the border.
The United States has no direct leverage. The Taliban has ignored appeals to cease fire and negotiate a broad-based government. The help it needs for a military solution has come from Pakistan's ISI, Interservices Intelligence, which, at successive stages, fostered, trained, equipped, reinforced, and led it. Pakistan wants a kindred Pashtun state next door and an open trade route to the north. For this, it is willing to confront Iran, which has, together with Russia and India, been helping the anti-Taliban "Northern Alliance."
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia rushed in with diplomatic recognition when victory seemed certain. Others, ready to follow, have held back to see whether the Taliban drive, so successful in the Pashtun two-thirds of Afghanistan, may have reached its limits against the ethnic Uzbek and Tajik turf of the Northern Alliance. The pipelines that must run through Taliban territory are still a pipe dream.
The phantasmagoria of Afghanistan is under no one's control, almost beyond anyone's understanding. Fighting continues. Yet, the United States need not be a helpless spectator. Its military strength is not relevant. Its economic power has enormous attraction - if the bean counters and small-bore ideologues in Washington will bring it to bear.
Both Iran and Afghanistan are in serious trouble. They need stability and economic recovery to patch themselves up. There is no strategic reason for the US to be their enemy. Their loathsome aspects are not permanent. The unexpected election of a more moderate president in Iran does not promise miracles of redemption; it does suggest the possibility of change. The Taliban, whether it wins the war or is made to settle with the opposition, faces the challenges of peace.
There is no telling how life will alter the Taliban or how long it will take, but it cannot escape the forces now remodeling the globe. Who imagined only 20 years ago what China would be like today? A principled and flexible American policy could help nudge things in the right direction.
* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.