With important battlefield victories for the ultra-orthodox Taliban regime in the past month, the prospect of Afghanistan coming under a single authority for the first time in 20 years could be weeks or days away.
The ragtag Army of opposition commander Ahmad Shah Masood, the fabled "Lion of Panjshir" known for outwitting Soviet invading forces in the 1980s, was pushed last week into a tiny pocket of northeast Afghanistan. Facing defections and a lack of crucial helicopters, Mr. Masood himself is in Dushanbe, the capital of bordering Tajikistan.
Now, with the on-the-ground realities of a Taliban regime that controls as much as 97 percent of the country, a new "let's see" strategy of engagement with the Taliban is being explored by neighboring countries, as well as Russia and China.
Since capturing Kabul 1996 and bringing a strict "law and order" regime to a country loaded with squabbling warlords, the Taliban have become famous for pleasing diplomatic envoys and making promises that later do not materialize.
Still, it appears for the first time that a calculation has been made in several regional capitals that the Taliban are here to stay, and that an exploratory process of give and take could be more beneficial in dealing with Kabul than perpetual isolation.
Iran, for example, whose products pepper the markets of Afghanistan, two months ago canceled military resupplies to Masood, aid workers in Pakistan say. Last week, a Taliban envoy was invited to Moscow; a similar invitation was given by Paris. Russian envoys broke a long hands-off policy with Pakistan by visiting Islamabad last month. The chief of the Pakistani secret service - a group considered largely responsible for facilitating the rise of the Taliban in the early 1990s - spent two weeks in Moscow in late August. Last week a Taliban delegation met in Washington with two high US State Department officials, Karl Inderfurth and Thomas Pickering, with little result. However, the two sides agreed to further talks.
This week, in an abrupt U-turn, the government of neighboring Uzbekistan stated it had no fear that a Taliban regime would foment terror in the region. "Uzbekistan emphasizes that we are ready to cooperate with any government in Afghanistan that has the support of the Afghan people," said Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov, shortly after meeting the Taliban ambassador.
Even China, worried about rising Islamic feeling and nationalism among its far-western Muslim populations, has allowed a Chinese firm to begin installing a mobile-phone system in Kabul. Next month, interior ministers from Russia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan's neighbors will meet to discuss regional stability and how to deal with training centers for Islamic militants in Afghanistan.
Former US diplomats like Zbignew Brzezinski have warned that turning "Islamic fundamentalism" into an enemy is a "dangerous intellectual shortcut."
"Islam is one of the world's great religions, and if there is a tendency to try and find partners to unify against an 'Islamic threat,' you are going to have a self-fulfilling prophesy," Mr. Brzezinski told an audience in New Delhi this week.
"It seems a reasonable attitude to engage the Taliban," says Frederic Grare, an Afghan expert and French diplomat in New Delhi. "If the Taliban can't win, they might implode.... But the idea that the Taliban can move into Central Asia is pure fantasy. A new situation ... reflects the fact that the Taliban are there. It's the reality right now."
Yet some Washington strategists feel a Taliban-led Afghanistan creates a staging area for terror groups and extremism in Central Asia. "We don't think the Taliban are targeting us," says a US official. "But they allow training camps for terrorists to exist within their borders. In the past 10 years, the focus of terrorist training has shifted from the Middle East to Afghanistan."
Moscow says Afghanistan is a transit and rallying point for Islamic fighters heading to Chechnya. The Taliban's medieval policies toward women, their virtual sanctioning of poppy harvests, and their harboring of Osama bin Laden last year brought additional UN sanctions and an embargo.
In the summer of 1998, Taliban forces clinched a position as the dominant force in the country. That victory set off a great wave of enthusiasm for Muslim identity politics and Islamic enthusiasm in South Asia, particularly Pakistan. It also forced the last opponent in Afghanistan, Masood's United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, or Northern Alliance, into their Panjshir Valley stronghold.
In recent weeks, Taliban forces have cut off a main supply route into the Panjshir Valley, bottling up the export of emeralds from mines in the valley, one source of Masood's financing. Reportedly, only two rugged footpaths out of the opposition-controlled area are still in use, with snows ready to fall.
The Taliban Islamic theocracy blends two powerful orthodox strains of Islam: the Wahhabi from Saudi Arabia and the hard-line Deobandi school that predominates in the popular madrassas, or Islamic schools, of Pakistan. The Taliban themselves are mostly Pashtun, the proud peoples that inhabit northern Pakistan and southern Afghanistan.
For this reason, Pakistan itself is finding it difficult to deal with its complex neighbor to the north. Experts and former Pakistani officials openly admit that Pakistan was instrumental in supporting the Taliban, yet Taliban leaders have refused to take orders from Pakistani officials.
There are steady rumblings from secessionist movements among the Pashtuns, a group in Pakistan that often complains they get treated as second-class citizens. Particularly in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, many ordinary people do not recognize a border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"Pakistan feels as much a threat from the Taliban as many other neighbors," says one US official. "But it is something that doesn't get discussed as much."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society