Kabul's Patriarchy With Guns
Since taking Kabul the Taliban have not only killed associates of the former Communist and Islamist regimes but have banned women from appearing in public without a veil and (in marked contrast to Iran) from education and working outside the home. The worst fate befalls women in need of medical attention: Men are not allowed to treat them, but neither are women allowed to work in most clinics or hospitals. Although this has aroused international outrage, three states in the U.N. Security Council--China, Indonesia and Egypt--opposed a motion condemning the Taliban for their policies on women. Pakistan, of course, immediately recognized the new government. From the private sector, the California-based oil company Unocal also voiced its support: Unocal has been involved in planning a pipeline from Central Asia through western Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean.
Others, however, have not been so welcoming. Pakistan's ambitions in Central Asia have long caused alarm in Iran, in Russia and in the majority of Central Asian states. Within days of the Taliban seizure of Kabul, the leaders of the Central Asian countries, plus Russia, met in the Kazakh capital, Almaty, to work out a response. They called for noninterference in Afghanistan's affairs, but this is the last thing that will happen. While Pakistan is busy reinforcing the Taliban, Iran, which sees them as a branch of what the Ayatollah Khomeini called islam-i imrikai, "American Islam," has denounced them for their retrograde policies. Iran also blames the Taliban for murdering a Shiite leader last year after they invited him to join them in discussions. Tajikistan fears that the Taliban will back the fundamentalists in its own country. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are more ambivalent: The Turkmenians hope to export gas through western Afghanistan and keep the Taliban from interfering in their affairs; the Uzbeks have been exploring an alliance with Pakistan that would enable them to trade via Indian Ocean ports and so lessen their dependence on Russia.
Despite what was said in Almaty, interference in Afghanistan will continue. The new anti-Taliban coalition is receiving aid from Iran, Russia and India. Only if Uzbekistan forces its Uzbek ally in Afghanistan, General Dostum, to make a deal with the Taliban will some solution be found. But Dostum has other backers, and with his autonomous region in northern Afghanistan, site of gas, gold and uranium, he has little reason to give in. When asked why he opposed the Taliban, he replied that it was because of their ban on music and alcohol. If Dostum does make a deal--something the Taliban were urgently seeking at press time--it will involve a de facto partition of the country into different ethnic areas, with the Taliban holding the Pathan regions and the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara forces controlling their own.
It is easy to exaggerate the extent to which events in Afghanistan correspond to some broad game plan involving great-power rivalries. Despite Pakistan's interference, much of the impetus for these recent developments lies in the disruption of Afghan society over nearly two decades of war, the growth of an arms trade and a narcotics trade that no one controls, and the pull of different ethnic groups. The street value of Afghan heroin exports is reckoned to be $80 billion--a strong source of independence for the Afghan growers and Pakistani middlemen handling the trade. (Although they publicly denounce the drug trade, the Taliban have used it to finance their operations.) Yet international agendas, stretching across the Asian continent and the former U.S.S.R., of course will play a part in the country's future.
For Moscow, the calculation and fears are clear enough. A fundamentalist regime in Kabul would threaten the stability of the Central Asian post-Communist regimes. Short of that it would encourage those regimes to trade through Pakistan, thus depriving Russia of important economic influence in formerly dependent republics. This new Central Asian threat is subsumed under a broader pattern of geopolitical anxiety: In the West, NATO is pressing inexorably nearer the Soviet border, and Moscow cannot stop it; in the Far East, China is a rising economic and military power, whose interests challenge those of Russia; now, in the middle, there has emerged this third challenge, complicated by echoes of the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan in the eighties.
Washington, for its part, is working farther west, in the Caspian, to reduce links between Russia and the Transcaucasian republics, and at the same time to contain Iran and cut it out of oil and gas transit deals. "Anything the Iranians can do, we can undo," one senior State Department official recently said of Iranian policy in this area. The U.S. Central Asian policy has a similar logic. For this reason alone, leaving aside its links to the Pakistani intelligence services or the role of Unocal, Washington is seen as sympathetic to a Taliban victory. American officials have already talked to the new leaders, thereby granting them a measure of legitimacy. While Washington may criticize the Taliban on select issues, the fact remains that Pakistan, a U.S. client, is behind them; that they are opposed by Iran may enhance their position.
American responsibility for recent events in Afghanistan is greater than Administration officials pretend. The United States in fact sabotaged the prospects for a peaceful settlement in the late eighties. The U.S.S.R. agreed to pull out its forces in return for a cessation of U.S. and Pakistani aid to the anti-Communist Islamist forces fighting Najibullah. Confident that Moscow could do nothing about it, Washington ignored that agreement and continued to arm the guerrillas. His regime survived much longer than most had anticipated, but in the end, following the August 1991 coup attempt in Moscow, Soviet financial and military aid to Kabul ceased and the government collapsed. It was then that the fundamentalists came to power in a coalition, and a new round of chaos and destruction began. Much of the responsibility for that, and for the military and patriarchal terror that has followed, lies with Washington. One would like to think that as they watch reports of the Taliban victory in Kabul, Ronald Reagan, George Shultz, Robert Gates and their ilk will lose a little sleep. It does not seem very likely.