Afghanistan: Heart of darkness

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LAHORE, Pakistan — As the Taliban launch a new offensive against opposition forces, the threat which this Islamic regime poses to regional stability has gone unnoticed. Terrorists fighting the governments of virtually every Central Asian power find shelter with the Taliban. An equally dangerous by-product is the criminal economy supported by the Taliban, which spreads weapons and drugs throughout the region.

Soviet-made tanks and armoured personnel carriers spew clouds of black diesel fumes as they lumber up the potholed road north from Kabul. The Taliban are on the move, preparing for what they hope will be a final drive to bring the last 20% of Afghanistan under their control.

Travelling with them in convoys of Toyota pick-up trucks are about 400 Arab Islamic militants from a dozen Middle East and African countries. These are the fighters of the 055 Brigade, funded by alleged Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden. When a reporter heads down the road in hopes of catching up with the Arabs, it is Pakistani militants at a checkpoint who block his way, waving their Kalashnikovs persuasively.

Desperate for manpower and moral support, the Taliban have welcomed Islamic militants of diverse nationalities to join them on the front lines. Bin Laden and his brigade may be the best-known since the United States accused him of masterminding the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa and offered $5 million for his capture. But bin Laden is far from the only Taliban guest with a price on his head. The Review has learned that armed insurgents accused of terrorist attacks in China, Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan have found sanctuary in a symbiotic relationship with the Taliban: They help the Taliban militarily; the Taliban let them set up bases on Afghan soil.

And in a worrying development, bin Laden has been working to establish ties with his fellow militant groups and may be helping to fund some of them, diplomats in the region say. The diverse groups have their own agendas, mainly focused on undermining the regimes at home, but some share bin Laden’s zeal for a global Islamic revolution. The resulting web of dangerous friendships threatens to export instability throughout the mineral-rich and commercially under-exploited hinterland of Central Asia.

The expatriate fighters who join up with the Taliban find not only a haven but a source of income—trafficking in Afghan heroin and smuggling consumer goods through Afghanistan. Drugs and smuggling—pillars of Afghanistan’s war economy—now threaten to undermine legitimate economies throughout the region (see story on page 10).

Why do the Taliban help them? In some instances, it’s simple logic: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Iran and Uzbekistan give military support to the Northern Alliance, which still holds Afghanistan’s United Nations seat and is the last organized opposition to the Taliban.

The Taliban are also deeply frustrated by the refusal of the international community to accept their government—only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have recognized the Taliban. Increasingly, many Taliban leaders comfort themselves with the belief that their strict interpretation of Islam is the ultimate truth, capable of unleashing a wave of Islamic revolution across the region. The more militant movements flock to them for sanctuary, the more justified the Taliban are in this view.

“Our prestige is spreading across the region because we have truly implemented Islam and this makes the Americans and some neighbours very nervous,” says Taliban Information Minister Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi.

But their dangerous liaisons are costing the Taliban dearly. On July 6, Washington imposed economic sanctions on Afghanistan, barring Americans from trading with or investing in the country. It was a step short of declaring the Taliban a terrorist movement, which the White House reportedly favours. The State Department prefers to keep up a dialogue in hopes that it can eventually extradite bin Laden, whose exact whereabouts is known to only a few Taliban leaders.

In interviews with The Review, Taliban officials showed no sign of softening. “Bin Laden is our guest and there is no proof he is involved in terrorism,” Muttaqi says. “Clinton is just hounding bin Laden and the Taliban to cover up his own inadequacies and failings.”

Another U.S.-bin Laden confrontation may be looming. U.S. diplomatic sources say surveillance of bin Laden’s worldwide alliance of fundamentalist militants, Al Qaeda or “The Base,” picked up signals that he may be planning a strike against a U.S. target. Washington put its embassies on alert in early July. Rumours abound that the U.S. will attempt a pre-emptive strike. Some say a U.S. commando group has arrived in Peshawar in northern Pakistan and is preparing to grab him, others that a U.S. aircraft carrier is in the Persian Gulf ready to launch air strikes against his hideout. Last September, the U.S. launched 70 cruise missiles against suspected bin Laden training camps close to the city of Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan; he escaped harm.

The Taliban just laugh at Washington’s demonization of one individual. “What will the Americans do even if they find bin Laden?” asks an officer of the Taliban intelligence service. “There are hundreds of bin Ladens just up the road.”

Many members of bin Laden’s 055 Brigade fought individually with the Taliban for years. But it was only after the Saudi was introduced to the Taliban in 1996 that he pulled his fellow Arabs together to form a force with a much larger agenda: not just to put the Taliban in power in Afghanistan, but to support fundamentalist Islamic uprisings across the region. The 055 Brigade—which includes hundreds of wanted terrorists who have fled governments from Algeria to Egypt and Kenya—gained prominence last year when it helped the Taliban capture the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif from the Northern Alliance.

Bin Laden’s brigade is the best financed and organized of all the expatriate militant groups in Afghanistan. But he is suspected of providing aid also to militants fighting Uzbekistan’s authoritarian President Islam Karimov and to Uighurs fighting Beijing’s rule in their homeland, the western Chinese region of Xinjiang.

When six bombs exploded in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent in February, the Uzbekistan government said it was an assassination attempt on Karimov by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, an armed underground group. Instead, 16 other people were killed and 128 wounded. Uzbek officials and Asian diplomats in Tashkent say that the IMU’s leader, Tahir Yoldasev, subsequently fled to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, the base of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

In interviews, Taliban officials deny they are helping the IMU. But a senior political aide to former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, leader of the Northern Alliance, says the Taliban gave Yoldasev a house in Kandahar, then in May let him set up a military training camp in Taliban-controlled Mazar-e-Sharif, just a few miles from the Uzbekistan border. “Yoldasev is training 200 to 300 militants from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kirgyzstan and Uighurs from Xinjiang province in China,” says the aide. (The Tajiks are militant Muslims who rejected a 1997 ceasefire agreement with Tajikstan’s neo-communist government.)

Western diplomats in Islamabad say they believe Yoldasev is financing his operations through the Afghan drug trade. On June 2, Uzbek Foreign Minister Aziz Kamilov held talks for the first time with Mullah Omar in Kandahar and asked for Yoldasev’s extradition. “Omar flatly refused to do so and said he is a guest of the Taliban,” says an Asian diplomat in Tashkent. Several hundred other IMU militants have fled to Russia, Tajikistan and Turkey to escape Karimov’s crackdown and are expected to turn up in Mazar.

Iran’s Shia regime is also feeling threatened by the Sunni Taliban, who killed nine Iranian diplomats in Mazar last year. Australian journalists who visited Kandahar last year interviewed members of the Ahl-e-Sunnah Wal Jamaat, a small and little-known group of Sunni Iranians that is trying to overthrow the Teheran government. Iranian diplomats say the Taliban subsequently moved the group to Herat on the Afghanistan-Iran border, with the aim of carrying out sabotage inside Iran.

More worrisome to Teheran are reports that leaders of the main Iranian opposition group, the Iraqi-backed Mujahideen-e-Khalq, have frequently visited Kandahar and asked the Taliban for an operational base. So far there is no sign that the Taliban have accommodated them. But in a statement issued last September that did not name any specific group, the Taliban bragged: “Afghanistan is capable of harbouring opponents of the Iranian government inside Afghan territory and thus to create problems for Iran.”

China is also affected. Beijing shunned involvement in Afghanistan’s civil war until February, when the first Chinese delegation arrived in Kabul for talks with the Taliban. At the time, Chinese officials said that their concern was to stem the tide of heroin from Afghanistan into Xinjiang. But more is at stake: The heroin traffic is helping fund anti-Chinese Islamic and nationalist movements among the Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang. Uighur militants have trained and fought with fellow Islamic guerrillas in Afghanistan since 1986 and Chinese officials say the arms and explosives the Uighurs are using against Chinese security forces come from Afghanistan.

Taliban officials say they have assured China they are not harbouring Uighurs. A Taliban deputy minister visited Beijing in mid-July to discuss Chinese construction of a cement plant in Kandahar. However, Western diplomats in Islamabad say the Uighurs have ties to Yoldasev and bin Laden, if not directly to the Taliban.

Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban is complex and fraught with severe repercussions for Islamabad. Mainstream Pakistani Islamic parties jostle for strategic alliances with the Taliban. Between 3,000 and 5,000 Pakistanis belonging to a dozen different Islamic fundamentalist parties are in Kabul with Islamabad’s blessing for the Taliban summer offensive against the Northern Alliance.

Their leaders have set up receiving centres and offices in the central district of Kabul, which now resembles a Pakistani suburb. Their presence has worrying implications for India-Pakistan relations. Some of these Pakistanis are war veterans from earlier Taliban campaigns and from recent fighting in Kashmir against Indian forces, while others are on summer holiday break from madrassas or Islamic schools.

Also in Afghanistan, however, are the leaders of the Sipha-e-Sabaha Pakistan, or the SSP, and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi—extremist Sunni groups accused of killing hundreds of Pakistani Shias and attempting to assassinate Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The leaders have houses in Kabul, while their followers fight for the Taliban. “I can’t understand the logic that while the military supports the Taliban, our police in Punjab are trying to hunt down SSP leaders who are actually in Kabul,” says a senior adviser to Punjab Chief Minister Shabaz Sharif.

The Taliban have also given sanctuary to fighters from Pakistan’s Harakat-ul Mujahideen, who have been linked to bin Laden and whom Washington declared a terrorist group last year for attacks on civilians in Bosnia, Chechnya, Indian-held Kashmir and Tajikistan.

For many Afghans, the crux of the problem is the fall-off of U.S. involvement in the region since the end of the Cold War. From 1994 to 1997 the Clinton administration quietly allowed Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to back the Taliban, seeing it as a convenient foil for Iranian influence in Central Asia. Since last year’s attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Washington’s only agenda vis-a-vis the Taliban has been to “get bin Laden.”

The Washington-based Afghanistan Foundation recently issued a report urging that the U.S. government pursue a broader-based policy to restore peace in Afghanistan. The U.S. “should do more to weaken and transform the Taliban,” says the foundation’s head, former Republican Congressman Don Ritter, who was a leading supporter of U.S. aid for the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviets in the 1980s. “The Taliban must stop hosting any terrorist groups and close terrorist training camps.” The foundation’s report suggests that the CIA—which helped arm the mujahideen—should arm Taliban moderates with the aim of overthrowing Mullah Omar, or alternately support a return to power of Afghanistan’s exiled Zahir Shah, who ruled the country for four decades before being ousted in 1973.

However, most Western and Afghan analysts believe that CIA involvement would only further fragment Afghanistan. “Given Washington’s policy flip-flops and general incompetence on Afghanistan, it would be disastrous if the CIA tried to fund anti-Taliban groups,” says a European diplomat in Islamabad.

What the U.S. should do, say UN officials, is put serious pressure on neighbouring states to halt the supply of arms into Afghanistan—beginning with Pakistan. Many Afghans agree. “The Americans hold the key to stop the external interference in Afghanistan, but they don’t seem to have the will or determination to do so,” says the Northern Alliance’s Rabbani.

Adds the European diplomat: “Until the U.S. has a coherent Afghan policy rather than just a ‘get bin Laden policy,’ the war will continue.” And unless the international community resolves to end the Afghan conflict, Islamic militants and terrorists will always find a safe haven in Afghanistan.

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