Before the Taliban Islamic movement overran Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, news reports linked the fundamentalist army to US. intelligence. While the CIA is often accused of having a sinister hand in overseas events, and direct evidence is usually scant, the allegations of Washington's role in Afghanistan have persisted. The Paris-based "Al-Watan al-Arabi" gives details about how the project may have been conducted and why: to take revenge for the World Trade Center bombing and to isolate Iran. Pakistan and the U.S. are presented as major players here, but the role of Saudi Arabia, possibly as a financial backer for the operation, is absent - something that might be expected from any publication reluctant to offend the kingdom. An accompanying article from another Paris weekly, "Jeune Afrique," spells out the economic interests at play in this new version of the "great game" in Central Asia.
Information obtained by AI-Watan al-Arabi from more than one source indicates that the true story of the Taliban is closely connected to an international plan to combat Islamic fundamentalism and the international terrorism of its networks. The decision to "create" the movement, or, at least, the American incentlve to do so, coincided with the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City in February, 1993. American investigators wasted few days before discovering that their former allies in Afghanistan's war with the Soviet Union had been behind the bombing.
American intelligence came up with a list of about 100 of the "Afghan Arabs" who had graduated from the mujahedin camps and were suspected of having played direct or indirect roles in the New York bombing. Because of the shock of the first terrorist operation conducted by "Muslim fundamentalism" in the U.S., the Americans decided to wage an unrelenting war to hunt and punish the perpetrators, focusing their attention on their main mentor, Islamic Party leader and then Prime Minister Gulbuddin I Hekmatyar.
Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was willing to abandon her "ally" Hekmatyar. But in return, she had one basic condition: No help for Ahmad Shah Massoud, the ethnic Tajik leader in northern Afghanistan. Pakistan was obsessed with the possibility of an alliance among Tajikistan, India, and Russia.
In October, 1994, the Afghan factions and the world at large were shocked by the appearance of an armed, organized, and trained movement. In just a few months, the Taliban took one third of Afghanistan. Observers were also surprised when the American ambassador in Islamabad, along with Pakistani Interior Minister Naseerullah Kahn Babar, toured the new Taliban communities in Pakistan. Taliban followers were trained at schools run by the Muslim Scholats Society, which counts Babar as a sponsor.
By February, 1995, the Taliban practically reached the gates of Kabul [and swept Hekmatyar from his base 10 miles south of the capital], having already controlled a large number of provinces, often meeting no significant resistance. Wherever it prevailed, the Taliban imposed Sharia, Islamic law. It was determined to burn opium fields and close camps that trained Muslim extremists of other nationalities, the two main American demands. The Taliban also opened the silk road with Turkmenistan for Pakistani truck convoys. .
A big setback for the American-Pakistani project, however, was Kabul's resistance and the failure of the Taliban to invade the capital. Washington began to reassess the project. But new factors and developments led to the intensification of American efforts. lran played a major role in seeing to that.
From the start, Tehran believed that the Taliban was not only a Sunni Muslim group, pro-American and pro-Pakistani, but was also anti-Persian. Iranian Revolutionary Guards conducted military operations inside Afghanistan to confront the Taliban. Iran later intervened to support Kabul. Iranian initiatives produced educatlonal, health, social, and military agreements between Kabul and TehranQand led to the opening of an Iranian consulate in Afghanistan.They also outraged the U.S. Maybe the most important aspect of its Afghan project became putting Iran under siege, thereby isolating it militarily, politically, and economically.
In September, 1995, the American oil company Unocal signed a huge deal with Turkmenistan to construct a gas pipeline that would bypass Iran by running through Afghanistan.This project is expected to move 20 billion cubic meters of gas annually for a period of 30 years. Observers recall that a Unocal consultant said in October, 1994, that "the Taliban are the liberators of Afghanistan."This statement became reality two years later.
During that period there was an increase in Iranian threats in the Persian Gulf, as well as a wave of terrorists' explosions. The most notable of these was the assassination of American diplomats in Karachi, the bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad, and the explosions that killed U.S. military personnel in Riyadh and Khobar. Investigations into all these operations pointed to a major role of Islamic extremists who took refuge in Afghanistan and were supported by Tehran. This made the Americans act quickly to reactivate the Taliban and support it until it won.
Americans have described the Taliban as "probably opposing Western modernism, but not against the West itself." The U.S. insists that there are no differences or animosities between Washington and Islam, as long as Islam stays away from armed extremism of the Iranian kind. Observers agree that Washington does not really care much about the internal Afghan situation or the shape of the government. It cares about Afghanistan's regional dimension and an alliance with Pakistan against fundamentalism and Iranian expansionism.
In this case,American intelligence has accomplished its greatest achievement in recent years by destroying the Muslim extremistsU camps and putting Iran under siege. Many observers believe this "Afghan operation" was envisioned at the same time as U.S. intelligence was suffering from a campaign of criticism and ridicule following its setback in northern Iraq.
The question now is, what will tbe Taliban really do? Will it carry out the main points of the American project, to expel the "Afghan Arabs," stop the drug production, and lay siege to Iran, or will it turn against Washington and Islamabad, just as Hekmatyar and other leaders of the Afghan factions did before?
October 11, 1996
Al-Watan al Arabi" (Arabic weekly), Paris
The "great game," described at the turn of the century by Rudyard Kipling, has returned.This time, however, the U.S. is playing the lead role. Washington has discerned a number of crucial interests. lhe chief aim is to prevent Iran from extending its influence. But Washington has a second goal: to weaken the traditional Russian influence in the region. Contrary to official speeches about the end of the cold war, the idea is still to prevent Moscow's reemergence as a major power.
Naturally, economic interests play a significant role. The Central Asian republics, especially Turkmenistan, have enormous reserves of natural gas and, to a lesser extent, oil.
Ever since America's Unocal and the Saudis' Delta Oil signed the deal to construct a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan, the rivalry between Afghan factions took on new importance. For the Americans, it became essential to secure control over the territory that the future pipeline would cross. That task was given to the Taliban, who were supplied jointly by the American and Pakistani services.
In the new "great game," the U.S. has won the first round with the Taliban's taking of Kabul. But the game is far from over. The Russian government hastily arranged a conference in the capital of Kazakstan, bringing together Central Asian leaders. But Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov says that there is no question of interfering in Afghanistan's internal affairs.
For Tehran, U.S~-Pakistani control of Afghanistan's territory is unthinkable. That not only would open up the Central Asian republics to U.S. economic interests but also would provide rear bases an armed Iranian opposition. The influedce Iran enjoys over the ethnic Hazara gives it means of action.
For New Delhi, the affair is another episode in its confrontation with Pakistan. The Indian government will do all it can to prevent its neighbor from gaining control with U.S. support over Afghanistan. Indian agents are already working with the Russians to strengthen the fragile anti-Taliban coalition, which has proved more solid than expected.
Has the time for negotiations come? Pakistan's minister of the interior, Naseerullah Babar, has offered a deal, with Washington's approval: General Dostum gets control of the Uzbek region, Massoud controls the Tajik region, while the Taliban remain masters of most of the country.
The Americans have sorted out their options. The Taliban's repression shocked the whole world, especially the American press. The Russo-Iranian-Indian coalition could prove to be formidable. So, the Americans have set their goals a bit lower, willing to sacrifice a few pawns without losing sight of the main goal: control of the areas in the center and the West, providing access to Turkmenistan and its vast energy resources. These are the stakes in the next round of this "great game" in which the peoples of the region are both playthings and victims.
Oct. 30-Nov. 5,1996
Jeune Afrique (independent, Africa oriented newsmagazine), Paris