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Afghanistan and its neighbours
The perpetual vortex
Sep 27th 2001
From The Economist print edition
The Taliban have caused trouble all over Central Asia. Now Central Asia is taking its
AFTER five years of Taliban rule, no country in the world has fewer friends than Afghanistan. Of the six
countries that border it—Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan (all fellow-Muslim states) and
China—not one has come forward to argue against the imminent anti-terrorist attack. Pakistan, Uzbekistan
and Tajikistan, indeed, have offered assistance to America and its allies. Even China, normally among the
shrillest critics of “American hegemonism”, will not rock the boat.
Small wonder. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan has become an exporter of instability that not only
affects its immediate neighbours but, as America now knows, reaches much farther afield. Even
before September 11th, the Taliban were recognised by only three countries. Since then, two of
these have cut diplomatic links; only Pakistan, formally, still has them.
The Taliban's sheltering of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda movement is only one reason why
Afghanistan is so feared. Other extremist groups, harboured and supported there, have struck out
into Kashmir, into the Fergana valley, where Uzbekistan, Kirgizstan and Tajikistan intertwine, and
probably even into China.
For their own reasons, these countries' undemocratic governments have tended to demonise the
Taliban. But there is some truth in their charges. The Taliban may not have set out deliberately to
destabilise the region; but they have allowed their territory to become a base for the worldwide
export of terrorism. Flooded with millions of weapons, infected with the worst sort of religious
fundamentalism and plumbing the depths of human misery, Afghanistan has become the world's
saddest and most dangerous example of a failed state.
Pakistan: creator and victim?
At the top of the list of vulnerable states comes Pakistan, which is much to blame for the rise of
the Taliban in the first place. In the mid-1990s, Pakistan took groups of militant Islamic students
(the name taliban derives from the Arabic for student) under its wing, helped them recruit new
members, and provided the guns, transport, training and battle plans they then used to conquer
most of Afghanistan.
Pakistan's motives were no mystery. Locked in a state of near-conflict with India on its eastern
border, it needed a friendly Afghanistan to its west. Afghanistan was a convenient place for
recruiting and training guerrillas to fight Indian rule in (largely Muslim) Kashmir, the occupation of
much of which by India has angered Pakistanis ever since their country became an independent
state 50-odd years ago. Afghanistan is also Pakistan's bridge to Central Asia: if there were peace
there, pipelines could deliver Central Asian oil and gas to the outside world through Afghanistan
So, by the mid-1990s, the Taliban won the backing of Pakistan's armed forces, especially the
powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). Their other main Pakistani ally was
Jamiat-e-Ulema-i-Islam (JUI), a religious party that now attacks Pakistan's support for the
American-led coalition. During the 1980s the JUI educated the children of Afghan refugees in
madrassas (religious schools) in the North-West Frontier and Baluchistan, the provinces bordering
on Afghanistan. Primed with the fierce absolutism of the Deobandi Islam they learned, the
madrassas' graduates flocked to the Taliban's cause.
Pakistan got much of what it wanted from the Taliban, including a
nursery for zealots to use against India. But, in the process, the ISI
and other state organisations drew dangerously close to anti-western
Islamists, including Mr bin Laden, just as they had earlier been too
close to the most radically Islamist of the mujahideen who, with
America's help, fought the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
What westernised Pakistanis now fear is that the networks of armed Islamists have taken on a life
of their own. One Lahore professional expects that he and his kind will end up with their heads on
pikes. An American-led attack on terrorists in Afghanistan, he suspects, will set it off.
Like the Taliban themselves, these fundamentalist networks both serve and defy Pakistani
interests. Their usefulness is clearest in relation to Kashmir. Pakistan cannot wage a full-scale war
against India, which would end at best in defeat, at worst in a nuclear conflagration. So it
encourages groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Righteous) and Jaish-e-Muhammad (Army of
Muhammad) to send mujahideen into Indian-controlled Kashmir to kill soldiers, policemen and
(says India) civilians. These groups have bases in Pakistan and in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir,
and training camps in Afghanistan.
Unsurprisingly, given the forces of militant jihad (struggle) under its patronage, Pakistan has not
been an island of tranquillity. In the 1980s Zia ul Haq increased the country's Islamisation,
promoting hundreds of madrassas that are now blamed for teaching young men little more than the
merits of martyrdom. The years of fighting in Afghanistan brought some 2m refugees into Pakistan,
along with countless guns and a culture of religious militancy. In this soil fundamentalist groups,
from the pacifically political to the ruthlessly violent, have flourished.
Jaish-e-Muhammad, for example, broke away from Harkat ul
Mujahideen, deemed a foreign terrorist organisation by America's
State Department. It appears to have close ties to a Sunni group
called Sipah-e-Sahaba (Army of the Prophet), a violent foe of
Pakistan's Shia minority. A Sipah-e-Sahaba offshoot called
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is thought to be behind a series of recent murders
of prominent Shias in Karachi, Pakistan's main commercial city.
All these groups stem from (though are not necessarily allied to) the fierce JUI party.
Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan's biggest religious party, is more peaceable, but is connected to the
biggest guerrilla group operating in Indian Kashmir, Hizbul Mujahideen. Although it never does well
in elections, its followers are a force to be reckoned with on Pakistan's streets. They have led
some of the protests against the idea of anti-terrorist action in Afghanistan.
Can Pakistan's military-led government control them? It has professed to want to curb extremism
since taking power two years ago, but has often seemed uncertain about just how to do so. It
recently banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi but at the same time released the leader of its supposed
associate group, Sipah-e-Sahaba. It is handling the anti-American demonstrations with a surer
touch, though two protesters were killed in Karachi on September 21st.
Most Pakistanis seem to believe their president, General Pervez Musharraf, when he says that the
Americans have more to offer Pakistan than the Taliban do. The lifting this week of sanctions
imposed on Pakistan by America after its nuclear-weapons tests in 1998 may help to prove his
point. But the country's mood has yet to be tested by western missiles hitting Afghanistan.
Although General Musharraf should be able to hold the extremists at bay, some of his officers,
especially in the lower ranks, are much less keen than he is on making common cause with the
Trouble in the valley
Pakistan is reaping the whirlwind sown by its own policies in Afghanistan. But the problem faced
by the “Stans”, the five former Soviet republics of Central Asia, is different. They have neither
supported nor encouraged militant groups in Afghanistan. On the contrary, it is the Taliban regime
that has given refuge, training and arms to dissidents from within them. And the Stans, in differing
degrees, have reacted so repressively that they have increased the dissidents' appeal.
Not all the five countries are equally affected or to blame. Kazakhstan
and Turkmenistan have managed largely to escape the attentions of
Taliban-backed groups. The primary target of the Islamists is
Uzbekistan, the most populous of the five. The most dangerous
Central Asian guerrilla organisation, the Islamic Movement of
Uzbekistan (IMU), grew up in the 1990s as a direct result of the
repression of milder forms of Islamic opposition to the rule of Islam Karimov, the Soviet-era
placeman who turned himself into independent Uzbekistan's first and only president.
But their prize, the Fergana valley, the lushest and richest part of Uzbekistan, is also shared by
Tajikistan and Kirgizstan, and so these countries too have been dragged into the conflict, and
relations between all three have been badly strained. Uzbekistan has upset Tajikistan and
Kirgizstan by laying mines along their common borders, often on the neighbours' side.
In return for being allowed to use bases in Afghanistan, the IMU, whose numbers are estimated at
1,000-3,000, has sometimes assisted the Taliban's campaigns against the Northern Alliance. By
doing so, they have made themselves too valuable to the Taliban to be surrendered. It is said that
Juma Namangani, the young military leader of the IMU, carries a warrant signed by Mullah Omar,
the Taliban's leader, designating him as the regime's second-most-honoured guest after Mr bin
The IMU first came to international attention in February 1999, when Uzbekistan's government
accused it of planting bombs in its capital, Tashkent. There was no real evidence, but later that
year, the IMU launched an attack on Uzbekistan from bases in Tajikistan, where it had been
fighting with the United Tajik Opposition in that country's civil war. The incursion got only as far as
Kirgizstan, where the IMU took several hundred hostages. The militants said they intended to
overthrow Uzbekistan's government and to establish a caliphate, a form of religious government, in
the Fergana valley. They then retreated to Afghanistan, but were back last year. This time, the
incursion got within 80km (50 miles) of Tashkent.
To prevent further attacks, the Central Asian republics have tried to strengthen their defences. For
this, the price has been high. Across the region, even in once-liberal Kirgizstan, the ruling regimes
have cracked down hard on Islamists, and by extension on all forms of opposition. It is hard to
avoid the conclusion that they have taken the Islamists' activities as an excuse to tighten their grip
In Uzbekistan, and to a much lesser extent in Kirgizstan, there have been mass arrests of
members of a Muslim group called Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Freedom Party), which wants to install
a caliphate, across the whole of Central Asia. Unlike the IMU, it insists that its methods are
peaceful. Yet the arrest of thousands of its supporters could easily convert it to violence.
The governments of the region are now allied in a number of ways. The bodies they belong to
include a Russian-led collective security alliance and the Chinese-organised “Shanghai Six”, which
are increasingly aimed at the Taliban. (Russia has a particular animus against the Taliban,
accusing them of supporting Chechen terrorists.) Now the Stans are falling into line behind
America, too. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have been quick to offer the allies the use of its territory
for operations against the Taliban. Tajikistan, it is thought, has privately done the same.
Feared even in Beijing
For all its presumed reservations about the exercise of American power, China too feels threatened
by radical Islam in Central Asia. The far-western Chinese province of Xinjiang—about 60%
Muslim—borders on Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as on three of the Central Asian republics.
There have been angry protests, and some outbreaks of terrorist violence, by people who want to
win the region's independence from Beijing.
Western diplomats in Beijing tend to downplay the Taliban's influence in China, saying that
Xinjiang's troubles have domestic roots and that these “disgruntled farmers with fertiliser bombs” do
not constitute a movement. That does not stop China worrying. In recent months the authorities
have arrested a number of militant Muslims; two Hizb-ut-Tahrir cells are said to have been found,
one in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, the other in the southern city of Khotan.
Diplomats also say that some 200-300 Uighurs, Xinjiang's main ethnic group, are believed to have
undergone military training in camps run by the Taliban. Many of these, however, have put their
skills to use outside China—in fighting Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, for example, and even in
Chechnya. China has attempted to maintain an unofficial relationship with the Taliban in an
apparent effort to persuade the authorities in Kabul not to send Xinjiang-born militants back to fight
in their homeland. But the danger is there.
China's bid to stay on the right side of the Taliban will have ended if it accepts Operation Enduring
Freedom. But America, China, Russia and the Central Asian states all have to recognise that they
need to come together not only to oppose the Taliban but to ensure that it is succeeded by
something more stable. If they do not, Afghanistan will remain a source of chaos.
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