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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

A DEVOURING FLAME

Silence the guns of Afghanistan before bigger powers join the shooting


THE CONFLICT IN AFGHANISTAN has become like a war movie showing on TV but no one is watching. The shooting and screaming continue, but have faded into the background. But if the world is growing inured to the seemingly endless carnage, the need for peace is as urgent as ever. Not only because of the unconscionable suffering of Afghans, but also for the momentous geopolitical implications. Continued conflict can play nothing but a destabilizing role in what has historically been an area of great strategic importance. And that tinderbox is bound to get even more combustible with China and the United States joining Iran, Pakistan and Russia in their deep interest in Central Asia.

Next month, 12,000 crack American airborne troops will participate in exercises in Uzbekistan, which the U.S. Atlantic Command chief recently visited. For his part, the Chinese defense minister, General Chi Haotian, has shown the flag in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, two of the former Soviet states that have signed border pacts with Beijing. Intensifying big-power interest are oil deposits in and around the Caspian Sea, among the world's largest, with an estimated value of $4 trillion. China is negotiating to develop Kazakhstan's second-largest field. It will also build a 2,000-km pipeline to carry Kazakh oil to China, which could help ensure fuel supplies in the event of a naval blockade. An added reason for Beijing to reach westward is the impact of Central Asian religious and ethnic currents on Muslim separatism in Xinjiang.

All the more reason for Iran, Pakistan, Russia and their battle-scarred proxies in Afghanistan to settle their differences before Central Asia's new Great Game gets even more complicated. The war in its current form pits the Taliban, militantly Islamic Pushtuns from the south and east, against an alliance of northern minorities (mainly Uzbeks and Tajiks) and Shia Muslim Hazaras from the central regions. The Pakistan-backed Taliban initially seemed to be an all-conquering force, capturing the capital Kabul last September. But military reverses in the north in May may have cost it any chance of total victory. At the same time, it seems improbable that the northern alliance supported by Iran and Russia can comprehensively defeat the Taliban.

So, Afghanistan has two options. The first is a peace settlement brokered by the United Nations and backed by Islamabad, Moscow, Tehran and maybe even Beijing, New Delhi and Washington. A regional conference bringing together warring parties and neighboring countries could cobble together some kind of a power-sharing, federalist government ruling from a demilitarized Kabul. Or it could preside over a partition of the country, with the Taliban holding "Pushtunistan" in the south and east, while the northern minorities turn their turfs into a loosely united confederation. Given the uncompromising combativeness of Afghan political culture, however, the bargaining will never begin unless the nations arming and bankrolling the conflict pressure their proteges to take their places at the table.

Option 2, sadly, is the continuation of war. Or its escalation and expansion: with bigger players poised to enter the Central Asian equation, even more guns and ordnance, if not foreign military advisers and troops, may well pour gasoline on the Afghan blaze. That fire could spread to neighboring states and ignite new frictions between global powers, while continuing to provide terrorists worldwide with a ready source of weaponry. The nations stoking Afghanistan's conflagration had better put it out before it engulfs them.


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