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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

TALIBAN TREMORS

The movement's triumph rattles the neighbors


WHEN TALIBAN FORCES SWEPT through southern Afghanistan four years ago, they were welcomed in areas subjected to extortion, rape and looting by guerrilla gangs. The militia, which practices a strict version of Islamic law, quickly put an end to such abuses. Early this month, the Taliban capped a five-week military campaign in the north that gave them control of more than 90% of the nation. After nearly two decades of bitter war and political strife, the Taliban seem set to reunite Afghanistan under a strong government.

But their victories have disturbed at least half a dozen Muslim-majority countries in the neighborhood, particularly in Central Asia. They fear that the Taliban's ultra-orthodox Sunni ideology could spill into their territory - as does China, whose Xinjiang region is troubled by Uighur unrest. Though Taliban leaders say they will not export their religious beliefs, they may not be able to control those followers who are determined to do so.

There are also worries that the shake-up in Afghanistan may spread into Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Though officially secular, these northern neighbors have growing radical Muslim movements of their own. The Taliban's relations with Shia-majority Iran are already tense. Tehran, concerned about the fate of Shias in Afghanistan, recently accused the Taliban of kidnapping 10 of its diplomats and a journalist. Iranian troops are planning maneuvers on the border.

Then there are the Taliban's links with Osama bin Laden, a Saudi-born dissident who has been living in Afghanistan under their protection since 1996. The United States has accused him of masterminding the recent bombings of two of its embassies in Africa. On Aug. 20, Washington launched missile strikes against suspected terrorist camps allegedly run by bin Laden in Afghanistan.

Ironically, most threatened by the Taliban's activities may be their mentor, Pakistan. Islamabad has long been involved with the movement, which sprang from Afghan refugees who had crossed into Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of their country in the 1980s. Discreetly, the Pakistanis helped strengthen the movement. Their aim: to gain an ally in Afghanistan who could assure Islamabad of dominant influence there as well as access to Central Asian markets.

But the Taliban could prove to be a Frankenstein's monster. For one thing, their victories are a boost for Pakistan's religious right just as the country is struggling with severe economic, ethnic and social crises. For another, Islamabad has turned a blind eye to thousands of young Pakistanis joining the Taliban's ranks. When they return, with military experience and fired with religious zeal, they are unlikely to contribute to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's vision of a modern, democratic Pakistan.

The bin Laden connection means the U.S. should now pressure the Pakistanis to help rein in the Taliban - which would also be in Islamabad's interest. There is a lever. Every liter of fuel that drives the Taliban war machine is trucked in from Pakistan. If Islamabad is determined to do so, this crucial supply could be stopped within 24 hours. That could be a first step toward tempering broader tensions in the region.


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