by Eric Margolis © 1998 Eric Margolis
While the world watches the lurid drama of Clinton's slow-motion demise, South Asia is facing a dangerous crisis that could embroil the entire region in a new round of fighting over strife-torn Afghanistan.
Iran has massed 70,000 troops on its eastern border and is threatening to invade Afghanistan, using the pretext of 45 Iranian `diplomats' who disappeared after Taliban forces captured the important northern city of Mazar-I-Sharif. Tehran retorted to US warnings not to invade Afghanistan: `if the US can attack, so can we.'
The `diplomats' were, most likely, military advisors. They, and Russian advisors, were aiding the opposition Tajik-Uzbek Northern Alliance battling the Islamic Taliban. Tehran and Moscow have formed a de facto alliance to defeat Taliban. Russia's recent slaughter of 100,000 Muslims in Chechnya (Ishkeria) does not seem to trouble Iran's leadership. After 20 years of fruitless intrigue and subversion, Iran's leadership is considering using raw military power to impose its will on Afghanistan.
This imbroglio began in 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan as part of a grand strategy to push south to the Arabian Sea. Afghan holy warriors, or mujihadin, backed by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the US, defeated the Soviets, who finally withdrew in 1989.
Soviet occupation destroyed Afghanistan's delicate political, ethnic, and religious balance between the majority Pathans (or Pakhtuns), who are Sunni Muslims, and minority Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras, some of whom were Shia Muslims. The seven mujihadin groups, each supported by outside powers, fought among themselves. Afghanistan dissolved in anarchy and bloodshed.
In 1994, a new force exploded on the scene. `Talibs,' students at religious seminaries, or madrasas,' took AK-47's in one hand, and the Holy Koran in the other, formed a crusading army, the Taliban. and went to war against the fueding mujihadin, vowing to bring order and Islamic law to Afghanistan. Led by the shadowy, one-eyed, Mullah Omar, the simple seminarians were miraculously equipped with heavy artillery, tanks, and fighters. They quickly captured 60% of Afghanistan, including Kabul.
The real force behind Taliban was Paskistan's crack intelligence service, ISI, which had directed the earlier war against the Soviets. Pakistan, which has a large Pathan minority, sought to impose order in neighboring Afghanistan, and assert its influence through a friendly regime in Kabul. Peace would allow western consortia to build oil and gas pipelines from Termez, Uzbekistan to Karachi, Pakistan's main port - the shortest, most efficient route to export Central Asia's vast, untapped energy resources.
Iran, however, wanted Central Asia's energy exports to be brought out by its pipelines and railroads to the Gulf. Tehran consequently kept fueling the Afghan civil war to prevent Pakistan from securing the Termez-Karachi route.
Tehran, which constantly back-stabbed the mujihadin during the great Jihad against Soviet occupation, supported the anti-Taliban Tajiks, flying in planeloads of arms and munitions to their bases in the Panshir Valley, and to Shia Hazaras in the Hindu Kush mountains. The capture by Taliban of the town of Bamiyan and its important airport has just cut off the Northern Alliance's last air bridge with Iran.
Other players quickly joined this new round of what Rudyard Kipling called, `The Great Game.' Russia, eager to restore its influence in Afghanistan, backed the Afghan Tajiks and Uzbeks with arms, money, oil, and advisors. So did the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. Their despotic, neo-marxist regimes live in terror Taliban will export Islamic revolution to Central Asia and overthrow the existing communist order.
India joined the anti-Taliban alliance to thwart its rival, Pakistan. China, increasingly worried about rebellion by its oppressed Muslim Uighurs in Sinkiang (Turkestan), also discreetly backed the anti-Taliban alliance.
Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the wealthy Gulf Emirates support Taliban. The United States flirts with both sides. Washington is worried by Taliban's Islamic extremism, sheltering of enemies like Osama Bin Laden, and Taliban's medieval ways, particularly in treating women. But the Talib's hatred of Shia Iran, and their promise to bring order to Afghanistan - opening the way to American strategic penetration of Central Asia - is most appealing.
Recent defeats of the Afghan Tajik and Uzbek alliances by Taliban forces is now forcing Tehran to considering committing its own troops to the battle for Afghanistan.
The Iranians will make a terrible mistake if they do invade Afghanistan, even with Russian and Indian support. Afghanistan is the graveyard of invaders. The mighty Soviet Union was defeated and brought crashing down by Afghan mujihadin. An Iranian invasion would quickly draw Pakistan, the US, and Saudi Arabia onto the side of Taliban. It would end welcome efforts between Washington and Tehran to thaw their long cold war - and intensify the decade-old rivalry between Iran and Pakistan.
Afghans are paying the tragic cost of this modern version of Europe's 30-Year's War. Two million have been killed from 1979-1998. Three million are refugees. Millions of active Soviet mines remain. The only viable crop is opium poppies.
One of the world's bravest, most noble people, the Afghans have become pawns in the new Great Game for energy. Outsiders are happy to fight to the last Afghan to dominate this strategic, beautiful, horrifying ravaged nation whose people only want to be left alone.
The western media, much of whose reporting on Afghanistan is deeply flawed, has focused selective outrage on Taliban for treating women the way all Afghans have always done, while almost totally ignoring monstrous crimes committed by the Soviets, and the post-Soviet Najibullah regime. Taliban may be medieval, but better a medieval peace, say most Afghans, than continued chaos.
[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.]
Copyright © 1998 Eric Margolis - All Rights Reserved