New Taleban Agenda

The authorities in Islamabad appear to have found a new use for the Taleban

New Taleban Agenda

The authorities in Islamabad appear to have found a new use for the Taleban

The capture on September 5 of Taloqan, the northern command centre of United Front leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, was less a milestone in a Taleban plan to destabilise Central Asia than another step in Pakistan's ultimate military strategy of achieving mastery over the 'lost' province of Indian-occupied Kashmir.

Islamabad's military support for the Taleban, a Pashtun movement with roots in Pakistan's North West Frontier and Baluchistan provinces, has never been in dispute since it first emerged in the city of Kandahar in October 1994. According to a report in Jane's Defence Weekly, confirmed by NGO staff, around one-third of the 20,000 troops deployed in the Taloqan offensive are of Pakistani origin.

A similarly varied deployment of pro-Taleban forces was evident during the movement's August 1999 campaign against Massoud in the Shomali Plain, near Kabul, where 150,000 largely Tajik inhabitants were driven from their homes in the fighting.

That offensive came one month after former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif was forced by the United States to sign the Washington Accord, withdrawing Pakistani forces from Kargil, Kashmir, where they had trespassed the 'Line of Control' agreed with India half a century earlier, sparking fears of a nuclear confrontation.

That humiliating climb-down, combined with Sharif's subsequent, but belated, attempt to crack down on the Taleban-hosted guerrilla training camps on Washington's behalf, led directly to his ouster by General - now 'Chief Executive' - Parvez Musharraf one year ago this week.

Pakistan's motives for supporting the Taleban have changed dramatically in the past five years.

Conceived as a force that could impose order on the mujahedin factions that had splintered Afghanistan since the fall of the communist regime in April 1992. By stabilising the country, Islamabad could use its northern neighbour as a conduit for trade with the Central Asia - the construction of a gas pipeline across Afghanistan to Turkmenistan prominent among its plans.

Pakistan's involvement in Afghanistan angered Iran. As a result, Tehran switched from supporting the Shia faction besieging Kabul from 1992 to 1994 to Massoud's umbrella military front. This alliance, prior to the defeat at Taloqan, had united many of Afghanistan's disparate minorities - Tajik, Uzbek, Shia, Ismaili and, in the north at least, even several Pashtun clans disaffected with Taleban hegemony.

The US bombardment in August 1998 of guerrilla training camps near Khost, run by alleged 'terrorist' Osama bin Ladin, put paid to dreams of a Pakistani gas windfall. Unocal, lead company in a pipeline-building project across Afghanistan, pulled out in December of that year and, with it, the role of the Taleban changed.

Bruised by accusations of fomenting terrorism - charges accentuated by the US demand for the extradition of Kandahar-based bin Ladin - the Taleban was transformed from a movement of putative national salvation into another of Pakistan's many agents of change in the vexed Kashmir region.

Any bid by outside forces to undermine the Taleban's grip on the north east by re-arming Massoud is likely to be construed by Pakistan's military junta as a threat to its own strategy in Kashmir.

But the visit to India on October 4 by Russian President Vladimir Putin strongly suggested that new strategic alliances are in the process of being established to counter the perceived Afghan-Pakistani menace in the region. Moscow has already found cause to castigate Islamabad for permitting the training and transit though its territory of pro-Chechnya rebels.

The two powers "embarked upon a historic strategic partnership" involving the sale of 300 T-90 tanks to India and the creation of a production line for manufacturing SU-30 combat aircraft. They further agreed on joint exchange of nuclear information and collaboration on combating international terrorism.

The next sign to watch for will be China's reaction. Long a supporter of Pakistan's programmes in Kashmir, it remains to be seen whether the presence of the Taleban so close to the border of its restless Moslem minority in Xinjiang will be seen to have taxed their friendship too far.

Michael Griffin is news editor at Index on Censorship and author of 'Reaping the Whirlwind: Afghanistan's Taliban movement', to be published in April 2001.

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