The Taleban Effect

The Taleban's latest victory in Afghanistan has sent shock waves across Central Asia

The Taleban Effect

The Taleban's latest victory in Afghanistan has sent shock waves across Central Asia

Monday, 21 February, 2005

Drastic changes in the balance of power in Central Asia may result from the Taleban capture of the Northern Alliance-held Afghan town of Talukan earlier this month.

Until recently, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Russia, the main sponsors of the Northern Alliance leader, Akhmad Shakh Massoud, used Talukan to supply their Afghan ally. These countries have provided Massoud's forces with economic and military aid as they see them as a buffer between Central Asia and the Taleban.

Having lost Talukan, the armed forces of the Northern Alliance find themselves almost entirely surrounded by the enemy and pressed into a tiny corner of Afghanistan.

This has come about following a change of tactics by the Taleban. Previously, they had repeatedly attempted to break through the Pandjer valley, which is defended by Massoud's forces, in order to move on to the plains, more accommodating terrain for military action.

Massoud's fierce defence of this strategic point earned him the nickname "the Pandjer Lion". Now, the Taleban have moved in several directions to circle the unapproachable valley. The main military action is now taking place close to the Pandjer plains, where the Northern Alliance defences are weaker. Here, the Taleban armed forces, with their greater military power, can be fairly confident of defeating the Alliance.

With their latest victory, Taleban forces have moved right up to the borders with Tajikistan, a country with one of the most underdeveloped armies in the CIS. Until recently, the territory under the Islamic fighters' control only bordered Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

The Taleban are not strong enough to engage in direct conflict with the armed forces of the CIS. But, in gaining control over all the territory of Afghanistan, it may facilitate the development of a number of varied extremist groups in the Central Asia states.

This process has already started with operations by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the Surkhandaria and Tashkent oblasts of Uzbekistan and the Batken and Djalal-Abad oblasts of Kyrgyzstan. There is hard evidence of direct links between the leaders of the IMU and the Taleban.

The only state that can feel relatively safe is Turkmenistan. Its leadership has managed to maintain friendly relations with the Taleban. The Ashgabat authorities have repeatedly come out in defence of Afghanistan and even attempted to bring peace to the two warring sides, but so far with little success.

According to an independent Tajik analyst, Turkmenistan's peace brokering efforts stem from its attempts to build a gas pipeline to Pakistan, which must go through Afghan territory. Without stability there no company is prepared to take on this project.

Recently, Turkmenistan sent its representative, Boris Shikhmuradov, to try to end the fighting between the Taleban and the Northern Alliance. Although he failed to make any headway, he reiterated his country's support for the Taleban.

"The countries of Central Asia are mistaken in believing that any threat is coming from the Taleban movement." Shikhmuradov said in Kandagar. "It does not support Muslim fighters because Afghanistan has too many problems of its own and isn't able to get involved in the affairs of others."

There has been widespread international criticism of the Taleban, which is accused of having turned the country into a hotbed of international terrorism. "Turkmenistan doesn't realise it's playing with fire in order to build a gas pipeline. The consequences for Turkmenistan when the Taleban take over all of Afghanistan may be very dismal," said the Tajik analyst.

A mood of pessimism is spreading through the region as the countries of Central Asia prepare for the worst. There have been reports that Tajikistan is preparing camps for Afghan refugees in the event of the total defeat of the Northern Alliance. It is also prepared to play host to Massoud's forces. It is possible that Dushanbe wishes to use its allies to defend its borders from the Taleban.

There have been rumours that the once influential leader of anti-Taleban forces General Dostum has been in Moscow holding talks with CIS countries on thwarting the Islamist fighters. However, Dostum's authority was severely hampered when, following a defeat two years ago, he abandoned his troops and made a run for it. He now has very little influence on the course of events in Afghanistan.

But Moscow has as yet not abandoned its attempts to send the disgraced general to aid Massoud. Massoud himself is not overjoyed at such a prospect. He is perhaps the only figure capable of offering serious resistance to the Taleban, if he gets sufficient support from his northern allies.

Adil Kojikhov is an analyst with the Agency for Political Research in Almaty and Vladimir Davlatov is a regular IWPR contributor from Dushanbe.

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