The Taliban in Afghanistan reflect the danger of Muslims playing pawns in the hands of others, especially anti-Muslim forces. The product of British and American intrigue, the Taliban have now assumed a life of their own but are still susceptible to manipulation by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, two regimes beholden to the US. The announcement by a Taliban spokesman on September 9 that nine Iranian diplomats had been killed by their soldiers without orders from the high command when they captured Mazar-i Sharif on August 8 does not hold ground. The Taliban’s anti-Shi’i and anti-Iran feelings are far too well-known to convince anyone of such claims.
Tehran is naturally upset at the callous manner in which its diplomats were murdered. They have demanded that the culprits be handed over to Iran for trial. To make sure the Taliban get the message, Iran has amassed nearly 250,000 troops along the Afghan border for exercises. The Taliban, who emerged from the dark crevices of Afghanistan, are not familiar with diplomatic norms. For this reason, Iran said it holds Pakistan responsible for the ‘abhorrent’ killing of its diplomats since Islamabad had given assurances for their safety. Another diplomat and a reporter for the Islamic Republic News Agency are still missing as we went to press. The Taliban have also held a number of Iranian truck drivers as hostage. An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said Tehran ‘reserves the right to defend itself.’
Iran had staged military exercises near the Afghan border in the first week of September. These exercises involving some 70,000 Revolutionary Guards, had raised fears of a war breaking out between two Muslim countries. The exercises appeared aimed at drawing attention to the un-Islamic behaviour of the Taliban, a throwback to the savage practices of a medieval tribal mentality which has nothing to do with Islam. The troops also secured Iran’s eastern border with Afghanistan from the Taliban’s mischief. There is no shortage of people - Muslims as well as non-Muslims - who would like to see Iran get embroiled in another costly war. This is what the Americans want and was the primary reason behind their support for creating the Taliban in the first place. No less anxious are the Saudis who, despite their recent rapprochement with Tehran, are loathe to see Iran take the Islamic limelight.
One, however, is at a loss at the behaviour of Pakistani rulers. At a time when the country is in dire financial straits and India continues to breathe down its neck, why does Islamabad antagonise a trusted friend and ally of long standing in such a manner? There can be no denying the fact that the Taliban receive enormous support from Pakistan. Similarly, the Saudis are bankrolling them despite their irritation over the Taliban giving sanctuary to Osama Bin Laden who is a thorn in the side of the Saudi mafia as well as wanted by the Americans. One cannot put it past the Taliban to strike a deal with the Saudis and the Americans to betray Osama. After all, their loyalties can be bought for a fistful of dollars.
Both Pakistan and the Taliban are playing a dangerous game. Islamabad is not likely to see its dream of getting an oil and gas pipeline from Turkmenstan running along western Afghanistan to Pakistan realized. While Iran may not invade Afghanistan directly, there are enough Afghans in Iran who are just as sick of the Taliban as are leaders of the Islamic Republic. Western Afghanistan is not Pushto-speaking, especially around Herat. The Taliban maintain uneasy control there through the barrel of the gun. With Iran’s logistical support, this could be reversed and a base for the anti-Taliban alliance established there.
If events move along the current dangerous course, one can easily envisage the following scenario for Afghanistan in the not-too-distant future. Western Afghanistan will come under the influence of Iran, Southern Afghanistan will fall to Pakistan and Northern Afghanistan will come under the control of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Leonid Brezhnev’s plan for the division of Afghanistan will finally have been realized with an additional chunk taken out in Western Afghanistan. But if Pakistani rulers believe that this would benefit Islamabad, they must think again. Unfortunately, the people of Qandahar - the Taliban’s base - are extremely fickle. Their anti-Pakistan sentiments are well-known as is their support for the Pakhtoonistan idea. This had been buried with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan but it seems Islamabad’s shortsighted policies may breathe life into a long-buried corpse.
Pakistan’s current policy is aimed at appeasing Uncle Sam. This is no way to formulate a country’s foreign policy, especially to please the US which is a most ungrateful customer. There is even less reason to antagonise an old friend and neighbour like Iran. Also, given Afghanistan’s recent history, the Taliban are not likely to be a permanent feature in Kabul.
Muslimedia: September 16-30, 1998