Statement on the Situation in Afghanistan Before the Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs

October 08, 1998

Testimony
Testimony by CFR fellows and experts before Congress.

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Afghanistan

Mr. Chairman, thank you for this invitation, and thank you for your continuing work to focus attention on Afghanistan.

I have brought a written submission for the record providing background information on recent events in Afghanistan. In my statement I will concentrate on policy challenges posed by Afghanistan to the United States and the international community.

Mr. Chairman, since August the Taliban movement, with extensive Pakistani assistance, has succeeded in capturing all of Afghanistan except for areas in the northeast held by Ahmad Shah Massoud and supporters of Burhanuddin Rabbani. While the Taliban hoped that their consolidation of control over the territory of Afghanistan would lead to their recognition by the international community, in particular by the United States, their own behavior has rendered this impossible. They continue to shelter Osama bin Laden and his colleagues, thereby contravening requests from both the United States and Saudi Arabia; they violated firmly established norms of international and, if I may say so, Islamic law by executing Iranian diplomats; their troops appear to have massacred large numbers of noncombatant Shia Muslims from the Hazara ethnic group after the capture of Mazar-i Sharif; and they continue to insist on unacceptable conditions on the delivery of humanitarian assistance, especially to women.

These results would be objectionable even if they affected only Afghanistan itself. Unfortunately, the continuing crisis in Afghanistan is closely linked to the spread of conflict and the weakening of important institutions in all the regions surrounding Afghanistan. While today the potential for conflict with Iran occupies the most immediate attention, equally if not more serious is the effect of Pakistan's support for the Taliban on Pakistan itself, as well as the continuing destabilizing effect on central Asia and Kashmir. Conflicts in the latter two areas are mainly due to the policies of the governments in those areas, but the situation in Afghanistan contributes to radicalization and violence in those areas.

Safe haven for terrorists; the institutional collapse of a new nuclear power; spreading ethnic and sectarian conflict in the region between two major oil-producing areas, the Persian Gulf and the Caspian basin; and a continued humanitarian disaster for the people of Afghanistan— all these combine to present important threats to U.S. interests and humanitarian values.

Responding to this challenge requires understanding of new realities and a policy appropriate to them. Such a policy requires changing long-fixed assumptions about U.S. policy, interests, and allies.

For most of the Cold War a nonaligned, isolated Afghanistan helped stabilize the region. The Soviet invasion and the response it provoked destroyed that balance. Arms flowed to every mobilized group. Millions sought refuge abroad with ethnic and religious brethren. Expanded trade in drugs and consumer goods smuggled from the Persian Gulf via Afghanistan to Pakistan put billions of dollars in the pockets of warlords.

Each warring group in Afghanistan has been linked to surrounding states by ethnicity, religion, and strategic or economic interest. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Pakistan and Iran not only supported ethnic and religious allies but competed for the role of southern outlet for central Asia's oil and gas. Control over pipeline routes through Afghanistan, along with nuclear weapons, has become key to Pakistan's quest to counter India. But Pakistan's aid to the Taliban is not only greater than but qualitatively different from foreign aid to all other groups. Furthermore, it has aggravated the insecurity that blocks such pipelines and, ironically, endangered the stability of Pakistan itself.

The Taliban are a transborder movement, led by Afghans, funded and aided by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and linked to social networks in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. An ethnic Pashtun lobby in Pakistan's military and bureaucracy supports the Taliban, who have restored Pashtun political predominance in Afghanistan. Afghan refugee boys studied as taliban (students) in madrasas (Islamic academies) in Pakistan. Tens of thousands of these madrasas' Afghan and Pakistani students have joined the Taliban forces; thousands of Pakistani taliban have departed to fight in Afghanistan in the past few weeks. Afghan and Pakistani traders, who profit from the multibillion dollar trade in illegal drugs and consumer goods smuggled from Dubai, both pay assessments to the Taliban and contribute to the madrasas that furnish the troops. The administrators in Pakistani border provinces receive their cut from smugglers' markets and profit from sales of permits to trade in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Taliban behavior is further inflaming Sunni-Shia tensions throughout the region. In Pakistan, a Sunni-majority country with a Shia minority of about 20 percent, anti-Shia organizations that fight alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan have assassinated both leaders of the rival sect and Iranians in Pakistan. Shia militants have in turn shot down some of the Taliban's leading Pakistani supporters.

Moreover, Pakistan totters close to financial and political collapse as thousands of armed Pakistani Taliban may be set to return home. A new nuclear power, Pakistan faces the prospect of institutional disintegration and violent civil conflict.

U.S. interests would best be served by stability created by an inclusive, decentralized government in Afghanistan that respected the rights of all groups of Afghanistan's population and recognized the legitimate interests of all that country's neighbors. The greatest threats to such an outcome right now are the Taliban and their Pakistani and Saudi supporters (though Saudi Arabia may be moderating its support). Hence our former allies are now the greatest threats to our interests.

U.S. policy should aim to pressure and weaken the Taliban so that, perhaps through a process of internal splits, they will ultimately become more moderate and inclusive. I do not favor military assistance to any of the anti-Taliban forces, as Afghanistan's society cannot stand the impact of more war and violence. While we should not object to efforts by Afghanistan's neighbors to support some forms of anti-Taliban resistance, the focus of our policy should be weakening or breaking the Taliban's lifeline to Pakistan and support for a more inclusive governance structure.

Washington should start by clearly denouncing Pakistan's aid to the Taliban. Aid to the Taliban and the smuggling from which the Taliban profit help drain Pakistan's budget, and curbing these losses should be a condition for international financial assistance.

Conversely, we should recognize that we have largely common interests with Iran, Russia, and the central Asian states. The lack of a dialogue with Iran is thus more anomalous than ever. We should make some concrete gesture, such as waiving sanctions perhaps in the area of U.S. companies' participation in certain Iranian energy projects, aimed at making such a dialogue possible. U.S. rapprochement with Iran would also be a powerful source of pressure on Pakistan.

The United States' long-term goal must be to foster a new regional settlement over pipeline and trade routes, protection of cross-border minorities, and noninterference in Afghanistan. The immense geopolitical shifts and the trauma of 20 years of war have brought tremendous insecurity to this region. The states of southwest and central Asia need a framework for coexistence, starting with their mutual interests in Afghanistan. By recognizing the new realities and supporting both multilateral pressure and negotiation, the United States can try to prevent these conflicts from spreading.

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