Testimony on the Situation in Afghanistan Before the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations

October 8, 1998

Testimony by CFR fellows and experts before Congress.

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Recent Events and Political Actors in Afghanistan

For policy recommendations, see text of oral testimony


On August 8, 1998, the Taliban (Islamic student) movement of Afghanistan took control of Mazar-i Sharif, the last city remaining outside their control.2In their campaign in northern Afghanistan, the Taliban succeeded in gaining control of nearly all the parts of the country's territory that had remained outside their power since they marched into Kabul on September 26, 1996. Just as the Taliban prepared to campaign for international diplomatic recognition, however, the United States on August 20, 1998, launched a cruise missile attack against camps in Afghanistan that it charged contained the terrorist infrastructure of a movement led by Osama bin Laden, the wealthy Saudi exile. The United States claimed to have strong evidence implicating bin Laden and his network of exiled Islamists in the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on August 7. The United States also raided a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, Sudan, said to be manufacturing precursors of chemical weapons substances. The Taliban's continued defense of bin Laden and their denunciation of the U.S. raid ruled out any dialogue between the Taliban and the United States that perhaps would lead to U.S. diplomatic recognition and construction of oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia through Afghanistan.

The Taliban's behavior complicated their relations with regional states as well. Saudi Arabia, one of only three states that recognized the Taliban's government, expelled their diplomatic representative on September 22 in reprisal for the Taliban's continued harboring of Osama bin Laden. Most dramatically, the Taliban's killing of nine Iranian diplomats during their takeover of Mazar-i Sharif has led to an extended confrontation with Tehran. War, or at least military action, cannot be ruled out.

During the more than 20 years since the "Sawr Revolution" of April 27, 1978, brought a communist party to power, Afghanistan had moved from one stage to another of civil war and political disintegration, without seeming to get any closer toward peace, political order, or sustainable development. The combination of an inimical regional environment, characterized by unstable strategic and economic competition, with the destruction of much of the country's elites, institutions, and infrastructure, has assured the continuation of war among forces based in different regions of the divided country. The victory of the Taliban may put an end to open warfare, but it is likely to result in continued guerrilla or commando activities. The emergence of an assertive Islamic traditionalism in the form of the Taliban has also placed new obstacles in the way of international humanitarian and peacemaking programs.3

The division of control over the country had remained relatively stable since the summer of 1997. The Taliban movement, originally based in the southern city of Qandahar, the heartland of Pashtun traditionalism and the homeland of Afghanistan's old royal clan, had conquered the Persian-speaking city of Herat, near the Iranian border, in September 1995. A year later, in September 1996, the Taliban swept into the eastern Pashtun city of Jalalabad and Afghanistan's capital city, Kabul, driving out the Tajik-dominated government of the "Islamic State of Afghanistan" that was led by President Burhanuddin Rabbani and Defense Minister Ahmad Shah Massoud.

At the end of May 1997, the Taliban took advantage of divisions within the mainly Uzbek National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan (NIMA) to take temporary control of Mazar-i Sharif. This northern city on the border of Uzbekistan was the only major urban center still not controlled by them. The Shia in the city, however, mostly from the Hazara ethnic group, resisted the Taliban attempt to disarm them and drove the conquerors out in bloody battles that killed thousands and may also have led to the subsequent massacre of prisoners. A Taliban attempt to recapture Mazar-i Sharif in September 1997 also failed, largely because of a major resupply effort mounted by Iran.

While the Taliban failed in their first two attempts to control the entire North from this urban center, they managed to establish a long-term presence in the area. They gained the support of many of the ethnic Pashtuns who had been settled in the North by the Afghan monarchy and established a political and military base in Kunduz, which was supplied by air from Kabul and, according to some reports, Pakistan.

Despite intermittent activity on several front lines (north of Kabul, around Kunduz, northeast of Herat, on the borders of Hazarajat), the lines of control remained relatively stable until the Taliban's new offensive in July 1998.4The Taliban have constituted a governmental structure that they call the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Da Afghanistano Islami Amarat). Before the summer 1998 offensive, they controlled the entire Pashtun belt, from Jalalabad in the East, through Qandahar in the South, and on through the Southwest. They also controlled the ethnically mixed, primarily Persian-speaking cities of Herat and Kabul, which border on the Pashtun areas. Finally, they controlled a pocket of territory in the North centered around Kunduz. They thus controlled the highways connecting Afghanistan to Pakistan, Iran, and Turkmenistan, nearly all the Pakistani border, the entire Iranian border, and about half of the border with Turkmenistan. They also appeared to control part of the border with Tajikistan, including the port of Sher Khan Bandar. These areas included all the country's major customs posts except for Hairatan, north of Mazar-i Sharif, which the Taliban briefly held in May 1997. They also controlled the areas estimated to produce 90 percent of Afghanistan's opium poppies, the country's most profitable crop. Taxes on this crop are an important source of revenue for the Taliban, though they strictly prohibit its consumption. The United Nations estimates that Afghanistan and the surrounding region produce slightly more than half the world's supply of this drug.5

The opposition to the Taliban, known generically as the "United Front," consisted of several groups controlling different portions of the remaining parts of the country, which are largely inhabited by Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras. After the main Taliban offensive, elements of these groups controlled only a few mountainous areas home to ethnic minorities: Badakhshan and the Panjsher Valley, inhabited by Tajiks, and the Hazarajat, home to the Shia Muslim Hazara ethnic group. Before the Taliban's July-August offensive, the opposition groups had controlled most of the northern tier of provinces from Faryab to Badakhshan (except for Kunduz) as well as the Hazarajat. They controlled the main highway leading to Uzbekistan and the railhead at Hairatan that connects to the former Soviet rail system with links to Asia and Europe. Hairatan is the only major customs post in their region. These territories included about half of Afghanistan's border with Turkmenistan, the short but logistically and economically important border with Uzbekistan, nearly the entire border with Tajikistan, and a remote, mountainous, and largely inaccessible part of the border with Pakistan (including Pakistan-controlled Kashmir).

Even before the offensive, the Taliban appeared to control at least two-thirds of Afghanistan's territory; their own estimates ranged as high as 85 percent. Much of that territory, however, was uninhabited desert, especially in the Southwest. The areas under Taliban control at that time included probably slightly more than half the country's population, which is currently estimated at nearly 24 million.6The two largest population centers then under Taliban rule, Herat and Kabul, were largely hostile to them, and the requirements of controlling these areas probably make them more of a drain on Taliban personnel than a source of recruits. These market centers provided significant income, however.

The Taliban's main advantage was that they controlled the territory and population in the regions they ruled through a unitary structure, while the opposition remained split and riven by feuds. The opposition was divided into several groups, and each group was further divided into feuding factions. Furthermore, both sides depended to a great extent (though precise data are lacking) on foreign military, technical, and financial assistance. The Taliban are supported and were to some extent organized by Pakistan, with financial support from both official and unofficial sources in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states, while the northern groups have received aid from Iran, Russia, and, to a lesser extent, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The Taliban thus controlled the borders and highways leading not only to their own main supporter, Pakistan, but also to the opposition's main supporter, Iran. Supplying the Taliban was thus easier and less expensive than supplying the northern groups. By late August, the Taliban had control of virtually all the country's airfields except for two in Hazarajat. This effectively stopped aid to any other region.

The regional competition results from the reconfiguration of the region after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Iran, Pakistan, and Russia are competing for control over the routes by which Central Asia's oil and gas resources will reach outside markets, which in turn will largely determine what power becomes predominant in the area.7The decision by India, followed by Pakistan, to test nuclear weapons has raised the stakes in the region and complicated peacemaking efforts. The independence of ethno-national states in Central Asia has given new prominence to ethnic identities, affecting co-ethnics across borders. And the increasing politicization of Islamic identity has increased the salience of Sunni/Shia sectarian differences.

Perhaps the best-known fact about the Taliban is the restrictions they have imposed on women. These restrictions require that women be fully veiled, forbid them most education and employment, and impose strict limitations on their access to public services, including health care. The Taliban have also required men to grow full, untrimmed beards, cut their hair short, and attend mosque. They forbid any social mingling or communication among men and women outside the family. These rules (and others) have led to a series of confrontations with the representatives of the international community, largely the U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) present in Afghanistan.8

Despite these rules, until the summer of 1998 these international organizations continued to work in Taliban areas; they did not work in most areas controlled by the northern groups. All agencies withdrew from Mazar-i Sharif after their offices, property, and storehouses (including food intended for destitute or famine-stricken areas) were thoroughly looted for the second time in September 1997 (they had been looted previously in May). The United Nations continued to work in Hazarajat, however. Western NGOs left Kabul in July 1998 when the Taliban refused to withdraw a requirement that all the NGOs move to the Polytechnic, a ruined Soviet-built campus in northern Kabul. More Westerners left in response to U.S. warnings about dangers to non-Muslim foreigners during the preparation for the August 20 raids. The Taliban resent the fact that although they have provided security for U.N. and NGO staff and property, the opposition, which has failed to do so, continues to be recognized as the government of Afghanistan by most countries and to occupy Afghanistan's U.N. seat. Only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates recognize the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Opposition to the Taliban's gender policies accounts for much of the resistance to either recognizing them or vacating Afghanistan's U.N. seat. Indeed, a significant movement has developed in Europe and North America in opposition to the Taliban's gender policies, and this movement, as much as the interest in gas and oil pipelines, has placed Afghanistan back on the international radar screen. The Taliban's harboring of bin Laden and his network provides yet another even more prominent reason.


Through the past 20 years, the identity of Afghan political organizations has changed several times.9During the period of the Soviet occupation, Afghan actors were divided among the communist or pro-Soviet group based in Kabul and the various mujahidin forces based in Pakistan, Iran, or different regions of Afghanistan. After the withdrawal of Soviet troops, and particularly after the termination of aid from the U.S.S.R. (which dissolved) and the United States (which disengaged), only groups that managed to consolidate a territorial base inside Afghanistan were significant. Such groups invariably took on ethnic or regional characteristics, despite the absence of ethnic ideology in most cases, as these were the only means available to consolidate power in the country. These groups also developed links with foreign powers, which provided them with military and financial assistance. (See 3. INTERNATIONAL ACTORS, below, for further details.)

The agents of political and military action in Afghanistan today are ethno-regional coalitions organized around elites. They cohere in territorial units that have access to external resources for patronage.10Settlement in these largely mountainous and arid zones has clustered around river systems that form the basis for irrigation, and towns that are both local marketing centers and stops along long-distance trade routes. Entities formed around these river systems and towns, separated by mountains and deserts, constituted the political and social units that were amalgamated through conquest and alliance into the state of Afghanistan. That state originally included a few large provinces that coincided with these regions: Kabul, Jalalabad, Qataghan-Badakhshan, Turkestan, Herat, Hazarajat, and Qandahar. A century of state building had divided these large units into 30 smaller provinces, helping to fragment the broad coalitions that could challenge state power across such socially coherent areas.11The collapse of the Afghan state as a result of the struggle against the Soviet occupation, however, destroyed-among other things-most of this administrative structure. Once the Soviet troops withdrew, control weakened over the roads that linked these regions. Regional coalitions then began to coalesce once more within these historical units, though at different rates and with different types of leadership and economic bases.

These regionally based coalitions form the basis for the new ethno-regional politics of Afghanistan. Each such coalition has at its core a group of men linked by some network. In each case the leadership is largely uniform ethnically and socially, reflecting the nature of social solidarity in a fragmented society. It is precisely because of this phenomenon that the Taliban and other groups aiming at taking central state power are so intent on recentralizing the government and fragmenting the coalitions.

Throughout most of this period, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras each controlled political-military organizations that exercised considerable power in the regions where they predominated. Few areas were homogeneous, however, and despite some localized conflicts, there was no massive ethnic cleansing. Pashtun nomads did lose access to pasture lands in non-Pashtun areas, including the northern steppes and the mountain pastures of Hazarajat. The central government was controlled by a largely Tajik group, and military control of Kabul was largely in the hands of non-Pashtun militias, some of which victimized some Pashtuns. Hence while non-Pashtun groups were determined not to return to the status of dependent minorities, many Pashtuns felt marginalized and threatened.

While all the non-Pashtun groups were allied in the campaign for control of Kabul in 1992, they gradually defected from the Tajik-dominated Jamiat-i Islami-yi Afghanistan (Islamic Society of Afghanistan), which controlled the presidency and official security establishment. In the civil war that tore the capital apart from 1992 to 1996, virtually every group was at one time both the ally and the opponent of every other group, regardless of ethnicity.

The main militia group fighting for Kabul that was composed primarily of Pashtuns was the Hizb-i Islami (Islamic Party) led by Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, based south and east of the city. Despite the support this group received from Pakistan, it failed to consolidate a base among Pashtuns, who had no effective vehicle to compete for power. The shuras (councils) of Jalalabad and Qandahar, traditional Pashtun centers, had degenerated into ineffectual groupings preoccupied with smuggling and the drug trade. Much of the Pashtun area was dominated by small warlords. Qandahar and its environs, in particular, was the scene of frequent factional fighting.

The Taliban provided a vehicle around which Pashtuns could unite, despite the misgivings many have about aspects of the Taliban's ideology and their close links to Pakistan. Thus while there are two mainly Pashtun groups in the United Front (both formerly powerful but now insignificant), the Taliban consolidated a political monopoly in the Pashtun areas. Until the Taliban conquest of the North, then, the country was divided between those areas controlled by the Taliban and those controlled by the others. The actors in these two regions are considered separately below. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that the identity and alignment of actors have continually changed under the impact of regional realignments and shifts in control over resources. More such changes are undoubtedly in the offing, though we cannot predict what form they will take. The consolidation of Taliban control will likely give rise to new alignments, perhaps involving ethnic and tribal factionalism within the Taliban regime itself.

2.1 The Taliban

The Taliban do not represent a totally new phenomenon in Afghanistan. The network of teachers and students from private, rural-based madrasas in Afghanistan and the neighboring Pashtun-populated areas of Pakistan (previously part of British India) has played an important part in the history of the country for centuries. During the anti-Soviet jihad they constituted one of the important sources of recruitment for mujahidin in the tribal areas. They were particularly prominent in the Harakat-i Inqilab-i Islami (Movement of the Islamic Uprising) of Mawlawi Muhammad Nabi Muhammadi and the breakaway faction of Hizb-i Islami (Islamic Party) led by Mawlawi Yunus Khalis.12

This group had become marginalized as a result of years of state building by the royal regime, which created a new elite (including Islamic scholars and judicial officials) trained in modern schools and universities. The royal regime, the communists, and the Islamists recruited primarily from different sectors of this new elite.13The internecine battles of the past 20 years, in which one faction after another of that intelligentsia succeeded to power, each decimating its rivals, eventually led to the eclipse of this modernizing group. At the same time, as millions of Afghans became refugees and the country's educational system collapsed, rural madrasas provided almost the only education available to the generation of Pashtun boys who reached school age after 1978. The rise of the Taliban occurred a generation after the start of this new educational process, just as the communist coup d'état (and Islamist resistance) occurred a generation after the massive expansion of the state educational system.14

Today's Taliban movement (Da Afghanistano da Talibano Islami Tahrik, or Islamic Movement of Taliban of Afghanistan) formed in response to the failure of the mujahidin to establish a stable government after the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the collapse of the government the Soviets left behind. While various militias fought over and destroyed large swathes of the national capital, mujahidin commanders in parts of the countryside became virtual warlords. In Qandahar, in particular, internecine fighting had led to chronic insecurity-women were raped and abducted-and omnipresent checkpoints where armed men extorted tribute from traders and travelers.

A group of madrasa teachers and students led by Mullah Muhammad Umar formed the Taliban movement to end the power of these warlords and establish a pure Islamic regime. They succeeded largely because of the military aid they received from Pakistan (see 3. INTERNATIONAL ACTORS, below). This aid enabled them initially to seize control of Qandahar city and province in October-November 1994 and to expand their area of authority until they took control of virtually the entire country in August 1998.15

Despite their expansion beyond their original home base, the Taliban leaders remain a group of mainly Qandahari mullahs trained in madrasas affiliated with the Deobandi movement (see below) in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. This leadership thus has both a regional and ideological component. The two are related but not because, as is sometimes said, the Taliban represent in any simple way the traditional code of the conservative Pashtun tribes of southern Afghanistan. On the contrary, the Taliban represent an Islamic ideological radicalization of elements of that code under the impact of war and mass displacement. While their restrictions on women may bear some resemblance to the tribal code, other regulations, such as forbidding celebration of Nawruz, the spring New Year derived from pre-Islamic Persian traditions, are opposed to traditionalism. Especially in the non-Pashtun cities that they rule, the Taliban enforce this ideology through a new disciplinary apparatus alien to tribal traditions.

The Taliban ruling structure is based on their understanding of Islamic precepts of government. It is headed by an amir (Mullah Muhammad Umar) who is assisted by shuras, or consultative bodies. Since their concept of Islamic authority is that of the amir leading a community (millat) of Muslims, Mullah Umar renamed the Islamic State of Afghanistan the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in October 1997.

In making the transition from a militant movement to a would-be government, the Taliban have changed their institutional structure. They do not seem to be maintaining the Taliban Islamic Movement as a formal structure parallel to the state. Instead, the movement is becoming an informal network connecting the leading figures in the new state structure, where power now resides. Mullah Umar, as amir al-mu'minin, is head of state. Originally Mullah Umar headed a 10-member supreme shura and a military shura, both based in Qandahar. After the Taliban captured Kabul, they established the Kabul shura, consisting of the ministers and acting ministers of the Taliban government.Several analysts reported that the supreme shura and military shura coexisted with the Kabul shura for some time, constituting a parallel power structure similar to that of a communist party in a Leninist regime.16These structures may have persisted, but today Taliban leaders claim that they have been abolished in favor of a more conventional government structure.17

Mullah Muhammad Umar, the head of state, was "elected" as amir al-mu'minin (commander of the believers, a title of the caliph) by an assembly of about 1,200 invited ulama held in Qandahar from 20 March to 4 April 1996. He apparently has the final say on all matters.18Subordinate to him is the Kabul shura, effectively a cabinet of ministers, chaired by Mullah Muhammad Rabbani, whose position is analogous to that of a prime minister or head of government.

While this government has few resources and many parts of it are hardly functioning, the Taliban have increasingly adopted a discourse of Afghan nationalism as well as of their Islamic traditionalism and are trying to recreate a centralized Afghan state. In areas under their control they have appointed provincial governors and administrators of districts, cities, towns, and precincts from the center. The administrators are invariably natives of areas other than the ones they govern. The location of the head of state in Qandahar and the government in Kabul, however, encumbers decision making. It also continues to communicate the message that the Taliban's power is based in one section of the country, rather than in the national capital, which was moved from Qandahar to Kabul in 1775.

Most of the Taliban's resources and efforts go to the war effort and to maintaining security in the areas under their control. They have reduced checkpoints on the roads to a minimum, and petty crime has diminished. They have also established a new security service, the Ministry of Enforcement of Virtue and Suppression of Vice (al-Amr bi al-Ma'ruf wa al-Nahi 'an al-Munkir), which bears the same name, based on a Quranic verse, as its homologue in Saudi Arabia. Originally a department of the office of the chairman of the Kabul shura, it was promoted to the status of a ministry in May 1998, thus recapitulating the history of its communist predecessor, Khad.19This ministry is responsible for the enforcement of all Taliban decrees regarding moral behavior (Mullah Umar charged it with all responsibilities for "guidance," or irshad, the Islamist term for political and moral control), including the decrees restricting activities of U.N. agencies and NGOs.20It appears to have an independent source of funding (probably from Saudi Arabia) and has become the most powerful agency within the Islamic Emirate.

Mullah Umar and all but one member of the supreme shura are Qandahari Pashtuns.21All the members of the military shura whose ethnic and regional origins are known to the author are Qandahari Pashtuns. The Kabul shura is also predominantly Qandahari Pashtun but includes more eastern Pashtuns, a couple of Persian speakers, and one Uzbek.

Some observers have therefore described the Taliban as dominated by the Durranis, the confederation of Qandahar-based tribes that founded the Afghan empire in 1747 and from whom all the country's kings were descended. Such an analysis has reinforced the belief of some that the Taliban might prove a bridge to the restoration of a "traditional" Afghanistan, that they might collaborate with the exiled former king, Zahir Shah, or that they might be subject to moderating influences from tribal leaders or the Western-educated dignitaries of the old regime. A closer look at the Taliban leadership's tribal origins, however, shows that this analysis is inaccurate and such hopes are misplaced.

Though Qandahar has been dominated by Durranis for centuries, the area also includes some Ghilzais and other Pashtuns, and the Taliban leadership reflects this fact. Furthermore, there was a traditional hierarchy among the tribes of the area, with the Durrani senior tribes on top, Durrani junior tribes next, and other Pashtuns and ethnic groups below. The Taliban leadership structure shows no trace of this traditional hierarchy. Mullah Muhammad Umar himself is descended from the Ghilzai Hotaki tribe, whose leader Mir Wais conquered Isfahan in 1721, after the Safavid Persian governor of Qandahar tried to force Shiism on the Afghans. (Hence the antipathy between Iran and the Taliban has some historical roots.) His deputy, and chair of the Kabul shura, Mullah Muhammad Rabbani, is a member of the Kakar tribe, also not Durrani. Of all the Taliban leaders whose tribal affiliations are identified by author Ahmed Rashid, only one is a member of the formerly powerful Barakzai tribe, the tribe of the Afghan royal family.22

Indeed the once powerful tribal structure of Qandahar, dominated by large landholding clans allied with the royal family, has been shattered by the war. As in the other regions of the country, a new elite has emerged. The Qandahari character of the movement is not tribal but a version of the ethno-regionalism described above. In the Taliban case the social network of the elite at the core of the coalition is formed from Qandahari mullahs who studied in the same set of madrasas in Pakistan and participated in the jihad. Hence the movement has a strong ethnic and regional characteristic, though its leaders had no intention of forming such a movement, and it has therefore attracted support from many who do indeed seek a Pashtun ethnic movement capable of ruling Afghanistan.

Most of the Taliban leaders participated in the jihad as minor commanders or fighters. Few of them were born before 1960, and they thus belong to a younger generation than the leaders of the Islamist groups (who were born in the 1940s or 1950s) or the traditionalist parties (born even earlier). Their troops (and even some members of the leadership) are too young to have participated in the jihad, and their formative political experience was not the Soviet invasion and the resistance but the subsequent civil war among the supposedly Islamic parties.

Their core leaders are not just mullahs, but mullahs who belong to a common political network, the Deobandi madrasas in the Pashtun tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Deobandi movement, which owes its name to the Indian town where a famous madrasa was established in the 19th century, developed from conservative reform movements among Indian Muslims. During the 19th century Indian Muslims were split between the followers of Aligarh, home of the Aligarh Muslim University, which provided a Western-style higher education to Indian Muslims, and Deoband, where the madrasa provided a conservative education focused on Islamic law (sharia) and jurisprudence (fiqh). Deobandis looked back for inspiration to Shah Waliullah, an 18th-century Indian thinker influenced by Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab of Arabia (whose followers are called Wahhabis by their opponents), the Shah's contemporary, who provided the ideological legitimacy for the dynasty of Ibn Sa'ud. Hence the Taliban's Saudi connection, like their antipathy to Iran, has roots several centuries old.

Deobandis reject all forms of ijtihad, the use of reason to create innovations in sharia in response to new conditions. The revival of ijtihad is a key plank in the platform of the Islamic modernists. Deobandis oppose all forms of hierarchy within the Muslim community, including tribalism or royalty, favor excluding Shia from participation in the polity, and take a very restrictive view of the social role of women. All these characteristics of the Indian and Pakistani Deobandis are found in exaggerated form among the Afghan Taliban.23

2.2 Northern Groups

The groups arrayed against the Taliban formed a nominal alliance called the National Islamic United Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (Jabha-yi Muttahid-i Islami-yi Milli bara-yi Nijat-i Afghanistan).24The fate of several of the elements of this group after the Taliban capture of the North remains unclear. While the group's membership varies from time to time, at least the following belong to it:

• Islamic State of Afghanistan (Jamiat-i Islami-yi Afghanistan)/Supervisory Council of the North (SCN, Shura-yi Nazar-i Shamali).25This group, primarily composed of Tajiks, is led by Burhanuddin Rabbani, leader of Jamiat and president of the Islamic State of Afghanistan (ISA), the government deposed from Kabul by the Taliban. Jamiat was one of the original Islamist parties in Afghanistan, and Rabbani was a lecturer at the Islamic Law Faculty of Kabul University. Rabbani became president pursuant to an agreement among exiled mujahidin party leaders in Peshawar in 1992. The most powerful leader of this group is Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Jamiat commander of the Panjsher Valley, who was officially Rabbani's deputy and minister of defense. Both are Sunni Persian-speakers (hence "Tajiks") but are from different subregions and have different power bases. There are recurrent rumors that Massoud is about to break with Rabbani, but this has not happened. Though the ISA holds Afghanistan's U.N. seat and claimed to rule the entire area outside of Taliban control, even before the Taliban victory in the North it did not have a coherent state structure. Massoud controlled an area including much of Parwan and Takhar Provinces through the regional administrative structure he established in the late 1980s, the Supervisory Council of the North. In late August 1998 he still controlled his home base in the Panjsher Valley but had told the population to feel free to move elsewhere to flee an anticipated Taliban attack. Some commanders in control of parts of Badakhshan support Rabbani, though a number defected to the Taliban in August 1998. Massoud's front line has been 25 kilometers north of Kabul, and until the Taliban victories he controlled the Bagram air base, from which he could shell Kabul. He has since retreated into the Panjsher Valley.

• National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan (Junbish-i Milli-yi Islami-yi -Afghanistan-NIMA). This group brought together northern, mostly Uzbek, former militias of the communist regime who mutinied against President Najibullah in early 1992. It also includes former leaders and administrators of the old regime, mainly Persian-speaking, from various ethnic groups and some Uzbek mujahidin commanders. The NIMA has lost all the territory formerly under its control, and many of its commanders have defected to the Taliban. It is not clear if the group has any future. The NIMA's founder and principal leader was Abdul Rashid Dostum, who rose from security guard to leader of Najibullah's most powerful militia. It took control of Mazar-i Sharif in alliance with other groups in early 1992 and controlled much of Samangan, Balkh, Jawzjan, Faryab, and Baghlan Provinces. A coalition of militias, it was subject to internal disputes. General Dostum is thought to have assassinated a principal rival, Ghulam Rasul Pahlawan, whose brother, Abdul Malik Pahlawan, sought revenge by revolting against Dostum and allying with the Taliban in May 1997. Malik then turned on the Taliban and is accused of killing several thousand Taliban prisoners taken in Mazar at that time.26Dostum fled to Turkey but with the assistance of Uzbekistan returned to Afghanistan in September to oust Malik and lead the successful relief of Mazar against another Taliban assault. NIMA was the strongest force in the North during 1992-97, ruling several provinces partly through the remaining state structures of the former regime, but its internal disputes have weakened it considerably.

• Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan (Hizb-i Wahdat-i Islami-yi Afghanistan). The principal Shia party in Afghanistan, with support mainly among the Hazara ethnic group, this group was originally formed under Iranian sponsorship in order to unite eight Shia parties. Its leader, Muhammad Karim Khalili, has to some extent asserted his independence from Iran and is based in Hazarajat. The leader of its Executive Council in the North, Haji Ayatollah Muhammad Muhaqqiq, commanded the party's forces in Mazar-i Sharif and was favored by Iran. Wahdat became the major military force in northern Afghanistan and provided the backbone of resistance to the Taliban's attempts to capture Mazar-i Sharif. In March 1995 the party's founding leader, Abdul Ali Mazari, was killed in Taliban custody in an incident the details of which are disputed. It continues to control the Hazarajat, which in late August 1998 is under Taliban blockade from both north and south.

• Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan (Hizb-i Wahdat-i Islami-yi Afghanistan)-Akbari faction. This faction is a breakaway faction of Wahdat led by Hujjat-al-Islam Sayyid Muhammad Akbari. Akbari is a non-Hazara Shia (from the Qizilbash group), who had religious training in Iran. This faction allied with Massoud and Rabbani at times when the main Wahdat allied with Dostum against the leaders of the "Islamic State."27

• Islamic Movement of Afghanistan (Harakat-i Islami-yi Afghanistan). A Shia party that never joined Wahdat, this group is led by Ayatollah Muhammad Asif Muhsini, who was long allied with Jamiat. Its relations with Iran are strained. Its leadership is mostly non-Hazara Shia.

• Islamic Party of Afghanistan (Hizb-i Islami-yi Afghanistan)-Hikmatyar. This formerly radical Islamist party, led by Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, was favored by Pakistan throughout the jihad and subsequently became Pakistan's main vehicle for attempts to oust the Rabbani regime. In the face of the Taliban, who captured most of his heavy weapons and became Pakistan's newly favored clients, Hikmatyar joined Rabbani's government as prime minister in June 1996, thereby claiming a role he had formally exercised under an agreement reached in Islamabad in March 1993. After a sojourn in Iran, he returned to northern Afghanistan to join the United Front. He now controls few military or political resources.

• Council of the East (Shura-yi Mashriqi). This faction regroups some former leaders of the shura of Jalalabad, notably Haji Abdul Qadir. Qadir, a former governor, reportedly made millions of dollars smuggling consumer goods from Dubai to Pakistan and from involvement in the drug trade, which had one of its centers in his province. Some small groups in the East are still said to be loyal to this group. Like Hikmatyar, Qadir is Pashtun, and his presence serves to show that the northerners aspire to a genuinely national identity.

The United Front functioned, rather poorly, mainly as a framework for negotiating with the Taliban. It did not have joint political or administrative functions in the areas under these groups' control. Until August 1998, the northern areas had four main administrative and political centers: Mazar-i Sharif, which some groups aspired to turn into a temporary capital for an ISA government-in-exile; Taluqan, the headquarters of Massoud's SCN; Shiberghan, General Dostum's headquarters; and Bamiyan, headquarters of the Hizb-i Wahdat administration of Hazarajat. By late August, only the last was still beyond the Taliban's control. Some elements of the former state administration survived in each region, but political power resided in the various armed groups rather than in a unitary structure. The coalition among Junbish, Jamiat, and Wahdat (primarily) that had ruled Mazar broke down as the city's population became even more Hazara (due to migration from Kabul and Hazarajat), and Junbish was weakened by factional struggle. Through the middle of 1998, the city remained in a tense stand-off, as the city center was controlled by Wahdat troops led by Muhaqqiq while Dostum's forces surrounded them.

These groups had somewhat different aims. Wahdat and Junbish articulated the need for regional autonomy and power sharing among various groups in Afghanistan. Hazara groups in particular insisted on control over their own areas and recognition of Shia law (fiqh-i Ja'afari) in their own affairs. Jamiat's articulated plans for the future Afghan state seemed as centralized as the Taliban's, though Massoud was said to have developed a plan for a federal system based on nine regions.28These groups' attempts to establish a temporary government in Mazar-i Sharif suffered a major setback when a plane carrying 40 of their leaders, including Abdul Rahim Ghaffurzai, the prime minister designate, crashed in August 1997, killing all passengers.29Ghaffurzai, a Pashtun from Afghanistan's royal clan (the Muhammadzai) with extensive foreign affairs experience, would have given this alliance a more national image and a better international presence. Since then, the United Front has been unable to agree on a prime minister. On paper, several of these groups acknowledged the ISA and held positions within it: Dostum was deputy to the president and military commander of the northern regions, Muhaqqiq was minister of internal affairs, and an official of the Akbari faction was a deputy prime minister. All groups, however, maintained their own military and command structure, and they did not carry out a unified strategy to mobilize resources in their struggle with the Taliban. This disunity was accentuated by the divisions among the northerners' several patrons.


With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Afghanistan lost the strategic position it had previously enjoyed as a buffer state, first between the Russian and British empires and then between the Soviet- and U.S.-led blocs. A buffer state, of course, is consistent with closed frontiers, and for the past century several of Afghanistan's frontiers, especially the northern one, were effectively closed. The isolation imposed on the country by Amir Abdul Rahman (1880-1901) gradually eased, but much of the country's population remained isolated and relatively immobile. This constituted a break with much of the region's history. For millennia before the development of blue-water navigation technologies, today's Afghanistan was at the crossroads of overland trade routes linking South, East, and West Asia and beyond to the Mediterranean and Europe. These routes brought Greek armies and art, Indian Buddhism, Mongol conquest, and Arab Islam together with its Turkic military formations and Persian administration, all of which, and more, marked the country's heritage.

The combined effects of the war and the dissolution of the Soviet Union have restored Afghanistan's previous status as a country with open borders crossed by trade routes and subject to the conflicting ambitions of regional powers. The relevant international actors now include not only states in Afghanistan's neighborhood and beyond, but international oil companies, Islamic movements based in the Middle East, the United Nations, including both its political department and humanitarian agencies, and NGOs, both Western and Islamic. The U.S. strike against alleged terrorist camps in the Jaji district of Paktia Province has now fixed Afghanistan at least in U.S. public discourse as a base for terrorists.

3.1 States

The state with the closest ties and strongest links to Afghanistan is Pakistan. Pakistan is generally supported in its policy, as it has been for decades, by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arabs. Afghan nationalism across Pakistan's border and Pashtun nationalism within Pakistan posed one of the threats to the integrity of this relatively new country. Pakistan's extreme insecurity results from its confrontation with its much larger neighbor, India; the loss of over half its population when its eastern province became the independent country of Bangladesh in the 1971-72 civil war, which ended with Indian intervention; and Afghanistan's historic challenge to the incorporation of the Pashtun areas into Pakistan. Indeed, Afghanistan was the only country to vote against Pakistan's admission to the United Nations.

Pakistan saw the war in Afghanistan as a way to reverse its relations with Afghanistan by providing it with a secure border to the west and north, thereby giving it "strategic depth" in its confrontation with India. Hence successive Pakistani governments, regardless of ideology, supported only Islamic rather than nationalist groups in Afghanistan, as the former opposed nationalist claims against a fellow Muslim state or at least did not raise them so loudly. The deep involvement of Pakistan in the war also helped incorporate many Pashtuns more firmly into its key military and civilian elites. As a result, the Pashtun question changed for Pakistan. Pashtun elites in the Pakistani state could now exercise clientelistic control or influence over religiously oriented Pashtun groups in Afghanistan. Pashtun rule of the right kind in Afghanistan thus became an instrument of Pakistani influence, rather than a security threat.

The opening of Central Asia added a new dimension to the concept of strategic depth. Drawing on historical memories of political, cultural, and economic links among Central Asia, Afghanistan, and the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, some in Pakistan saw trade and pipeline routes through Afghanistan to Central Asia as a key to Pakistan's future security and well-being.30These would add yet greater strategic depth.

Until over two years after the fall of Najibullah, support for Hikmatyar's Hizb-i Islami remained the main means through which Pakistan pursued the goal of installing a Pashtun-dominated client regime in Kabul.31In mid-1994, however, the government of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto shifted support to the Taliban.32Originally the goal seems to have been limited to clearing the road from Quetta to Qandahar and the Qandahar-Herat highway. The Taliban developed their own ambitions, however, and Pakistan eventually threw the full weight of its support behind them as the future government of Afghanistan. Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub Khan signaled a new level of public support in May 1997, when he flew to Mazar-i Sharif with a large delegation immediately after the Taliban's capture of that city, recognized the Taliban government, and announced that all others should follow suit, as the civil war was now over. Pakistan was supported in this policy by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In the following year, some different perspectives emerged in the Pakistani government. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief of Staff General Jehangir Karamat (both Punjabis) supported a more neutral policy and a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. The foreign minister (a Pashtun) and the intelligence services (Pashtun dominated) held to a more strictly pro-Taliban line. This line clearly won out after the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in May 1998 and led to the Pakistani-supported Taliban offensive of July and August.

But the Taliban's links to Pakistan do not end (and did not begin) with the government. As mentioned above, the Taliban derive much of their religious inspiration from the Deobandi movement in Pakistan. Virtually all the Taliban leaders had been refugees in Pakistan for several years and studied in madrasas there affiliated with one branch or another of the Deobandi political party Jamiat ul-Ulema-i Islam (JUI). The main branch of this party is run by Maulvi Fazlur Rahman, an important figure in Benazir Bhutto's government, where he was chairman of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Parliament. An important offshoot is the one led by Maulana Samiul Haq, which runs two important large madrasas, the Dar ul-Uloom Haqqania in the Northwest Frontier Province and the Jamia Uloom-ul-Islamiya in Karachi. The various Taliban leaders using the name "Haqqani" are not related to each other; they are graduates of Dar ul-Uloom Haqqania. These links remain important and provide new recruits (both Afghans and Pakistanis) to the Taliban. Samiul Haq boasted that most of his Pakistani and Afghan students had joined the Taliban after the latter's defeat in Mazar-i Sharif in May 1997. He claimed that "Mullah Omar personally rang me to request that I let these students go to Afghanistan on leave since they are needed there."33These same madrasas provided the Taliban with thousands of new recruits, both Afghan and Pakistani, after the take-over of Mazar-i Sharif in August 1998.34

These madrasas and the political parties with which they are affiliated are also a political force in Pakistan. Through them the Taliban are linked to more extreme Sunni groups, such as the Sipah-i Sahiba and Lashkar-i Jhangvi, both of which are thought to have been involved in acts of terrorism against Shia in Pakistan. Many of their members are reported to have gained military experience fighting with the Taliban.

The Taliban also receive support from traders based in Quetta, Peshawar, and Karachi who are engaged in the transit and drug trade. These traders include both Afghan and Pakistani Pashtuns. The removal of checkpoints and the establishment of public order in southern and western Afghanistan was of great benefit to them, and they have contributed to the Taliban's treasury and are also regularly assessed as needs arise. Afghan, Pakistani, and Arab traders based in the United Arab Emirates have contributed to the Taliban as well.35These traders also affirm their new-found social status through contributions to the madrasas where Taliban are trained. They are linked to the local administrations of Northwest Frontier Province and Baluchistan, who are remunerated for permitting smugglers' markets to continue. Officials of these provinces also benefit from the system of permits in force for the export of food and fuel to the Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan. The Taliban thus have a broad set of links to Pakistan's society and polity.36

Saudi Arabia appears to have continued to fund much of Pakistan's policy in Afghanistan through both official and unofficial channels. Until mid-1998, Saudi Arabia supplied heavily subsidized fuel to the Taliban through Pakistan and also provided general funding. Saudi Arabia feels some affinity to the Taliban interpretation of Islam; support for the Taliban also fits in with its rivalry with Iran and long-term strategic cooperation with Pakistan. Some Saudi companies and individuals also have interests in the various pipeline proposals under consideration.37

A specific Saudi concern has been the activities of Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden, a wealthy businessman who has funded militant Islamic groups in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. The United States considers him a major supporter of terrorism and charges him with responsibility for the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on 7 August 1998. Bin Laden was one of the first Arabs to join the mujahidin's struggle against the Soviet Union and stayed throughout the war. He funded much of the participation of Arab and other international volunteers. Throughout that time he worked in collaboration with the Saudi intelligence agency and its Pakistani and U.S. counterparts. He turned against his erstwhile sponsors at the time of the Gulf War, when he opposed the invitation of U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia. After being deprived of his Saudi citizenship in 1994, he lived for a time in Sudan, which expelled him under U.S. pressure. He then returned to Afghanistan. Bin Laden, together with a group of his followers, was living under the protection of the Jalalabad shura until the Taliban captured the area in September 1996. He shifted to Qandahar in 1997. According to diplomatic sources, the Taliban have promised Riyadh that bin Laden would not use his refuge to support any acts of violence abroad, but in mid-1998 the Saudis seem to have become skeptical whether this agreement was being observed. Together with a warming of Saudi-Iran relations after the election of Muhammad Khatami as president of Iran, this seems to have led Riyadh to reduce its aid to the Taliban in the summer of 1998.38

Iran's links to Afghan groups have changed and deepened over time. Iran's policy is dictated by a combination of solidarity with the Shia in Afghanistan (and in Pakistan) and strategic concerns over the U.S. embargo, access to Central Asia, and rivalry with Saudi Arabia. It has reacted forcefully to the Taliban take-over of northern Afghanistan, especially to the capture of 35 Iranian drivers by the Taliban in Mazar-i Sharif, and the disappearance of 11 Iranians, including diplomats, consular employees, and a journalist, from its consulate.

Iran originally became involved through its links to revolutionary Shia groups that took control of Hazarajat from the more traditionalist formations established in 1979.39As it emerged in 1988 from its war with Iraq and adjusted to the changes in the U.S.S.R., which coincided with the death of Imam Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, Iran's policy became more assertive. It united most of the Shia parties into the Hizb-i Wahdat in 1988 and pressed for Wahdat's inclusion in international negotiations, which had been dominated by the Sunni parties supported by the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. From the Soviet troop withdrawal in February 1989 until the fall of Najibullah in April 1992, Iran saw the Soviet-backed Kabul government as the main force blocking the take-over of Afghanistan by Sunni Wahhabi parties backed by these countries. While it continued to support Shia parties politically, it did not support their making war on the Najibullah government.

The break-up of the Soviet Union and the rise of the Taliban led Iran to undertake a more active policy, in which it provided economic and military assistance to groups beyond its traditional Shia beneficiaries. As the Najibullah regime collapsed, Iran helped form and arm the "Northern Alliance," including Jamiat/SCN, the newly formed Junbish, and Wahdat.40It was partly motivated to do so by the desire to block the parties supported by the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia from coming to power.

Initially, an attempt to use Iranian/Persian cultural identity as an instrument of foreign policy also affected Iran's decisions. This was the period when Iran was deeply involved in supporting the nationalists and Islamists of Persian-speaking (though predominantly Sunni) Tajikistan. Iran had initiated a cultural agreement among Persian-speaking political entities, the signatories of which were Iran, Tajikistan, Jamiat, and Wahdat. After a brief moment of enthusiasm, this consideration waned.

Strategically, though, the opening of Central Asia and the Caucasus-the Caspian basin-was if anything more important for Iran than for Pakistan. Bordering on the Caspian itself as well as the newly independent littoral states of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, Iran offered the shortest route to the sea for that region's oil and attractive routes to customers such as Turkey for its natural gas. Its location as the only state on both the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea increased Iran's strategic and international importance and increased its leverage against U.S. sanctions.

Gas and oil pipelines from Central Asia through Afghanistan and Pakistan were the only other direct southern route. Construction of such pipelines would enable the United States to promote its goal of linking Central Asia to the international energy markets by routes other than through Russia while still bypassing Iran. Iran therefore suspected that support for the Taliban by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia was not merely an attempt to impose an extremist Sunni, anti-Shia regime on Afghanistan but part of the U.S. plan to encircle and isolate Iran. By guaranteeing security for the pipeline route, the Taliban would weaken the leverage that Iran had gained.41Hence Iran's efforts to stop the spread and consolidation of Taliban power were dictated by both ideological and strategic considerations.

Since the Taliban's first approach to Kabul in early 1995, when Massoud also crushed the remnants of Hizb-i Wahdat within Kabul city, the strategic considerations have dominated. Iran has become the principal supplier of fuel, weapons, and other equipment to all groups fighting the Taliban, including those, such as Massoud's, who have also opposed Hizb-i Wahdat. Iran supplies these groups by air, as it has no border with the areas they control.

The rivalry between Iran and Pakistan has thus become the principal external factor fueling the war. It has been worsened by one of the war's by-products: increasing Sunni-Shia violence in Pakistan. This has taken the form of assassinations by small extremist groups, not mass violence. Among the victims were five Iranian officers receiving training from the Pakistan Air Force. The Sunni groups engaging in this violence, Sipah-i Sahiba and the yet more extremist Lashkar-i Jhangvi, derive from splits in the JUI. Some of their cadres are fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan, the main source of their military experience.

Nonetheless, Iran and Pakistan have since 1997 intensified their dialogue on Afghanistan in an attempt to prevent this conflict from contaminating their entire bilateral relationship. Iran was very supportive of Pakistan's position on the nuclear tests it conducted in May 1998. Thereafter the two states began a joint diplomatic démarche to the Taliban and northern groups. This entente was greatly strained by the Taliban offensive and capture of Iranian diplomats and drivers, for which Iran is holding Pakistan responsible. Iran spoke out strongly against the U.S. attack on bin Laden's base, but this position does not appear to have mended its relations with the Taliban.

Russia has also played an important role in supplying the northern groups, especially Massoud's forces. In the immediate aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the break-up of the U.S.S.R., Russia, which no longer had a border with Afghanistan, withdrew from the region. The war in Tajikistan drew Russia back in, as Russia provided about 25,000 troops and border forces to stabilize control of that country by the victors in the 1992-93 civil war.

Russia saw Pakistan's ambitions in Afghanistan and Central Asia as a threat to its security sphere, which it came to define as the entire former U.S.S.R. It found common interest with Iran there as in the Caucasus, where Turkey and the United States are the main external powers. Russia had provided some support to the Rabbani/Massoud government, as well as to Dostum, in the interest of resisting Hikmatyar. Moscow and Kabul, however, had a conflict over the Islamic guerrillas from Tajikistan, who found shelter and received aid and training in the predominantly Tajik areas of northeastern Afghanistan. The rise of the Taliban led Russia, Iran (where some exiled Tajik Islamic opposition leaders lived), and the Rabbani/Massoud forces to seek to liquidate this problem in the interest of consolidating the rear bases of resistance to the Taliban. Joint pressures by them on the parties in the Tajikistan conflict led to the signing of a peace accord in June 1997 and the subsequent repatriation of most of the refugees and fighters. At the same time Massoud was granted access to an air base in Kulab, home of Tajikistan's Russian-supported ruling clan. There he received both Russian and Iranian assistance and was able to keep his small air force in repair. While Tajikistan had few resources of its own to give, it did facilitate the use of its territory in this way, in conjunction with Russia and Iran. Massoud's loss of all his air bases in Afghan territory after the Taliban offensive rendered this access useless.

Uzbekistan also supported the resistance to the Taliban but was more strongly attached to one leader, Abdul Rashid Dostum. It refused to provide assistance to Abdul Malik Pahlawan after the latter had ousted Dostum in May 1997. Iran, on the other hand, had given some aid to Dostum and continued to aid Malik. Uzbekistan supported the return to Afghanistan of Dostum in September 1997 after his four-month exile in Ankara. Facing what appears to be the beginnings of an Islamic insurgency in the Ferghana Valley, which it blames on foreign supported "Wahhabis," Uzbekistan continues to sound the alarm about the Taliban. It is also concerned about the Tajikistan peace agreement, which brings Islamists into the government and excludes the Uzbekistan-sponsored party in northern Tajikistan, and by the use of the Kulab base by Massoud. All this increases Uzbekistan's desire to have its own relations with an important force in Afghanistan.

Despite persistent rumors and charges that the United States supported the Taliban in order to build pipelines and isolate Iran, there is no evidence that Washington ever gave any material support. The U.S. attack on Taliban-controlled Afghanistan should finally lay these rumors to rest. Under the first Clinton administration, the U.S. government expressed some supportive views about the Taliban. It suggested it might consider reopening the U.S. Embassy if security improved in Kabul following a Taliban victory and advocated engagement rather than isolation of the Taliban in U.N. forums. Since Madeleine Albright became secretary of state, however, U.S. condemnation of Taliban policies on gender has been forthright.42While the secretary's own views may have influenced this direction, so has the organization of an influential lobbying network of feminist, human rights, and humanitarian groups, supported by some Afghan women exiles in the United States, who have made Taliban gender policies into a political issue. These networks include key constituencies of President Clinton and the Democratic Party. The link now drawn between the Taliban regime and international (non-Afghan) terrorists who have targeted U.S. installations and citizens assures that no reconciliation or even dialogue is possible for some time.

The region as a whole, including Afghanistan, has regained a certain level of importance to the United States. In the spring of 1997, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott announced a new policy giving a higher priority to Central Asia.43South Asia also received more attention because of the economic importance of India, as an offshoot of the interest in Central Asia and pipelines, and because of the security dangers posed by nuclearization and the Kashmir conflict. Hopes for improved relations with Iran after the election of President Muhammad Khatami in May 1997 also sparked interest in Afghanistan as a place where the United States and Iran have some common interests and can collaborate. As a result the United States became somewhat more engaged in Afghanistan in 1998. U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Bill Richardson made a one-day trip there in April. Richardson was the highest U.S. official to visit the country in over 20 years.44The United States has so far defined its policy mainly as supporting U.N. efforts at peacemaking, in the hope that Afghanistan can be reconstructed and pipelines built to Central Asia. The U.S. attack, however, renders these efforts impossible.

3.2 International Organizations

The United Nations operates in Afghanistan without either the major collaboration of or competition from other intergovernmental organizations. Unlike in Europe, Africa, or Latin America, regional organization has tended to be weak throughout Asia. On occasion the United Nations has worked together with the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), but the OIC's role has been largely symbolic. Alongside the United Nations are various NGOs, both Western and Islamic. The Western-based NGOs largely work under the umbrella of the U.N. system. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also performs the full range of its activities throughout the country.

The role of the U.N. system, like the strategies of states, has changed with the transformation of the international system and the war in Afghanistan. Its humanitarian role began with aid by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to the first flows of refugees, mainly in Pakistan, in 1978, and its political role began in 1981 with the first mission of a personal representative of the U.N. secretary-general.

During the Soviet occupation, the U.N.'s humanitarian and development activities were politically polarized. UNHCR led an effort to help the over three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan in ways that effectively funded a rear base for the U.S.-Pakistan-Saudi effort to support the mujahidin. This was eventually complemented by cross-border "humanitarian" efforts funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development that aimed at building the capacity of mujahidin political organizations inside Afghanistan. The NGOs that participated in this effort largely saw themselves as supporters of the struggle against the Soviet occupation.45Islamic NGOs provided support for Arab and other Muslim fighters who joined the mujahidin, Islamic education for refugees, and other humanitarian activities, also as part of a solidarity effort.46In 1984 the U.N. Human Rights Commission also appointed a special rapporteur on Afghanistan, the first such appointment for a pro-Soviet country. His relatively frank reports were passed with large majorities in the commission and approved by the General Assembly. On the other side, the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) led a much smaller effort in Kabul that supported development programs of the Soviet-aided Afghan government. Until Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev changed the Soviet attitude to international norms and organizations, the ICRC was excluded from Afghanistan; it gained access in 1986.

The political efforts of the United Nations during this period led to the signing on 14 April 1988 of the Geneva Accords, which provided for Soviet troop withdrawal by 15 February 1989. Virtually none of the other elements of the accords was ever implemented. The United Nations essentially provided diplomatic cover for the Soviet decision to withdraw, which was largely negotiated through direct bilateral channels with the United States.47

Until the collapse of the Soviet Union and its client government in Afghanistan, the United Nations played a complementary role to a U.S.-Soviet dialogue that tried to reach agreement on an interim regime in Afghanistan. This process was typical of the period between the end of the Cold War, symbolized by the November 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, and the break-up of the U.S.S.R. in December 1991; the United States and the U.S.S.R. attempted to liquidate their remaining disputes and jointly manage the international system. The humanitarian effort similarly tried to bridge gaps. Following the signing of the Geneva Accords, a single coordinator was appointed for all humanitarian efforts for Afghans in and outside Afghanistan. The coordination operation, called Operation Salaam by the first coordinator, Sadruddin Aga Khan, was known first as the U.N. Office of the Coordinator for Afghanistan (UNOCA) and then as the U.N. Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs in Afghanistan (UNOCHA). It negotiated agreements making it possible for humanitarian actors to cross political and military lines to provide assistance as needed anywhere in Afghanistan.

While the humanitarian operations continued, the political effort of the United Nations lapsed after 1992. As was typical of the immediate aftermath of the Soviet collapse, political and strategic stakes were unclear, and humanitarianism emerged as an all-around response to state collapse, ethnic conflict, and other problems. Such an approach failed in Afghanistan as it did in Bosnia, Somalia, and elsewhere.48

In December 1993, pursuant to a resolution of the General Assembly, the United Nations reestablished a political office, now named the United Nations Special Mission for Afghanistan (UNSMA). It was headed by Mahmoud Mestiri, former minister of foreign affairs of Tunisia, until his resignation in May 1996. He was succeeded by a German diplomat, Dr. Norbert Holl, who resigned in October 1997. James Ngobi of Zimbabwe took over as head of UNSMA, but U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan raised the priority of Afghanistan in July 1997 by appointing a high-level special envoy, Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi, former minister of foreign affairs of Algeria and a long-standing U.N. diplomat, to oversee the effort.

While neither Mestiri nor Holl had any successes to show for their efforts, Brahimi took over at a time when the situation was particularly difficult and complex. Since the capture of Kabul by the Taliban in September 1996, the Rabbani government had continued to hold Afghanistan's U.N. seat, as no member state except for Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates recognized the Taliban. Thus the United Nations did not recognize the single group that controlled the largest amount of territory and population (and the anti-Taliban groups did not jointly control the remainder of the country), including the national capital.

The U.N.'s humanitarian and development programs had their own dilemmas. The United Nations was attempting to implement a demanding kind of U.N. reform in Afghanistan, including new measures designed to deal with the problem of working in stateless environments, at the same time that its very presence remained in constant question.49The various U.N. agencies all had separate mandates and funding sources, and, without a government counterpart with which to develop a national plan, each agency and NGO pursued its own mandate independently. So as to bring some order into this chaotic situation, the United Nations began developing a "strategic framework" to set goals for its programs in Afghanistan and established a new organizational structure to assure that all agencies engaged in "common programming."50These structures aimed at bringing representatives of all agencies together with donors and NGOs to make joint decisions about priorities and programs.

As if this were not difficult enough, the United Nations also had to face some of the harshest dilemmas of humanitarian access. After its offices were sacked and goods looted during fighting in Mazar-i Sharif in May and again in September 1997, the United Nations withdrew from all of northern Afghanistan except Hazarajat. Hence it did not undertake any programs in most areas controlled by forces nominally loyal to the government it recognized. In Taliban areas, however, while the authorities provided full security for U.N. personnel and property (except when they arrested or harassed staff for alleged espionage or violations of their various edicts), the United Nations and NGOs found it difficult to operate for other reasons: Taliban edicts, especially those regarding women, contradicted international principles and made it nearly impossible for many programs to reach their intended beneficiaries.51

The conflict between the Taliban and the United Nations over these issues was punctuated by various incidents. The United Nations withdrew from Qandahar and southern Afghanistan from mid-April to mid-June 1998 after the governor of Qandahar threw a teapot at the U.N. Regional Coordinator for Qandahar. This dispute mainly erupted over a Taliban decree banning the United Nations from employing foreign Muslim women staff in Afghanistan unless they were accompanied by a mahram, an adult male member of their immediate family. The Taliban also stated that they would henceforth refuse to deal with Alfredo Witschi-Cestari, the UNDP resident representative and head of UNOCHA. They apparently regarded his forceful advocacy of international principles as hostile to them.

In response to these conflicts, the United Nations sought to reach a written understanding with the Taliban on the principles governing humanitarian and development programs. After two weeks of negotiations in Kabul, the two sides agreed on a "Memorandum of Understanding" (MOU).52The Taliban agreed to respect the privileges and immunities of U.N. international staff. They conceded that women could work in the health sector. They also agreed to the construction of 11 schools each for boys and girls and to the improvement of some health and higher education facilities for both sexes. There was no agreement on the mahram issue, which was referred to international Islamic scholars. The United Nations agreed to language stating that women's access to education and health care would be "gradual," a phrase that provided a target for critics of the MOU.53

Even these conditions seemed difficult for the Taliban, who asked the United Nations not to publicize the MOU.54Soon after its signing, some elements within the Taliban appeared to be trying to undermine the agreement by ordering the closure of nonhealth programs for women and ordering NGOs to move to new common quarters. The new quarters were to be in the Polytechnic, a ravaged former dormitory without water or electricity in a northern neighborhood of Kabul distant from most international offices but close to the front lines. By mid-July, Special Envoy Brahimi openly speculated that the United Nations might have to withdraw from Afghanistan entirely.55The NGOs in fact left Kabul (though not all of Afghanistan) soon after. Most foreign personnel left Afghanistan in the days before the U.S. attack in response to U.S. warnings.

On human rights, the U.N. Human Rights Commission continually renewed the appointment of the special rapporteur. After the first appointee, Professor Felix Ermacora of Austria, died in 1995, he was succeeded by Professor Choong-Hyung Paik of South Korea.56

In 1997, however, the U.N. Human Rights Center, upgraded under its new high commissioner, Mary Robinson, began to explore a new role in Afghanistan: forensic investigation of war crime accusations. After his return to Afghanistan in September 1997, General Dostum announced the discovery of mass graves holding thousands of Taliban dead. He charged that these people had been prisoners captured in Mazar-i Sharif and executed by his rival, Abdul Malik Pahlawan.57Wahdat also charged that during the advance on Mazar-i Sharif in September, Taliban (or, more precisely, Pashtun settlers who had sided with the Taliban) had massacred nearly 100 Hazara civilians in Qizilabad village south of Mazar.

The Taliban and other Afghan parties demanded a U.N. investigation, and some Afghans began to ask for international war crimes trials of those responsible. The U.N. Human Rights Center in Geneva sent some investigators to the region for a preliminary inquiry in November 1997. A further mission examined the sites again in May 1998, but by July the investigation still had not started. After the Taliban capture of Mazar and the North, Amnesty International and others called for the deployment of human rights monitors to prevent possible ethnic reprisal killings.

The political mission was also on hold. In April, under pressure from Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the Taliban agreed to negotiate in Islamabad with a delegation from the United Front. At the insistence of the Taliban, the negotiations dealt with the naming of a commission of ulama (Islamic scholars) from all sides who would be responsible for resolving the conflict.58These negotiations led to a tentative agreement on a nomination procedure and a cease-fire, and Bill Richardson, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, visited Afghanistan in order to affirm international support for the accord. Nonetheless, soon after Richardson's departure, all the agreements broke down amid recriminations. The Taliban stated that negotiations with the fragmented opposition were a waste of time, while the Northerners argued that the Taliban were still intent on a military victory.59Time seems to have proven both sides right.

The United Nations continued to call attention to foreign intervention as an important factor intensifying the conflict. The reports of the secretary-general published in November 1997 and June 1998 spoke in unusually frank terms, describing supplies of arms and military training by foreign countries and explicitly questioning their sincerity in supporting the U.N. mission.60Following a "Presidential Statement" of the Security Council of 13 July 1998, Special Envoy Brahimi told the press: "The fact is that this war cannot go on unless it receives support from outside. The legend that the Russians have left enough arms for fighting to continue for 50 years is just that . . . a legend, it is not possible."61Pakistan and Iran, the two major external powers involved in this struggle, attempted to undertake a joint diplomatic action to resolve the conflict. They sent a common mission to Qandahar and Mazar-i Sharif. But it would be difficult to disagree with Ambassador Brahimi's prognosis. According to the press, he expected "the fighting to worsen in the near future. He [said] U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been warning the international community about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and it appears his worst fears are now coming true."62While the Taliban victory might seem to bring the country together, it is likely to provoke a strong regional reaction and spark guerrilla warfare. The U.S. attack, which was followed by attacks on U.N. personnel in Kabul and the sacking of the U.N. office in Jalalabad, will further reduce the possibility that international involvement will bring peace to Afghanistan.

1 For background information, see Barnett R. Rubin, Afghanistan: The Forgotten Crisis (WRITENET for UNHCR/CDR, February 1996) (UNHCR/CDR REFWORLD Databases); and Barnett R. Rubin, Afghanistan: The Forgotten Crisis-Update (WRITENET for UNHCR/CDR, December 1996) (UNHCR/CDR REFWORLD Databases).

2 Taliban is the Persian and Pashto plural of the Arabic word talib, which means a religious student (the Arabic plural is talaba). Despite the tendency of Western media to treat Taliban as a singular noun referring to the movement, I shall treat it as a plural.

3 On the Taliban, see William Maley, ed., Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban (London: Hurst and Company, 1998). Maley's "Introduction: Interpreting the Taliban," pp. 1-28, weighs different characterizations of the Taliban. For a collection of apparently authentic Taliban material in English, see the website at http://taliban.com/.

4 "Heavy Fighting Rages in Northern Afghanistan," Agence France-Press [Kabul], 15 July 1998.

5 U.N. Drug Control Program, World Drug Report (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 18.

6 U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, World Factbook-1997 (electronic format).

7 Ahmed Rashid, "The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan Pipeline: Company-Government Relations and Regional Politics," Focus on Current Issues [Washington, D.C.], October 1997.

8 United Nations, Report of the U.N. Gender Mission to Afghanistan, 12-24 November 1997 (electronic format).

9 On Afghan political actors during the Soviet period and the immediate period following the fall of Najibullah in 1992, see Rubin, Afghanistan: The Forgotten Crisis. Some of the same groups are still active today, but they are organized somewhat differently.

10 On these forms of solidarity, see Olivier Roy, Groupes de solidarité au Moyen-Orient et en Asie centrale: Etats, territoires et réseaux," Cahiers du Center d'Etudes et de Recherches Internationales, no. 16 (Paris: Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, 1996).

11 Afghanistan under the royal regime and republic had 29 provinces. Najibullah separated a new province, Sar-i Pul, from Jawzjan, making 30. According to some reports, subsequent regimes have separated Khost from Paktia and Nuristan from Kunar and Laghman, making 32 provinces, but this is not confirmed by any law or constitution.

12 Olivier Roy, Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

13 Roy, Islam and Resistance. For a statistical analysis, see Barnett R. Rubin, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), chapter 4.

14 Rubin, Fragmentation of Afghanistan.

15 Anthony Davis, "How the Taliban Became a Military Force," in Fundamentalism Reborn? ed. Maley, pp. 43-71; Ahmed Rashid, "Pakistan and the Taliban," ibid., pp. 72-89.

16 Ahmed Rashid, "The Taliban Movement" (unpublished document). The analogy with Leninism is the present author's.

17 Personal interviews with Mawlawi Abdul Hakim Mujahid, ambassador of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to Pakistan, Islamabad, 9 June 1998; Mawlawi Abdul Wakil Mutawakkil, spokesman of Amir al-Mu'minin, Qandahar, 3 June 1998; Said Muhammad Haqqani, deputy minister of foreign affairs, Kabul, 11 June 1998.

18 Interviews with U.N. officials, Kabul, 9-11 June 1998.

19 "H.E. Amirul Mominin's Decree," Kabul Times, 1 June 1998.

20 For the text of Taliban decrees, see U.N. Commission on Human Rights, Final Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Afghanistan Submitted by Mr. Choong-Hyun Paik, Special Rapporteur, in Accordance with Commission on Human Rights Resolution 1996/75, E/CN.4/1997/59, 20 February 1997, pp. 32-6.

21 "Qandahari" here denotes the broad region with Qandahar at its center, including several provinces in addition to the modern province of Qandahar.

22 Tribal affiliations from Rashid, "Taliban Movement." Rameen Moshref, The Taliban, Afghanistan Forum Occasional Paper, No. 35 (New York: Afghanistan Forum, May 1997), p. 6, claims that Mullah Umar is Nurzai. The Nurzai are one of the junior Durrani tribes. Moshref does not provide a tribal affiliation for Mullah Rabbani. During a visit to Qandahar in June 1998, I was told that some Durranis resented the Ghilzai top leadership of the Taliban.

23 Rashid, "Taliban Movement"; Barbara Daly Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982).

24 Details on the composition of the alliance from the "Framework for Peace for the People of Afghanistan (Tarah-i Sulh bara-yi Mardum-i Afghanistan)" signed by nine leaders of the alliance. I thank Roger L. Plunk for providing me with this document. More information on these groups, including historical background, can be found in Rubin, Afghanistan: The Forgotten Crisis, and the references therein.

25 This group's former embassy in Washington maintains a website at www.afghan-government.com/.

26 Amnesty International, Afghanistan: Reports of Mass Graves of Taliban Militia (London, November 1997).

27 Some information on Akbari was supplied by William Maley, Quadir Amiryar, and David Isby in private communications, for which I thank them. On the shia parties, see Kristian Berg Harpviken, Political Mobilization among the Hazara of Afghanistan: 1978-1992 (Oslo: Department of Sociology, University of Oslo, 1996).

28 On the debate over how centralized the government should be, see M. Nazif Shahrani, "The Future of the State and the Structure of Community Governance in Afghanistan," in Fundamentalism Reborn? ed. Maley, pp. 212-42. Massoud's ideas were transmitted to me verbally by Roger L. Plunk, Islamabad, 31 May 1998.

29 Emmanuel Dunand, "Anti-Taliban Figure's Death in Plane Crash a Massive Loss: Official," Agence France-Presse [Jabul Seraj], 22 August 1997.

30 Rashid, "The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan Pipeline."

31 For more background and references, see Rubin, Afghanistan: The Forgotten Crisis, and Afghanistan: The Forgotten Crisis-Update.

32 Rashid, "Pakistan and the Taliban"; Rubin, Afghanistan: The Forgotten Crisis-Update.

33 Ahmed Rashid, "550 Pak Students Captured by Afghan Opposition," Nation [Lahore], 14 July 1997. See also Rashid, "Pakistan and the Taliban."

34 "Pak Students Reinforcing Taliban's ranks," Frontier Post [Peshawar], 12 August 1998.

35 Interview with Afghan based in the United Arab Emirates.

36 Ibid.

37 Rashid, "The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan Pipeline," p. 11.

38 Interviews with diplomats in New York City who prefer not to be identified.

39 Roy, Islam and Resistance; Harpviken, Political Mobilization.

40 Harpviken, Political Mobilization.

41 Rashid, "The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan Pipeline," pp. 14-16

42 "Albright Focuses on Afghan Women," Reuters [Peshawar], 18 November 1998.

43 Strobe Talbott, A Farewell to Flashman: American Policy in the Caucasus and Central Asia (Washington, D.C.: Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Center for the Study of Central Asia, 21 July 1997) (electronic format).

44 Stefan Smith, "Afghans Place High Hopes for Peace in Richardson Visit," Agence France-Presse [Kabul], 16 April 1998.

45 Helga Baitenmann, "NGOs and the Afghan War: The Politicisation of Humanitarian Aid," Third World Quarterly, 12 (1990), pp. 1-23.

46 Olivier Roy, L'Echec de l'Islam Politique (Paris: Seuil, 1992); Barnett R. Rubin, "Arab Islamists in Afghanistan," in Political Islam: Revolution, Radicalism, or Reform, ed. John L. Esposito (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1997), pp. 179-206.

47 Barnett R. Rubin, The Search for Peace in Afghanistan: From Buffer State to Failed State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995); William Maley, "The UN in Afghanistan: 'Doing its Best' or 'Failure of a Mission?'" in Fundamentalism Reborn? ed. Maley, pp. 182-97. For differing points of view, see Riaz Mohammad Khan, Untying the Afghan Knot: Negotiating Soviet Withdrawal (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991); Diego Cordovez and Selig S. Harrison, Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

48 The literature on the "crisis of humanitarianism" is vast. Two seminal pieces are (on Somalia) Alexander de Waal, Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998) and (on Bosnia) David Rieff, Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995).

49 On the coordination problem, see Antonio Donini, Eric Dudley, and Ron Ockwell, Afghanistan: Coordination in a Fragmented State (New York: U.N. Department of Humanitarian Affairs, 1996) (electronic format).

50 United Nations, "A Draft Strategic Framework for International Assistance to Afghanistan: Inter-Agency Mission to Islamabad and Afghanistan, 19th September-15th October 1997" (unpublished document); United Nations, "Making a Reality of Principled Common Programming" (Islamabad, 24 April 1998, (unpublished document).

51 Claude Bruderlein and Adeel Ahmed, Report of the DHA Mission to Afghanistan (30 March-5 May 1997) (New York: U.N. Department of Humanitarian Affairs, Policy and Analysis Division, 15 June 1997) (electronic format); United Nations, "Report of the U.N. Gender Mission."

52 Afghanistan, "Memorandum of Understanding between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and the United Nations" (Kabul, 13 May 1998).

53 "Bad Bargain in Afghanistan," New York Times, 13 July 1998.

54 Interview with U.N. staff, Islamabad, June 1998.

55 Barbara Crossette, "U.N.'s Impatience Grows over Afghan Restrictions on Aid Workers," New York Times, 14 July 1998.

56 See, for instance, U.N. Commission on Human Rights, Final Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Afghanistan.

57 Amnesty International.

58 Raja Asghar, "Afghans Say No Progress on Ulema Commission," Reuters [Islamabad], 28 April 1998.

59 Interviews in Afghanistan and Pakistan, June 1998.

60 U.N. Security Council, The Situation in Afghanistan and Its Implications for International Peace and Security: Report of the Secretary General, S/1997/894, 14 November 1997 and S/1998/532, 19 June 1998.

61 Max Ruston, "UN Security Council on Afghanistan," Voice of America, 14 July 1998.

62 Ibid.

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