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Issue 33, December 1998

Bordering On War

THE MURDER OF six Iranian diplomats and one journalist by invading Taliban forces in the northern Afghan city of Mazri-i-Sharif at the beginning of August considerably increased tensions in the unstable region of Central Asia.

Mazri-i-Sharif was one of the last cities to hold out against the Taliban's struggle to gain complete dominance over the whole of Afghanistan. It was one of the bases for the oppositional Northern Alliance, partially backed by Iran. It is also home to the minority Shi'ites who form 20% of the Afghan population. Since taking the city, reports have filtered out of the massacre of thousands of Shi'ites by the majority Sunni Taliban forces.

The response of the Iranian regime was to amass 270,000 troops on the Iranian-Afghanistan border. The Taliban, in turn, sent thousands of troops to the border area. The Iranian government has used the historic division in the Islamic world between Shia and Sunni Muslims, to mobilise considerable public anger in Iran against the murder of the diplomats. They have demanded that those responsible for the killings should be handed over to Iran.

The Taliban refused to do this, saying they will take disciplinary action against those 'renegade' troops who carried out the killings. Since coming to power, the Taliban have implemented brutal, reactionary Islamic fundamentalist rule which has resulted in the banning of education for women, and any manifestation of modern city culture. Public hangings, floggings and stonings are ritually used by the mullahs (priests) as a method of dispensing punishment for minor misdemeanours. When the Taliban took Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, they hung television sets from lamposts as an example of what they thought of this corrupting Western influence.

The Taliban portray themselves as the only example of genuine Islamic rule and the leaders of a world struggle for Islamic jihad or revolution. They dismiss the Iranian regime as 'reformist and degenerate' because of its too close links with the West and the fact that its population is Shia Muslim, who 'deviate' from the 'true' teachings of Allah.

  All the surrounding countries in Central Asia, as well as US imperialism, have interests in Afghanistan. US imperialism is interested in opening up pipelines between oil-rich Central Asian republics, like Turkmenistan, and the Indian Ocean. This would involve crossing Afghan and Pakistani territory. The US company UNICAL has, however, suspended its plans to build such a pipeline following the US embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, which preceded the US retaliatory cruise missile strikes against sites in Afghanistan.

Despite ritual condemnation of the 'human rights abuses' by the Taliban, the hypocrisy of US imperialism is shown by the fact that CIA, along with countries like Saudi Arabia, funded the Taliban guerrillas in their struggle against the Soviet-backed Afghan regime.

Pakistan is deeply involved in providing aid and military advice to the Taliban, as well as bases in their own territory. This has increased tension between Pakistan and Iran.

Central Asian states such as Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan fear the growth of the Taliban. All these countries have either majority Sunni or important Sunni minorities. Their border areas are already heavily infiltrated by Taliban forces. Their restive populations, ground down by the economic crisis which has devastated these countries since the collapse of the Soviet Union and outraged by the corruption of the mafia-type elite that passes for government, could provide fertile recruiting ground for the Taliban. As a result of growing instability in the region, the Yeltsin regime has also sent troops to its border areas.

Countries like Saudi Arabia with a Sunni majority could also be affected in a situation of growing economic difficulties caused by falling oil prices and the costs of the Gulf war. The opulence and corruption of the Saudi royal family has already led to a revival of more austere opposition Islamic fundamentalist groups.

  It is unlikely that the Iranian government will go as far as invading Afghanistan, for political and economic reasons. The new 'moderate' regime of President Khatami, elected with a crushing 75% of the votes in last year's election, is desperate to open up economic links with the US and Europe. Despite the existence of a more reactionary, conservative wing of the ruling theocracy, the effective lifting of the fatwah against the author Salman Rushdie and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Britain, are an indication of the intentions of the Iranian government. The restoration of diplomatic ties followed the signing of contracts worth $5.4 billion between the National Iranian Oil Corporation and a British company, IBC UK.

Although the Iranian army is much larger than the Taliban's, an invasion would lead to further international isolation for Iran. Militarily it would be suicide - Iranian troops would be on hostile territory, fighting on terrain which would be advantageous to the guerrilla forces of the Taliban. It is possible that Iran could use the opportunity of its military manoeuvres to re-equip its ally in the Northern Alliance, Ahmed Shah Massoud. Massoud's forces recently launched a rocket attack against Kabul killing 65 people.

The Saudi regime, probably under pressure from US imperialism, has effectively withdrawn diplomatic recognition of the Taliban regime. This is an attempt to put pressure on the Taliban and goes hand-in-hand with appeals from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to the US to back recognition of the Taliban on the basis of the idea that acceptance will make them more 'moderate'.

Whatever diplomatic manoeuvres are implemented by US imperialism, the fundamental problems in the region will remain. The religious, social and economic contradictions in Afghanistan are the result of the intervention of imperialism and the reactionary and feudal regimes in the area. Only the combined struggle of the working class and peasantry of the region can form the basis of a movement to provide a solution to the internecine conflict which has torn Afghanistan apart over the last two decades.

Kevin Simpson

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