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Friday, August 14, 1998 Published at 14:36 GMT 15:36 UK

World: South Asia

Afghanistan and its neighbours

By regional analyst Malcolm Haslett

The recent defeats of the anti-Taleban alliance in northern Afghanistan have provoked accusations by its foreign supporters - especially Iran and Russia - that Pakistan has given active military aid to the Taleban. Some of Afghanistan's neighbours make little effort to hide their support for one or other of the sides.

But the attitude of nations further afield - the US, for example - are more ambivalent.

Taleban supporter - Pakistan

Pakistan is one of only three states - the others are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - which have officially recognised the Taleban administration that now controls over three-quarters of the country.

Pakistan has long been accused of supplying not just moral but logistical support for the Taleban movement.

Anti-Taleban - Iran and Russia

Tehran, in contrast, vehemently refuses to recognise the Taleban.

Shi'ite Iran has been a strong backer of the Shia minority in Afghanistan, largely confined to the Hazara nation in the central province of Bamian.

The Taleban, by contrast, are Sunni Muslims.

The other main components of the anti-Taleban alliance - the ethnic Uzbeks under Abdurashid Dostam and the ethnic Tajiks of Ahmed Shah Massood - have close links with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan across the border to the north, which in turn are linked strategically with Russia.

Russia is concerned that any victory for Islamic forces would encourage Muslim groups within Central Asia and the North Caucasus.

Ambiguous - United States

There is a widespread belief in both Iran and Russia that the Western nations, and particularly the US, are active supporters of the Taleban.

It seems to be assumed that because Pakistan is generally an ally of Washington, then Washington must also support Pakistan's policy in Afghanistan.

Commercial motives are also cited for this alleged US support for the Taleban - the unification of Afghanistan by the Taleban, it is said, would open the way for US firms to get into the country, and assist the construction of the much-touted pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan.

Western alarm about Taleban

It may well be true that some western companies would welcome a Taleban victory for this reason.

But that is in no way evidence of active US support for the Taleban.

On the contrary, western countries, including the US, are very wary about the Taleban. They have expressed serious alarm over their domestic policies - particularly regarding the treatment of women.

Washington has also been sorely disappointed in the Talebans' record on the drugs trade: hopes that their strict moral stance might bring a clampdown on drugs traffickers have not been fulfilled.

The US, it is true, has not rushed to condemn the Taleban in the way one might have expected, given their record of Islamic militancy. And some in Washington may see the Taleban as a possible counterweight in the region to Iranian, and Russian, influence.

But Washington's doubts about the Taleban must have recently been increased by the bombings of its embassies in East Africa. One of the chief suspects for those bombings, renegade Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden, is a friend of the Taleban and thought to be resident in their part of Afghanistan.

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