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Tuesday, 4 November, 1997, 14:40 GMT
Afghan Pipeline: A New Great Game

Great-power interest in Afghanistan is once again rising, thanks to plans to build a new pipeline across the country, taking gas from landlocked Central Asia to Pakistan and world markets. In October the project took a step closer to reality with the signing of a deal between Turkmenistan, the primary source of the gas, and an international consortium led by the American UNOCAL company. But the problem, of course, is the continuing civil war in Afghanistan - and who, if anyone, in Afghanistan can guarantee security for the pipeline. Here's our regional analyst Malcolm Haslett:

The UNOCAL-led consortium's joy at clinching the pipeline deal has been tempered by subsequent statements from the Taleban regime in Kabul, which at the moment controls the territory across which the pipeline would pass.

The Talebans' minister for information, Mulla Amir Khan Muttaqi, said on Sunday that despite the presence in Turkmenistan of a Taleban delegation last week, the Kabul government had not signed any deal with anyone. Mulla Muttaqi did not rule out a deal with the UNOCAL-led consortium, But he also did not rule out a deal with a rival consortium, led by the Argentinian Bridas company.

Bridas have been competing with UNOCAL for the Afghan pipeline project for some time, The Turkmen deal with UNOCAL is clearly asevere blow to Bridas, though judging from the Taleban statement the Argentinians have not given up hope yet.

But are the Taleban the right people to be talking to in Afghanistan? Only three states have so far recognised them - Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE . What about the so-called 'northern alliance' in Afghanistan, supported by much of the non-Pashtu population - Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras - and which still holds about a quarter of the country?

There's growing consensus, it seems, in the international community that neither of the warring factions can win military victory, or unite the country's population. And even if the Taleban or the alliance did manage to defeat their opponent, the losing side might well be able to fight a continuing guerrilla war, probably with the help of foreign backers.

Most foreign states have come to the conclusion, then, that only a negotiated settlement between the factions can bring lasting peace. Russia has said this on several occasions. And last week it was the main emphasis of a statement before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee by Assistant Secretary of State Karl Inderfurth.

He spoke of recent moves at the UN to coordinate a common line on Afghanistan. At the same time he was highly critical of the Talebans' human rights record, particularly in regard to women, and he also stated clearly that the United States did not believe the Taleban movement was capable of uniting Afghanistan.

While stressing that it was the Afghans themselves who finally had to settle the problem, he made it clear that the United States thought peace could only be achieved under an Afghan government which - in his words - "is broad-based, multi-ethnic and observes international norms of behaviour".

That is probably not the sort of thing the Taleban want to hear, and as the people who currently control the actual territory through which the pipeline is to pass, they cannot be ignored. The Taleban leadership may be tempted to use their current control over so much territory to bargain for international recognition . But the bargaining will be two-way.

The international community can, for example, point out to the Taleban that they have little hope of getting a lucrative pipeline across Afghan territory unless they come to terms with their rivals in the northern alliance.

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Links to more Analysis stories are at the foot of the page.