The Hidden Motives of Bin Laden’s Neighbors

Mazar-i-Sharif has fallen. As I write, Kabul is falling, too. Almost overnight, the mythical entity that the State Department had already taken to calling the BBG—the Broadly Based Government of Afghanistan, that is—has moved out of the realm of theory into the center of diplomatic debate. An American envoy has been sent to Rome, Ankara, Tashkent, Dushanbe, and Peshawar, among other places, to start setting it up. The options are on the table: federalism (Swiss, Belgian, Bosnian), constitutional monarchy, U.N. protectorate, and so on.

Without the full cooperation of Afghanistan’s neighbors, however, none of these solutions can achieve even a sliver of success. After all, it is they who have provoked and sustained much of the fighting there over the past 20 years. Hence the meeting that was held in New York this morning, between the U.S. secretary of state and the Russian foreign minister, along with representatives of China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, all countries that border Afghanistan. Looking at that list of names, it is hard to feel much optimism: Perhaps only the Israelis, or maybe the Kurds, can claim to have a more unstable and unfriendly group of neighbors. Worse, each of these countries has a different set of interests in Afghanistan, and each has different views of what the Broadly Based Government should be trying to achieve. Here, for the record, is a much abbreviated explanation of everyone’s hidden motives.

Perhaps it sounds odd, but both Iran and China play the role of peace-loving, status quo powers in Afghanistan. Certainly, both have different reasons to dislike the Taliban. Shiite Iran hates the Taliban because they are Sunni, because they have persecuted Afghan Shiites, and because they imposed an ethnic Pashtun government on the historically Persian-speaking city of Herat. And—strange but true—Iran hates the Taliban because they give the Islamic revolution a bad name. China, meanwhile, hates the Taliban because the Taliban have been trying—successfully—to export that very same Islamic revolution to the Muslim Uighur regions of China, using Osama Bin Laden’s money.

Because they dislike the disorder in Afghanistan, both China and Iran would be perfectly happy with a multiethnic Afghan government and a bit of peace. Both would also probably be willing to put their money where there policies are. China has done so before: Fearing undue Soviet dominance, China covertly supplied weapons to the anti-Soviet mujahideen in the 1980s. Iran, of course, would very much like its 2.5 million Afghan refugees to feel safe enough to go home.

Pakistan, as we all now know, has a far more complicated relationship with Afghanistan. In the past 20 years, the Pakistanis have twice tried to put pro-Pakistani governments in charge of the country, hoping to gain an ally in their regional competition with India. The first time around, they helped channel U.S. aid to the fanatical mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. That plan failed, but the second effort—the creation and support of the Taliban—was a great success. Or so it seemed at the time.

The Pakistanis do now recognize their mistake: The Taliban not only arm and support Islamic radicals in India, they also arm and support radical movements in Pakistan itself. But the Pakistanis do not want the Tajik-and-Uzbek-led Northern Alliance to control the country either. They fear reprisals against the ethnic Pashtuns in the short term and conflicts with the many Pashtuns who live in Pakistan in the longer term. They want to see moderate Taliban leaders co-opted into any postwar regime, and they may have already persuaded the Bush administration to agree. When George Bush and Colin Powell warn the Northern Alliance not to march too quickly into Kabul, that is Pakistani influence you are hearing.

Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are in similar positions: Both would like their ethnic brethren, Tajiks and Uzbeks, to have a say, and preferably a large say, in the future government of the country. Of the two, Tajikistan, with its closer links to Russia, has been more actively involved in supporting the Tajik factions of the Northern Alliance. The Uzbek dictator, Islam Karimov, has been more cautious but now seems to be supporting the Uzbek faction of the Northern Alliance. Contrary to popular belief, Karimov seems likely to cooperate with the United States: He is reportedly overjoyed to have American troops in his country, as that will stop American criticism of his human rights abuses.

Unlike most of the others, Turkmenistan’s primary interest in Afghanistan is neither ethnic nor religious but economic: They want to build oil and gas pipelines across Afghanistan, toward the Indian Ocean, thereby releasing themselves from total dependence on Russia. Toward this end they supported the Taliban, on the grounds that they would at least unite the country and bring peace. Not that it helped much, as no one has wanted to build much of anything in Afghanistan for the past two decades. But Turkmenistan will almost certainly wind up backing any faction that offers them the most appealing conditions for pipeline construction.

Russia, although it does not share a border with Afghanistan, certainly counts as a neighbor too, both because of its long involvement in the country and because of its influence over the Uzbeks, Turkmens, and especially the Tajiks. Deep down, Russia wants the same thing that the Soviet Union wanted: a secular Afghanistan or at least an Afghanistan that is not openly trying to export radical Islam to other Central Asian nations. For that reason, the Russians have supported the relatively moderate Northern Alliance commanders, their main enemies in the Soviet-Afghan war. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also said he does not want any Taliban leaders involved in the postwar government of Afghanistan—a position that puts him in direct conflict with the Pakistanis, who do.

As for the United States, we will presumably try to play the role of neutral moderator, trying to give all the ethnic groups, all the financial interests, and all the political factions their say. It won’t be easy. If the CIA is short on Arabic speakers, I can only imagine that the number of linguists who speak Tajik, Uzbek, Persian, Pashtun, and other Central Asian languages must be very low indeed. But the price for failure—renewed civil war—will be high, both for the Afghans and for the very concept of Afghanistan. If the Broadly Based Government fails—if civil war breaks out again—the partition of the country cannot be far away.