BACKGROUND: The traditional Taliban summer offensive against the Northern Alliance forces led by Ahmad Shah Masud began on July 1, with two attempts to push back Masud's forces north of Kabul and clear the Bagram valley. Both attempts failed and the Taliban since late July concentrated on capturing Taloqan, the headquarters of the Northern Alliance. The Taliban swept up strategic towns along Afghanistan's border with Tajikistan, thereby cutting most but not all of Masud's links with his supply base in southern Tajikistan. For six weeks the Taliban launched repeated attacks against Taloqan taking heavy casualties and finally capturing it on the night of September 5. The loss of Taloqan deprives Masud of all his supply links with southern Tajikistan, the last airport in the country under his control, his political capital and created a huge refugee crisis with more than 100,000 people fleeing the Taliban advance.
The Taliban are now driving north to capture the province of Badakhshan, the last province under Masud's control, which will give the Taliban total control of Afghanistan's borders with Central Asia and China. Last year, the Taliban captured Taloqan for a short time but were driven out quickly because they failed to take the heights east of the city from where Masud counter attacked. Masud has again retreated to these heights and is expected to counter-attack. If the Taliban are to complete the conquest of the country before the snows come, they have to not only capture these heights, but also to scatter Masud's forces decisively and prevent them reaching his last sanctuary in the almost impregnable Panjshir valley further to the south.
If Masud counter attacks, he will wait for the beginning of winter when Taliban forces are exposed and vulnerable. For this offensive the Taliban have some 6,000-7,000 troops that include Afghans, Pakistanis, Arabs from the forces of Osama Bin Laden, and the multi-ethnic forces of the IMU and its leader Juma Namangani. The IMU has a wide recruiting base of Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Chechens and even some Uyghurs from China's Xinjiang province. They also have close links with Bin Laden's Arab Brigade and have been financed by Bin Laden, and have received recruits and finances from Pakistani Islamic parties such as the anti-Shia 'Sipha-e-Sahaba' and the 'Harkat Ul Mujheddin.'
IMPLICATIONS: The IMU's aims are not to confront Uzbekistan's forces, but rather to ship in supplies and manpower in order to set up bases in Ferghana for the winter months so they can carry out further mobilization of the local population. The IMU, which was given bases by the Taliban in northern Afghanistan in March 1999, launched its campaign of incursions in early August, crossing the Amu Darya River into Tajikistan and then sending small groups of fighters into southern Kyrgyzstan, eastern Uzbekistan and the Ferghana Valley. On August 8, President Askar Akayev announced that some 1,500 IMU rebels had crossed from Afghanistan of which some 200 were in Kyrgyzstan.
The IMU offensive is directly helping the Taliban. Russia and Uzbekistan have said that IMU rebels are trying to set up a courier system across the region for the direct transportation of Afghan opium to Russia and the west. The linkages between such warlord groups and the drug mafia are long established in Central Asia as opium provides a major source of financing for the Taliban, the IMU and the Bin Laden network. The IMU has also helped cut Masud's lifeline into Tajikistan by destabilizing southern Tajikistan, while some IMU forces are helping the Taliban offensive against Taloqan.
The IMU actions are aimed at pre-empting any attempt by President Karimov to offer Termez as a base for the anti-Taliban, now exiled Afghan Uzbek leader General Rashid Dostum. Both Russia and Turkey, who back Dostum, have asked Karimov to provide Dostum such a base from where he can re-engage the Taliban in northern Afghanistan. Dostum visited Moscow in early September. However, Karimov has declined to offer him a base fearing Taliban retaliation. Moreover, with Bin Laden having shifted his operational base to northern Afghanistan, there are signs of an even wider conflict developing. For example, there were reports at the end of August that Bin Laden has financed the sending of 400 Arab, Afghan and Central Asian fighters to Chechnya from Afghanistan.
CONCLUSION: The Taliban offensive has worked to the IMU's advantage to intensify tensions within Central Asia. Although both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are working together to stop the incursions, both states have sharply criticized Tajikistan for allowing the rebels to pass through its territory. However the strange factor in this is that the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border is guarded by some 11,000 Russian troops and it is they who appear to have allowed the IMU rebels to slip through. This has raised speculation in the region that Russia's actions may be a deliberate bid to aggravate tensions in Central Asia so that it can play a larger role in the region.
At the same the concerned states are suspicious of Turkmenistan's bid to try to foster a peace process between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Ousted Turkmen Foreign Minister Boris Sheikhmuradov, acting as President Niyazov's Special Envoy, met with the Taliban and Northern Alliance leaders as well as Pakistan's General Pervaiz Musharraf in early September with what he called ''a package of new proposals'' to end the fighting. It is unlikely that such an effort will succeed given the Central Asian states animosity toward Turkmenistans strategy of "going it alone" and Ashkhabad's close relations with the Taliban. The Taliban will continue to support the IMU as long as the Central Asian states provide the Northern Aalliance with bases and supplies. Afghanistan's civil war is thus rapidly expanding and engulfing the entire region.
AUTHOR BIO: Ahmed Rashid is the Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Daily Telegraph. He is the author of The Resurgence of Central Asia: Islam or Nationlism?, as well as the recently published Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (Yale, 2000).
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