Eleven months after sweeping into Kabul, the Taliban are facing a setback. Ahmed Shah Massoud's forces, supported by Russia and Iran, are pounding the city with artillery and rockets. This reversal started with the massacre of Taliban forces in Mazar-i-Sharif last May, ending their attempt to conquer northern Afghanistan.
The Taliban's weakened position cannot be good news for its backers, the U.S. and Pakistan, which hope to run oil and gas pipelines from Turkmenistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan. Both countries expect the Taliban to ensure the pipelines' security and open up other trade with Central Asia. The U.S. hopes to gain access to the enormous oil and gas reserves of Central Asia for its corporations, thereby weakening Russian influence and isolating Iran. The Taliban are virulently opposed to Iran and have closed its embassy in Kabul. When Pakistan signed an agreement with Turkmenistan and Unocal, a U.S. company, to construct pipelines across Afghanistan into Pakistan, the Taliban reacted angrily because the agreement excluded them and started negotiating with an Argentine company.
If they cannot conquer the north of Afghanistan, the Taliban could bring their fundamentalism south to Pakistan's North West Frontier Province. This would be ironic, since Pakistan trained them. Taliban influence is growing rapidly there. Though weakened, the Taliban cannot be counted out yet. The militia still controls most of Afghanistan, including the heroin-producing area. Poppy production has actually gone up; the Taliban have refused to ban drug trafficking. With the riches of Central Asia at stake for the U.S., Pakistan, Russia, and Iran, there is no end in sight to the war.
Asad Ismi is a researcher at Canada-Americas Policy Alternatives.