KABUL, Afghanistan -- In this paradise of conspiracy theory, a country that has been the plaything of great powers for more than a century, a new rumor is making the rounds: that the United States is behind the stunning rise of the fundamentalist Taliban.
From the Foreign Ministry to internationally funded charities, among United Nations officials and the clientele of Kabul's bazaars, many believe the Clinton administration is covertly supporting the Taliban, the victorious Islamic militia.
The reasons people give are many, even if proof is lacking. The United States, they say, is driven by the desire to checkmate Iran, Afghanistan's neighbor to the west and a country Washington considers one of the world's leading exporters of terrorism.
Then there is Afghanistan itself, which, in the words of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphel, has been transformed after more than 4 1/2 years of ruinous civil warfare between rival Islamic forces into a "conduit for drugs, crime and terrorism."
"We've seen the Taliban just like we've seen all the other factions to give them the same message -- to negotiate a broad-based government where everyone participates to prevent disintegration of the country, to control the drug trade, to close the terrorist camps and to get on with reconstruction," said one U.S. official in Washington. "We're not choosing. These people walked into Kabul, and they are no more or less legitimate than those sitting there last week."
The Talibs claim to oppose the drug trade that has made Afghanistan one of the leading suppliers of opium poppies, raw material for heroin reaching the West.
And a Taliban official, Shirmohammed Stanekzai, gave public assurances that under the Islamic militia's rule, this country will no longer serve as a training ground or haven for foreign extremists.
"As the Islamic movement of Taliban, we don't want to interfere in others' affairs," Stanekzai said. "We don't want to send people to create problems in other countries." If foreign terrorists fall into the Taliban's hands, he said, "we will punish them hard."
The present conspiracy theories are understandable, given the great mystery that shrouds the Taliban's rise and rapid advance.
How did a ragtag force that emerged in late 1994 among Muslim students in the southern region of Kandahar and adjacent areas of Pakistan grow so quickly that, two years later, it has become master of three-quarters of Afghanistan? Who paid for its weaponry, ammunition and vehicles?
Who organized its training and logistics? Is intelligence or military assistance from outside one of the reasons the Taliban has enjoyed astonishing, and relatively bloodless, successes over experienced mujahedeen commanders who for nearly a decade fought occupying Soviet troops?
Generous support for the Taliban from Pakistan, which wants to pacify its war-wracked neighbor for its own strategic and economic motives, has been well-documented. But is Pakistan's powerful ally, the United States, also involved in some way?
Although it could seem fantastic that the United States would support a band of avowed Islamic fundamentalists, many Afghans believe it is so.
"There are two different things -- American state interests and human rights," the local director of a foreign-funded charity said. "For the politicians running America, human rights take second place."
In the 1980s, the director noted, the United States was ready to train and outfit Muslim mujahedeen because of the larger Cold War aim of bleeding and humiliating the Soviet Union.
The United States has moved swiftly to establish official contact with the new masters of the Afghan capital. The day Kabul fell, a senior Clinton administration official said an envoy would probably be sent here to consult with officials of the new government formed by the Talibs.
The United States hasn't had an ambassador in Kabul since 1979, when Adolph Dubs was slain. In 1989, the year of the pullout of Soviet forces, the U.S. Embassy was closed down, and successive U.S. governments have considered Kabul too dangerous a place to post diplomats on a permanent basis.
Pub Date: 10/06/96