Getting tangled in an Afghan web

August 25, 1998|By William O. Beeman

DUSHANBE, Tajikstan -- U.S. citizens must sooner or later face the fact that the bombings of our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were brought about in part by the muddled actions of our government.

The story is worthy of a Tom Clancy novel. It is an open secret throughout the region that the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been supporting the fundamentalist Taliban in their war for control of Afghanistan for some time. The United States has never openly acknowledged this connection, although it has been confirmed by intelligence sources in Pakistan.

In U.S. rhetoric regarding the Middle East, the Taliban would seem to be strange political partners of America. They are a brutal fundamentalist group that has promulgated a cultural scorched-earth policy and committed extensively documented atrocities.

An ancient proverb goes: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. In Afghanistan, the dominant ethnic groups are the Pushtuns and the Tajiks. The Pushtun Taliban have nearly eliminated their Tajik opposition, which had been supported by Iran. The United States, as an enemy of Iran, must be a friend of the Taliban.

This still does not fully explain why the United States would support such a group, or why Pakistan, itself a fundamentalist Islamic state, would risk the wrath of Tehran. The answer has nothing to do with religion or ethnicity -- only with the economics of oil.

To the north of Afghanistan is one of the wealthiest oil fields in the world -- on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, in some of the new republics of the former Soviet Union. Untold wealth is at stake, dependent on getting the oil out of the landlocked region through a warm-water port.

The simplest and cheapest route is through Iran. The U.S. government has such massive antipathy to Iran, however, that it is willing to do anything to prevent this from happening. One alternate route would be through Afghanistan and Pakistan. The difficulty is in securing the agreement of the powers that be in Afghanistan. From the U.S. standpoint, the only way to deny Iran everything is for the anti-Iranian Taliban to win in Afghanistan, and to agree to the pipeline. The Pakistanis, who would also benefit from this arrangement, are willing to defy the Iranians for a share of the pot.

Enter Osama bin Laden, a sworn enemy of the United States living in Afghanistan. His forces could see that the Taliban would eventually end up in the American camp if things proceeded as they had been. The bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa was accompanied by a message for Americans to get out of "Islamic countries."

The American response was to bomb bin Laden's outposts while carefully noting that his forces were "not supported by any state." This latter statement was an attempt to rescue the Taliban relationship, while at the same time warning Taliban leaders to ditch bin Laden. Now matters are really in a mess. Iran has issued a statement supporting U.S. actions. The Taliban are angry, and American citizens across the globe are the targets of militants. The United States may even lose the pipeline.

Every time the United States has attempted one of these slick back-door deals, American citizens have gotten burned. What our foreign-policy community never seems to learn is that religion and ideology are as strong a motivating force in this region as money or guns. We underestimate these factors every time.

William O. Beeman is a Brown University anthropologist specializing in the Middle East.

Pub Date: 8/25/98

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