Iran raises pressure on Afghan leaders Tensions increase after Taliban captures town with ties to Tehran

September 14, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Fears of a military clash between Iran and Afghanistan rose to new levels yesterday as the Afghan Taliban militia announced it had taken control of an opposition stronghold with strong ties to Iran.

Mullah Wakil Ahmad, chief spokesman for the Taliban, said its forces had seized Bamian, a town in central Afghanistan that is the capital of the country's Shiite Muslim minority.

Afghanistan's Shiite community, which numbers more than 600,000, maintains strong spiritual and political ties with Iran, whose population is predominantly Shiite.

The Taliban, the ultra-orthodox Islamic movement that controls about 90 percent of Afghanistan, adheres to the Sunni branch of Islam.

The Taliban announced its latest conquest as the first of 200,000 Iranian troops mobilized for military maneuvers along the Afghan frontier -- the second such exercise in the past two weeks. Western diplomats said Sunday that the Iranians could launch a strike against the Taliban as early as today.

An armed clash between the two fundamentalist governments -- each a vigorous sponsor of international terrorism -- has raised fears of a wider conflict in the historically unstable region. Afghanistan has been convulsed by civil war for nearly a quarter of a century, and nearly all its neighbors -- Pakistan, Iran and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia -- have felt the effects.

Tensions between Iran and Afghanistan have risen sharply since NTC last week's admission by the Taliban that its soldiers had killed at least nine Iranian diplomats who disappeared in Afghanistan. The diplomats were killed last month when Taliban forces captured Mazar-i-Sharif, a city that was held by forces opposed to the Taliban and supported by Iran. International human rights groups have charged that Taliban forces ruthlessly repressed the Shiite Muslims living in the city.

Iranian officials have warned in recent days that they would punish the Taliban for the deaths of the diplomats -- and for the disappearance of more than 60 other Iranian nationals in Afghanistan. They have moved tanks and heavy artillery to the country's northeastern border, and earlier this month they staged a military exercise with 70,000 troops.

In what could be a prelude to a military strike, the Iranian government has asserted its right to use military force in self-defense under the U.N. Charter.

Taliban officials warned yesterday that any Iranian incursion would face a sharp riposte. They said they have strengthened their forces along the Iranian border and have armed Afghan civilians there.

"If Iran decides to invade Afghanistan, whether over land, through the air or by infiltrating anti-Taliban insurgents, let it be very clear: It will be committing a big mistake," said Ahmad, the Taliban spokesman.

Western diplomats said that a direct military assault by Iranian forces appeared unlikely and that the most probable scenario would be an attack by about 8,000 anti-Taliban Afghanis who have assembled along the border with Iran. Such a strike would probably require at least the indirect support of the Iranian military, the diplomats said.

About 1.4 million Afghan nationals reside in eastern Iran, most of them refugees from the war and most of them Shiite Muslims.

An airstrike by Iranian forces against the Taliban is also a possibility, the diplomats said.

A war between Iran and Afghanistan would pose unique dilemmas for the United States, which has strained relations with each country.

In Afghanistan, the United States supported rebels during the 1980s as they resisted an invasion by the Soviet Union. The United States backed away after the Soviets pulled out and the rival groups began to fight among themselves.

Pub Date: 9/14/98

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