By Peter Tomsen

The Taliban movement, depicted by Ahmed Rashid ("The Taliban: Exporting Extremism," NovemberffiDecember 1999), has passed its high-water mark. It is now disintegrating, echoing the rapid rise and fall of similar religious movements in Afghan history. With the Taliban's demise, Afghanistan faces a new challenge: who will fill their place?

As Rashid notes, the Taliban emerged in the mid-1990s, when their radical leader Muhammad Omar succeeded in melding religious fervor with the tribal patriotism of Afghanistan's largest group, the Pushtuns. Omar and the other militant mullahs from rural southern Afghanistan in the Taliban leadership were assisted by the powerful Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), the extremist Pakistani religious party Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), and radical Arab Muslims, including members of Osama bin Ladin's terrorist network. Together, these forces unleashed a powerful coalition that sallied northward from the Pushtun belt that borders Pakistan, ultimately gaining control of 90 percent of the country. The Taliban were initially welcomed by an Afghan population tired of war and disgusted by Kabul's inept, corrupt mujahideen government, led by Burhanuddin Rabbani.


Since their seizure of Kabul in 1996, the semiliterate Taliban mullahs have proven singularly incapable of governing the areas they control. Their rigid Islam, blending aspects of anti-Sufi and anti-Shia fundamentalism from India, Pakistan, and the Persian Gulf states, is alien to the moderate Islam practiced by most Afghans. Early on, the Taliban's authoritarianism and intolerance alienated non-Pushtun Afghans, who make up more than half the population. More recently, the Taliban have begun to alienate Pushtuns as well. The flow of thousands of extremist Pakistani and Arab Taliban supporters into Afghanistan has fueled the resentment of the local populace.

The Taliban's failed offensive in the fall of 1999 exposed the movement's declining military punch. A mostly non-Pushtun coalition in northern Afghanistan turned back the Taliban's attacks and has since pushed the front lines toward Kabul, capturing Taliban-controlled areas in northern, eastern, and western Afghanistan. The popular enthusiasm that greeted earlier Taliban offensives has faded: Pushtun youth are no longer volunteering to join the Taliban, and Pushtun fighters are leaving the Taliban's ranks, gravitating back to their southern tribal areas.

Signs of the Taliban's disintegration abound. Afghans are growing suspicious of how heavily the ISI controls the Taliban; ISI officers and Pakistani religious-party firebrands have become ubiquitous in Taliban-controlled cities, including Kabul. Taliban adversaries are profiting from these suspicions. Moreover, corruption, inspired by the lucrative opium business, has now started to infect Taliban leaders; this has raised questions among their followers about whether they have abandoned their professed spirituality in order to gain personal wealth and power.


Afghan supporters of a broad-based political reconciliation must now consider who will fill the vacuum left when the Taliban are forced from Kabul, perhaps as early as this summer. If the past seven years are any indication, Kabul will fall yet again to another foreign-supported, well-armed Afghan faction. But it, too, is doomed to be a transitory force, driven out by the overwhelming military strength of other groups that will eventually coalesce against it. Death and destruction could continually wrack the country.

Most Afghans agree that to escape this cycle of violence, the country's major religious and ethnic groups must cooperate to choose their own leadership, rather than have one imposed on them from the outside. They could do so through a mechanism such as the proposed Grand Assembly, for which models can be found in other times of trouble over the last 300 years of Afghan history. If successful, this type of large Afghan gathering could produce the first leader considered legitimate by the people since 1973. In November 1999, Afghan ex-monarch Zahir Shah presided over the second Afghan consultative conference in Rome to facilitate a Grand Assembly in 2000. Many Afghans consider Zahir Shah a suitable -- but not the only -- vehicle to achieve consensus within Afghanistan on how to restore peace. Worried about their own poor prospects, however, Taliban leaders and their radical foreign backers are already maneuvering to derail the Grand Assembly initiative.

The Grand Assembly could also consider reform more fundamental than merely changing the country's leadership. It could decide, for instance, what form of Islamic government is best for Afghanistan. Should the Afghan state be structured in a federal pattern, and how much power should rest at the state and at the national levels? What are the country's reconstruction priorities? What kind of constitution and legal system would best serve Afghanistan?

All non-Taliban Afghan groups, including Pushtun tribal leaders and the powerful Tajik northern commander Ahmed Shah Masoud, are advocating such a consensus-building process. Even mid- and lower-level Pushtuns in the Taliban's ranks have notified prominent Pushtun tribal leaders that they, too, support a broad-based intra-Afghan dialogue. Without exception, all Afghan groups have publically declared their preference for a united, unpartitioned Afghanistan.

If the post-Taliban leadership is wise, it will steer Afghanistan away from the Islamist crusade of Pakistani, Arab, and other foreign extremists attempting to export militant Islam to Central Asia and other parts of the Muslim world. Afghanistan has more than enough problems of its own. Internal stability and reconstruction will take years of domestic cooperation and hard work to achieve. The Taliban's replacements should realize that the international community will not be willing to assist them if foreign Islamists continue to divert Afghanistan toward violent campaigns abroad while its problems fester at home.

The most acute threat to a stable, peaceful, and neutral Afghanistan will continue to come from Pakistan, even though nearly all of Afghanistan's other neighbors also support their own Afghan proxies. Just as the Soviets tried saving their communist asset in Kabul by invading Afghanistan, Islamabad has been funneling more troops and military resources to save its own asset, the Taliban. More than 10,000 Pakistanis (and one "brigade" of radical Muslims from Arab states) now fight alongside Taliban forces in what many Afghans describe as a "creeping" Pakistani invasion of Afghanistan. The ISI, the JUI, Arab extremists such as Osama bin Ladin, and the Taliban leadership all cooperate closely. The ISI has long orchestrated this Islamist coalition; its continuing support for the Taliban is the biggest obstacle to a political settlement in Afghanistan.


American policy today is inadequate to deliver on U.S. interests in Afghanistan. U.S. foreign-policy makers must craft a more forceful, creative, and effective approach to address America's geostrategic concerns, the soaring Afghan opium trade, massive Taliban violations of human rights, and the return of the largest refugee population in the world. The current U.S. emphasis on bin Ladin's arrest is a necessary objective. It should, however, be part of a larger regional policy framework geared toward achieving U.S. goals.

The chief danger to U.S. interests is the rising tide of Islamist militancy and international terrorism emanating from bases in Afghanistan. The Afghan springboard for Islamist militancy endangers other pro-Western governments in the Muslim world, including Saudi Arabia, where a turn toward extremism would severely set back U.S. interests. Afghanistan is the documented training and inspirational base for worldwide militant Islamist operations ranging from American soil to the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, and the Philippines. Muslim extremists are menacing Russia's southern periphery, providing ammunition for Moscow's antidemocratic, ultranationalist advocates of regimentation at home to defend against enemies from abroad. The greater the influence of radical Muslims in the Central Asian republics, the more tempted the governments of those republics will be to seek Russian military assistance, further undermining their independence. This has already occurred in Tajikistan, which is now virtually a Russian protectorate.

A more energetic American policy should discreetly encourage the Afghan consensus process now underway. It should also advocate a fresh beginning for the lagging international negotiations on Afghanistan by replacing the nonproductive "Six-Plus-Two" U.N. forum that even Secretary-General Kofi Annan has criticized as ineffective. U.S. diplomacy must focus on removing Afghanistan as an arena of competition among Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. The 1955 State Treaty on Austrian Neutrality can serve as a useful precedent; it led to the withdrawal of Western and Soviet forces from Austrian territory and produced the first major "thaw" in the Cold War, when the contending outside powers agreed not to extend their spheres of influence to Austria.

The United States should continue to demand that Islamabad change its course on Afghanistan. It can appeal to the military leadership's own self-interest, pointing to the strategic, political, and economic benefits Pakistan stands to gain in an Afghan settlement: Pakistan's desperate search for overland trade routes to Central Asian, European, and Chinese markets will not be realized until the Afghan population recognizes its leadership as legitimate, not imposed. A formal international treaty respecting Afghanistan's neutrality and sovereignty would permit Islamabad's military leaders to discontinue -- with honor -- their blatant and extensive interference in Afghanistan.

Ahmed Rashid correctly observes that "until the United States demonstrates that it has the determination to mobilize an international effort for ending outside interference, Afghanistan's chaos will only spread." Recent political developments, such as the failed Taliban offensive in the north, international sanctions on the Taliban, doubts in Pakistan about its Islamist-centered Afghan policy, the military coup in Pakistan, intra-Afghan initiatives toward a Grand Assembly meeting, and other regional powers' concerns about the Taliban have opened the door for America to make an informed, diplomatic push on Afghanistan. But real progress toward ending the Afghan nightmare will be possible only if the United States creates a policy more congruent with American interests in Afghanistan and the surrounding region. A promising opportunity for a peaceful settlement of the Afghan conflict is emerging out of the Taliban's decline. The United States should seize it.

Peter Tomsen is Professor of International Studies and Programs at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He served as Special Envoy to the Afghan Resistance, with the rank of ambassador, in 1989-92.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now