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AFGHANISTAN - The US Prepares To Deal Militarily With Osama Bin Ladin & The Taliban.

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NICOSIA - The US and Russia, together with key allies, are orchestrating a steady build-up of pressure against the Taliban movement in Afghanistan. The frequency of statements critical of the Taliban from the US State Department as well as from the Russian Foreign Ministry has been increasing in recent weeks. APS sources say "the stage is being set" for a concerted effort to seriously undermine the hold of the Taliban over Afghanistan. There is strong support worldwide for action against the Taliban, with the US, Russia, Iran and India sharing a rare convergence of interests on the issue.

This effort could include military strikes, the timing of which will be determined by the discovery of firm evidence about the involvement of denationalised Saudi militant Osama Bin Ladin in the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000. The American media have in recent weeks been highlighting the role of Afghanistan as the world's biggest source of terrorism, taking over the role played by countries such as Lebanon and Iran during the 1980s. They are on the one hand linking Osama to a series of terrorist incidents from the World Trade Centre bombing, to the US embassy bombings and to the blasts against US military facilities in Saudi Arabia, and on the other they are portraying Afghanistan as a breeding ground for terrorists from the US to the Philippines with the blessings of the Taliban.

The Taliban now face tighter sanctions over their continued refusal to hand over Bin Ladin, with a deadline for compliance passing on Jan. 19. The latest sanctions Resolution (1333) also calls for the closure of Islamist militant training camps. This widens the UN mandate beyond Bin Ladin, whose capture is strictly a US interest to cover the interests of Central Asian countries, Russia, China and India - all of whom have accused the Taliban of harbouring militants who wage jihad (holy war) from Chechnya to Tajikistan and Kashmir. The mainly ethnic Pashtun Taliban leaders, in keeping with their pre-Islamic Pakhtunwali code of honour which has been integrated into their interpretation of the Koran, have refused to comply with UN demands saying Bin Ladin and the other fighters helped them drive out the Soviets and are therefore guests in Afghanistan.

For its part, Washington is determined to bring Bin Ladin to justice and is not prepared to compromise on the issue. And it has directly informed Taliban officials about this during their meetings with US envoys in Pakistan or elsewhere. In fact Taliban Foreign Minister Mullah Wakil Ahmed Mutawakil was quoted in 'The Nation' newspaper of Pakistan on Jan. 18, as saying: "We have floated three proposals to the United States for solution to Osama's issue, however, the United States has rejected all of them. It shows their intentions that they do not believe in dialogue". On Jan. 17, State Department Deputy Co-ordinator for Counter-Terrorism, Steven Monblatt said: "We must find a way to end the use of Afghanistan as the centre of terrorism around the world".

Indeed, some observers believe that while the US was in the mid-1990s prepared to work out a modus vivendi with the Taliban, it has concluded over the past year that it cannot deal with the movement in view of its rigid views on women's rights, religious rights, etc - which are totally unacceptable to American voters. As such, it does not believe stability favourable to US interests can be achieved in Afghanistan so long as the Taliban remains in control of 95% of the country. This may explain why the latest UN resolution is Taliban-specific. The curbs on arms trade, for instance, do not affect the Northern Alliance, which has for years been fighting to prevent the Taliban movement from taking over all of Afghanistan.

Possible Military Action: The sources say preparations are underway for a possible military strike against "key targets in line with demands made under the UN sanctions resolution (1333)", which was passed in early December 2000 on top of the already existing sanctions regime under Resolution 1267. The implication is that any military strike would involve an air assault, including cruise missile strikes, against the camps which Bin Ladin is known to frequent, as well as against numerous weapons training camps for militants from across the world. Critics say such strikes would be no more effective than those the US launched in August 1998 after the US embassies in Kenya and Ethiopia were bombed, allegedly by Bin Ladin.

According to the sources, any military action would involve the US as the major player co-ordinating the sequence of events. Its role would include intelligence operations as well as air strikes. There have also been repeated rumours about an insertion of American special forces troops in order to capture Bin Ladin. There have been reports in the Pakistani media that naval vessels of the US Fifth Fleet as well as British, French and Russian ships have entered international waters near Pakistan, and are on standby for orders on action against Afghan territory. US Central Command Chief Gen. Tommy Franks was scheduled to arrive in Pakistan for a three-day visit on Jan. 18, and one of the subjects high on the agenda was the question of Afghanistan.

The possibility that ground forces may be used in a limited way cannot be ruled out as well, in view of widespread resentment across Central Asia, Iran and Russia against the Taliban. There have been reports that Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are prepared to provide some troops to help the Northern Alliance beat back the Taliban from much of northern Afghanistan. At a meeting in the Kazakh capital Almaty on Jan. 5, the Kazakh, Tajik, Kyrgyz and Uzbek presidents met to discuss the problems emanating from Afghanistan. Uzbek President Islam Karimov then said: "In 1999 and 2000 Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan were subjected to aggression (by Islamic militants). We don't have the right to allow this scenario to be repeated on an even larger scale. The problem has already troubled us for a long time. We are looking for a concrete decision -- on which please allow us not to comment".

There have been reports that fighters loyal to Gen. Ismail Khan of Herat are ready in Iran to move into western Afghanistan at short notice, perhaps with some Iranian Revolutionary Guards mixed in. Iran has been extremely critical of the way in which the Taliban, which practices a very rigid and sectarian interpretation of Sunnism, have targeted the Shiite minorities in Afghanistan.

Apart from the Taliban, the biggest negative implications arising from the sanctions and from potential military action would be faced by Pakistan. Islamabad is the main external power backing the Taliban movement, but with its economy in dire straits the country is under immense pressure to not oppose any move against the Taliban, and to fall in line with UN sanctions. However, there is a strong radical Islamist trend within Pakistan and sections of the country - especially in the North West Frontier Province - has already been Talibanised. Radical Islamic groups within Pakistan, which initially provided the ideological and training base for the Taliban movement, have warned the Islamabad military regime not to apply the sanctions, and have threatened to respond to any military attack against Afghanistan.
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Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Geographic Code:9AFGH
Date:Jan 22, 2001
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