26 June 2001: India and Iran will "facilitate" US and Russian plans for "limited military action" against the Taliban if the contemplated tough new economic sanctions don't bend Afghanistan's fundamentalist regime.
The Taliban controls 90 per cent of Afghanistan and is advancing northward along the Salang highway and preparing for a rear attack on the opposition Northern Alliance from Tajikistan-Afghanistan border positions.
Indian foreign secretary Chokila Iyer attended a crucial session of the second Indo-Russian joint working group on Afghanistan in Moscow amidst increase of Taliban's military activity near the Tajikistan border. And, Russia's Federal Security Bureau (the former KGB) chief Nicolai Patroshev is visiting Teheran this week in connection with Taliban's military build-up.
Indian officials say that India and Iran will only play the role of "facilitator" while the US and Russia will combat the Taliban from the front with the help of two Central Asian countries, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, to push Taliban lines back to the 1998 position 50 km away from Mazar-e-Sharief city in northern Afghanistan.
Military action will be the last option though it now seems scarcely avoidable with the UN banned from Taliban-controlled areas. The UN which adopted various means in the last four years to resolve the Afghan problem is now being suspected by the Taliban and refused entry into Taliban areas of the war-ravaged nation through a decree issued by Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar last month.
Diplomats say that the anti-Taliban move followed a meeting between US Secretary of State Collin Powel and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and later between Powell and Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh in Washington. Russia, Iran and India have also held a series of discussions and more diplomatic activity is expected.
The Northern Alliance led by ousted Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani and his military commander Ahmed Shah Masood have mustered Western support during a May 2001 visit to Dusseldorf, Germany.
The Taliban is using high-intensity rockets and Soviet-made tanks to attack Northern Alliance fighters in the Hindukush range with alleged Pakistani aid. But Northern Alliance fighters have acquired anti-tank missiles from a third country that was used in the fight near Bagram Air Base in early June. The Taliban lost 20 fighters and fled under intense attack.
Officials say that the Northern Alliance requires a "clean up" operation to reduce Taliban's war-fighting machinery to launch an attack against the Taliban advance to the Tajik-Afghan border. This "clean up" action is being planned by the US and Russia since the Taliban shows no "sign of reconciliation".
Tajikistan and Uzbekistan will lead the ground attack with a strong military back up of the US and Russia. Vital Taliban installations and military assets will be targeted. India and Iran will provide logistic support. Russian President Vladimir Putin has already hinted of military action against the Taliban to CIS nation heads during a meeting in Moscow in early June.
India and Iran have been assisting the Northern Alliance and the Afghan people under their humanitarian programme since Taliban's ouster of the Rabbani government in 1996. The US needs Russian assistance because of Soviet knowledge of the Afghan terrain. The former Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan in 1979 and withdrew in 1989.
Masood's strategic stronghold of Panjsher valley has been threatened by the advancing Taliban militia for the last three months. The Northern Alliance has stepped up its attack on Taliban troops who have brought the valley within artillery fire range.
Military planners say that if Taliban were not given a blow now it would slowly make inroads into the Panjsher valley. The fall of Panjsher will enable Taliban to control the remaining 10 per cent of Afghanistan in possession of the Northern Alliance.
Russia says it has evidence that the Taliban aims to create "liberated zones" all across Central Asia and Russia and links its Chechnya problem to the rise of Taliban fundamentalism. The US is directly hit by the anti-US thrust of Islamic groups who use Afghanistan as their base for terrorism and is demanding extradition of Osama Bin Laden to face trial in the embassy bombing case.
Such Central Asian countries as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are threatened by the Taliban that is aiming to control their vast oil, gas and other resources by bringing Islamic fundamentalists into power. Now all the CIS nations are seeking assistance of Russia's Federal Border Guard Service to overcome the Taliban threat.
General Konstantin Trotsky, director of the border force, said in a newspaper interview, "We are watching the opposition of the Northern Alliance and the Taliban in Afghanistan very closely."
For its part, Shia Iran is reluctant to tolerate a Sunni militia regime on its border that gives Pakistan, a Sunni country and a sponsor of the Taliban, a "strategic sway" on considerable parts of the Iranian border. Iran is also affected by a Taliban-sponsored movement in Ispahan province where Sunnis have a sizable population.
Iran is also worried over the unending war effort of the Taliban to get supremacy in Afghanistan that is harming Iran's economic interests. India, Iran and Russia, for example, are working on a broad plan to supply oil and gas to south Asia and southeast Asian nations through India but instability in Afghanistan is posing a great threat to this effort.
Similarly, India is apprehensive about the increasing infiltration of Afghan-trained foreign mercenaries into Kashmir. Security agencies have reported that as many as 15,000 hardcore militants have received training in such places in Afghanistan as Khost, Jalalabad, Kabul and Kandahar since 1995. There are 55 terrorist training camps located in Afghanistan that are funded and aided by Islamic fundamentalists to carry out attacks against non-Islamic nations.
The UN had sent a 12-member delegation to India in the first week of May to assess the feasibility of tough economic sanctions against Taliban. The same delegation met General Pervez Musharraf to convince him about the importance of Pakistani cooperation. The UN believes that the sanctions can be only as tough as Pakistan desires.
India's official position is for a "peaceful and lasting solution" to the Afghan problem. But it strongly advocates strict economic sanctions against Taliban and is also not averse to a "limited military action" to weaken it.
India plans to raise the Afghanistan issue in the forthcoming G-8 summit in Geneva in mid-July.