U.S. may be headed for dangerous neighborhood


U.S. officials investigating Tuesday's attacks in New York and Washington have focused their suspicions on Osama bin Laden, the accused Saudi terrorist who has been living in Afghanistan. Any attempt to capture bin Laden or punish Afghanistan's Taliban rulers for sheltering him would involve the United States in an unsettled and dangerous part of the world.

250,000 square miles of often forbidding terrain pinched between Iran and Pakistan, country has been controlled by the radical Islamic Taliban movement since 1996 after a long civil war.

Only three countries - Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government in Kabul. The group, whose name means "seekers of religious knowledge," sprang up from ultraconservative religious schools in refugee camps in Pakistan.

The camps were recruiting grounds for guerrilla groups during the Soviet Union's 1979-89 occupation of Afghanistan and during years of battle between rival ethnic warlords that followed the 1992 collapse of the Soviet-backed government.

The Taliban's emergence in the mid 1990s initially was hailed by many Afghans who welcomed its promise to unite the country and end more than 15 years of warfare. But powerful warlords in the north, particularly the Tajik commander Ahmed Shah Massood, continued their guerrilla campaigns. Many Afghans have turned against the Taliban because of its repressive brand of Islam. Foreign governments - alarmed by the proliferation of Islamic terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan, a rise in opium cultivation and trafficking, and disdain for human rights - shunned and isolated the country. Today, Afghanistan is one of the world's poorest, most backward countries. Particularly galling for foreign governments is the Taliban's harboring of Osama bin Laden, a fugitive Saudi millionaire who is the world's most wanted terrorist suspect.
- John Ward Anderson

The Central Asian countries that formed the underbelly of the Soviet Union have emerged as the battleground for an Islamic insurgency, aided by Afghanistan, that threatens to destabilize the region. In the past two years, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has staged raids in a bid to overthrow the area's young, quasi-democratic governments and establish a land based on Islamic law in the Ferghana Valley that encompasses parts of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The region's leaders have responded by bolstering their militaries, tightening their borders, cracking down on internal liberties and turning increasingly to Moscow for help. The situation has led to increased tension in the strategically located region where Russia, China and the United States all vie for influence by coming to their aid against a common enemy.

Washington fears that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan - powered by the Afghan drug trade, trained by the Taliban and operating out of Tajikistan - represents an arm of Osama bin Laden's organization and has supplied training, equipment and political support to the governments fighting it. Russia has even stationed troops in Tajikistan.
- Peter Baker

China has developed increasingly close ties with the Taliban and, according to news reports, recently signed a memorandum of understanding for more economic and technical cooperation.

But at the same time, China has dealt with the Taliban as part of an effort to persuade its officials to close Afghan-based camps that are used to train Muslim separatists from China's restive Xinjiang region. Those separatists on occasion reenter China and launch attacks on China's security services or civilian targets.
- John Pomfret

India has no official ties with the Taliban government and regards it as a dangerous source of Islamic terrorism.

In 1999, Islamic extremists hijacked an Indian jet and forced it to land in the Afghan city of Kandahar. Taliban authorities acted as a go-between to secure the release of most hostages in exchange for allowing the hijackers to escape. Indians criticized the government for caving in to terrorists; since then, India has been even more critical of the Taliban.
- Pamela Constable

Iran occupies a strategic position between the Middle East and Central and South Asia, sharing a 580-mile border with Afghanistan. But it has poor relations with both the Taliban government and the United States. Iran's conservative religious leaders base their legitimacy on their Shiite strain of Islam, while the equally conservative Taliban leaders base theirs on the majority Sunni strain.

The two countries also have serious border disputes. Iran unwillingly plays host to about 1.4 million Afghan refugees, most congregated in camps near the frontier, and it is waging a violent campaign to seal its border to opium shipments from Afghanistan. Iran almost went to war with Afghanistan in 1998, when Taliban soldiers killed 10 Iranian diplomats and an Iranian journalist in the northern Afghanistan town of Mazare Sharif.
- John Ward Anderson

Pakistan serves as the Afghan regime's principal channel to the world, but appears to have relatively little influence on the Taliban.

Pakistan, which is governed by an army general who seized power in October 1999, is trying to win international support to shore up its economy and project a moderate image, despite its support for the Taliban and for armed guerrillas fighting Indian forces in the disputed border region of Kashmir. But if the United States were to launch an air attack or commando raid on Afghanistan, Pakistan likely would criticize such an attack publicly and not overtly allow its territory to be used as a launching pad.

In August 1998, the United States bombed several desert camps in Afghanistan in retaliation for bin Laden's alleged links to the bombings of two American embassies in East Africa. A number of Pakistanis were killed and wounded in the attacks; most were reportedly being trained there for armed religious combat, possibly with funding from bin Laden.

Pakistan and Afghanistan share a long and porous border, which has served for years as a relief valve for hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees fleeing war and drought. Pakistan is also a Muslim state; a vocal and influential minority of Muslims in Pakistan support the Taliban, including armed extremist groups.

Strategic ties between the two countries intensified during the 1980s, when Soviet troops occupied Afghanistan while Pakistan served as a base for U.S.-backed resistance fighters, who included bin Laden.
- Pamela Constable

Russia knows what it is like to go to war in Afghanistan and lose.

The Soviet Union - which then included Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan - invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Years of fighting followed until the Soviet forces withdrew in 1989.

The fight against the Soviets marked the beginning of the two-decade career of Osama bin Laden, who came to Afghanistan to battle the Soviets with fellow Islamic warriors, called mujaheddin, and is now the alleged leader of a terrorist organization taking refuge with the Taliban.

Russia has emerged as a leading opponent of the Taliban, helping to finance the lingering Afghan civil war by providing arms to opponents in the north of the country and urging joint action by other European powers against the regime. Russia fears a new wave of instability in the already unstable region in the wake of the terrorist attacks in the United States.

Russian leaders say they are already at war with bin Laden and forces they describe as his proxies in Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim region in southern Russia that is fighting for independence. They say Chechen rebels have been financed by bin Laden and other Islamic extremists, although without citing conclusive evidence.
- Susan Glasser

Saudi Arabia
If there is an epicenter of Islamic anger against the United States, it lies 60 miles south of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, at a desert airfield where dozens of American fighter and reconnaissance planes are stationed to police southern Iraq.

U.S. aircraft arrived in Saudi Arabia in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. They helped repel that invasion and remained at the invitation of the Saudi royal family to help guarantee stability in the Arab oil states of the Persian Gulf, despite pledges to Islamic conservatives that they would return home as soon as the Iraq crisis ended.

Still nervous about Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and wary of the future of the Shiite Muslim government in nearby Iran, the Sunni Muslim-run Arab countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council have in the past decade bought tens of billions of dollars in weapons from the United States and accepted what has evolved into a permanent force of American ships, planes, tanks and personnel.

To Osama bin Laden and other extremists who trained with him to fight the Soviet army in Afghanistan, the U.S. presence amounts to a modern crusade, an army of infidels in the sacred birthplace of Islam interested only in oil supplies and defending Israel. It was the basis of his call for holy war against the United States, beginning after the Gulf War.
- Howard Schneider



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