A faraway struggle that began in the west

The scene is being set for a new Great Game in central Asia. John Lloydon the contaminating influenc

Amirkul Azimov's desk is orderly. The portrait of his president is neither askew nor dusty. This is a surprise, because Azimov is an official in Tajikistan, once Soviet Tajikistan, now the dirt-poorest of dirt-poor central Asian states. Most offices in Tajikistan's capital of Dushanbe, even in the presidential palace itself, are shells. Men and women yawn and gossip and grumble and plot through the days, drawing (sometimes) salaries rarely higher than ten dollars a month, which they supplement with whatever bureaucratic leverage they have.

But Azimov is national security adviser to President Imamali Rakhmonov, who has clung to power these past seven years and wields it still. If his office doesn't work, Tajikistan will succumb to the forces that have threatened its fragile statehood with extinction for ten years - the power struggle for control over water, gold, energy, and over Tajikistan's ideological and religious orientation. Azimov is there to see that Rakhmonov continues to win the struggle.

Azimov talks of the "bandit" Juma Nam- angani, a Tajik clan chief who has harried the Rakhmonov government and its allied clans for much of the past seven years. Namangani has carried on the fight for an Islamic state into neighbouring Uzbekistan and Kyrghyzstan, capturing a Japanese tourist and Kyrghyz officers before, says Azimov, being deprived of his hostages by Tajik forces.

Namangani, now thought to be in Afghanistan, probably commands no more than 200 fighters and perhaps many fewer. He is a semi-mythical figure, the mobile bandit with the baggage of Islam whom the stationary bandits of Dushanbe and the other regional capitals want to extirpate.

"Afghanistan," says Azimov, "is where he belongs. It is the source of our destabilisation." It was in Afghanistan - in Kandahar in early 1998 - that the most prominent object of western hatred, the Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden, issued a fatwa commending the killing of Americans as a "Muslim duty . . . in any country in which it is possible to do it". Bin Laden, ironically, had been drawn into politics by the CIA-backed war against the Afghan communists; but he became too serious about the jihad, spreading it from the Godless communists to the God- distorting Christians and Jews.

Afghanistan was the cockpit of Kipling's Great Game between the Russian empire pushing to the south through central Asia and the British empire pushing north of North-West Frontier Province. It has been fought over and plotted against so much that its civil society has fragmented. It has run through governments of stunning extremes - from Stalinist communist to an Islam driven by a puritanical fever.

The present Taliban government (the word means "students", and almost all were students before they became fighters, in medrassas or Islamic schools, usually in Pakistan) took Kabul exactly four years ago this week. It is still at war, against the forces of Ahmed Shah Masud, the leader of the Northern Alliance, a Tajik who remains the most prominent of the mujahedin who would not make peace with - or were not killed by - the Taliban.

The Taliban is the cruellest and best- motivated gang in a medievally violent landscape. The various sides have bombed, shelled and strafed each other unremittingly over the past 20 years, their operations limited only by difficulties in obtaining arms - although, given the vast US commitments to the mujahedin (up to $5bn) in its struggles against Soviet-backed governments, these were usually temporary. The journalist Ahmed Rashid - the author of a detailed account of the Taliban - observed Masud, for example, executing his captured enemies by lashing them to the tracks of tanks which then described a circle of the yard outside his headquarters. The Taliban baked their prisoners to death by locking them en masse in metal containers, placed in the sun for a day.

Islam was a residual force in Afghanistan before the CIA and Pakistani support of the anti-communist mujahedin stimulated its growth. The Taliban are Pashtun - the largest of Afghanistan's ethnic groups, accounting for about 40 per cent of its 20 million people. They are also country boys, who see the country as a large village on which village morality of a fearsomely restrictive kind should be imposed. Decrees that confine women to the house or to complete covering when outside of it, and insist that men wear bushy beards, are enforced by the agents of a Committee for the Suppression of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue. Enforced religious observation and the rule of the religious leader Mullah Omar, whose Kandahar base is at once a shrine and a source of revealed truth, are the essential guides to every decision. These decisions are limited, however, to the military and to religious discipline. There is no interest whatsoever in providing the most primitive government structure which could ease the lives of Afghans who - on top of all other horrors - are now contending with drought.

The regime has become best known for its suppression of women. Its decrees ban cosmetics, shoes with heels, stylish clothes, conversations with non-family men (even between male and female doctors). This offers a kind of instantly horrific apprehension of the regime for a west that takes female equality and advancement as an article of faith and definition of modernity: but it is not - as the UN human rights advocate Nora Neiland, who works in Afghanistan, says - very useful. "Women were repressed in Afghani culture before the Taliban; the educated elite was tiny. The point is to consider what would be available after the Taliban: what ruling class is left that might be considered more enlightened." Neiland, like most of the UN and volunteer community that battles to provide the country with some kind of supply, believes the west cannot understand the place, or properly assist it, until it examines its own large part in its fragmentation.

But the Taliban's sheer force, and Pakistani support, pushes it forward. In a successful autumn offensive, it is currently beating back Masud's Northern Alliance forces.

Azimov, from his orderly office, blames Afghanistan as the "source of our instability".

"The drugs that pass through our territory come flowing out of Afghanistan," he says. "The extremism comes from there also: but we have 1,500 kilometres of border with it and neither we nor the Russians can guard it all." The Russians keep a division - the 201st - on permanent station in Tajikistan, and deploy 15,000 border guards: increasingly, with its communist-era leadership and its preference for Russian hegemony to support its near-famine misery, the state is becoming a Russian protectorate.

Neither Tajikistan nor any of the other post-Soviet 'stans seems ripe for Islamic conversion. Even the Islamic Revival Party, which has two members of parliament in the legislature, keeps its distance. Its deputy leader, Said Umar Husseinzoda, speaking from his office in the Dushanbe suburbs, says: "The Taliban's mistake was that they made war on Muslims. There was a Muslim government in power [that of the relatively moderate mujahedin leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, now in exile in Dushanbe] and there was no reason to oppose it. War should be fought only to remove barriers," - which Husseinzoda defined later, and vaguely, as barriers to the "acceptance, though not necessarily the dominance, of Islam".

This across-the-board acceptance by the central Asian elites that Afghanistan is to be feared and opposed both masks and reveals a fear of its contaminating effects, particularly the drugs trade, to which the Taliban are nominally opposed but which, as Afghanistan's only cash crop, is practically essential. It creates transport and refining networks across the region, enriching and arming mafias that are often more powerful than the state. The extreme lawlessness of the Taliban would, if imported in some form into the central Asian states, precipitate clan, regional and ethnic struggle that would dwarf what Tajikistan has seen in seven years of internal wars.

Pakistan, itself a cauldron of ethnic, political and religious tensions, teeters on the edge of hostilities with India and continues to pursue a pro-Taliban strategy. Russia shores up the Northern Alliance and Tajikistan. Nato has sought to establish a powerful presence in Uzbekistan, whose tough and repressive regime is the most powerful foe of Islam in any form. China, which has formed a little club with some of the central Asian states, gives some aid and seeks to isolate its north-western areas from the Afghani contamination.

The Taliban sit at the centre of a network of fears and concerns. Their hatred of secular modernism, their internally repressive simplicities, their talent for inspiration and mobilisation, their appeal as the most radical and courageous of the anti-western fighters give them a status among the increasingly desperate populations of a central Asia that has so far failed to develop either out of totalitarianism or poverty.

Setting this part of the east ablaze was once the project of communism: now anti-communist forces created by the west have picked up the torch and are turning it against those they see as the oppressors of their religion and culture.