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By Graham E. Fuller

Graham E. Fuller is a former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the Central Intelligence Agency. He was political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul from 1975 to 1978 and is author of the Rand Corporation study "Islamic Fundamentalism in Afghanistan.''

WASHINGTON -- Little could be as daunting as the geopolitics of taking on terrorism in Afghanistan. There is a wealth of conflicting agendas across the region involving Islamic politics, no element of which fully dove-tails with U.S. interests. The Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in 1996 with the mission of restoring law and order -- on the basis of a highly conservative and basic interpretation of Islam -- in a country racked by long civil war ever since the Soviet occupation. In fact, they inherited a country full of training camps for Islamic activists and radicals from all around Asia. While they themselves had little external Islamic designs, they permitted the presence of these fighters, large numbers of whom had helped liberate Afghanistan from the Soviets.

They have not wanted to expel them, both out of Islamic loyalty and because these fighters have helped the Taliban against the forces of the feckless but more moderate previous Afghan Islamist regime.

The single central reality is that Islam acts as the natural vehicle of politics across the Muslim world. As Westerners look to the French and American revolutions as models for freedom from tyranny or the Magna Carta as a basic doctrine on good governance, in the Muslim world the Koran serves as a source for justice, humanity, good governance and opposition to corruption. Islam provides ideology both for internal struggle against "secular'' authoritarian rule and for Muslim minorities seeking liberation from frequently harsh non-Muslim rule.

Thus Central Asia has produced a welter of Islamist movements, many now quite radical or violent -- all in response to what they have seen as radical and violent conditions of dictatorship, oppression of believers, corruption and bad governance.

-- In its 10 years of independence, Uzbekistan, under a neo-Stalinist regime, has jailed, tortured, killed or exiled members of opposition parties and leaders of any stripe, leaving the hard-to-crush Islamist opposition. Ruinous Uzbek policies have thus managed to generate an armed Islamist opposition movement where none had ever existed; indeed, the Uzbek government would love to cooperate with Washington against "terrorism'' -- the name it gives to all opposition.

-- Chinese oppression of an 8 million Uyghur Turkish Muslim minority in Xinjiang has pushed Uyghurs to both nationalism and Islam to oppose the Han colonialism; these movements have turned violent. China would love to co-opt Washington's "war on terrorism'' to justify crushing Uyghur activity.

-- The Chechens have fought for independence from Russia for more than 200 years, traditionally speaking in the name of an Islamic struggle. Russia, too, welcomes a "war against terrorism'' that justifies crushing the Chechens.

-- Muslim Kashmiris feel the heavy hand of Hindu misrule and invoke Islam as part of their struggle.

-- In Tajikistan clan warfare has typically taken on Islamic coloration.

-- Iran, too, hates the Taliban because they are so harshly anti-Shiite.

-- And for Pakistan, Afghan camps provide training to Kashmiri guerrilla forces that constitute Pakistan's major foothold in Kashmir and a bargaining chip with India in granting Kashmir more autonomy and even independence.

All of these peoples -- Uyghurs, Chechens, Kashmiris, Uzbeks and even some Arab opposition movements -- have been using Afghanistan for guerrilla training, many for more than 20 years. They often pool their resources to offer help to other besieged Muslims -- Bosnians, Kosovars, Moros in the Philippines.

Strictly speaking, it is not Afghanistan that has generated the movements, but more accurately the regional conditions that have generated the movements that have sought refuge in Afghanistan. But nearly all of these regional powers -- India, Iran, Russia, China, Uzbekistan -- would welcome an end to an Afghan regime that provides refuge for their opposition movements. Here the United States faces some fairly unpalatable bedfellows.

But there are limits to the geopolitical tolerance of even these states for Washington's goals. While none will shed tears for the Taliban, nearly all are hostile to any hint of American hegemony in Asia and to American unilateralism. They fear the precedent of American military action on their doorsteps that would strengthen American interventionism around the world.

In the Middle East, most autocratic regimes face political opposition typically from local Islamist movements, most of them nonviolent, but a few quite violent, as in Algeria and Egypt. Many Muslims see Islamist movements as natural vehicles of struggle for change, often peaceful, against entrenched regimes that refuse to liberalize -- in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Tunisia, to name a few.

Thus if an American "war against terrorism'' ends up being a war on behalf of entrenched regimes against even peaceful local Islamist movements (or strengthening Israeli control over Palestinians), it is likely to engender a lot of suspicion about the real U.S. agenda.

The choice is very tough because as these struggles continue, they tend to become more radicalized or violent. Reasonable and equitable solutions of the Palestinian and Kashmiri problems are almost a prerequisite for gaining genuine regional acquiescence to U.S. war aims.

Pakistan is in the toughest position of all. Confronted with a powerful India on the east, Islamabad needs a friendly regime and strategic depth on the west. It helped the Taliban come to power in order to restore order in Afghanistan via friendly forces. It did not bargain that Afghanistan would become the center of controversy. While the leadership of Pakistan has no love for Osama bin Laden, the Taliban are a useful ally. If it is compelled to force the Taliban to turn over Bin Laden, Pakistan would be highly vulnerable to major backlash from an Islamic population that views Bin Laden as a hero, not only standing up successfully to the U.S.S.R. but now to "American imperialism.'' It would be ironic if the United States got Bin Laden and in the process lost Pakistan to hard-line fundamentalists.

In short, across much of the Middle East and Asia, it is very tough to separate "terrorism'' from politics -- particularly in the eyes of Muslims. So as Washington bids to become involved in the domestic politics of a multitude of countries, it is likely to lose friends at the popular level.

(c) 2001, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 9/18/01)