Even after the series of Taliban victories inside Afghanistan, which have left some 90 per cent of its territory under Taliban control, the political situation in the country looks extremely unstable. Many foreign states are deeply involved in the war on one side or the other.
Differences within Taliban ranks appear to be growing, with reports of 55 arrests of senior commanders and ex-generals of the regular army in Kabul and Herat in what is said to have been a bungled coup attempt at the end of September.
Only two enclaves in northern Afghanistan (in Panjsher and Badakhshan) still lie outside Taliban control. How much longer they can hold out is very uncertain, shown in a recent decision by Ahmed Shah Massoud to have 83 Taliban prisoners flown out to Kulyab airbase in Tajikistan, instead of staying on in Panjsher valley.
The Shi'a party, Hizb-i Wahdat, likewise reportedly flew out its Taliban POWs to Mashad in Iran, before the fall of Bamiyan. These prisoners could be valuable pawns in any future swap of prisoners. Meanwhile, the war of words between Iran and Afghanistan shows no sign of abating.
Tensions are high (see TME October 1998), and obvious dangers of things developing into a full scale war exist with Iran's decision to hold further massive military manoeuvres along the borders with Afghanistan. Over 200,000 Pasdaran and regular troops are now reportedly based in Iran's eastern provinces.
There is genuine outrage in Iran, and some political circles are deliberately pushing the idea of revenge on the Taliban for murdering the Iranian diplomats last August, on the capture of Mazar-i Sharif.
Another highly emotive issue for Iranians is the Taliban's brutal killings of many thousands of Imami Shi'as, all of the Hazara minority living in the northern Afghan city, a virtual genocide which, though still denied by the Taliban, has been verified and given wide coverage internationally, especially in Iran.
Nationalist sentiment, always a force to be reckoned with in modern Iran, is solidly anti-Afghan, and appears to be responsible for a spate of beatings and reported killings in Isfahan and other Iranian cities of unfortunate (and entirely blameless) Afghan refugees.
There has been speculation that the war fever in Iran is being artificially fostered. The fact is a war at this time might well serve the interests of conservative circles in Iran which have lost out badly during the past year to the liberal cause personified in President Khatami. A war...