On the Iran-Afghan Border, a Fundamentalist Face-off

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TIM McGIRKBy imposing Islam at its harshest, Pakistan may just be trying to keep up with the neighbors. Next door are two profoundly fundamentalist Muslim countries, Iran and Afghanistan. Common faith doesn't make them friendly, though. Iran and the Taliban militia who rule most of Afghanistan are playing out an ancient schism in Islam between followers of the Sunni and Shia paths.Most Iranians are Shia, and they've watched with growing disquiet over the past four years as the puritanical Sunnis of the Taliban blazed across Afghanistan like a fierce sandstorm. Iran has given shelter and logistical support to various ethnic Afghan forces confronting the Taliban, but so far this has failed to halt the advance. When Taliban warriors, using the traditional Afghan method of bribes and bullets, conquered Mazar-e-Sharif, the last city still held by the rebels, they also overran the Iranian consulate. It was only last week, a month after Mazar-e-Sharif fell, that the Taliban's leaders admitted that nine Iranian diplomats and a journalist holed up inside the consulate were massacred by the invaders. The Iranians, along with human-rights organizations, are also alarmed over stories by refugees that the Taliban went on a rampage against the city's Shias. This was ostensibly to pay back equally vicious behavior last year by Shia militiamen who executed thousands of captured Taliban, either by firing squad or by tossing them blindfolded down a well and throwing a hand grenade in afterward.The latest round of hostilities began with Iran's ayatullahs and the Taliban flinging insults. The Taliban fighters, sneered the Iranians, were uneducated idiots. Soon after, the Taliban's Commander of the Faithful, a charismatic, one-eyed village clergyman named Mullah Mohammed Omar, responded that Shia were ranked somewhere between infidels and true Muslims. That remark enraged the Iranians. In the largest show of force since the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988, 70,000 Revolutionary Guards staged a showy series of war games along the Afghan border. That was followed by an even bigger armed build-up: 200,000 men, backed by tanks, artillery and warplanes. I have so far prevented the lighting of a fire in this region which would be hard to extinguish, declared Iran's supreme leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. But all should know that a very great and wide danger is quite near. PAGE 1  |   With his country on the verge of collapse, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attempts to impose strict Islamic law
 
Afghan experts in Peshawar and Islamabad say that Iran has three military options: launching a punitive air strike on Taliban positions, giving solid back-up to 4,000 anti-Taliban forces that have massed along the border or going for an all-out military offensive against the Taliban. That latter move would involve opening up a safe corridor to the besieged Hazara Shias in the mountain valley of Bamiyan and attacking Herat, Badghis, Faryab and other towns near the Iranian border, installing anti-Taliban forces there. Taliban fighters are thinly spread and couldn't resist such a massive thrust by the Iranians. But the Taliban won't go down without a fight: they have nearly a dozen Russian-made Scuds and, according to one Taliban leader, Mullah Wakil Ahmed, these missiles are now aimed at Iranian cities. If the Iranians do nothing, the Taliban will probably defeat the remaining rebels and impose their brand of radical Sunni Islam on the entire country--and perhaps spread it into Central Asia.Pakistan, too, may find itself dragged into the Taliban's showdown with Iran. Teheran accused Pakistani fighter pilots of flying bombing raids during the Taliban's assault on Mazar-e-Sharif and Bamiyan, a charge that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has denied. Islamabad has warned that a conflict could lead to a catastrophe for Islam, and Nawaz Sharif has offered to mediate between the Taliban and the Iranian government. Neither side, though, is in a listening mood. The Taliban are refusing to hand back around 40 Iranian prisoners held in Kandahar until the Iranians send over the Afghan rebel leaders for a public execution at the football stadium in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital.  |  PAGE 2 With his country on the verge of collapse, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attempts to impose strict Islamic law