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Barnett Rubin, specialist on Afghanistan

Taliban Afghanistan, a buffer state between South and Central Asia, is today fragmented and torn asunder between ethnic and ideological conflicts. While the world awaits the 21st century, new rulers in Kabul enforce laws that even the most medieval theologian would baulk at. And countries around the periphery and the world remain distrustful of the new regime, and fearful for their own security and well-being, especially nations seeking to play down religion and establish liberal, secular societies.

The fanatical Taliban, who now control Kabul and about three fourths of the country, are mainly Pashtuns from the southern part, the same race as those in northwestern Pakistan. Many experts suspect that Pakistan has sponsored the Taliban. In the north, control is still with the Uzbeks and the Tajiks, who are increasingly drawing support from their transborder brethren. The Taliban's fundamentalist Sunni brand of Islam has even upset Shia Iran, though both swear by orthodox Islam. Thus today, the Taliban is supported by Pakistan (and the US, quietly), while opposed by the Central Asian Republics, especially Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Iran, Russia, and India (albeit covertly). Polarising the region, and much of the world!

Lying on the crossroads of three great civilisations -- India, China, and the Middle East -- conquerors and traders traversed across Afghanistan, and left their mark. Though today its rulers seek to implement the most radical brand of Islam, centuries ago Hinduism, Buddhism, and Manicheanism flourished in Afghanistan. Traders on the famed Silk Route walked across the country. And so did Genghis Khan when he went west to establish his great empire, and Babur when he came south to create the Mughal empire.

But where does Afghanistan go today? And what are the choices before its neighbours? How will the rise of a fundamentalist regime in Kabul affect secular countries like India, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhistan? How should one deal with the Taliban and its laws confining women to their homes, even if their children are starving and without a father? Laws that prevent girls from studying and force men to pray five times a day, grow beards and wear a turban? Is trade with Afghanistan more important than humanity? Or is it better to deal with Afghanistan by engaging, rather than isolating, it, as the US claims to be doing with China? Will the Taliban, supported by Pakistan and the US, destabilise the region in its messianic zeal to spread its particular faith?

Will Russia, growing assertive again, tolerate such a situation in its 'near abroad'? How will India be affected? Should India play a more active role in its neighbourhood, and seek to influence politics in Afghanistan? Will the already bad Indo-Pakistan ties worsen over who rules Kabul? Will it hurt US-Russian ties? Will it fuel Islamic terrorism, or only further divide the Islamic world?

A hundred questions arise, and to answer them on the Rediff Chat will be present Dr Barnett Rubin, one of the world's foremost specialists on Afghanistan and expert on Central and South Asia. Director of the Center for Preventive Action, he is also a senior fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations. Dr Rubin has authored Afghanistan -- from Buffer State to Failed State: International Conflict and Cooperation and The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System, and has written several articles on Central Asia and Russia. And if anyone can understand and unravel the Afghan conundrum today, he can.