After 20 merciless years of war, Afghanistan has emerged as a radical Islamic state whose religious fervor is frightening its neighbors.
Unlike other recent Afghan governments, this one could last a while.
After conquering the northern third of the country over the weekend, the Taliban Islamic army has completed its sweep of Afghanistan. Not since the Soviet army was driven out in 1989 has so much of Afghanistan been under the control of one regime.
Now, the Taliban’s brand of religious zealotry has now come within range of the Muslim nations of former-Soviet Central Asia: Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
These countries have secular governments, and they fear the Taliban’s view of Islam, which includes barring women from the school and workplace, and forbidding music, video and all forms of non-Islamic culture.
Farther north, Russia, too, is growling, threatening to invoke its pact with the Commonwealth of Independent States if the Afghan conflict spills across the borders. The alliance commits Russia and other former Soviet republics, including the five Central Asian nations, to a common defense.
“The Russian leadership states that if the CIS border is violated, the mechanism of the CIS collective security treaty will be immediately activated,” the Russian government said in a statement.
For emphasis, Russian helicopter gunships buzzed along Afghanistan’s border with Tajikistan.
Even Pakistan, widely seen as the Taliban’s godfather, has cause for worry. While Pakistan does not embrace a strict interpretation of Islam, it has hard-line conservative elements that could draw strength from the Taliban victory.
For the Central Asian governments, Afghanistan is menacing not only because it is awash with weapons - some as sophisticated as medium-range Scud missiles - but also because it is controlled by just one man. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar has declared himself Amir-ul Momaneen - or King of the Faithful, a title that does not recognize borders.
Already among the world’s poorest countries before Russian soldiers invaded in 1979, Afghanistan has been decimated. Its economy is a shambles. The vast majority of its population is illiterate.
But despite the fear it inspires in its neighbors, the Taliban appears to be in a position to finally impose peace on Afghanistan. Most of its former challengers have either joined its ranks or been driven into exile.
But Afghans are an unruly collection of tribes, not a people. No recent government has managed to overcome Afghanistan’s tribal and ethnic rivalries.
The Taliban, drawn from the Pashtuns who dominate the south, have always been distrusted by the ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks and Shiite Muslims in the north. The Taliban are Sunni Muslims. The Taliban rule over the north could be the real test of whether it can govern the country.