Why winning the peace will be tougher than defeating the Taliban

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Series Details Vol.7, No.44, 29.11.01, p6-7
Publication Date 29/11/2001
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Date: 29/11/01

By David Cronin

Commission President Romano Prodi and Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt visited India and Pakistan last week to size up the EU's political and humanitarian role in the region. David Cronin travelled with them

WITH its leafy garden and spellbinding view of the Himalayas, Belgium's embassy to Pakistan seems too tranquil a setting for talking about war and misery.

Last weekend, though, the people in charge of delivering vital supplies to the hungry hordes on and across the country's border with Afghanistan held court there. Both the Belgian premier Guy Verhofstadt and European Commission chief Romano Prodi listened patiently as the aid workers listed the steps they regard as necessary for keeping the world's most pressing humanitarian problem from escalating into an unmitigated disaster.

Not surprisingly, the agencies reeled off a litany of grim statistics. There are 60,000 refugees trying to enter Pakistan and about 500,000 internally displaced within Afghanistan. Fifty-thousand tonnes of food will be needed in the coming weeks. And 75 of Afghan children have witnessed violence.

Of course, they want Europe to help in easing the plight of Afghan civilians. But rather than simply throwing money at the crisis, they urged representatives of the international community to hunker down and devise a blueprint for a stable Afghanistan without delay.

"The best thing politicians can do for the humanitarian situation is to help move the political process forward towards a resolution," said Tim Pitt from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

As an aid worker, he says it is not his job to propose exactly who should be sitting in the new Afghan cabinet. But he warns against emulating the Dayton accords, which carved up Bosnia along ethnic lines. " $15 billion [€17 billion] has been spent implementing Dayton over the past five years, when in Bosnia the real causes of conflict have not been resolved," he said. "Is that moving forward?"

Oxfam has pointed out that the current anarchy is bedevilling relief efforts. On 20 November, armed men halted food convoys going from Kabul to Bamyan in the central Afghan highlands, demanding payment before it could proceed. This week's talks in Bonn on the country's future should agree that a UN-led administration is set up to fill the political vacuum on an interim basis, the group recommends.

"Violence, intimidation and obstacles to aid will only get worse unless the international community demonstrates now that it can restore law and order and facilitate a transition to a stable government representing all Afghans," said an Oxfam spokesman.

While the spotlight has been on the probable role the Northern Alliance will play in a post-Taliban government, no serious analysis could conclude that it represents "all Afghans".

Mainly composed of Uzbeks and Tajiks, the Alliance does not enjoy the allegiance of the country's principal ethnic group, the Pashtun. This partly explains why Pakistan is especially wary of the Northern Alliance. Islamabad has strong ties with Pashtun chieftains and about 80 of the estimated three million refugees in Pakistan belong to that tribe.

More seriously, the Northern Alliance troops have developed a fearsome reputation for heinous crimes.

During the 1992-1996 period, the Alliance's current head Burnahuddin Rabbani was president of the Islamic State of Afghanistan, the government deposed by the Taliban. He initiated much of the repression on

which the Taliban would later capitalise, declaring democracy as tantamount to infidelity and television the "mirror of evil".

Parties now constituting the alliance were also behind many of the attacks that reduced much of Kabul to rubble, leaving 25,000 people (mostly non-combatants) dead in 1994 alone.

Their worst outrages, however, concern the treatment of women. Human rights groups have testified that organisations now being commended for their bravery by Washington participated in mass rape and mutilation of female bodies. In some cases, fathers and brothers slit their daughters' or sisters' throats, deeming that preferable to the vicious sexual attacks which their assailants were about to carry out. Other girls committed suicide.

In Islamabad, Prodi and Verhofstadt were briefed by Marina Matin, an articulate spokeswoman for the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). Her simple message was: "The Northern Alliance are criminals. Their place is in a court, not in government."

Founded in 1977, RAWA has since been the leading Afghan feminist organisation. Of necessity, most of its advocates, including Matin, have been based outside of the country. (Her mother helped her flee to Pakistan in 1988, although she has made a few brief visits in the intervening years).

Matin says the group has reluctantly agreed to participate in the Bonn talks, even if it means negotiating with men who may have raped their relatives. If it does not take part, she adds, the only female voices heard in Bonn will be those of a coterie of Islamic fundamentalists.

Despite the suffering she described, the EU is wary about declaring support for such strident champions of women's rights, because it deems them too left-leaning. Indeed, one senior diplomat rudely interrupted her presentation to the Union's delegation.

Another Belgian official, close to Verhofstadt, opined: "RAWA are communists and like many other communist organisations, they are quite well organised." (Ironically, the group was active in the struggle against the 1978 Moscow-sponsored coup and the subsequent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan).

It would appear significant, too, that Verhofstadt made no explicit reference to Afghan women when he shared a podium with Pakistan's military dictator General Pervez Musharraf shortly after hearing Matin speak.

Both leaders emphasised that they wished to see a "broad-based" government replacing the Taliban but neither raised any concerns about the prospect of it being all-male.

Additionally, Matin has called for troops under UN command to be deployed in her country. "If the international community can send a peacekeeping force to Bosnia, then why not to Afghanistan?" she asked.

That issue is not considered a priority, as both Verhofstadt and Musharraf also emphasised. They believe that a multinational force should not be sent in before consensus on the formation of the next Afghan administration is secured.

Meanwhile, preparations are under way for the international donors' conference due to take place in Brussels on 17 and 18 December.

Backed by the US, Japan and Saudi Arabia, as well as the EU, the gathering is expected to reach agreement on how much the major economic powers should contribute to the central Asian state. If the example of Kosovo is followed, then the Union can expect to pay more than half the bill for post-war Afghanistan.

But the similarity with the Balkans could end there. As one Commission official pointed out: "It's very different from Kosovo. In Kosovo, we reconstructed what the Americans bombed. Afghanistan, on the other hand, had no real infrastructure before the current war. So the international community is working in the dark, regarding how much the reconstruction - or construction - would cost."

Speaking to reporters, Prodi said he would "prefer not" to speculate about how much the Union could contribute, pointing out that not even the cost of removing landmines from the country is available. "We can be sure that the cost [of the entire operation] will exceed the resources we put at [its] disposal," he added. One estimate being bandied about by

NGOs for the cost of repairing the war damage in Afghanistan is €28.5 billion over a ten-year period.

To date, the EU has provided more than €300 million to the current relief efforts. Next week Development Commissioner Poul Nielson will go to Pakistan and Afghanistan to study how that commitment can be built. He is scheduled to visit refugee camps along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and will also hold discussions about setting up a Commission office in Kabul. Until now EU assistance to the country has been coordinated in Islamabad.

"We want to express some solidarity with the NGOs [non-governmental organisations]," said Nielson's spokesman Michael Curtis. "They have been doing the really hard work on the ground in Pakistan and Afghanistan since the 11 September attacks."

Another debate which the Union's policy-makers may have to grapple with in the near future is whether military protection should be provided for aid workers.

When Verhofstadt mentioned this idea in Islamabad, it was immediately shot down as "foolish" by MSF's Tim Pitt. (Verhofstadt retorted by pointing out that he had asked a question, not made a request).

Pitt contends that any "politicisation" of aid workers would leave them vulnerable to attack by opposing factions. The pitfalls from 1990s Somalia, where relief agencies were perceived as being partisan during the civil war, must not be repeated, he argues.

"The problem is not one of reinventing the wheel but of reinventing the flat tyre," he added. "Any blurring of the military and humanitarian divide would only be making matters more complicated than they already are."

But one EU official commented: "MSF don't have a monopoly on this issue; other NGOs are slightly more relaxed. If aid can be got in without military back-up, then all the better. But NGOs may need some sort of special security arrangements. It's a matter that will have to be discussed with the NGOs themselves."

A separate note of caution was sounded earlier this week by the International Crisis Group (ICG). The think-tank has warned that the departure of the Taliban will make little difference unless the drug trade resulting from decades of fighting and poverty is tackled.

"It is well known that Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of heroin," the group said. "Money from drugs pays for weapons and fighters and is likely to have been a significant source of funds for terrorist organisations. But Afghan heroin is also undermining regional stability, law enforcement and the health of its neighbours. Iran and Pakistan now have the highest per-capita proportion of drug users in the world."

ICG's Robert Templer said: "The United States and Europe have given only cursory attention to drug control in the region, with the focus on policing. A much broader strategy is necessary; one that alleviates poverty through income assistance and crop substitution and promotes harm-reduction strategies such as needle exchange and treatment programmes."

Both literally and figuratively, the future of Afghanistan is a minefield.

Major feature on the visit by Commission President Romano Prodi and Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt to India and Pakistan, to size up the EU's political and humanitarian role in the region.

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