Tens of thousands of Afghani refugees are at risk of starvation as a result of a three-year drought compunded by US-led Western sanctions. More than 100,000 have been forced to seek shelter in makeshift refugee-camps in Pakistan, reminiscent of the Afghan exodus of the early eighties when the Soviets’ campaign was underway. Sanctions came into effect on January 19, a month after the US demanded that Kabul hand over Osama bin Laden, the Saudi mujahid, for trial over his alleged involvement in anti-US activities.
Last month the UN representative for Afghanistan expressed concern over the US decision to close down the Taliban’s office in New York. “I would hope it would be possible to keep it open”, Vendrell said on February 12. The office has not only acted as a liaison between the Taliban and the UN, but is also responsible for providing visas to UN officials travelling to Afghanistan. Vendrell also discussed the closure with the US state department, as did UN secretary general Kofi Annan.
It is, however, the drought that is taking the heaviest toll. Vendrell confirmed that the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan was “dismal”. There are about half a million newly-displaced refugees, most of them fleeing because of fighting between the Taliban and the northern alliance, and the drought. In a report released last September, Annan warned that the drought, described as the worst in more than 30 years, was having “a devastating effect” on the population of Afghanistan. “The question is how much longer the Afghan people will be able to withstand the accumulated effects of drought and warfare, let alone cope with any possible further economic blows,” Annan said.
Last December the 15-member UN security council, led by the US and Russia, imposed new sanctions against the Taliban government. Security council resolution 1333 was supported by 13 votes to nil, with two abstentions (China and Malaysia). The sanctions were linked to the demand that the Taliban hand over Osama for trial. Failure to comply within one month automatically triggered sanctions. This is the first time in UN history that a single individual has been the cause of a UN security council resolution and sanctions on an entire country.
After the UN vote, Abdul-Hakeem Mujahid, the New York-based representative of the Taliban, said: “The Afghan people, after two decades of devastating war, with over half of them now facing famine, will keep seeking peace, national integrity and understanding with the world community, but not through the UN.” Vendrell has confirmed that since the sanctions the Taliban have said that the UN secretary general could no longer be “an impartial observer” in mediation efforts between Kabul and the northern alliance. The Taliban have also complained that it is unfair of the UN to impose an arms-embargo on only one of the warring parties.
Pakistan, meanwhile, has to cope with another influx of refugees. In and around Peshawar, more than 100,000 refugees have now been accommodated in refugee-camps. Shamshatoo camp, which became famous during the Afghan war against the Soviets, has again become home to new refugees. But that is not all: Pakistan has rushed in 5,000 blankets and 500 tents as part of its relief assistance worth Rs 100 million (US$1.6 million) for the sanctions-hit and drought-stricken people of Afghanistan. Pakistan has also offered to provide wheat and rice, the only country so far in the Muslim world to do so. Whither the rest of the Ummah?
The Taliban need not be one’s favourite rulers for one to sympathize with the Afghan people. The Afghans have repeatedly been used by the west, especially the US, to serve their own interests. First, more than 1.5 million Afghans were sacrificed in the struggle to defeat the Red Army in Afghanistan, leading to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Later, the Taliban were used to depose the regime of Burhanuddin Rabbani from Kabul in September 1996. At the time, most western governments welcomed the development, feeling that the former mujahideen leaders were too difficult to handle. When the Taliban proved just as resolute in demonstrating the Afghans’ traditional spirit of independence, they were cast as the west’s new enemy. The price is being paid by the Afghan people.
The US’s obsession with Osama bin Laden flies in the face of Afghan traditions. The Taliban cannot hand a guest over to a foreign power no matter what the evidence against him; the US, however, has provided no proof of his wrongdoing. Washington is even toying with the idea of overthrowing the Taliban regime and replacing it with one that Washington hopes will be more pliant. The former US under-secretary of state, Karl Interfurth, discussed the idea with India’s rulers last December. Quite aside from the fact that the US has no business determining who should rule Afghanistan or anywhere else, the fact that it chose Delhi for its latest idea is particularly inappropriate. The Hindus are regarded by most Muslims as an enemy.