The leader of Pakistan's fundamentalist Jamaat-i-Islam party has offered his services to help negotiate a peace settlement between Afghanistan's warring sides. But his ability to influence the ruling Taliban militia is not clear. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.
United Nations, 20 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Qazi Hussain Ahmed, leader of Pakistan's Jamaat-e-Islam party, says his trip to North America during the past several weeks has been focused on correcting misconceptions about Islam.
But his meetings in Washington last week with some senior State Department officials have raised questions about whether he will return to Pakistan with a mission to broker a peace between Afghanistan's warring factions.
Ahmed has long ties with Afghanistan and leads a fundamentalist Muslim party in one of the few countries that recognizes the Taliban as legitimate rulers of Afghanistan.
Ahmed would not give details of his meetings with U.S. officials in Washington, which included Assistant Secretaries of State Karl Inderfurth and Harold Koh. But he said the talks were fruitful. And he told reporters at a news conference at the United Nations on Wednesday that he is prepared to play a role as a peace broker in Afghanistan.
"I am ready to communicate with the Taliban although I have no special relationship with the Taliban, but for the objective of peace I'm ready to communicate with them."
Ahmed stressed that the most important players in an overall settlement are the neighboring countries of Iran and Pakistan, Muslim nations which also host large numbers of Afghan refugees.
"Iran and Pakistan should be encouraged by the world community to try to resolve the problem of Afghanistan by the formation of a wide-based government which includes all the people who have worked for the independence and for the sovereignty and for the evacuation of the Russian forces from Afghanistan."
But a representative of Afghanistan's UN mission was doubtful about the role Pakistan, or the Jamaat-e-Islam leader, could play. Afghanistan is represented at the United Nations by the United Front, the opposition group that controls about 10% of the country.
The mission's press attache, Haron Amin, told our correspondent in a telephone interview that the United Front welcomes any attempt to mediate a solution to the Afghan conflict. But he was skeptical of Ahmed's chances.
"If he can play a role, if he has any indirect connections or direct connections to the Taliban, and if he's able to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table -- something they haven't been very adamant about doing -- then we would welcome that. But as far as we're concerned, we do not believe that Mr. Qazi Hussein Ahmed is in a position to really influence the leadership of the Taliban."
Ahmed was questioned repeatedly on Wednesday about the nature of his talks with U.S. State Department officials but he would only say they involved an exchange of information on issues such as Kashmir and Afghanistan. Inderfurth, who is the Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, is due to testify today before the U.S. Congress on relations with the Taliban regime.
Meanwhile, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Afghanistan, Eric de Mul, is completing talks with Taliban leaders in Kabul on the status of Afghan women employees of international aid agencies. UN officials say he is due to provide details on these talks today in Islamabad.
The prospect of a ban on Afghan women working for these agencies has worried humanitarian officials. The combination of years of civil war and a severe drought have created a heavy dependence in Afghanistan on donated food. Organizations like the World Food Program (WFP) rely on women to help distribute food. WFP director Catherine Bertini told reporters on Wednesday about her organization's concern.
"That would certainly make our delivery of assistance extremely difficult as well as the targeting of that assistance because the assistance that we provide in Afghanistan, we're very careful to be sure that we provide women with a more than half share of what is distributed there."
Bertini said Afghanistan appears to be the most severely affected among several Central Asian countries facing a drought emergency. WFP and other humanitarian agencies issued an appeal on Wednesday for donations to help an area in which 60 million people are threatened by drought.