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UN: Taliban Facing Pressure On Humanitarian, Political Fronts

  • Robert McMahon

Even as it scores fresh battlefield victories against an opposition alliance, Afghanistan's ruling Taliban movement is facing pressure on the humanitarian and political fronts to change its ways. The issues range from the right of women to work to charges that Taliban territory is being used to export terrorism. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 4 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- UN officials have expressed new concern about a month-old edict that bars Afghan women from working for international aid agencies in areas controlled by the Taliban movement.

Meanwhile, two permanent members of the UN Security Council -- Russia and the United States -- have threatened to take new measures against the Taliban for allegedly using its territory to promote terrorism.

These latest developments occur while Taliban forces -- which control 90 percent of Afghanistan -- are making advances against opposition fighters in the northern province of Takhar.

The Taliban regime continues to present the international community with a puzzle. Its practice of what it calls a pure form of Islam has raised alarm among human rights advocates because of restrictions on women's access to education and jobs. Its refusal to hand over accused terrorist Osama bin Laden for extradition and its recognition of a Chechen separatist state has angered the United States and Russia.

And the United Nations has made little progress in trying to broker a peace agreement between the warring Afghan sides. The UN's peace plan envisions a broad-based coalition government. But the Taliban has demanded recognition of its government, saying it enjoys the support of the Afghan people.

For humanitarian agencies, their effort to care for millions of Afghans displaced by the long civil war has now been hampered by the ban on Afghan women working for foreign aid groups.

UN deputy spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva told reporters on Thursday that UN efforts to reverse the ban suffered a new setback with the issuing of an edict by the Taliban leader that appears to reaffirm the ban.

"We are now faced with an edict signed by Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban, himself, who last week informed the Taliban Council of Ministers that employment in organizations of women has paved the way for immorality and because of this Afghan women are not to work in organizations anymore except for the health sector."

UN officials are seeking to clarify whether the health sector exemption would allow them to carry out their work in a widespread manner. Aid groups say projects in health, education and food distribution in Afghanistan rely on women workers.

The UN spokesman said humanitarian aid donors have also lodged a complaint with the Taliban representative in the capital of neighboring Pakistan, Islamabad, where many aid agencies have offices.

Stronger complaints have been made by Russia and the United States about what they see as Taliban contributions to terrorism. A meeting of senior Russian and U.S. officials in Washington this week concluded with an agreement to take further measures to force Taliban action against Islamic extremists.

A statement released by the U.S. State Department reiterated U.S.-Russian cooperation in countering the perceived terrorist threat from Afghanistan. The statement gave no details of new measures being considered, but the two sides are believed to be planning to target the Taliban leadership without affecting ordinary Afghans.

A current Security Council resolution restricts flights to and from Taliban territory and freezes funds controlled by the Taliban.

It is not clear what other leverage the world powers have to influence the Taliban. Afghanistan's ruling movement is recognized by only three states -- Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. A director of policy studies at the UN Association of the United States, Jeffrey Laurenti, says Pakistan is a key avenue of influence. But, Laurenti tells our correspondent, Pakistan itself is difficult to influence at the moment.

"The Pakistanis themselves face internally a strong Islamist movement and they already have a quite right-of-center military government, and with all those internal and Islamic extremist pressures operating, Pakistan has to be pushed in the other direction by the great powers."

Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, told the BBC in an interview this week that close ties with the Taliban are a matter of national security for Pakistan. He noted that the Taliban has cross-border appeal among ethnic Pashtuns.

The Taliban also recently signaled it is willing to cooperate on at least one issue. The movement issued an order banning the cultivation of poppies on all territory controlled by the Taliban. Afghanistan is the world's major supplier of opium and the Taliban has been repeatedly pressed to clamp down on its production.

For Laurenti, the analyst at the UN Association, the poppy ban gives some insight into the trade-offs the Taliban is willing to make.

"I think that it's an interesting sign of the priorities of the Taliban leadership that rather than back down on allowing women to have jobs, they are prepared to take action on drugs which otherwise they weren't prepared to take."

The UN Security Council is scheduled to hold consultations on the situation in Afghanistan on August 23. UN humanitarian officials are due to meet with Taliban officials in Kabul this Sunday for new talks.