As spring approaches in Afghanistan, both the ruling Taliban militia and the opposition alliance are preparing new offensives. The coming spring campaign season, usually the time of heaviest fighting, will be the first since the UN imposed sanctions on the Taliban to prevent its obtaining foreign military assistance. But RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports there are few signs in Pakistan that the sanctions are being observed or that that the Islamabad government is exerting much pressure on the Taliban to cooperate with international demands.
Lahore, Pakistan; 30 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- More than two months after new international sanctions against military assistance to the Taliban went into effect (on 19 January), there is still no UN presence in Pakistan to see if they are being observed.
The sanctions ban all foreign military assistance and weapons shipments to the Taliban. They aim to pressure the militia to hand over Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, suspected of masterminding attacks on two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 and other acts of international terrorism.
Most of the foreign military aid to the Taliban in the past has come from Pakistan, one of the only three countries which recognize the ruling Afghan militia and the only one bordering Afghanistan. The other two countries are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The UN continues to debate what form any monitoring of the voluntary sanctions should take. But many in Pakistan who monitor the Afghan conflict say there is every reason to believe Pakistani assistance to the militia continues.
Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist who has reported on Afghanistan since the 1979 Soviet invasion, says the Taliban is currently preparing for a large spring offensive. He says all indications are that the militia will have the same military assistance from Pakistan it has relied upon in the past:
"The Taliban by all accounts is preparing a massive new offensive in the spring and clearly the offensive is not going to be made possible unless Pakistani military aid continues, especially in the fields of logistics, fuel, and communications. All the indications are that there is no lessening of support from Pakistan to the Taliban (and) there is no particular pressure on the Taliban by Pakistan to moderate their policies or to abide by international demands."
Rashid says that Pakistan so far has taken many of the diplomatic steps demanded under the UN sanctions, which rely upon the voluntary compliance of Afghanistan's neighbors. Pakistan has reduced the level of representation at the Taliban's consulate in the border city of Peshawar and has said it will scale down the Taliban embassy in Islamabad. Pakistan's state bank also has issued orders to close down accounts held by Taliban officials.
But Pakistan has also called the sanctions unfair because they target only military aid to the Taliban, without restricting assistance to the opposition Northern Alliance. Islamabad also says the main effect of the sanctions will be to increase the suffering of the Afghan population.
Rashid says that in the past Pakistani military assistance to the Taliban has largely taken the form of keeping the militia's aging Soviet-era heavy equipment in repair and helping procure ammunition:
"It has taken in the past the form of basically ammunition and fuel and then logistical support, technical support, people to repair heavy artillery, armor, keep the aircraft in the field, spare parts, servicing of heavy vehicles and heavy pieces of equipment."
He says the Pakistani military does not provide new heavy equipment to the Taliban because there is enough weaponry left in the country from the 10-year Soviet-Afghan war that can be repaired by trained technicians.
Rashid says the scale and effectiveness of Pakistan's assistance to the Taliban was amply demonstrated last September by the militia's successful drive to rout the opposition from the northeastern town of Taloquan.
"[The] Taliban laid siege to Taloquan in northeastern Afghanistan for about a month and then it finally fell into their hands. But I think what we saw there was a huge involvement of Pakistani personnel and equipment."
Pakistan denies it provides more than moral support to the Taliban. It has also said that whatever material assistance reaches the Taliban comes through groups of sympathizers in Pakistan acting on their own.
Pervaiz Iqbal Cheema, president of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute, says the government is observing the UN sanctions. But he says individuals and groups which have in the past helped the Taliban are likely to continue to seek ways to do so. Iqbal Cheema added that some groups may be particularly motivated by the fact that Afghanistan's opposition alliance was not subject to a similar arms embargo.
Since the UN sanctions went into effect, militant Pakistani Islamic groups have created a coalition called the Afghan Defense Fund to raise money for the Taliban's war effort. Pakistani Islamic groups have sent an estimated 80,000 of their members to fight alongside the Taliban since the militia formed in 1994.
If the UN does try to put a sanctions monitoring system into place in Pakistan, the project would be a challenging one.
The long border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is rugged and notorious for smuggling, with more than 300 roads and donkey trails reported to offer alternate routes across. Both sides of the northwestern Pakistan border are populated by Pashtun tribes which share both family and smuggling ties -- which has always made it difficult for governments in the region to impose controls in the frontier area or activities across it.
Journalist Rashid says attempting to control the border -- where some Islamic parties have threatened to kill any potential monitors -- will require substantial deployments of personnel and money. He said the UN is currently debating both how and what to monitor on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
With no clear sign yet of how the UN will enforce the arms sanctions on the Taliban, observers in Pakistan are predicting that heavy fighting will begin there in the next few weeks as warmer weather arrives.
Rashid says the Northern Alliance, which has received large renewals of arms and supplies over the last few months from Russia, Iran, and India, is poised for offensives in parts of central Afghanistan, the northeast, and west in an attempt to stretch Taliban forces. That would make it difficult for the militia to mount a massive new drive in any one area.
At the same, the Taliban is expected to continue its drive to push the opposition alliance out of the northeast, where it now controls less than 10 percent of Afghan territory.