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Afghanistan: Foreign Minister Promotes Rabbani's Cause In Europe

  • Bruce Pannier

The government of ousted President Burhanuddin Rabbani controls only 10 percent of Afghan territory, but it is still recognized as the legitimate government of Afghanistan by much of the world community. Recently, Rabbani's government has embarked on a diplomatic offensive in Europe to gain greater international support. Rabbani's acting minister of foreign affairs, Abdullah, visited RFE/RL headquarters in Prague last week (May 25) and talked about Afghan issues.

Prague, 28 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The government of Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani is engaged in a diplomatic offensive at the same time that it is waging a military campaign against the forces of the ruling Taliban movement. Hoping to capitalize on recent unpopular and highly publicized actions by the Taliban, Rabbani officials have been visiting Europe seeking support for their struggle against the Islamic militia.

Rabbani's government was forced out of Kabul in September 1996, but it continues to be recognized as the legitimate government of Afghanistan by much of the world. By most estimates Rabbani's forces now control some 10 percent of Afghanistan, but in those areas they seem firmly in control, and UN sanctions imposed against the Taliban for supporting international terrorists like Osama bin Laden have raised hopes the war of attrition may now favor Rabbani's forces.

Early last month, Rabbani's defense minister, Ahmad Shah Masoud, went to France to meet with government officials and to address the European Parliament in Strasbourg. His trip came only weeks after the Taliban completed the destruction of two centuries-old giant statues of the Buddha in the Afghan city of Bamiyan, an act that shocked the international community and millions of Buddhists across Asia. A few months earlier Masoud -- who commands the Northern Alliance forces loyal to Rabbani -- had traveled to Moscow to meet with Russian officials, Masoud's erstwhile military opponents during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s.

Spearheading this diplomatic offensive is Abdullah, Rabbani's acting minister of foreign affairs. Abdullah was in Prague last week to meet with officials of the Czech government, and he visited the headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to give his government's views on events in Afghanistan.

Abdullah said that gaining support for his government's cause has been made easier by recent Taliban edicts. He noted that, besides ordering the destruction of the Buddhist statues, the Taliban has decreed a prohibition -- under penalty of death -- on Muslims converting to other religions and, more recently, has required Afghanistan's Hindus to wear special markings to identify themselves.

"There is a growing awareness about the true nature of the Taliban movement, the true, destructive and anti-human nature of the Taliban movement in the European capitals. So, of course, it will have an impact on the sympathy for our group."

One of the international community's major complaints about the Taliban has been its treatment of women. Girls are barred from attending schools and women are not allowed to work in public places and must dress in the all-concealing "burqa" when they leave their homes. Abdullah pointed to his government's record when it controlled Kabul as proof that life would be different under Rabbani.

"Between 1992 to 1996, at the time when we were in Kabul, 60 percent of civil servants were women. Schools were open for boys and girls, in fact there were no restrictions in that regard. We considered women's and men's equality and rights as Afghan citizens." But while the plight of women and of minority groups may improve if Rabbani's government returns to power, Abdullah made clear Afghanistan is first and foremost an Islamic country.

"Afghanistan has been an Islamic country for 13 centuries. Islam will be respected in Afghanistan by all citizens and by the state itself. But at the same time the people should be given the right of choice."

The international community has criticized both the Taliban and Rabbani's government for narcotics trafficking. In the past, the United Nations estimated that some 80 percent of the illicit opium and heroin available in the world originated in Afghanistan. But earlier this year, the Taliban decreed an end to the cultivation of opium poppy plants in areas the militia controls. After recent tours of these areas, UN officials have confirmed that the decree is being enforced, while opium poppy growing continues in territory held by the Northern Alliance.

Abdullah admitted that cultivation of opium poppies remains a problem in the areas under the control of Rabbani's government. But he said ending cultivation is made more difficult by the Taliban.

"How to tackle the trafficking because of the flow of heroin and opium from Taliban-controlled territory into our areas is the main problem. So we have two problems -- how to stop the flow of drugs into our areas and then, the second thing is how to stop the growing of opium in our controlled areas."

On the military front, Abdullah said the Northern Alliance's cause has been helped by the recent return of General Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ismail Khan from exile abroad. Dostum fought against Rabbani and Masoud when they occupied Kabul, but joined them when the Taliban emerged on the Afghan scene in 1994. Dostum was driven from his stronghold in the northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif during a Taliban offensive three years ago. Ismail Khan was the governor of the western Herat Province until he, too, was driven out by Taliban forces in 1995. Abdullah said both are now back in Afghanistan and are fighting Taliban forces.

But Abdullah repeated what has long been the Rabbani government's main complaint -- the role of neighboring Pakistan in the Afghan conflict. It is no secret that the Taliban emerged from Afghan refugee camps inside Pakistan and that the Taliban receive military and other support from Pakistan. Abdullah said other governments need to pressure Pakistan into ending this support in order to eventually end the fighting in Afghanistan.

"If more pressure is put on Pakistan to stop its support for the Taliban this will help. Without Pakistan's support the Taliban cannot remain a strong force in Afghanistan. They will be there for some time but they cannot sustain their military campaign."

The fighting in Afghanistan has gone on for more than 20 years now -- so long that only when the conflict becomes particularly bloody or the Taliban's actions are especially outrageous does the country receive much international attention. Abdullah says the world neglected Afghanistan after the end of the Cold War, and missed an opportunity to help the country when it threw out the communist government in 1992. He says the answer to restoring stability in Afghanistan is more international attention and help, not less. In Abdullah's words: "The solution is not to forget Afghanistan and leave it as it is."