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Afghanistan: Central Asian Neighbors Crucial To Afghan Sanctions Plan

  • Robert McMahon

United Nations officials this week began recruiting independent experts who will oversee a new sanctions enforcement regime against Afghanistan's ruling Taliban. The plan will rely on tough border policing by Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbors. But as UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports, efforts to get these states to cooperate pose a serious challenge to UN experts.

United Nations, 3 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's borders have been notoriously difficult for its neighbors to police, with drugs and arms regularly crossing in each direction.

But a new UN Security Council resolution approved this week calls on Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbors to assert greater control over areas bordering Taliban-ruled regions, which comprise more than 90 percent of the country.

The Security Council has authorized what it calls a "sanctions enforcement support team" to provide training in customs, border security, and counterterrorism. The team members -- numbering up to 15 -- will be based in these border countries and will report to a special monitoring group to operate in UN headquarters in New York.

The plan aims to enforce a UN arms embargo against the Taliban, which is accused of harboring alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden and supporting terrorist training camps. But it would depend on unprecedented cooperation by Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbors, some of whom support opposing sides in the Afghan civil war.

Pakistan, the Taliban's biggest supporter, has pledged to cooperate although it has repeatedly objected to the Security Council's one-sided arms embargo.

The chairman of the council's Afghan sanctions committee, Ambassador Alfonso Valdivieso of Colombia, told reporters on 2 August that not all of Afghanistan's neighbors support the sanctions enforcement plan. But he said several ambassadors had told him they are willing to cooperate on its implementation.

"We think that this is going to be a very interesting process in order to have friendly relations with those countries -- Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran and Pakistan -- and we hope to proceed and advance," Valdivieso said.

A group of experts who recommended setting up the sanctions enforcement team noted in a report to the council in May that the neighboring Central Asian states do not cooperate well on border controls. It said this was due to political disagreements -- Pakistan and Iran in particular -- as well as lack of coordination between their security organs.

The Security Council expert group, which visited the region in the spring, listed a number of potential ways in which coordination efforts might be difficult.

For example, during its fact-finding visit, it said it received contradictory reports about terrorists traveling from Afghanistan to Central Asia. The expert group said some countries alleged that members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan -- or IMU -- had crossed through Turkmenistan when heading for Uzbekistan while others alleged the IMU crossed through Tajikistan unhindered en route to Uzbekistan.

John Schoeberlein, is director of the Central Asia Project for the International Crisis Group, a U.S.-based think-tank. He tells RFE/RL that the enforcement of sanctions faces major obstacles, citing as a prime example Afghanistan's porous border with Tajikistan, where major drug trafficking occurs.

"There's a very substantial Russian army presence on the border and yet they themselves do not claim that they can control that border, with tens of thousands of troops. So it's open to doubt how much any UN group of experts could actually influence a change in that."

Also skeptical about the enforcement mechanism is David Malone, a former Canadian diplomat and current president of the International Peace Academy. The Academy last year commissioned a study assessing the effectiveness of UN sanctions in the 1990s.

Malone says sanctions are rarely able to completely seal borders. He believes weapons will continue to flow into Afghanistan, where an estimated 10 million small arms are in circulation. Malone, like Schoeberlein, is also critical of the council's sanctions policy against the Taliban.

"I just think it's the wrong instrument for the problems in Afghanistan, and I think it's much too much linked to Osama bin Laden and the American-Russian obsession with terrorism."

Malone and Schoeberlein both condemn the Taliban's policies but say it would be more effective to engage the leaders in dialogue rather than isolate further by sanctions.

The United States, one of the main supporters of the UN arms embargo, had its first high-level meeting yesterday with Taliban officials. The Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Christina Rocca, met with two Taliban representatives in the Pakistan capital of Islamabad.

After her meeting, Rocca told reporters the United States would contribute $1.5 million to the United Nations drug control program to finance crop substitution in Afghanistan. This was an acknowledgement, she said, of the Taliban's efforts to eliminate the cultivation of opium poppy. The crop aid is promised as part of an overall $7.7 million assistance package.

But U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, speaking in Washington, said Rocca also reaffirmed there could be no major progress in talks with the Taliban until their support for terrorists was stopped.

"We urge parties in Afghanistan to end their support for terrorism, protect human rights and help the Afghans establish a broad-based government. So that general policy is the one [Rocca] was carrying out to the region. And certainly urging the Taliban to take the steps necessary to comply with the United Nations resolutions."

UN officials say they hope to have five independent experts chosen by the end of this month to head up the New York-based monitoring group for Afghanistan. That group will then recruit the 15-member sanctions support team, which will be based in Central Asia.

Unlike sanctions enforcement programs set up for countries like Angola and Sierra Leone, the Afghanistan mechanism has no short-term mandate and will exist for as long as sanctions are in place.