A hearing on Afghanistan held yesterday in the U.S. House of Representatives focused on the country's suffering under the five-year reign of the Taliban militia. As RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports, the unifying theme was the Taliban's treatment of women and the profound humanitarian crisis facing the Afghan people today.
Washington, 1 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Talk was grim at a hearing held yesterday at the U.S. House of Representatives focusing on the brutal conditions of life under Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia.
Experts at the hearing -- hosted by the House Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights -- discussed a range of issues affecting Afghanistan today, including future plans for a post-Taliban government. But the hearing went into sometimes disturbing detail on how so-called "gender apartheid" under the Taliban has ravaged the Central Asian country since the militia came to power in 1996.
Christopher Smith is a Republican from New Jersey and a noted human rights advocate. Smith had this to say about the Taliban, whose severe interpretation of Islam has affected virtually every aspect of life in Afghanistan but has proved especially devastating to women, who are not allowed to attend school, work, or sometimes even leave the home: "Perhaps nowhere else on Earth is gender apartheid practiced so egregiously and so maliciously than by the Taliban. It's as if hatred of women -- certainly control, but [also] hatred of women -- is at the core of what they do."
The hearing was attended by experts on Afghanistan, including opposition Northern Alliance spokesman Haron Amin, representatives of human rights group Amnesty International, and Lorne Craner, U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor. A State Department expert on South Asia, Jeffrey Lunstead, also testified.
But some of the most vocal participants were members of the subcommittee. Echoing Smith, Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California, called the Taliban "Muslim Nazis" who had nothing in common with the peaceful, mainstream followers of Islam. He said there was ample evidence of the Taliban engaging in rape, torture, and murder.
Smith agreed, saying women in Afghanistan are often publicly executed -- sometimes by stoning -- for violating the injunctions of the Taliban's Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Fostering of Virtue: "Taliban guards beat and humiliate women for defying their rules, even for acts as seemingly insignificant as showing one's ankle."
Assistant Secretary of State Craner said only about three percent of Afghan women had access to even primary education. He also gave examples of Taliban persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, citing the killing last year of 3,000 Shiite Muslims in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Craner had this to say: "The Taliban's war against Afghan culture has even extended to the flying of kites, the playing of chess, the possession of dolls and even stuffed animal toys as violations of their understanding of the Islamic injunction to make no image of a living thing. Along those same lines we understand that the Taliban has also required that medical texts be reduced to straightforward narratives without diagrams or photographs of the body or any of its parts."
Committee members agreed that Afghanistan -- which in addition to the brutal rule of the Taliban is plagued by drought and widespread famine -- already faced a humanitarian crisis before the U.S.-led coalition began its military action against terrorist targets there in early October. They urged the U.S. government and international aid agencies to step up their efforts to assist the wave of Afghan refugees that is flooding into neighboring countries.
The Northern Alliance's Amin, whose group's own humanitarian record has been called into question in the past, said the opposition front is now committed to forging a peaceful post-Taliban government that will respect the rights of everyone, including women.
At a news conference earlier in Washington, Amin said the situation in Afghanistan was reminiscent of Germany after World War II, when Allied planes helped keep Berlin from starving by dropping food into the divided capital: "We anticipate that in the future there is going to be the necessity of the Berlin-style airlift [of food and aid] in numerous parts of Afghanistan."
Lunstead of the State Department said the U.S. was holding talks with several countries to develop a reconstruction plan to create a prosperous and democratic Afghanistan, with women playing a key role. Lunstead elaborated on what the U.S. would like to see in a future Afghan government: "We don't tell them who should run Afghanistan, that's for Afghans to decide. But we do set out principles that we think any follow-on political structure will have to encompass. These include: it must be broad-based and representative of Afghans; it must include religious minorities -- all ethnic groups in the country; it must rid Afghan territory of terrorism and supporters of terrorism; it will have to respect human rights, especially the rights of women and girls, including also ethnic and religious minorities; it will have to take strenuous efforts to rid the country of the problem of narcotics; and it should seek friendly relations with its neighbors."
Amin said the Northern Alliance embraced all these principles, despite charges that the opposition group had violated some of these in the past: "Our pledge is for the fight against terrorism. It is a pledge, also, to combat drug-trafficking, and it is a pledge to promote human rights, particularly the human rights [of women], who constitute more than 50 percent of the Afghan nation."
Analysts say the U.S. military has been wary of directly assisting the Northern Alliance for fear that civil war could break out if the group reached the capital of Kabul before a political solution is in place for the country.
But in recent days, U.S. warplanes have attacked frontline Taliban forces facing the Northern Alliance, which controls some 10 to 15 percent of the country and is made up of mostly ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks.
Amin sought to reassure the committee, saying the Northern Alliance's chief concern was the dire humanitarian condition of the Afghan people and the creation of a pluralistic political system for the country, which is deeply divided along ethnic and tribal lines.
Amin said the Northern Alliance is working with supporters of exiled former Afghan King Zahir Shah to form a national unity council of 120 delegates. If and when the Taliban falls, the council would appoint an interim government or call a Loya Jirga, a larger council of elders that Afghans have traditionally picked to solve major questions.