Afghanistan's disastrous humanitarian situation has focused attention on the need for the country's warring factions to solve their conflict through political dialogue. But the UN Security Council's tough new sanctions against the Taliban have led to the suspension of the peace process. RFE/RL's UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports on the challenges facing UN envoy Francesc Vendrell.
United Nations, 13 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The UN peace envoy to Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, has seen his task go from challenging to nearly impossible at the beginning of this year. New UN Security Council sanctions against the ruling Taliban took effect last month, causing Taliban leaders to suspend participation in a peace dialogue Vendrell put together late last year.
The tougher sanctions come at a time of deepening humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. The war between the Taliban and the opposition "Northern Alliance" and the effects of a severe drought have caused the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Afghans.
Vendrell told reporters yesterday the Taliban is now unable to meet many of the basic needs of Afghans.
"The United Nations has become, in practice, the supplier of a lot of goods and services that normally would be supplied by the government."
Afghan civilians can expect further setbacks. For the moment, Vendrell's office and UN humanitarian officials are allowed to operate in Taliban-controlled areas. But UN staff there face a possible expulsion because they may be seen as taking sides against the Taliban. The Security Council's sanctions target the Taliban but not the Northern Alliance.
Vendrell says the sanctions so far have not had an impact on the fighting or the UN's humanitarian efforts. But for the Taliban, he says, the sanctions perpetuate a sense of isolation and helplessness in coping with its problems.
"If you like, it's a bit of a vicious circle. They don't receive development assistance because of their policies, and some of their policies, they claim, are due to the lack of international recognition or engagement with them."
Security Council members Russia and the United States pushed for the sanctions to force the Taliban to turn over suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden for extradition and disband alleged terrorist training bases. The council also said the Taliban ignored repeated calls improving human rights for women.
Vendrell outlined the dismal political and humanitarian situation in a closed Security Council briefing yesterday. The one bright spot, he said, was an apparently effective Taliban effort to stop the cultivation of opium. But he said these efforts must continue to be monitored and that there are still enough supplies of opium in Afghanistan to meet world demand for the next few years.
After Vendrell spoke, the Security Council reiterated its demand that the Taliban comply with its resolutions. A high-level U.S. diplomat at the United Nations, Nancy Soderberg, told reporters afterward that it was wrong to blame the latest suffering in Afghanistan on the sanctions.
"It's important to remember that in addition to the war and the drought, the cause of the suffering of the Afghan people are the draconian measures of the Taliban.
Soderberg also said that as part of the latest sanctions resolution, the Taliban representative in New York -- the main contact between the regime and UN headquarters -- will have to close his office. But Taliban officials have threatened to reciprocate by closing UN facilities if they lose their main U.S. office.
Vendrell told reporters he planned to go to Washington today (13 February) to discuss the issue with U.S. officials.
Meanwhile, Vendrell said, the United Nations has not yet begun to set up the monitoring mechanism to ensure Afghanistan's neighbors comply with the Security Council sanctions. He said four of the country's Central Asian neighbors support the new sanctions and a fifth -- Pakistan -- has pledged to comply with them.
His initial task, he said, will be to assure the Taliban leadership that his office can be an impartial broker of peace talks. Then his job will be to sell a region-wide peace formula.
"The legitimate national interests of all the neighboring countries can be accommodated in a unified Afghanistan under a government that is in accordance with the aspirations of the people of Afghanistan and respectful of the rights of all the ethnic groups."
The Taliban's main ally is its neighbor Pakistan. It is one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate representative of Afghanistan.
It is because of these ties that some international analysts believe the most effective way to deal with the Taliban is through Pakistan.
Edward Luttwak is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He tells RFE/RL that the measures so far taken against the Taliban amount to posturing. Luttwak says Taliban dependence on Pakistan should be exploited.
"The only thing that would work in regard to the Taliban would be to put all the pressure on Pakistan, the neighboring country without which the Taliban cannot function. There is no Afghanistan. Therefore it is useless to put pressure on a non-existent country, which is just a geographic notion."
Pakistan is home to more than a million Afghan refugees and has recently been faced with new flows of tens of thousands of Afghans fleeing their war-ravaged land. Vendrell says the situation could worsen because Afghanistan faces a famine later this year.
Meanwhile, the envoy says, the Taliban is hoping to drive out the Northern Alliance and seize the remainder of Afghanistan by this summer. The alliance, he says, is encouraged by the sanctions and hopes to make some military gains this year.