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UN: Kazakhstan Calls For New Approach On Afghan Peace

The Kazakh government has circulated a proposal aimed at initiating a new international effort to bring peace and reconstruction to Afghanistan. It calls for an end to the isolation of the ruling Taliban militia but also for regional powers to pressure the two warring Afghan parties to come to the peace table. UN correspondent Robert McMahon assesses the proposal.

United Nations, 21 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan has moved to take a role in the Afghan peace process, offering to host new talks and proposing a set of steps aimed at rehabilitating the country.

The offer from the Kazakh Foreign Ministry, released last week at UN headquarters, also calls for a special meeting of the UN Security Council on Afghanistan to address the country's many problems.

Afghanistan remains locked in civil war between the Taliban -- which controls 90 percent of the country -- and a coalition of opposition forces which holds territory in the north of the country. The UN refugee agency says the country is suffering from the world's worst crisis of displaced people, caused by the fighting and a devastating drought.

Kazakhstan has not previously played a major role in the Afghan peace process. The United Nations has worked most closely with the "Six-plus-Two" countries, comprising Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbors as well as Russia, China, and the United States.

But Kazakh officials have been active recently, meeting with UN special envoy Francesc Vendrell and with officials at UN headquarters. They are believed to be concerned about an alarming rise in drug trafficking through Kazakhstan, originating in Afghanistan, as well as threats of a spread of Islamic fundamentalism, which Central Asian nations such as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have repeatedly cited.

The new Kazakh proposal says there is a danger of the Afghan conflict widening on a regional and international scale. It stresses the need for regional and international powers to move resolutely to end the fighting and then mobilize resources to rebuild the country.

Kazakhstan is calling for regional powers in Central Asia to exert strong pressure on the warring factions to force them to come to the negotiating table without any preconditions. It also urges an end to the diplomatic isolation of the Taliban, saying the movement's leaders need to be engaged directly to help in the process of political reconciliation. The Kazakh proposal favors an Afghanistan run by a multiethnic, broad-based government.

At least one regional expert says the steps outlined by Kazakhstan could serve to invigorate the Afghan peace process. Barnett Rubin is director of the Center for International Cooperation at New York University and an expert on Central Asia. He tells RFE/RL that Kazakhstan could become a useful catalyst for peace.

"Kazakhstan is really not in a position to play a direct role with respect to Afghanistan. But it can play some kind of a role with respect to helping to set the agenda, because it is a Central Asian state and to some extent the security threat to Central Asia from Islamic groups in Afghanistan has been used as one of the rationales for this policy of isolating the Taliban."

Russia and the United States have been the main forces behind UN Security Council sanctions imposed on the Taliban. Russia accuses the Taliban of promoting terrorism and destabilizing Central Asia. Washington is seeking to force the Taliban to hand over accused terrorist Osama bin Laden for trial.

The latest round of sanctions places an embargo on military aid to the Taliban but not on opposition forces. Rubin criticizes this approach, saying sanctions as a primary policy will not end the Afghan war.

"It's a huge threat to hundreds of millions of people there, and it needs a comprehensive approach and not just focusing on Osama bin Laden and so-called terrorist camps."

There was no immediate response to the Kazakh proposal from U.S. and Russian officials. But the Afghan crisis was believed to be among the items discussed last Friday (18 May) by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in Washington.

There appears little chance Moscow or Washington will support ending the isolation of the Taliban, as suggested by Kazakhstan.

Taliban leaders earlier this month rejected a temporary truce proposal from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers. Taliban forces this spring have launched a campaign to try to seize control of the remaining territory controlled by the northern alliance.

UN humanitarian officials last week raised new concerns about the Taliban's treatment of aid workers in the central Hazarajat region. UN spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva, speaking on 18 May, said aid workers, especially local Afghan staff, have come under increasing pressure from authorities.

"Harassment, arrests, and even physical abuse of humanitarian personnel are on the upswing. Recently both UN and NGO staff have been arrested in both Kabul and Herat. Both national and international staff have been subjected to harassment."

Taliban authorities had promised protection of international humanitarian personnel despite their anger at the new sanctions this year. But UN officials say Taliban cooperation has been inconsistent.

The United Nations is the main international entity engaged in the country and its political offices have been confined to Kabul in Taliban-held Afghanistan. The Taliban's main international diplomatic outpost is in neighboring Pakistan, one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan.

The UN continues to recognize the coalition forces united under the country's ousted president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, as the legitimate representative of the country. Afghanistan's UN ambassador, Ravan Farhadi, told RFE/RL that he was against the Kazakh proposal to open up international dialogue with the Taliban.

"We think that this proposal must not open the way for the Taliban to enhance their diplomatic presence everywhere in the world. We think that if there is any contact which has to be taken with the Taliban, this may be done in Islamabad, where there is an embassy of the Taliban."

But Farhadi said he welcomed many aspects of the Kazakh peace proposal. He said the northern alliance would agree to both a meeting of high-level experts and peace talks in Kazakhstan. He said he has sent a paper to the UN secretary-general's office responding to the Kazakh proposal.