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Deal with the Taliban by humanizing it

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — It is easy to feel antagonism toward Afghanistan’s Taliban leadership. As if its assault on women’s basic rights were not enough, it has turned its rage against historical monuments in actions that have been almost universally condemned. But this condemnation has not changed its policies at all. If anything, it has made it more adamant about following its own dictates, no matter what the cost. As a result, other governments — notably the United States — and the United Nations face the dilemma of what to do with a fanatic regime in order to limit the damage it does to its own people.

Several human-rights advocates around the world (including myself) have asked for total isolation of the Taliban regime. Its relative isolation has in fact grown following the U.N.’s intensification of sanctions against the regime last December. The sanctions’ primary goal is for the Taliban leadership to turn over Osama bin Laden, accused masterminding the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and of plotting the attack on the USS Cole. But despite the sanctions, the Taliban’s behavior has not changed — and probably never will under pressure. In the meantime, the Afghans continue to suffer.

According to Nancy Soderberg, a U.S. ambassador to the U.N., the sanctions were targeted so as not to have an impact on the humanitarian situation in the country. However, by isolating the people from normal contact with other countries, and making more difficult the work of international aid agencies, the sanctions have only succeeded in making an already difficult situation even worse for the general population.

According to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, the sanctions will facilitate neither peace efforts nor the U.N.’s humanitarian work. Oxfam has warned that sanctions threaten to deepen an already desperate humanitarian crisis. And eight French aid groups have indicated their fear that the sanctions “will worsen the humanitarian situation” in Afghanistan. Millions of Afghans depend on these and other international organizations for even their most basic needs.

According to a 1997 UNICEF study, children in Afghanistan are twice as likely to die before their first birthday than those in other South Asian countries, and the maternal mortality rate in the country is the second-highest in the world. UNICEF’s The State of the World’s Children 2001 shows an under-5 mortality rate in 1999 of 257 per 1,000 live births, a figure that is the fourth-worst in the world. It is probable that the figures for this year are even worse. Because of continuous war, Afghan children have had little opportunity for formal schooling.

Dr. Leila Gupta, a mental-health physician, conducted a study for UNICEF in 1997 with 300 children in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. The study underscored the tremendous negative effect that long-term violence had had on the children, a result of the horrific events they had witnessed during the fighting. Ninety percent of children in the study said they had believed that they would die during the fighting, and almost all of them, sometimes or often, felt that life wasn’t worth living.

The Food and Agriculture Organization has declared Afghanistan one of the three hungriest countries in the world. It is estimated that 70 percent of Afghans are undernourished. In addition, the worst drought in memory has driven 700,000 people from their homes, leading to food shortages affecting almost 4 million people. More than 150,000 Afghans have gone recently to Pakistan, over 50,000 only in the last eight months. As a result, Pakistan is reluctant to accept any more refugees, having already harbored almost a million since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The prospects for the refugees’ return to Afghanistan are almost nil, particularly since the possibilities for reconstruction assistance have markedly diminished.

How to respond to this serious humanitarian crisis and bring hope to a devastated country? According to Sayed Rahmatullah Hashimi, the Taliban’s roving envoy, who was recently in the U.S. looking to improve relations, what is presently happening in Afghanistan is the result of a conflict between the superpowers that started with the Soviet invasion of his country. According to him, after the Soviets were expelled, other nations — notably the U.S. — have tried to tell them how to behave without consideration for their cultural values and beliefs. Thus a conflict between the U.S. and the Taliban leadership has led to the suffering of millions of Afghans.

The need for a change of policy is even more pressing now, with Russia’s campaign to persuade the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions against Pakistan, because this country is the Taliban’s strongest supporter. Sanctions against Pakistan will only succeed in making a bad situation even worse, since it may lead that country to impose further restrictions on the Afghans fleeing in desperation from their homeland.

Now is the time to rethink the antagonistic approach that has prevailed so far and to try, through negotiation, to reach some basic agreements that would end Afghanistan’s isolation and quickly lead to an improvement in the nutritional and humanitarian situation of all Afghans. The Taliban regime, brutal as it is in our eyes, is the key player in Afghanistan. Any settlement will have to be negotiated with them.

As Ruub Lubbers, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, recently declared, “It is time to take a risk and stop isolating Afghanistan. . . . If we really want to appeal to them on human values, we had better start to be human ourselves, and humanize the situation.” This shift in policy could finally bring some hope to the population of this ravaged country.