ISLAMABAD — A news release from the U.S. State Department explaining the possible consequences of this month’s U.N. Security Council sanctions against Afghanistan was mainly concerned to set the record straight.

“The United Nations sanctions very specifically target only the Taliban leadership, not the people of Afghanistan,” the release said. “The sanctions are political, not economic. . . . Trade and commerce, including in food and medicine, continue unabated. Large-scale international humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people continues.”

The United States has reason to justify the sanctions, as it has led the initiative to tighten the noose around the Taliban, the group of radical Islamic fighters who achieved notoriety with their creation of one of the world’s most puritanical states, where women are banned from public life and strict laws are enforced.

However, the reality of Afghanistan, the world’s last Cold War battle ground, where Soviet troops fought a decade-long war against U.S.-armed and -financed Islamic freedom fighters, may differ from the reality cited by U.S. officials to justify the sanctions.

Its true that the sanctions are meant to stop all arm supplies to the Taliban for their refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden, the Saudi militant wanted for allegedly ordering the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa.

Additionally, the U.S. wants the Taliban to shut down all camps in Afghanistan where Islamic fighters are trained to participate in armed struggles in different parts of the world. The U.S. also wants to see substantial progress in eliminating Afghanistan’s production of poppies, which are used to make heroin.

But there are three factors complicating support of the U.N. sanctions, which only suggests that the turmoil caused by an unstable Afghanistan is bound to continue.

First, the U.S., which now campaigns against the Taliban, once not only backed Afghan Islamic groups but in fact helped to train them to fight wars, thanks to the supply of such sophisticated pieces of equipment as the shoulder-fired Stinger missiles. While Washington’s earlier engagement with Afghanistan was largely inspired by Moscow’s intervention, the main mistake made by the U.S. was to quickly pack its bags and leave the Afghans to untangle themselves from the legacy of the war.

Once Washington had been drawn in to the Afghan conflict, its obligations included helping Afghans recover peace and tranquillity through a strong commitment to the postwar reconstruction of their country. Left to themselves, an entire generation of Afghans who had learned only how to fight battles, had little recourse other than to continue fighting, only interrupted by the few short-lived periods of relative peace.

Second, an attempt to weaken the Taliban by restricting the flow of arms to their cadres is neither assured of complete success nor capable of tipping the balance against the Afghan regime in a way that they would meet the U.S. demands.

In fact, the Afghan regime may further cement its position, as hardliners demand an intensification of resistance to the international pressures behind the sanctions. Afghanistan is already awash with arms left over from the long years of conflict, assuring a continuous supply to the Taliban; this will enable the regime to keep fighting the resistance known as the Northern Alliance, which controls just 5 percent of the country’s territory. The added problem in the future may be that, faced with obstacles in acquiring new arms, the Taliban may become increasingly dependent on sources of income such as cash from allowing the safe passage of drugs. Unfortunately, an increased flow of narcotics from a country that is already the source of the world’s largest supply of heroin, may well be the ultimate consequence of the sanctions.

Finally, the sanctions are likely to push Afghanistan a step away from even beginning to resolve its internal conflict through peaceful dialogue and consensus. For years, U.N. officials, along with a number of countries in the region and beyond, have hoped to see the emergence of a broad-based government representing Afghanistan’s various ethnic factions. But the defiance shown by the Afghan regime is likely to increase following the sanctions, which will only make it harder to seek a political resolution to the conflict.

Its important to recognize the magnitude of the problem facing the U.S. government in dealing with a country that has given sanctuary to an individual such as Bin Laden, who stands accused of masterminding a violent terrorist attack against U.S. nationals. Unfortunately, tightening the noose around an already poor and war-ravaged country could have the unwanted effect of pushing it further into the hands of people like him, whose commitment to militancy will only flourish as Afghanistan’s impoverishment continues.

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