Isolating Afghanistan will not help

The United States has dealt with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan by isolating it. After a recent trip there, I believe that isolation has hurt more than it has helped. Principled engagement - through increasing humanitarian assistance and strengthening local communities - would be more effective.

If we thought isolation would improve the Taliban, we were wrong. The strategy has strengthened hard-liners within the regime and weakened more moderate elements. And sanctions have hurt the Afghan people. Ordinary people, already reeling from years of conflict, drought, repression, and a devastated economy, told me they felt abandoned by the international community. US policy toward Afghanistan has been dominated by terrorism concerns. Overcoming the threat of terrorism is important, but viewing Afghanistan primarily through an antiterrorism lens is counterproductive.

The US should do better by the Afghan people. The most immediate problem is the drought, the worst in 30 years. According to the World Food Program, 5 million people face serious food shortages. In recent months, when the media have turned to the drought, they have focused on the desperate conditions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Those refugees do badly need help. But aid would be most effective at points of origin - in the villages of Afghanistan - rather than at points of destination. I visited a rural community in Ghazni Province where families, with assistance from CARE, were withstanding the drought. In the neighboring village, which hadn't received aid, only one family remained.

Structuring humanitarian efforts to help Afghan communities weather the drought and avoid migration (say, by increasing access to water and supplementing food supplies) should relieve the suffering of millions. It would also lower the incentive for parents to turn to strategies of last resort. Time after time, I heard how desperate parents, unable to feed their children, had given young daughters away in marriage and signed sons over to the Taliban.

Apart from the drought, there is urgent need for longer-term development assistance and for reaching a durable peace. Building strength at the community level is the smartest investment in a better political future for Afghanistan. That strength could become the foundation for a more just, tolerant, and responsive political system.

Nothing is more important for Afghans than ending the violence that has ravaged the country for 20 years. We should seek to replace the one-sided UN arms sanctions on the Taliban with an arms embargo on all parties to the conflict. If rigorously enforced, this would eventually stem the firepower of warring parties and send a signal of solidarity to the Afghan people. Incentives for Pakistan to reduce support for the Taliban must also be part of the equation. Isolating Afghanistan only adds to the suffering of ordinary Afghans. We must strengthen them and prepare them for a better day.

Peter D. Bell is the president and CEO of the international relief and development organization CARE USA.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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