UN Afghan relief team has task cut out for it. Task force seeks to aid refugees without taking sides in bitter conflict

The United Nations, Western governments, and international relief agencies are setting up one of the most massive resettlement programs for war victims since World War II. Experienced foreign relief coordinators warn that the international task force, being created under UN auspices, faces severe problems.

The task force will have to repatriate Afghanistan's 5.5 million refugees and help in the reconstruction of devastated areas. Unless it does this with considerable political, as well as administrative, skill, these experts say, it will quickly get into trouble.

UN officials stress that they are permitted to deal only with officially recognized governments and not guerrillas. Officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) say the Geneva-based organization has now been charged with heading the task force.

But most aid coordinators with experience inside Afghanistan believe the only effective way to run a long-term relief and reconstruction program is to work through the regional resistance commanders.

``The dilemma we are now facing is how to ensure that all Afghan civilians in need of assistance get it,'' said Peter Rees of Afghan Aid, a British agency. ``But how does one channel aid through the Kabul regime without supporting it? We may have to work on both sides, if we want to help these people.''

If the UN is perceived as propping up the Soviet-backed Kabul regime with aid, experts say, the resistance fighters would consider themselves justified in attacking the UN's blue-flag supply convoys and monitoring posts. And the resistance controls 80 percent of the countryside.

Pakistan insists that the April 14 signing of the Geneva accords does not imply recognition of the Soviet-backed People's Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (PDPA). Western diplomats, however, say the Kabul regime will seek to exploit the UN aid effort to obtain international respectability. The UN General Assembly has repeatedly condemned the Soviet invasion since 1980.

The UNHCR, the World Food Program, and other UN agencies have already contacted Afghan authorities about directing repatriation and resettlement programs primarily through Kabul. Relief sources say that some private voluntary agencies are preparing to move to the Afghan capital as soon as possible, whether or not the communists are still in power.

``Aid means power,'' noted a European relief coordinator with seven years' experience of cross-border relief. ``If money starts pouring in through Kabul rather than [directly] to those most affected by the war, then we'll be making the regime stronger. It could also completely discredit the UN and alienate Afghans from the international aid agencies.''

The Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, whose mandate requires strict neutrality, is being cautious in its dealings with the PDPA. The organization only recently succeeded in improving relations with certain guerrilla commanders, who had viewed it as having a pro-Soviet bias.

Red Cross sources say they consider it within their humanitarian responsibilities to operate in areas firmly held by the guerrillas while maintaining a presence in Kabul.

Observers note that the Kabul authorities are already pushing hard for large-scale UN involvement from their side. Last week, the regime's refugee office announced that the Soviet Union has agreed to help in the return of refugees; but said it would need international assistance as soon as the Geneva accords come into effect on May 15, and ``the flow of refugees increases.''

The communists claim that more than 120,000 refugees from Pakistan and Iran, but also the United States, West Germany, and other countries, have come back so far, a figure disputed as ``absurd'' by most informed observers.

The PDPA also claims to have established refugee offices in almost all provinces, as well as tent camps and so-called ``peace hotels'' to receive 10,000 refugees at a time along the main highways leading from Pakistan and Iran. PDPA head Najibullah offered yesterday to set up a line of demilitarized zones along the Pakistan border as a means of allowing about 3 million refugees to return home safely.

The UNHCR's limited mandate for emergency programs rather than long-term development has prompted many relief representatives and diplomats to question its ability to run a task force with a scope as broad as that proposed under the UN's ``mini-Marshall Plan.''

Not only does the UNHCR lack the experience for such an operation, they say, but it knows little about conditions inside the country. For an organization that has spent more than eight years dealing with Afghan refugees, one aid representative pointed out, it only recently commissioned its own report on the inside situation. ``It's as if the UNHCR has just discovered Afghanistan,'' he said.

Donor countries and international aid organizations, the sources add, must also agree on whether they are prepared to carry out a long-term development program for Afghanistan right from the start rather than the conventional emergency relief operation proposed by some UN officials.

``The international aid effort will be pretty chaotic in the months ahead no matter what we do,'' one United States relief coordinator commented. ``We are not just dealing with the effects of war, but also a unique and extremely complex society. The UN won't be able to come up with its usual formula approaches. It's going to need a lot of imagination and political flexibility.''

Some voluntary agencies and governments are now seeking the appointment of an ``aid czar,'' to oversee and coordinate all task force operations. A precedent for this exists with that of Sir Robert Jackson, the high-level troubleshooter who successfully ran the Bangladesh task force in the early 1970s, when 10 million refugees were repatriated.

Several such personalities, ranging from the UN's Saddrudin Agha Khan to French Human Rights Minister Claude Malhuret and a former Swedish defense minister, are now being considered for the job. ``This is what the task force really needs,'' a UN official said. ``Afghanistan's reconstruction could take years, so it's important to get off on the right footing.

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