Worry Rises Over Enduring Afghan Impasse
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — FIVE years after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, the war in Kabul shows few signs of slowing. Neighboring states, already burdened by increasing numbers of Afghan refugees, worry that the conflict could spread across their borders. International relief efforts are showing signs of fatigue.
``This obstinate continuation of the fighting has caused a new grave emergency on top of what Afghanistan has been facing for years,'' said Sotorios Mousouris, the special envoy for United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in Afghanistan, in a recent statement marking the anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal.
Since fighting resumed early this year between rival mujahideen factions in the Afghan capital, more than 800 people have been killed, thousands more have been injured, and approximately 100,000 have fled the city.
A Feb. 15 cease-fire was supposed to last four days, but the factions resumed fighting within 24 hours of the truce.
The unsuccessful hostage-taking of about 70 children in the Pakistani city of Peshawar on Feb. 20 by three Afghan gunmen, who were killed by Pakistani commandos, has further worried Afghanistan's neighbors. ``We'll never know if they were connected to any particular Afghan group. But the very fact that they wanted food and $5 million in ransom shows that it is a desperate situation out there,'' a Pakistani official said of the kidnappers.
IVAL Afghan leaders are involved in an intense power struggle. In the recent fighting, Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's forces have been firing on Kabul in an effort to force President Burhanuddin Rabbani to resign. The swift breakdown of the temporary cease-fire demonstrates how difficult it will be to bring peace to Afghanistan.
``Soon famine will envelope the remaining innocent civilians in Kabul, while tens of thousands of displaced persons are surviving in an inhospitable terrain,'' Mr. Mousouris warned in his statement, pointing to the 100,000 refugees in the Afghan city of Jalalabad. In addition, Kabul remains under siege and without sufficient food.
Officials and Western diplomats in neighboring countries continue to worry about the plight of fleeing refugees.
Pakistan, which was once the primary safe haven for Afghans, now requires visas rather than allowing them to cross the border without restriction.
Senior Pakistani officials defend the move on the ground that their country could once again be faced with a serious refugee problem if it does not take necessary steps to restrict the numbers.
But the restriction means that the UN has to deliver basic supplies to refugees in the camps in Jalalabad.
Although the land route from Pakistan to Jalalabad remains open, the journey on to Kabul is too dangerous, since armed bands run by local mujahideen commanders extort fees from travelers.
Continuing fighting and difficulties in maintaining the relief operations have together created what appears to be a sense of fatigue among foreign donors, who see their support as an exercise in futility. In response to a UN appeal for $60 million launched last November, only $27 million has so far been given. Areas vital to long-term reconstruction efforts such as health care, shelter, water, and sanitation have so far received only $1 million.
``The problem in Afghanistan is that you will not see the skeletons that you saw in Somalia, and that will not attract international attention,'' Mousouris says. Other Pakistani officials agree that as far as foreign donors are concerned, Afghanistan has moved to the back burner.
At the beginning of February, Mr. Boutros-Ghali appointed Mahmoud Mestiri, the Tunisian foreign minister, to head a new mission to facilitate negotiations between rival leaders. But few officials are convinced that the effort could achieve an immediate breakthrough. Rival fighters led by leaders such as Mr. Hekmatyar are well armed and ready to go to battle. Part of their ability to continue fighting comes from large stockpiles of arms received from the US Central Intelligence Agency during the Soviet occupation.
The security situation has also been deteriorating due to a large number of land mines left behind by retreating Soviet troops.
Many Afghans continue to be seriously injured or killed by the mines every day. ``Barefoot children walk around aimlessly, trying to collect scrap metal to help their families survive. This scrap metal at times is an unexploded ordnance,'' Mousouris said in appealing to the international community to help in the crucial task of reconstruction and demining.
Many diplomats also remain worried about the prospect of increased trafficking in drugs from laboratories located along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and warn that Afghanistan should not be ignored.
Without peace, Kabul is unlikely to see a stable government. And in the absence of such a government, Afghans will have difficulty dealing with the complex task of rebuilding their country.