New lid on Afghanistan, but will it hold?

Hints of a power-sharing deal may point to winding down of long civilwar as UN wades back in.

A return to Afghanistan this week by the United Nations coincided with calls Sunday for a power-sharing agreement between the Taliban, the group that runs the country under a strict brand of Islamic law, and an alliance of opposition parties.

The twin developments yielded glimmers of optimism from the international community. There are reservations. Peace deals and cease-fires in Afghanistan have a history of crumbling, and the current agreement remains short on details, with more talks scheduled for next month.

The UN's reentry will be cautious and limited. This week, only a handful of humanitarian personnel will arrive. The UN left in August after one worker was killed.

These tentative steps come after a tough year for UN aid workers worldwide. In 1998, the United Nations saw 27 non-peacekeeping personnel killed, making its civilian casualties exceed that of its military ones for the first time.

Still, many individual relief workers point out that security in war-wracked Afghanistan has largely improved under the Taliban, which first emerged in 1994.

"The first time I came, in 1994, the roads were very insecure," says Karina Schmitt, a program officer for the World Food Program. "Things have definitely improved. And this is a big reason for [the Taliban's] acceptance in the population."

This acceptance has not been mirrored in world capitals. Only Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan's legitimate government. It has no UN seat.

"We are representing the people of Afghanistan. We have a right to sit at the UN," insists Abdul Hakeem Mujahid, the Taliban's representative in New York. His office stands in Queens, across the bridge from the UN's Manhattan headquarters.

The UN's issues with the Taliban go beyond security. If countries were ranked in terms of records on women's rights, Afghanistan would stand in its own category, says Aida Gonzalez Martinez, who chairs the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

And aid workers complain that Muslim women staff members' must follow the strict code, thereby constraining their jobs. "But that is one of the issues on the negotiations agenda that we will present to them [Taliban officials] once we return to Kabul," says Sergio Vieira de Mello, the chief UN humanitarian aid coordinator.

"It is not easy working with the Taliban," says Damon Rosenzweig, former project coordinator for Doctors Without Borders in Herat. "Having said that, there is a range of behaviors.... Within their laws there's some degree of flexibility of interpretation."

Taliban officials allowed brothers and sisters to travel together for Doctors Without Borders. And despite restrictions on women, infant girls and boys appear to have similar access to basic health care.

In addition to the human rights issues, the US is still pressing the Taliban to stop harboring Osama bin Laden, a Saudi Arabian in exile suspected in the bombings of two US embassies in Africa last summer.

"We have received assurances that steps have been taken to ensure that ... neither he or the group he leads will not be allowed to put the lives of humanitarian staff in danger [in areas under Taliban control]," says Mr. de Mello. Yet the Taliban has stopped short of capturing bin Laden. "We told the US that if they could provide some evidence, we would arrest him," says Mr. Mujahid. "But they couldn't...."

Whatever its security strategy, the Taliban desperately wants aid workers. It has one of the world's highest maternal mortality rates, and the largest number of nationals living in exile - 2.6 million.

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