Despite Friday's promise of limited UN sanctions unless they hand over Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan's Taliban regime hasn't wavered from its stand that there is no proof of Mr. bin Laden's terrorist activities and that they won't be handing him over anytime soon.
And with Pakistan now under martial law, the US-led initiative may have lost a crucial ally to follow the spirit as well as the symbolic letter of the sanctions.
The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to impose limited sanctions on the Taliban unless bin Laden is surrendered by Nov. 14.
Pakistan, one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban government, shares a long, porous border with Afghanistan. Its support is necessary for any enforcement of sanctions against the regime.
Ahmed Kamal, former Pakistani Ambassador to the UN, charges that the Security Council has no right to impose sanctions on a government that doesn't even have UN membership. "They control 90 percent of [Afghanistan] but don't have a seat. No one in the UN has ever heard them. Bring them in, and let them present their own case," he says. A US government official, requesting anonymity, says the UN action is the result of a year of fruitless bilateral negotiations with the Taliban.
Uncertainty in Pakistan
The current Afghan seat in the UN is assigned to the Islamic State of Afghanistan, the opposition coalition government engaged in a long-standing civil war with the Taliban. For Abdullah Abdullah, acting foreign minister, a military regime in Pakistan is bad news. "We cannot consider it to be a positive action," says Mr. Abdullah. "Although it might be premature, one can assume that this would be in line with the hard-liners in the Taliban."
Before his ouster, Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had been more receptive to aiding the US in its quest for bin Laden, indicted for masterminding the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Just two weeks ago, Mr. Sharif blamed the Taliban regime for perpetrating a spate of recent killings of Shiite Muslims and demanded the closure of Afghan terrorist training camps. Then, hours before last Tuesday's military coup, Sharif's interior minister told the Associated Press that the government was about to begin a widespread crackdown on arms and terrorism.
However, Sharif's decision to withdraw troops from Kashmir in this summer's conflict with India, after a meeting with President Clinton, helped to create a groundswell of Pakistani discontent against Sharif. Similar attitudes among Pakistanis, such as that expressed by former Ambassador Kamal, diminish opportunities for future collaboration to apprehend bin Laden, say some informed sources.
One concern is that without the efforts of Sharif, the military takeover will perpetuate the influence of the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), the military branch notorious for its ties to the Taliban and to native Pakistani groups sympathetic to bin Laden. "Pakistan's policy toward Afghanistan has always been led by the military, and within the military, by the ISI," says Peter Tomsen, former US special envoy to Afghanistan between 1988 and 1992. "It looks unlikely that there will be any change in the Pakistani intrusive policy on Afghanistan, at least for the near future."
Thomas Gouttierre, director of the Center of Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, says it's still unclear how much support the new military leaders in Pakistan will give to the Taliban. But he characterizes Pakistan's recent policy of trying to bring Afghanistan's warring factions to peace while providing financial and military backing to the Taliban as "schizophrenic."
Effect of sanctions
The UN sanctions - freezing bank accounts and property, and banning flights owned and operated by the Taliban, except for humanitarian purposes - may have little effect on the regime. Afghanistan's economy is predominantly cash-based. Many livelihoods depend on smuggling and the illegal drug trade. Despite prohibition on its use by Taliban law, Afghanistan is the world's largest producer and exporter of opium, and more than 95 percent of the opium grown in the country is grown in Taliban-controlled territory.
Another major source of income for the Taliban lies in the overland "truck mafia" who take advantage of a Taliban agreement with Pakistan. Any goods marked to Afghanistan in Pakistani ports can be sent to land-locked Afghanistan without duty taxes. The goods, such as TVs and VCRs, are then smuggled back into Pakistan to be resold on the black market, experts say.
A more effective solution, some argue, is an embargo on fuel, which requires highway transport and could be monitored. "A fuel embargo would leave most ordinary Afghans unaffected, but would stop the Taliban military machine in its tracks," says William Maley, senior lecturer at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.
For now, the Taliban are not denouncing the Pakistani military takeover and say they are watching the events closely. Abdul Hakeen Mujahid, the Taliban permanent designate to the UN, calls the military takeover "absolutely an internal matter" for the Pakistani people. "We will wait and see," he says. "Afghanistan has had very good relations with Pakistan."
Even if the pressure of sanctions is felt by the Taliban, Afghan honor is based on a tradition of never handing over anyone who has sought refuge, much less a long-time Taliban financial and military backer such as bin Laden. Meanwhile, Mr. Mujahid insists the major victims of the sanctions will be the Afghan people and the Taliban must hold out. "We will [still] follow the same stand," says Mujahid.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society