Bread and politics: Taliban lets UN food program stew

Tomorrow is the deadline for an agreement on whether there will be a survey of the needy in Afghanistan.

Fourth-generation baker Safiullah Karim pulls 30 steaming loaves of bread from the clay oven and replaces them with another 30 lumps of raw dough. He's been at this routine since before sunrise, churning out the rounds that are the only food some Afghans can afford to eat these days.

But as busy as Mr. Karim is, he is afraid for his job. The United Nations World Food Program has set tomorrow as the deadline for Afghanistan's ruling Taliban to agree to a new survey in Kabul, the capital, to determine who is eligible to receive subsidized bread. Without an agreement, the WFP says it will close more than 100 bakeries it supports in Kabul - a city of 1 million, where more than a quarter of the population depends on the discounted bread.

"It's a bad sign," says Karim. The issue does not affect the future of subsidized bakeries like his, outside Kabul, just yet. But "if there's a problem in Kabul today," he continues, "there could be problems in other parts of Afghanistan tomorrow."

Since attention was focused on Afghanistan in March, when the Taliban destroyed two Buddhist statues deemed objects of idolatry, the relationship between the Taliban and the international community has become increasingly tense. Three weeks ago the Taliban said that Hindus must wear identifying symbols so their minority would be protected. Female aid workers have been prohibited from driving cars. Last week, to protect Islamic society, the Taliban ordered foreigners to abide by prohibitions on consumption of alcohol and pork, loud music, and gender mixing.

"The Taliban are hardening up because they see themselves cornered by the outside world," a senior Western diplomat in Afghanistan says on condition of anonymity. "They see the West as an enemy. The Taliban can hardly do much about the Western world, so they're taking on whatever they see as a sign of Western representation in Afghanistan."

That assessment follows the UN's toughest anti-Taliban sanctions, which were imposed in late January for the regime's refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden, the Saudi national who lives in Afghanistan and is wanted by the US in connection with the 1998 bombings at two US embassies in East Africa. The sanctions forbid travel by Taliban officials on international and UN flights, and bar the supply of arms to the regime.

In Afghanistan, the bakery program is central to UN efforts to combat hunger and the possibility of famine. The WFP wants about 25 Afghan women to carry out a survey to update the lists of bread recipients, saying that its existing list is based on a 1996 survey and that some bread permits may have been sold or stolen.

The Taliban's refusal to permit Afghan women to help with the survey is apparently in line with their interpretation of Islam. The regime has restricted women from most professions in the five years since it came to power. Only females would be able to conduct the survey in Kabul homes, because men are not allowed to associate with unrelated women.

Noor-I-Zam, a teenage girl at the Mazar-i-Sharif bakery, explains that the bread "is like half a meal, because we have not had meat for a very long time." In a year when as much as 70 percent of Afghanistan's livestock is estimated by the WFP to have died or been exported, bread is crucial. For Noor-I-Zam's father and three brothers, who earn about $1 a month each as day laborers at bus-repair shops, the regularly priced 5.5 cent loaves are discounted to 8 or 12 percent of their market value, allowing their household to spend money on other needs.

Regardless of how the bakery standoff ends, Karim has decided he would rather leave Afghanistan. "Even if I have a job next week..., the problems between the Taliban and the West will continue, and that doesn't help my family," he says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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