Global Policy Forum

UN Struggling in Afghanistan


Harassment of Workers Threatens Major Food Program in Capital

By Pamela Constable

Washington Post
May 31, 2001

U.N. officials here complained today that their employees in Afghanistan are being harassed by the ruling Taliban movement's religious police, and by foreign Muslims, and said they may have to shut down a feeding program for 300,000 people in Kabul, the Afghan capital, because the Taliban will not allow the program to employ Afghan women.

Erick de Mul, the U.N. coordinator for Afghanistan, said he and other U.N. officials had made little progress in three days of meetings with Taliban officials this week. He said U.N. staff members are encountering serious obstacles to carrying out their work at a time when the need for humanitarian aid is becoming more acute in a country ravaged by drought and civil war.

"The situation for most Afghans is getting worse and worse . . . but in spite of that, it is becoming more and more difficult for us to do what is needed," de Mul said at a news conference. "We must make it clear that if our operating conditions do not improve, we will have to close down or suspend programs."

But the Taliban's foreign minister, Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, said in a radio interview Tuesday that the United Nations is to blame for its problems in Afghanistan. The Taliban, which has imposed its own strict interpretation of Islam on Afghanistan, does not allow Afghan women to work or attend school, does not permit unrelated men and women to interact, and imposes numerous restrictions on foreign aid workers. Muttawakil said the United Nations should hire foreign women for its feeding program rather than insist on employing Afghan women.

"The U.N. is increasing our problems rather than finding solutions," Muttawakil told the Voice of America in Kabul. The dispute coincides with a rapidly escalating humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, where nearly a half-million people have been forced to flee their homes because of the drought and war, and hundreds of thousands depend on foreign aid programs for food, shelter and medical treatment. U.N. officials here estimate that their agencies spend $500,000 per day in Afghanistan, and they predict that the crisis will continue to grow in coming months. If U.N. programs were to be suspended or shut down, they said, the lives of large numbers of Afghans would be in jeopardy.

The controversy also comes as the Taliban has issued increasingly harsh religious edicts that have shocked and alienated the world. In March it demolished two ancient statues of Buddha in spite of worldwide protests, and earlier this month it ordered all Hindus in Afghanistan to wear yellow patches to identify themselves as non-Muslims. Also this month, Taliban religious police raided and shut down a surgical hospital for war victims in Kabul, just days after it was opened by an Italian charity. The police reportedly objected to male and female staff members working together.

The most serious impasse between the United Nations and the Taliban is over U.N. World Food Program bakeries in Kabul that provide cheap bread for about 300,000 people, mostly poor women and children. The United Nations is trying to carry out a survey of the recipients because it suspects there is widespread fraud, with ration cards being misused and sold to less needy families.

But the Taliban's religious restrictions have made the survey impossible, de Mul said. The authorities will not allow men to interview women or visit their homes, so last year the program hired 700 Afghan women to do the survey. The Taliban then ordered that local women could not be hired, so the survey was suspended. This week, Taliban officials suggested to de Mul that the United Nations hire women from Pakistan, Iran and other countries to carry out the work.

"This is an issue of morality. Why should foreign women be allowed to do what Afghan women can't?" de Mul demanded. "We have bent over backward to accommodate the cultural and religious values" of Afghanistan, he said, "but there comes a point where . . . something must be done." If no agreement is reached, he said, the program will be shut down June 15. The other growing problem for U.N. workers in a number of aid programs is what de Mul called "serious incidents" of Afghan workers being harassed by the Taliban religious police, and of Western staff members being threatened by Arabs and other foreign Muslims who live for extended periods in Afghanistan. Many of them train there to fight armed opposition forces trying to topple the Taliban.

According to U.N. officials here and in Kabul, foreign Muslims whom the Taliban calls "guests" have made such threatening gestures to aid workers as miming that they will slit their throats, attempting to run them over in trucks and making loud, vulgar comments to foreign women. De Mul said U.N. employees must now drive everywhere in Kabul rather than walk. De Mul also said that local Afghan aid workers have been arrested and imprisoned by the Taliban religious police after anonymous complaints were lodged against them. He said that although the law requires suspects to be charged or released after three days, many are kept longer with no explanation.

The religious police, who are employed by the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, operate as an autonomous force with powers over other agencies. They enforce the Taliban's laws on dress and behavior, which require men to grow long beards and pray five times a day and women to be covered in head-to-toe veils when they appear in public. Although de Mul said he and his associates had not been able to reach any firm agreement in their meetings with Taliban officials, the officials had taken their concerns seriously and said they wanted to resolve the problems. But he also expressed exasperation with the Taliban's insistence on strict Islamic rules at the expense of helping Afghans and sustaining international support for their plight.

" 'If you want to fight the whole world, that's your choice, but don't expect us to do it, too,' " de Mul said he told the Taliban officials. "The situation is already so dramatic, with so many people close to the edge and falling off. If we do not speak out, I have the impression it will only get worse."

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