Global Policy Forum

Afghanistan's Taliban Toughen


By Jack Redden

May 22, 2001

Afghanistan's ruling Taliban is taking an increasingly hard line with the outside world, closing UN offices, discussing a dress code for other religions and harassing aid workers.

A series of actions this month by the Islamic movement shows no indication it is willing to satisfy the two main goals of the United Nations: ending support for foreign militants such as Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden and negotiating an end to Afghanistan's civil war.

Last week the United Nations complained that Taliban authorities, who claim to control 90 percent of Afghanistan, have been abusing the aid workers who provide most of the social services in the devastated country. That came a day after a new 120-bed hospital in the capital Kabul built to treat victims of the 21 years of war was closed when armed members of the religious police forced their way in, beat staff and took away three local employees.

The powerful Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice said the Italian-funded hospital had allowed men and women to eat in the same room. The minister, Maulawi Abdul Wali, followed up this week with a proposal on Monday to force non-Muslims like Hindus to wear distinctive dress so they can be easily identified -- a plan that in the West evokes memories of the Nazi treatment of Jews. "Non-Muslims should have a distinctive mark in their dress so that they can be identified. We have asked for a fatwa (religious decree) from ulema (Islamic scholars) for full implementation of this," he said. "When a fatwa comes, a complete law will be made."


Wali's ministry answers directly to Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, who earlier this year outraged much of the world by ordering the destruction of all Afghanistan's historic statues -- mainly Buddhist. Long-running Taliban objections to women working at bakeries funded by the U.N. World Food Program boiled up again last week, forcing the temporary closing of some of the outlets that provide subsidized bread for much of the capital's population.

Hopes for an early end to the war between the Taliban and their last opponents, already just about dead, were dealt another blow with the closing this week of all but one of the Taliban-area offices of the U.N. representative in charge of starting peace talks, Francesc Vendrell. The Taliban, angry that the U.N. Security Council imposed fresh sanctions against the regime in January, reject any U.N. role in making peace. Japan, which has offered without results to host peace talks, was told the Taliban would not accept even a U.N. observer.

The deepening isolation has appeared to touch even Pakistan's military rulers, who have backed the Taliban since it appeared seven years ago but failed this year to persuade the movement to adopt policies that would make them more acceptable to the world. "The Afghans are nowhere near as pliant as they expected," said a senior Western diplomat.

A hardening of the Taliban was not unexpected as it resumes its annual summer battles with the Northern Alliance. This month they had rejected a U.N. call for a cease-fire to get humanitarian aid to the hundreds of thousands of Afghans displaced by fighting and the worst drought in three decades.

However, while news from inside the opaque Taliban leadership is sparse, there has also been speculation about problems. An expected early appointment of a new deputy to Omar to replace Mohammad Rabbani who died in April has failed to materialize. "There is a lot of uprising talk around, more than in the past two or three years," said a western diplomat. "There is a perception that the Taliban are off-balance, that there is a structural problem, that there is something wrong with them."

The Taliban are believed to be short of money -- vital even in the relatively crude warfare of Afghanistan, where commanders and their followers are routinely paid to change sides. The drug trade, which was taxed, has been hard hit by the Taliban's own ban on opium poppy cultivation. And merchandise trade through Afghanistan, also taxed, has been hit by Pakistan's efforts to slow the rampant smuggling across its border.

But no one in the large community of diplomats and aid workers dealing with Afghanistan expects Taliban weakness to translate into victory for their opponents. The prediction is just for more fighting. Vendrell, the U.N. envoy who saw almost all his offices closed this week by the Taliban, said he was resigned to focusing on talks with neighboring countries until prospects for peace improve.

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