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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

PEACE: MISSION IMPOSSIBLE

The Taliban's obstinacy wrecks a U.N. plan

BY AJAY SINGH AND ANTHONY DAVIS


IT WAS PERHAPS SURPRISING the talks lasted as long as they did. Brokered by the United Nations and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the first high-level peace discussions between Afghanistan's Islamic Taliban militia and the opposition Northern Alliance labored for a full week before collapsing amid acrimony and mutual recrimination on May 3. Mediators feared the two enemies would renew their bitter 19-month battle. "Realistically," said one senior U.N. official in Islamabad, where the talks were held, "they could well go back to war."

Sure enough, the next day, fresh fighting was reported on the border of the opposition-held Takhar province in the northeast. This was despite a pledge by the feuding parties that they would honor a moratorium on new offensives agreed to during the talks. Both sides are known to have stockpiled huge amounts of ammunition and have sent thousands of fresh troops to the frontlines north of Kabul.

Ordinary Afghans were understandably disappointed. Though they have seen as many peace delegations as wars over the past 17 years, the recent effort at conciliation was perhaps Afghanistan's best hope for ending hostilities since the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996. This became clear when Washington's U.N. envoy Bill Richardson traveled to Afghanistan on April 17. The highest-ranking U.S. leader to visit the war-ravaged country since 1974, Richardson was the one who got the two sides to agree to come to the negotiating table. "President Clinton wants peace in Afghanistan," he told Afghans. Stability would also allow a consortium led by U.S. giant Unocal to build a pipeline across Afghanistan carrying natural gas from Turkmenistan into South Asia.

Still, the talks were a success in at least one way. Their most significant - and unexpected - outcome was that a "steering committee" comprising five members of the Taliban and nine from the opposition agreed to form a joint commission of Islamic scholars, or ulema, to negotiate a permanent solution to the crisis. However, this involved a protracted and arcane dispute. The Taliban insisted the proposed commission, with 20 representatives from each side, include only full-time Islamic scholars. The opposition argued it include anyone well-versed in Islam, including, for example, politicians. Fortunately, neither side has the right to veto the nominees of the other - a key clause, given that the Taliban had shot down an earlier list of the opposition's ulema submitted to the U.N.

The problems did not end there. For many months now the Taliban has contended that the ulema is the best agency for resolving the nation's widening political and ethnic divisions. The opposition, which has always been profoundly skeptical of this proposal, demanded that the steering committee address three key issues: a permanent cease-fire, exchange of prisoners, and the opening of trade routes across the war zone. The Taliban has blocked routes to the central Hazarajat province, a poor and mountainous Shia-majority opposition stronghold where, according to U.N. reports, tens of thousands of people are facing starvation. About 100 people have already died. But the Sunni Taliban, which controls 85% of the nation, said the opposition's demands should be referred to the ulema when it meets. And that too in the context of general peace negotiations. No date has been set for a meeting.

For the Northern Alliance, the last straw in what it perceived to be the Taliban's frustrating intransigence, came when the head of the Islamic militia's delegation, Wakil Ahmed Mutawakil, failed to return for the talks after discussions with his reclusive leader, Mohamed Omar, in Afghanistan. Said opposition spokesman Rasool Talib: "With a heavy heart I announce that the Afghan nation lost another opportunity for peace due to Taliban's negative attitude."

An indirect casualty of the Taliban's refusal to play ball may have been Pakistan Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub Khan, who announced his resignation on May 2. He had been closely associated with Pakistan's decision to recognize the Taliban after its disastrously short-lived seizure of the opposition's headquarters at Mazar-i-Sharif last year - a fumble that embarrassed and angered Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Khan's exit was reportedly linked to the failure of the Afghan talks.

What now for Afghanistan? The prospects for any lasting settlement by the ulema - if it ever meets - seem slight. Northern leaders are convinced that a pro-war faction within the Taliban still desires the military option. "Omar is part of that faction looking to solve the situation militarily this summer," says Massoud Khalili, an aide to Alliance leader Burhanuddin Rabbani and an ambassador to India. Many independent observers concur with that analysis.

For the moment, U.N. mediators and other parties to the peace effort are struggling to salvage whatever progress was made in Islamabad. Pakistan's Foreign Ministry recently said that the "inconclusive nature" of the talks should not be permitted to "retard the momentum that had been generated." But as the Taliban's attitude and the reports of fighting suggest, the omens hardly look promising.


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