Worst Humanitarian crisis in Northern Afghanistan

The Nation (www.nation.com.pk),
September 12, 2000

LAHORE-Without food or shelter, more than 150,000 people are on the move fleeing the advancing Taliban in north- eastern Afghanistan. With few international aid agencies or stockpiles of food in the region, a severe drought and winter fast approaching, Afghanistan could be facing the worst humanitarian crisis in years. Many of these refugees are expected to flood into Tajikistan creating a new crisis for a country just trying to recover from a five-year long civil war and Pakistan, where the government is still struggling to cope with returning 1.2 million Afghan refugees to Afghanistan and faces inability to provide relief.

After six weeks of besieging it, the Taliban captured Taloqan on September 5, the political headquarters of the Opposition Northern Alliance (NA), dealing a major blow to the forces of NA commander Ahmad Shah Masud. The capture of Taloqan will allow the Taliban to take control of Afghanistan's entire border with the Central Asian Republics and China, which has already led to growing unease in the region.

The entire population of Taloqan - about 100,000 people -have evacuated and refugees are heading across the mountains to the north of Takhar and Badakhshan provinces to Rostaq and Dasht-i Qila, close to the border with Tajikistan. Aid workers of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan in the region say more than 2000 families have already reached Dasht, while 1000 families have arrived in Rostaq and another 40,000 refugees are stranded in Keshim and Farkhar. "There are many small children and they are suffering from malaria, diahorrea and pneumonia," says a Swedish aid official. With the Taliban denying food convoys into the region, the only way these refugees can be fed is through Tajikistan. But with another Taliban column heading east from Kunduz trying to capture all towns and crossing points across the Amu Darya river along the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, this route of supply is also precarious. The only UN food stocks are in Faizabad, in neighbouring Badakhshan which is the next target of the Taliban advance.

After a three pronged offensive by the Taliban on the night of September 5, which was backed by tanks, heavy artillery and aerial bombardment of Taloqan using cluster bombs on the civilian population, Masud withdrew his forces in good order to the hills east of the city. The Taliban have had the city surrounded since late July with some 7000 troops which include Pakistanis, Chechens, Uzbeks and Arabs from the forces of Osama Bin Laden. Dead bodies of Pakistani madrassa students killed during the siege of Taloqan have arrived in Punjab and the NWFP. The Taliban captured Taloqan last year, but had to withdraw after a counter-offensive by Masud, which he has now vowed to carry out again. The Taliban are now likely to scale the hills east of the city to disperse Masud's forces, capture a key Masud arms depot in the hills and then move north to capture the remaining 10 per cent of north eastern Afghanistan which is not under their control.

The loss of Taloqan means that Masud has lost the only city under his control, including its important airport as well as his supply links to Tajikistan from where he receives military aid from Russia, India, Uzbekistan and Iran. The Taliban are backed by Pakistan. Although the largely Pashtun Taliban have said they will not retaliate against the non-Pashtun population of the region, the massacre of thousands of civilians by the Taliban in the region in 1998 and 1999, has created immense fear. Most of the north-east is populated by a melange of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Nuristanis and Pashtuns and religious minorities including Shias and Ismaelis whom the Taliban are bitterly intolerant of.

With winter approaching the NA's options are limited. If Masud fails to retake Taloqan, he will either have to retreat to the Panjshir Valley further to the south to pass the winter months or retreat into Tajikistan Panjshir is totally surrounded by the Taliban, who have cut off all supplies of food into the valley. The presence of some 60,000 Tajik refugees in the Panjshir makes any long-term survival of Masud's forces there extremely difficult. If he retreats into Tajikistan, the NA is likely to become so demoralised that it could well collapse and lead to wholescale defections to the Taliban. With these limited options, Masud has said he will try to retake Taloqan and rebuild a safe corridor north to Tajikistan, so that he can resume receiving military supplies while humanitarian aid can reach the refugees.

The crisis has already led to a severe reaction from the CARs. Central Asian leaders attending the UN Millennium Summit in New York highlighted the crisis in their 5-minute speeches to the Summit and the urgent need for the international community to end the civil war in Afghanistan or it would create increased instability in Central Asia. Russia which has been pushing for a second round of UN Security Council sanctions against the Taliban has said it will coordinate sanctions with the US. Limited UN sanctions against the Taliban were imposed last November. Iran has called for an emergency meeting at the UN. China is also extremely nervous, as the Taliban advance could well take them to occupy the Wakhan corridor, giving China a border with the Taliban for the first time.

At the same time the neighbouring countries are also considering other options. The anti-Taliban leader General Rashid Dostum who was ousted by the Taliban from north-western Afghanistan in 1998, was in Moscow just before Taloqan fell holding talks with Russian officials. Russia and Turkey are keen to persuade Uzbekistan to provide Dostum a base in Termez close to the border with Afghanistan so that he reunites his scattered Uzbek forces in northern Afghanistan. Iranian Press reports say that another ousted anti-Taliban leader Ismael Khan is rebuilding an army in Mashhad from amongst Afghan refugees in Iran. Ismael Khan was the commander of western Afghanistan until the Taliban defeated him in 1995.

Central Asian neighbours are worried because once the Taliban occupy Afghanistan's entire border with Central Asia, the support they are already extending to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) which aims to topple President Islam Karimov is likely to increase. The IMU will then have the ability to cross the Amu Darya into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, anywhere along the lengthy border. Since late July the IMU has launched several guerillas groups into Central Asia by crossing into Tajikistan and is presently fighting with the security forces of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan as it tries to set up bases in the Ferghana Valley, a hotbed of anti-Karimov resistance and protest. The IMU are provided bases by the Taliban, funds by Bin Laden and are recruiting from all the Central Asian nationalities as well as Uighurs from China's Muslim province of Xinjiang.

With winter fast approaching, the next few weeks are crucial to whether Masud can re-establish a military presence in the north and push the Taliban back or come under greater pressure which will lead to greater instability and concern in Central Asia. Even if the Taliban were conquer the entire country, it is unlikely that the international community will heed their demand for recognition and Afghanistan's seat at the UN. If Pakistan is to rebuild trust with the Central Asian states, it should be publicly warning the Taliban not to carry out excessive punishments of the population, open all road to UN agencies for food supplies and allow aid to reach the refugees before they also begin to flow into Pakistan. Pakistan should also call for a ceasefire so that UN mediation efforts can create an opening for humanitarian relief before the harsh winter overcomes hundreds of thousands of people in the Pamir mountains.

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