In a pointed snub to their efforts to gain international recognition, the Taliban were frozen out of a high-powered meeting in New York called by the United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan on September 21 to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. The Pakistan-backed militia now controls nearly 95 percent of the country but international respectability has eluded them because of their savage behaviour.
The New York meeting, dubbed six plus two, was attended by Afghanistan’s six neighbours - Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, China, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan - and the US and Russia. Even the Taliban’s staunch ally and principle backer, Pakistan, appeared to balk at giving them full support. The following day (September 22), Saudi Arabia recalled its Charge d’Affaires from Kabul while ordering the Taliban representative to leave Riyadh. Together with the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan, Saudi Arabia is among three countries that have extended diplomatic recognition to the Taliban.
At the New York meeting, the UN agreed to send a fact-finding mission to Afghanistan headed by its special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi. The UN mission also has the support of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), which is currently chaired by Iran. In addition to investigating the massacres of civilians in Mazar-i Sharif, Bamiyan and other places under Taliban control, the mission will also investigate the killing of Iranian diplomats.
According to eyewitness accounts of refugees from Mazar-i Sharif who escaped to Pakistan, the Taliban killed thousands of civilians when they captured the town on August 8. Among the dead were eight Iranian diplomats and a reporter for the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) whose bodies were returned to Iran on September 11. The Taliban agreed to return the bodies only after intense pressure from Tehran and diplomatic representation by Islamabad. Even so, Iran refused to take possession of two bodies which could not be positively identified.
Two other Iranian diplomats managed to escape and have since returned to Tehran. One was away from the consulate at the time of the Taliban attack while another was wounded but whisked away by sympathetic Afghans.
There is immense anger in Iran over the killing of its diplomats. On September 18, there were emotional scenes of grief as the coffins of seven diplomats were carried to Behesht-e Zahra Cemetery after Juma’ Prayers. Iran has amassed nearly 250,000 troops along its border with Afghanistan. There are fears that a fullscale war might break out between the two Muslim neighbours over the killing of diplomats and the Taliban’s massacre of civilians.
Iran’s foreign minister Dr Kamal Kharazi in New York for the UN assembly session, told the Crescent International on September 22 that his government was using all diplomatic and political means to achieve a peaceful resolution to the problem. While he did not rule out the use of force if the Taliban did not come to their senses, he said that a fact-finding mission to Mazar-i Sharif was a welcome development. Dr Kharazi also expressed satisfaction that the UN meeting had called for a broad-based government, which is one of the demands of the Islamic Republic.
Interestingly, Pakistan, too, appears to be backing away from full-fledged support to the Taliban. Pakistani foreign minister Sartaj Aziz announced at a briefing following the New York meeting that Islamabad supported the call for a fact-finding mission, reflecting a shift in Pakistan’s policy towards the Taliban.
While Pakistan has already recognized the Taliban government, the resolution called for negotiations between Taliban and other parties for ‘achieving a political settlement culminating in the establishment of a broad-based, multi-ethnic, representative government in Afghanistan.’ This contradicted the claim by Noorullah Zadran, deputy representative of the Taliban office in New York, who said ‘We are as broad- based a government as Afghanistan has had over 20 years,’ (New York Times, September 22, 1998).
That, unfortunately, is not a very good barometer to go by. Afghanistan has been engulfed in terrible fighting since 1978 precisely because it has had unrepresentative governments. And the Taliban are no exception despite controlling 95 percent of the territory.
Sartaj Aziz, appearing to speak on behalf of the Taliban, gave a list of supporting arguments in their favour. ‘We are encouraged by the statements of the Taliban leadership who have categorically and repeatedly stated that they pose no threat to any of the Afghan neighbours and want cordial relations with all countries.’
The Pakistani foreign minister went on: ‘They [Taliban] have also announced amnesty for those who give up fighting. They have recognized the right of all minorities to participate in the day-to-day administration of the country. They point out that even today their interim government includes four ministers at the centre and 11 governors of provinces belonging to non-Pusthun minorities.’ Aziz then invited the UN group to help the Taliban in their efforts to form a multi-ethnic government.
‘Afghanistan needs strong support for socio-economic development...Taliban should be assisted to fight the twin menaces of drug trafficking and terrorism. They have repeatedly announced their intention to do so,’ Aziz was quoted by the Karachi daily, the Dawn (September 23). Both statements were clearly aimed at appeasing Uncle Sam who has made such fuss about drugs and terrorism, while its agencies actively indulge in both.
The Taliban menace, however, is not likely to disappear so quickly. They will only be brought to senses if their backers - Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the US - withdraw support. This may be diminishing but it has not ended completely.
Muslimedia: October 1-15, 1998