TOPICS > Politics

Afghanistan’s Agony

March 29, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, the agonies of the South Asian nation of Afghanistan. Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: Dry fields. Dead crops. And a stranded boat on what was once a lake and summer resort. This is Afghanistan where the worst drought in memory has driven some 700,000 people – four percent of Afghanistan’s population – from their homes.

ELDERLY AFGHAN MAN: (speaking through interpreter) Many have sold or slaughtered their cows and sheep, because there is not enough to feed neither animals nor men. There is hardly any wheat in the harvest. We have nothing to eat now.

RAY SUAREZ: Nature’s devastation comes after decades of man-made disaster — invasion, occupation, civil war. Today, Afghanistan finds itself isolated from the rest of the world by the policies of the ruling Taliban. World Food Program officials estimate 3.8 million Afghans now face severe food shortages or worse. In every part of the country, people are on the move, fleeing their homes.

Besides the drought, there are the effects of international economic sanctions against the Taliban regime. In addition, many farmers have been left with no livelihood. The government has banned the planting of their principal crop, poppies, to curb the trade in opium. Afghanistan is estimated to produce 75 percent of the world’s raw opium. Rudd Lubbers is the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

RUUD LUBBERS, United Nations High Commissioner: We saw the last months even coming new numbers of Afghan refugees, partly because of the drought, partly because of the boycott measures, partly because the regime of the Taliban prohibited cultivating crops for narcotics.

RAY SUAREZ: Opium poppies.

RUUD LUBBERS: Opium — exactly. And that meant substantial number of farmers had no income anymore. If you ask me the situation, it’s a terrible situation.

RAY SUAREZ: Some 80,000 refugees are trying to survive in six camps established by the United Nations in Afghanistan’s western Herat province. This past winter hundreds of people – mostly children – died from the cold there.

AFGHAN MOTHER: (speaking through interpreter) God knows we are powerless. Our child has died due to helplessness and hunger. God is our witness.

RAY SUAREZ: International aid organizations can’t reach some of the worst hit areas because snow has made already difficult mountain passes unreachable – trapping entire villages without food. Thousands of refugees are stranded on an island on Afghanistan’s northern border and about 150,000 Afghanis have entered Pakistan. But more than a million Afghan refugees still remain in Pakistan from the last great exodus during the Soviet occupation in the 80’s. According to Commissioner Lubbers, the Pakistani government has severely restricted the flow of new refugees since late last year.

RUUD LUBBERS: Their camps have miserable conditions… In the last six months, particularly in the last three months, the Pakistan government itself has become more harsh, tough. They simply say these people here are not any longer refugees; they should go back. And we are fighting hard with them to get new sites — to find better solutions for shelter, and food, and medical care for the refugees. So the situation is really difficult.

RAY SUAREZ: But go back to what? Even without famine, more than one in four children die in Afghanistan before the age of five, and the average life expectancy is 44 years. The roots of its misery lie in its last two decades of war. First came a Soviet invasion, then Afghan ethnic and religious factions, with the help of the United States, drove the Soviets out but then fought each other for the next decade. By the late ’90s, the Taliban was the strongest army. Promising peace, the Taliban emerged in 1994 rebelling against the warring factions that had further ravaged the country. They are led by a reclusive 40-year-old, Mullah Muhammed Omar, and a small circle of advisers from the southeast near Pakistan.

Taliban means “student” and many in the movement studied at religious schools or “madrassas” as refugees in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation. At this school in Akhora Khataq, some 4,000 students are studying Islam. An important part of their education is learning the Koran – the holy book of Islam – by heart.

Sayed Rahmatullah Hashimi grew up in a refugee camp in Pakistan and was educated in a madrassa. Now 24 and a roving envoy for the Taliban, he was recently in the United States, seeking better relations.

SAYED RAHMATULLAH HASHIMI, Taliban Envoy: All these problems, all the refugees, all the mines, all the lawlessness that existed before us was not the creation of the Afghans. Afghanistan was a peaceful country, and the war, which is the mother of all these problems, was ignited by Russia, by the Soviet Union. And the westerners fought them. Afghanistan was played with. Over 1.5 million people were killed in that war. And eventually Afghanistan was left with all the weapons, with the complete destruction and the complete chaos.

RAY SUAREZ: In reaction to that chaos, the Taliban set about creating its vision of the ideal Islamic state – imposing a spiritual cleansing of the country. With the search for a pure society, came the destruction of many of the trappings of western civilization. Material published outside Afghanistan was forbidden. Television, movies, and videos banned.

Their first edict was to command men to grow beards and pray five times a day. Women were forbidden to be seen uncovered on the street. The Taliban ordered them out of the workforce and all girls’ schools were ordered closed. These women spoke to a reporter in Afghanistan last year.

AFGHAN WOMAN: We are human; we have to have the education rights — the primary right of everyone who is created by God. But what should we do?

RAY SUAREZ: The Taliban’s attitude toward women is one of the main reasons the United States government refuses to recognize the Taliban regime even though it controls 95 percent of the country. Alan Eastham is the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs.

ALAN EASTHAM, U.S. State Department: We feel very strongly that a country which discards half its population, which rules out any productive role outside of home life for half of the population, the female half, is not doing itself very much of a service. You’re condemning the country to backwardness essentially.

RAY SUAREZ: The United Nations imposed economic sanctions against Afghanistan late last year over the refusal of the Taliban to allow the extradition of the terrorist suspect, Osama bin Laden.

SAYED RAHMATULLAH HASHIMI: Well, these economic sanctions are meant to pressurize our government and this is so ridiculous for us because to try to change our ideology with economic sanctions will never work, because for us, our ideology is first. The sanctions do have an effect, but exactly the wrong effect. The people are suffering.

RAY SUAREZ: The U.N. wants bin Laden tried in the United States or a third country on charges that he masterminded the 1998 twin bombings of United States embassies in East Africa. Bin Laden, an exiled Saudi dissident, is believed to be the sponsor of numerous terrorist groups.

ALAN EASTHAM: So far we haven’t managed to reach a point where the Taliban find it possible to expel Bin Laden to a country where he can be brought to justice, which is the bottom line, or to take steps to close down the terrorist training camps, which exist in Afghanistan.

RAY SUAREZ: This debris is what remains from a U.S. air strike against Bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan following the embassy bombings. The Taliban maintain the United States attack against Bin Laden has made him famous throughout the Islamic world and reduced their ability to move against him.

SAYED RAHMATULLAH HASHIMI: Why did you make him so famous? He has been made so big. Seven thousand children were named after him in only one year in Pakistan: T-shirts with his name, clocks, shoes, everything. He has helped the Afghans with his own personal money – millions of dollars during the Soviet occupation. So for the Afghans, he is a good guy. If we were to hand this good guy to the U.S., what kind of justification will we give to our people?

ALAN EASTHAM: They’re the ones who need to become active in trying to find a solution to the problem. He’s on their territory. These terrorist organizations operate in territory they control.

RAY SUAREZ: Ramatullah Hashimi says his government has offered solutions and it is the U.S. that has been inflexible.

SAYED RAHMATULLAH HASHIMI: They have not talked to us; they have only tried to dictate on us, which is wrong because we have our own principles. We are humans and any contact with us should be a contact of human to another human. They can’t just dictate us.

RAY SUAREZ: Eastham says, despite what the Taliban maintains, there has been no official response to the Unites States’ request.

ALAN EASTHAM: They essentially say “Oh, these are the charges, where is the evidence?” That was their response to the indictment. Ordinarily in international relations, certain credence is given to the solemn action of a judicial system of another country. In this case the Taliban treated it essentially as news clippings.

RAY SUAREZ: The Taliban again provoked outrage with the order to destroy all pre-Islamic statues and idols – including the destruction of two giant Buddha statues in the central Afghanistan valley of Bamiyan. Carved from a cliff 1400 years ago, they were considered, until a few weeks ago, wonders of the ancient world.

According to Ramatullah Hashimi, the destruction was prompted when a foreign cultural delegation offered money to preserve the giant Buddhas. In a fit of indignation, the head of the Supreme Council of Scholars ordered the Buddhas destroyed.

SAYED RAHMATULLAH HASHIMI: When I talked to the Council of Scholars, he said if the world is destroying our futures with economic sanctions, why do they worry about our past? What do they care about our past? You’re just destroying our children; they’re just dying. Is the life of our people less important than these statues?

RAY SUAREZ: Meanwhile, the Taliban complains that when they do do something positive – like their efforts to stem the narcotics trade – they are not rewarded. But drug control officials maintain there is so much opium already stored in Afghanistan that the destruction of the poppy crop last year will have little overall effect.

The opium trade is just one of the many complex problems facing the Taliban. Probably their biggest is their own transformation from a radical religious militia to a government. Again, the United States questions whether the Taliban can live up to the challenge.

ALAN EASTHAM: They have not addressed the needs of the Afghan people. They have not taken account of the wishes of the international community with respect to the issues I have identified – terrorism, narcotics, protection of human rights. After four and a half years, you really have to question whether they have the capability to govern or not.

RAY SUAREZ: The U.N. High Commissioner, Ruud Lubbers, faced with donor fatigue from wealthy countries asked to run to the rescue around the world, says it’s time to take a risk and stop isolating Afghanistan.

RUUD LUBBERS: We cannot afford ourselves to say they have wrong habits or they do things wrong which we cannot accept and therefore, we let them starve. I don’t believe that is human. If we really want to appeal to them on human values, we better start to be ourselves human and humanize the situation, and there we take certain risks, of course.

RAY SUAREZ: Lubbers says if the world doesn’t take that risk – Afghanistan in chaos could destabilize its neighbors – especially Pakistan, already overburdened with refugees and with its own homegrown religious fundamentalism. And Lubbers says the suffering people of Afghanistan may pay the highest price of all.