TOPICS > Politics

Alan Eastham on Afghanistan’s Ruling Party

March 27, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: How would you describe, from an official American point of view, the nature of our relationship to the government of Afghanistan?

ALAN EASTHAM: Well, that occurs on several levels. We don’t have an official relationship with any government in Afghanistan. We do not recognize the Taliban, we don’t recognize the northern alliance – the former Mujahideen government – at the formal official level.

At the level of doing business, however, we have contacts with all the factions in Afghanistan. That includes the Taliban. We talk to the Taliban when we get the opportunity and when we have things to say, just as we talk to the representatives of the northern alliance, and just as we talk to representatives of the former king of Afghan groups outside Afghanistan. We try to maintain contacts with all parts of Afghanistan, but we do not have a formal government-to-government relationship with anyone there.

RAY SUAREZ: How much does the nature of a government and the nature of our relationship with the state color decisions that are made about humanitarian aid, about emergency food assistance, about various kinds of things that a people may need at a point in time, no matter what kind of government they have?

ALAN EASTHAM: I don’t think I can give you a general observation on that. What I can talk about is Afghanistan, and our lack of recognition of the Taliban government, indeed our recognition of no government in Afghanistan has nothing whatsoever to do with the generosity, the necessity that we feel to try to help the Afghan people survive at this phase in a conflict that has persisted for over 20 years.

We provide 90 percent of the food assistance that goes into Afghanistan. That’s done without regard to our view of the Taliban government. Now, the question of political relations with the Taliban government is very much colored by issues such as their attitude toward international terrorism, their attitude toward narcotics production, and their attitude toward protecting the human rights of their own people, and first and foremost their willingness to engage in peace talks with the opposition and with other Afghans.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s pull apart some of those separate issues. Right now Ruud Lubbers [head of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees] is reporting that it’s pretty difficult to raise interest and raise support for Afghanistan in part because of the nature of the government there, but that, as an international humanitarian organization, his group can’t be a respecter of governments, only an agency that hears the cries of human suffering. What’s tough about giving to Afghanistan right now?

ALAN EASTHAM: Delivery of humanitarian assistance is the most difficult part of the problem, from the American government’s point of view. We have a substantial program of humanitarian assistance. It was $115 million last year. We’ve given several tens of millions this year. We are very generous in our contribution to humanitarian assistance for the Afghan people.

Now, as I said, that’s not affected by the political relationship which we lack with the authorities in Kabul. What makes it difficult is the Taliban’s attitude toward delivery of assistance, and this has been a problem between the Taliban and the international organizations, and many nongovernmental organizations for the past several years, as the Taliban have imposed various conditions related to their social agenda on the delivery of assistance.

The issue of women, for example, of women’s employment in humanitarian assistance programs is a perennial. That’s an issue which is always there with the Taliban. There are a number of other issues as well involving the conditions of delivery. But from the American government point of view there is no political conditioning on humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people.

RAY SUAREZ: The Taliban for its part, through a spokesman, says that they don’t interpose themselves between aid agencies and those who need the help. What kind of roadblocks would you say that they’re putting up?

ALAN EASTHAM: I’ll give you one example: they have required that international humanitarian aid workers who are women not come to Afghanistan to work without being accompanied by a male member of their family. When you have a program which needs to deliver humanitarian assistance to a substantial number of war widows and women who are heads of households because their husbands and sons have been killed in the war, in a culture like that of Afghanistan where it is very difficult – and I admit this, it’s difficult for men to interact with women outside the context of a family relationship. To interpose this requirement that the women who would deliver this assistance and make sure it’s getting to the women in Afghanistan be accompanied by a family member seems to me to be a bit over the top for the Taliban.

RAY SUAREZ: Have they politically conditioned or tried to influence where the aid goes? There are parts of the country where their rule was not as welcome as in other parts.

ALAN EASTHAM: No, they have not. I don’t recall a Taliban effort to direct aid one place or another in recent years. A couple of years ago they did impose an embargo in Central Afghanistan that we’re not permitting food aid to go into the area of Bamian where the statues were recently destroyed because the Bamian people were still offering resistance to the Taliban. It was an area which was not under Taliban control. The Taliban in that case – this was two years ago – refused to permit the U.N. to deliver food aid to that area. In that case they were using denial of food as a means to coerce their opposition.

RAY SUAREZ: But as far as you know that kind of thing is not part of the scene today?

ALAN EASTHAM: I don’t know whether there’s been a recent effort to move assistance across the lines of the fighting north of Kabul. That has been a problem in the past and I simply don’t know if it’s a problem now.

RAY SUAREZ: Does the United States have a position at all? Does it take a position on the repatriation of displaced persons who are currently in neighboring states?

ALAN EASTHAM: We follow the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees’ lead on that which is, generally, if Afghans wish to return home, their return should be facilitated. If they do not wish to return home, however, if they continue to feel that they would be subject to harm or persecution if they returned to Afghanistan, then they should be given full support in the country of refuge.

RAY SUAREZ: Because that would imply having to do business with two other countries with which the United States has had difficult relations in recent years – Iran and Pakistan.

ALAN EASTHAM: Yes. And we do conduct a substantial refugee support operation in conjunction with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Pakistan. We do not directly supply the refugee operations of the UNHCR in Iran, although I suspect that some of the food grain in particular, which is provided for distribution in Afghanistan, is in fact routed through Iran. But that’s fine because the ultimate destination is Afghanistan.

RAY SUAREZ: The Taliban, and I spoke to their self-styled roving ambassador the other day, says that to a degree the world owes Afghanistan a lot because it is not the author of its own situation today in 2001. As the battle ground for one of the final chapters of the Cold War, it became a country being fought over by interests that had little or nothing to do with Afghans themselves, and that this landed heavily on them, and that they’re still trying to recover from it. What do you think of that?

ALAN EASTHAM: You can pick any point in the last 20 years to depart on an assignment of responsibility for Afghanistan’s troubles. I would prefer to look out into the future. If you chose to you could pick the point at which Afghanistan’s politics was destabilized by a communist coup in the late seventies. You could pick the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, you could accuse the United States and other countries that support the struggle of the Afghan people against the occupation Soviet army. You could assign responsibility to the Mujahideen government, which came into power when the communist government collapsed. You could pick any point. But I think the core question is whether having suffered for 20 years from a civil war, foreign occupation, famine, drought, all of the ills to which man is heir these days, whether it wouldn’t be better to look to the future, and try to construct an Afghanistan that can take its place in the world.

RAY SUAREZ: Do we have to assume that, as with a dozen other places you and I could probably name, that a revolutionary movement that comes to power does need a little time to find its feet, whether this is a government that the United States would happily countenance or not.

ALAN EASTHAM: The Taliban government has shown that it can’t govern. 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. They have had four and a half years now since they occupied Kabul, and took the capital of Afghanistan and proclaimed themselves to be the government of Afghanistan, to get their act together. So far they haven’t. After four and a half years, you have to question whether they have the capability to govern or not.

RAY SUAREZ: They point with some pride in accomplishment to the recent eradication of opium cultivation. Admittedly, this is late in the timeline that this has occurred, long after they were asked to do it, but they say, “But we have done it.” Are there moves of this kind that you can look upon as confidence-building measures that at least there can be a convergence in the conversation and an ability for government to government talks, that build on these kinds of things?

ALAN EASTHAM: We have had discussions with the Taliban about the narcotics situation, and with respect to the ban that they announced last year. I think the international community – including the United States – will respond very positively to an effective ban. We are still assessing the extent to which this ban is effective, but it looks now as though it is. That is a positive step on the part of the Taliban. Now, there are some additional concerns. Afghanistan has had bumper crops of opium the last two years. There are substantial stocks of opium in Afghanistan, and there is a question about what happens to that. But these are not insoluble problems, and I think under the leadership of the United Nations Drug Control Program, which has operated in Afghanistan fairly continuously for the past several years, we and other governments will respond positively to the poppy ban, assuming that we verify that it is the case.

On other issues, we have continuously offered a dialogue with the Taliban to discuss in particular the question of terrorism, the question of human rights, and we have had fairly intensive talks with them on ways that they could participate in the efforts that the United Nations is making to bring peace to Afghanistan. All these things are part of our agenda, and I think that if we see a positive Taliban response, we would also respond in our own right very positively to what they would put on the table.

RAY SUAREZ: On the subject of human rights, this is a government that has long proclaimed itself as a respecter of human rights under its own standards. What responsibility does the United States have to be true to itself and its traditions, but also to respect the sovereignty, the internal sovereignty, the cultural sovereignty of other places in the world.

ALAN EASTHAM: 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. If the Afghan society requires that women be treated in hospitals by women, and wouldn’t it make sense to educate some women to be nurses and doctors, if Afghan society requires that Afghan women be taught only by women, wouldn’t it make sense to educate some women so that they can play that role, so that Afghan women can be within the Islamic context, productive members of society.

The delivery of aid and assistance and medical services, maternity type services to women requires women to do it in Afghanistan. And if you deny the ability of half the population of the educated, you’re condemning the country to backwardness essentially. That is the point of dispute with the Taliban. It’s not a question of disputing their basic societal tenets or even debating Islam with them. It is that to become a country which participates in the world, Afghanistan needs its women. That is our point on human rights.

The respect and tolerance which is the hallmark of most countries in the world, is also missing in Afghanistan these days. They have the terrible destruction of the Buddhist statues which, as far as I can tell, were harming no one, and which were worshipped by no one, which were not objects of veneration by anyone except art historians as a part of the great cultural heritage of the world. Their destruction was an act of intolerance, which is not at all in keeping with the spirit of the world today, and, in our view, has nothing to do with Islam or with the practice of religion in Afghanistan. We accept that Islam is the religion of most Afghans, most residents of Afghanistan and they can practice it in the way they want. But it should be in a spirit of toleration, in a spirit of acceptance of other faiths and creeds.

RAY SUAREZ: If these other sticking points get taken care of, could human rights be a sort of permanent standing impediment to full relations with a country like this?

ALAN EASTHAM: I think we’re a long way from talking about full relations. That would be a decision that would have to be made by the new administration as they come into office, as the new people who are constitutionally responsible for the country, and conduct their reviews of American foreign policy. So I wouldn’t be prepared to put one or the other of these as a permanent impediment. We, I think, are doing a credible job of maintaining contacts with all Afghans. We do everything we can to get our work done and to achieve American objectives with respect to the region. And I think that with respect to the primary American objective, which is ameliorating human suffering in Afghanistan, we’ve done a fairly good job.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s talk about Osama Bin Laden. What’s the most current state of play in the conversations between the United States and the Afghans over this continued presence in Afghanistan?

ALAN EASTHAM: Well, it’s not a question of conversations between the United States and the Afghans — this is a larger issue now. It’s a conversation between the world community and the Taliban over the Taliban continuing to harbor and protect international terrorists, and that’s a plural. It’s not just one man on Afghan territory. It might have been a conversation between the United States and the Afghans a couple of years ago, but it’s gone much beyond that. We have the will if you can call it that, or the international community has been expressed in the United National Security Council now twice over the last two years.

The Security Council has laid down its requirements for dealing with this matter with this man and with his associates in Afghanistan, and has imposed certain sanctions on the Taliban leadership in order to encourage them to accept the solution which has been put forward.

The United States has had many, many discussions with the Taliban on this subject. So far we haven’t managed to reach a point where the Taliban finds it possible to expel Bin Laden to a country where he can brought to justice, which is the bottom line – or to take steps to close down the terrorist training camps, which exist in Afghanistan. And they only define a way to do both of those in order to get this particular impediment out of the way.

RAY SUAREZ: Your phrase ‘to a country where he can be brought to justice’ would seem to be a point of contention between the United States’ view and the Taliban’s view. The Taliban says that the United States has had very high and intractable demands, sort of New York or nothing, under these terms that make it very difficult for them for internal reasons to surrender Osama Bin Laden. The other day it was mentioned that if he could be sent to a mutually agreed upon Islamic country to be tried, they could probably go for that. Does that represent a vastly different version of the story from the one they’re giving through official channels?

ALAN EASTHAM: I haven’t heard that proposal. They’ve put forward several ideas, but the notion of a mutually agreeable Islamic country is one that they’ve not made directly to us.

RAY SUAREZ: What are some of the proposals that have been made in the past and rejected?

ALAN EASTHAM: The Taliban have said several things along the way, and it would be better if you would let them speak for themselves at the risk of mischaracterizing their position. But they have said that the United States should not worry, but at he is under wraps and has given assurances that he will not plan terrorist actions against other countries from Afghan soil.

They have proposed that the United States provide evidence to an Afghan court which would then consider the charges against him. They have proposed that a counsel be set up, to make a decision on the disposition of the charges against him. None of those solutions reaches the bottom line of the security council. That’s the basic problem. The will as expressed in a security council is that he depart Afghanistan to a country where he can be brought to justice, and the… proposals have not met that standard.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there a Lockerbie style solution, a Hague tribunal-style solution involving third country venues, four country jurists that might satisfy the United States’ long term desires in this regard?

ALAN EASTHAM: You’ve asked me a very broad and very hypothetical question that I don’t think has a position to address. We haven’t heard that from the Taliban so they haven’t proposed it. An alternative involving Lockerbie. Lockerbie was unique, I think. I’m going to have to defer any response on that.

RAY SUAREZ: They would describe the United States’ position as an American federal court or nothing. Would that accurately describe the current U.S. position?

ALAN EASTHAM: We’d be glad to have him, but within the Security Council parameters – a country where he can be brought to justice outside Afghanistan.

RAY SUAREZ: Kenya and Tanzania are home to large Muslim populations. Have they been parties to the search for a just solution to this, parties to the United States’ search for a means of extradition for Osama Bin Laden?

ALAN EASTHAM: The party that hasn’t been involved is the Taliban. 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. They’re attacking a fairly fundamental principle of international relations; namely, that in cases of terrorist attacks, nations are generally obligated under international law as it stands these days, if I understand it, to prosecute or extradite.

The one option which is not acceptable is to grant a safe haven to people who are accused of such activities by other countries. And the Taliban’s refusal to address this seriously undercuts that principle very badly, and it creates an impression that the Taliban and Afghanistan in general are harboring terrorists, that it is a place where bad guy in the world can go and find relief and shelter. This should be a notion that the Taliban fight against if they wish to participate in the international community themselves.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there any seeds of hope in the evolution of the Taliban regime that might give cause for a brighter future, or the expectation of a brighter future in the United States?

ALAN EASTHAM: I don’t see any evolution in the Taliban themselves. What I do see is growing concern amongst Afghans, other Afghans in the region, in Pakistan, in Iran, in the central Asian countries, in Europe, in the United States who are increasingly concerned that the Taliban control in Afghanistan is a very, very negative factor in Afghanistan’s evolution.

There is also increasing concern amongst the governments of the countries neighboring Afghanistan about this, but either the Taliban need to change, or the Taliban will be defeated by other Afghans. The Afghans are becoming very concerned about this. The destruction of the Buddhas, for example, met with no approval from non-Taliban Afghans. The expulsion of the BBC correspondent from Kabul the other day, the increasingly repressive pattern of activities on the part of the Taliban in terms of religious expression, in terms of dress, in terms of personal behavior, all are, I think, causing even those who believe that the Taliban were a positive force for bringing stability to Afghanistan to rethink that position. So I think that, to answer your question in summary, I see no evolution on the part of the Taliban in a positive direction, and I see increasing signs that there is opposition to the Taliban developing amongst Afghans.

RAY SUAREZ: In response to Taliban requests or what the Taliban describes as its requests for further information on the charges against Osama Bin Laden, what has been supplied from the world community to Afghanistan as a reason for extraditing him?

ALAN EASTHAM: We have presented the Taliban with the indictment from the federal court in New York which is the basis for the trial, which is now proceeding in New York, in the case of the East Africa bombings. We have presented the Taliban with certain aspects of the evidence from that trial, the evidence going into the trial proceeding, in particular the confessional statement by one of the individuals regarding his relationship with Osama Bin Laden with respect specifically to the bombing of the embassy in Nairobi. We are not going to try our case in Afghanistan. We have a perfectly good legal system in the United States which can produce a fair trial and a just verdict, and the solution is not that. The solution is for Bin Laden to come out of Afghanistan, and be subject to justice in another country.

RAY SUAREZ: In cases that have involved crimes against Americans on foreign soil, the other countries, domestic police agencies are often brought in, in a consultative way, this sharing of information. Is there anybody even to talk to in Afghanistan in that way about these investigations and what kind of evidence you have, and those kinds of things?

ALAN EASTHAM: We have lots of ways to talk to the Taliban. It’s not police to police. But we have talked to the Taliban representatives outside in Pakistan, we’ve talked to the Taliban representative, the fellow who ran the office in New York. We have talked to various Taliban representatives in this country, in Pakistan and elsewhere. The problem is not channels. It’s not ways to talk to them seriously about this. The problem is achieving some sort of a meeting of the minds and so far we haven’t done that.