Kofi Annan: Kabul's grim future

The United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan, has painted a desperate picture of life in Afghanistan, four years after the Taleban militia took control of the capital, Kabul. He also warned that the warring factions appear to be preparing for a major offensive. In a report to UN General Assembly, Mr Annan said the Taleban - which controls 90% of Afghanistan - still harbours hopes of a military victory.

Opposition groups who control parts of the north also believe they "can redress the balance of power through gains on the ground," Mr Annan said, appealing to both sides to return to the negotiating table. Kabul, his report said, resembled a "bombed-out city" after World War II in an impoverished country that squanders its resources on weapons. "No reconstruction is in sight and its people have little hope for improvement," he said. Billions of dollars have been spent on fighting since 1979, leaving Afghanistan with its assets depleted, "its intelligentsia in exile, its people disenfranchised, its traditional political structures shattered," Mr Annan said.

Cycle of violence
UN envoys have been unable to negotiate a peace between the Taleban and a northern alliance led by General Ahmad Shah Masood. Afghanistan went through nine years of military conflict with the Soviet Union, ending in 1989, followed by a protracted civil war. Taleban rule is recognised only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Mr Annan said Afghanistan was undergoing a "process of pauperisation," made worse by the country's most severe drought in 30 years. Children are dying from easily preventable disease and women and girls continue to face serious restrictions on any participation in public life. "The dismissal of female civil servants from government service is yet another sad example of the brazen violations of their rights," he said. The Taleban is under UN Security Council air and financial sanctions aimed at forcing it to hand over Saudi militant Osama bin Laden. He is wanted for trial by the US on charges of masterminding the 1998 bombings of its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Afghanistan: 20 years of bloodshed
Monday 27th April is the 20th anniversary of the Communist revolution in Afghanistan, the catalyst for the bloodshed in the country ever since. On that day in 1978, the Afghan communist party seized power in a coup against President Mohammed Daoud. Our correspondent in Kabul, William Reeve, looks back at the legacy of what is known as the Saur revolution, named after the Afghan month when the coup took place.

The Saur revolution of 20 years ago is perhaps the single event that most upset the political framework in Afghanistan leading to the chaos in the country ever since. But in the years before the Saur revolution there had also been major upheavals. The monarch, King Sahir Shah, was overthrown in 1973 by his cousin Mohammad Daoud who proclaimed a republic with himself as resident. Today, Zahir Shah, who had reigned for 40 years, lives quietly in Rome. President Daoud however was killed during the Saur revolution when the Communists took power. Led at first by Nur Mohammad Taraki, the Communists were far from united. It was as much clashes of personality as policy, as Taraki Khalq or People's faction initially won the day banishing members of the Parcham or Banna faction to ambassadorial posts abroad. Within Taraki's wing of the party another leader, Hafizullah Amin, gained prominence. He became president in 1979 and Taraki was killed. But it was during this time that the bloodshed began in earnest. Tens of
thousands of Afghans disappeared never to be seen again.

Soviets step in
Concerned about the unsteady Communist rule in Afghanistan the Soviet Union stepped in with the full force of the Red Army in December 1979. Amin was killed and Babrak Karmal of the Parcham faction bought in to take over as president. The Soviet occupation is one of the unhappiest periods of Afghanistan's turbulent history. About a million Afghans were killed. Karmal was replaced as president by Dr Najibullah who managed to cling on to power until 1992 three years after the Red Army withdrew. It was then the turn of the Mujahideen groups who had fought against the Soviets to take over.

Communists and Mujahideen fight each other
But as with the Communists the Mujahideen could not agree with each other. Instead they embarked on sorting out their differences by fighting and have done sone ever since. During the Soviet occupation it was the countryside that suffered the most. Since the Mujahideen took over it has been the cities that have suffered, especially the capital Kabul at least half of which has been flattened. Tens of thousands of innocent civilians were killed and countless others injured as different groups fought their way around the city and other parts of the country too. After 20 years of continuous strife ordinary Afghans want nothing but to get on with their lives in peace after their endless suffering but all attempts at peace have failed dismally. Just about every Afghan wants the conflict to end today and they are hoping the warring groups talking now in Islamabad will put aside excuses for continuing a conflict that all of them know cannot be won by fighting.

Who are the Taleban?
The world first became aware of the Taleban in 1994 when they were appointed by Islamabad to protect a convoy trying to open up a trade route between Pakistan and Central Asia. The group - comprised of Afghans trained in religious schools in Pakistan along with former mujaheddin - proved effective bodyguards, driving off mujaheddin groups who attacked and looted the convoy. They went on to take the nearby city of Kandahar, beginning a remarkable advance which led to their capture of the capital, Kabul, in September 1996.

The Taleban's popularity with many Afghans initially surprised the country's warring mujaheddin factions. As ethnic Pashtoons, a large part of their support came from Afghanistan's Pashtoon community, disillusioned with existing ethnic Tajik and Uzbek leaders. But it was not purely a question of ethnicity. Ordinary Afghans, weary of the prevailing lawlessness in many parts of the country, were often delighted by Taleban successes in stamping out corruption, restoring peace and allowing commerce to flourish again. Their refusal to deal with the existing warlords whose rivalries had caused so much killing and destruction also earned them respect.

Islamic state
The Taleban say their aim is to set up the world's most pure Islamic state, banning frivolities like television, music and cinema. Their attempts to eradicate crime have been reinforced by the introduction of Islamic law including public executions and amputations. A flurry of regulations forbidding girls from going to school and women from working quickly brought them into conflict with the international community. Such issues, along with restrictions on women's access to health care, have also caused some resentment among ordinary Afghans.

Support wanes
With extreme poverty and disease on the increase, in some areas support for the Taleban is beginning to erode. Kabulis - almost half of whom depend on foreign assistance are particularly concerned by the latest confrontation between the Taleban and the international community which led most aid agencies to pull out of the capital two weeks ago. The Taleban have yet to achieve the international recognition they crave. Indeed, their rigid form of Islam has antagonised most of their neighbours and Islamic states who believe they are giving Islam a bad name. Shia Iran has described the Sunni Taleban as "medieval" while Russia and former Communist Central Asian states fear they may try to spread their form of militant Islam across the region. Not surprisingly, these states are said to be supporting the anti-Taleban opposition coalition. They will be watching the latest Taleban victories with increasing anxiety.

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