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Afghanistan host to unwelcome guest

By Elizabeth Neuffer, Globe Staff, 9/13/2001

Afghanistan is a country on the brink of famine, ravaged by decades of war and ongoing infighting. It is also, regional experts say, a likely safe harbor for accused terrorist Osama bin Laden, even though its people grant him little popular support.

It is the country's Islamic fundamentalist ruling party, the Taliban - which has control over roughly 90 percent of Afghanistan - that has a strong sense of allegiance to bin Laden. That is largely because he has helped finance their military takeover of the ravaged land, beginning with their recapture of the capital city of Kabul in 1996.

Bound by that sense of debt, shared Islamic beliefs, and a culture that dictates hospitality be offered to fugitives, the Taliban welcomes the Saudi Arabian-born terrorist as an honored guest despite his status as an international pariah.

Rumors, in fact, abound that the Taliban's spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, is married to bin Laden's daughter. And the Taliban's ties to the leader are expected to grow all the stronger after this week's reported assassination attempt on their chief opposition leader, Ahmad Shah Masood, thought to have been bin Laden's handiwork.

But to most of Afghanistan's 25 million people, bin Laden is simply another of the now-unpopular radical Islamic fighters that over the decades have made their country their home.

''Most Afghans now wish Osama and the Taliban would evaporate and something rational would take their place,'' said Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan at New York University. ''The overall Afghan view is that they are sick of the whole situation - there are millions of displaced people, a major drought, they don't have employment, and they are under the thumb of an insane government.''

Bin Laden continues to be considered the chief suspect in this week's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, although he has denied any responsibility. Yesterday, Abdul Saleem Zaeef, the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, denied that the well-coordinated attacks were bin Laden's doing.

The United States already wants to try him on charges of masterminding the bombings of two US embassies in Africa in 1998 in which 224 people died. The United States fired a missile at Afghanistan in retaliation for those attacks.

Regardless, the Taliban has refused to hand him over, saying the United States must provide evidence first.

Ironically, it was partly American doing that brought bin Laden to Afghanistan. He was recruited in the 1980's to aid the country's front-line fight during the Cold War as its mujahadeen battled the Soviet Union.

Since then, the country has continued to be a battleground, as regional neighbors and superpowers have used the country's warring factions for their own purposes.

Currently, as many as 3,000 Arab extremist fighters - Algerians, Egyptians and others - have made the country their base.

''The people of Afghanistan,'' said Andrew Cox, the UN's humanitarian affairs office for Central Asia, ''are pawns of forces and people outside of their control.''

Now, the Bush administration faces the difficult dilemma of how to bring bin Laden to justice - without further radicalizing the ruling Taliban party or wreaking havoc upon a civilian population already beaten down by 20 years of war.

The administration has vowed to take strong and swift action not only against whatever terrorist is responsible for this week's attacks on New York and Washington, but also against the country that has granted him refuge. Yesterday, the United Nations' many relief agencies withdrew their staff from Afghanistan in case of retaliation.

Diplomatic leverage, however, is limited. The Taliban government, already under international sanctions, is nearly isolated, recognized by only three countries: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Pakistan's military government, fearful of the dominance of its regional neighbor, India, maintains strong diplomatic relations with the Taliban government, even as it has grown increasingly extremist. Experts say Pakistan supplies the Taliban with military advisers, logistics support and possibly weapons.

Yet the Taliban has been known to ignore even Pakistan's pleas. Earlier this year, Pakistan was among those countries that called, in vain, for the Taliban to halt destruction of its ancient, towering statues of Buddha.

US military strikes on Afghanistan, humanitarian experts warn, would only further harm an already-desperate civilian population.

''Our staff have reported families who sell the children into servitude, just to have something to eat,'' said Sigurd Hanson of the International Rescue Committee.

UN statistics indicate that one in four people in Afghanistan faces starvation or bitter poverty.

An estimated 850,000 people have abandoned their homes this year, fleeing drought, fighting, and human rights abuses.

Afghanistan has one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in Asia, and one of the world's lowest literacy rates. Yet it also has the highest per capita number of small arms, according to UN and other estimates. It has no functioning education or legal system, other than the Taliban's imposition of Islamic law.

After decades of war, Afghanistan's infrastructure is in ruins. Said Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, ''There are parts of Kabul that look like the World Trade Center.''

This story ran on page A19 of the Boston Globe on 9/13/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.