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Saturday, January 2, 1999 Published at 16:51 GMT

World: South Asia

Afghanistan: Campaign of conflict

1998 was a year of military success for the Taleban

By Afghanistan Specialist Zahir Tanin

The 20-year war in Afghanistan has still not come to an end, but the Taleban militia made dramatic advances to the north in 1998, strengthening their position as the most powerful group in the country.

At the same time there have been human rights violations by the warring factions and increasing tension between the Taleban and the international community.

The lack of a consensus between Afghan groups and their foreign supporters, and a general unwillingness to compromise, have continued to fuel the bloody struggle for power.

Military success

[ image: The Taleban have tense relations with the international community]
The Taleban have tense relations with the international community
Since Soviet troops withdrew in 1989, various Afghan groups have tried to establish peace by eliminating their rivals. All have so far failed.

The Taleban are the latest group attempting to sweep away their opponents by force. But although they strengthened their position in 1998 they did not achieve their final objective.

Zalmai Khalilzad, from the US-based Rand Co-operation, says: "At the beginning of the year the Taleban faced three principal military groups opposed to them.

"By the end of the year they had been able to defeat two of those three.

"They also gained control of more territory and more resources, including the principal points of entry into Afghanistan."

Diplomatic failure

No sooner had the Taleban won a series of victories in the north, than the US launched an attack on camps in Afghanistan run by Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden, who had allegedly masterminded the bombing of US embassies in East Africa.

The UN also withdrew its international staff from the country after one of its senior officials was killed in the aftermath of the US attack.

Tensions with neighbouring Iran rose sharply after eight Iranian diplomats and a reporter were killed in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

All these incidents underlined that the Taleban's military successes were not matched in the political arena.

Campaign of atrocities

During two decades of conflict Afghanistan has been plunged into a human rights disaster.

It reached a climax with the massacre of civilians on the grounds of their ethnic identity in the north.

Rory Mungove, the head of Amnesty International's Asia section, says: "In 1997, when the Taleban moved into the areas Mazar-e-Sharif and Bamyan, and were opposed, many atrocities were committed, including the execution of Taleban prisoners.

"This year, as the Taleban secured those areas, they seemed to have unleashed a campaign of retribution."

[ image: The Taleban impose tough restrictions on women]
The Taleban impose tough restrictions on women
The Taleban have also been widely accused of oppressive treatment of women, who have been told they must stay indoors, not seek work, pursue education or participate in social life. There have been cases of women being beaten for violating the rules.

Emma Bonino, the European Union commissioner for humanitarian aid, says: "The situation of Afghan women has certainly not improved, but at least _ knowledge of the situation at the international level is much deeper now than a year ago."

Aid continues

Years of war have resulted in the crumbling of the economy. But this year the situation was aggravated when international organisations withdrew because of a row with the Taleban over their accommodation.

The international community, however, is determined to carry on its Afghan aid operation and this is the aim of a UN $185m appeal for Afghanistan in 1999.

In the absence of a real national economic structure, the warring factions rely on foreign backers. And the Taleban are thought to benefit from the drug trade and the illegal re-export of goods - though they deny both charges.

Tougher times ahead

While Afghanistan remains burdened with the atrocities of war and the hardship of life, it seems yet more battles lie ahead.

Professor Fred Halliday, from the London School of Economic and Political Science, says: "I don't see the Taleban being overthrown by the opposition. Nor do I see them willing to make meaningful compromises with the opposition.

"However, there is enormous opposition from educated people, from women, and most importantly, Afghanistan has and will continue to have difficult relations with its neighbours."

Despite the absence of a peaceful solution, the UN seems determined not to yield to pessimism over Afghanistan.

As Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy to Afghanistan, says, the UN hopes that in 1999 it will start a new peace mission for Afghanistan to avoid the vicious circle of hostilities.

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