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Friday, 17 April, 1998, 16:31 GMT 17:31 UK
Afghanistan's unexpected peace progress
Bill Richardson, the US envoy is in Kabul meeting Taliban and opposition Afghan leaders
Bill Richardson, the US envoy is in Kabul meeting Taliban and opposition Afghan leaders
The United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, has claimed significant progress in a whirlwind round of negotiations with the warring Afghan parties.

After talks with the Islamic Taleban movement in Kabul and the opposition Northern Alliance in Sheberghan, he said the two sides had agreed to attend peace talks in Pakistan by April 27th and to observe a ceasefire until then.

He also spoke of progress on a number of other issues in his talks with the Taleban, including allowing girls access to education and women better access to health care. BBC Analyst Pam O'Toole examines his progress.

On the face of it, Ambassador Richardson appears to have done more for peace in Afghanistan in a few hours than the international community has managed in several years.

He got both the Taleban and the Northern Alliance to agree to a firm date by which UN sponsored peace talks will start, agree to a ceasefire and the release of prisoners.

He also says the Taleban have agreed to improve access to education for women and girls and that some - unspecified - progress has been made in tackling drug production and terrorism.

The Taleban has agreed to allow food aid through to Hazarajat, a Shia area of Central Afghanistan where thousands of people are said to be at risk of starvation because of a Taleban blockade.

UN recognition could be on the table

It was perhaps predictable that Ambassador Richardson, the highest ranking US official to visit Afghanistan in the past 20 years, would like to report some kind of breakthrough after his visit.

And the Taleban - eager for the official international recognition which has eluded them - may have been prepared to make concessions to win the friendship of the most powerful state in the world.

Ambassador Richardson insisted that no deal had been made on recognising the Taleban administration, which has been denied Afghanistan's seat at the UN despite its control of two thirds of the country.

But recognition may well have been a carrot he dangled before the Taleban on condition they soften some of their more controversial policies.

He may also have raised the prospect of a withdrawal of international aid. The UN has already withdrawn some of its staff from Taleban controlled areas of southern Afghanistan because of maltreatment of its staff and discriminatory policies against women aid workers.

It has threatened further pullouts if no progress is made and donors are clearly becoming impatient.

Taleban needs aid

Withdrawal of international aid would leave the Taleban in a highly vulnerable position. Their ban on womens' employment and lack of clear economic policies have further impoverished hundreds of thousands of Afghan families in an already desperately poor country.

This has weakened support for the Taleban in areas where they were previously welcomed because they established law and order.

Although both sides have agreed to peace talks, some important questions remain.

It is not yet clear whether the Taleban are prepared to negotiate on the kind of broadbased government and power sharing agreement demanded by the Northern Alliance and the United Nations.

And correspondents say the Taleban still appear to be stalling on a timeframe for expanding education for girls. Further international discussions may be necessary to clarify this.

Meanwhile much will depend on the agendas the two warring factions bring to the UN negotiations later this month.

See also:

17 Apr 98 | S/W Asia
Breakthrough for Afghan peace
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