An unholy war of nerves

International | After Afghanistan's radical Islamic government arrests Christian workers, relief groups discover the high cost of doing business with jihad fighters

Issue: "Trial and terror," Sept. 1, 2001

Afghanistan is the graveyard of invaders and colonialists," declared a banner draped over a Kabul mosque for the country's independence-day festivities on Aug. 19. The boast is in line with the Taliban government's campaign to be the world's finest laboratory for radical Islamic government. Along the way, however, the ruling Islamic militia is biting the hands that feed its people.

Harassment of overseas relief workers peaked earlier in August in Afghanistan when Taliban officials arrested two American aid workers, along with four Germans, two Australians, and 16 Afghanis, all working for Shelter Now, a private German organization. The Taliban accuses the foreigners of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. In Afghanistan, those charges can lead to the death penalty.

If the Taliban prosecutes those who have come to help, it will risk breaching the rising flow of international humanitarian aid. Last year the United States-despite sanctions against the Taliban-directed $117 million to Afghanistan. The money targets Afghanis inside the country as well as refugees who have fled to neighboring countries. Most U.S. funds are in the form of food aid. Afghanistan is well into its second year of inadequate rainfall. Drought, combined with two decades of war, make it one of the world's worst famine sites, what officials at the U.S. Agency for International Development have declared a "complex humanitarian disaster."

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Unfazed by U.S. generosity or international norms, the Taliban barred diplomats from the United States, Germany, and Australia from visiting the captives, despite granting visas to the officials-including U.S. Consul General David Donahue-for that purpose. "This is psychological pressure," said Alastar Adams, the Australian diplomat who traveled with Mr. Donahue from neighboring Pakistan. "They don't want these individuals to know they have any kind of support, to gain strength from a visit."

It is also a war of nerves by the Taliban, which hopes to draw attention as a way of ending UN and other economic sanctions. That gambit worked for Saddam Hussein, whose belligerence led to the end of arms inspections and the softening of sanctions against Iraq. The Taliban may be dependent on overseas largesse to feed the people, but it appears more interested in renewing the flow of weapons and other military commodities to feed its war machine.

Taliban officials stepped up harassment of UN workers in Kabul after the United Nations tightened sanctions last December. The latest provocation comes on the heels of a UN resolution in July to station monitors at Afghan borders to watch over potential arms-embargo violations.

The arrests fit the pattern, according to Amin Saikal, director of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University: "Whenever the United Nations has sought to tighten its sanctions, the regime has resorted to some kind of provocative action that has obliged the international community to deal with Taliban officials in one way or another, and to indirectly confer legitimacy on the militia as the government of Afghanistan."

Almost on cue, last week Taliban officials said they were "suspicious" of a conspiracy among the UN's World Food Program operatives to convert Muslims. (Certainly a first for the UN, accused of Bible smuggling!) Officials also announced the beginning of an investigation of all international aid agencies connected to the UN.

For overseas aid workers, particularly Christians, the incident shatters a fragile existence with one of Islam's more extreme ruling powers. Taliban police raided the Kabul offices of Shelter Now, which has worked in Afghanistan for 18 years, and arrested the two American workers, followed by the others, over the course of several days beginning on Aug. 3. Police officials said they followed the aid workers for a long time and caught them "red-handed" with Christian literature, including Bibles, and thousands of Christian video and audio tapes. They charged the workers with showing the material to Muslim families. Mohammad Salim Haqqani, the Taliban's Deputy Minister for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue, said the Bibles were in the local Pushto and Dari languages. The Taliban outlaws efforts to convert anyone from Islam. A trial would likely end in expulsion for the foreign workers, but could result in the death penalty.

Tormenting Shelter Now did not end with the arrests. The Taliban closed two factories run by Shelter Now in mid-August. The organization operates four roof-beam factories in Afghanistan that have, over nine years, produced enough low-cost construction materials to help 20,000 repatriating refugees rebuild homes, according to the organization's own reports. Taliban militia searched another factory in Jalalabad for Christian literature. According to factory workers, not named for security reasons, they were "interrogated, locked up for the night, and released the next day to return to their homes."


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