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."
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."
The Taliban then proceeded to loot some $45,000 worth of factory equipment, according to the laborers, including a Toyota pick-up truck, two generators, several cement mixers, and expensive manufacturing tools. The Taliban also searched another factory run by the organization; there, the police forces ate food prepared for daily workers, many of whom are too poor to buy food on their own.
Shelter Now's Afghanistan director, Esteban Witzemann, told reporters the allegations of proselytizing Afghan Muslims were false: "There might be some [material] for private use ... but what they are accused of, that they are distributing hundreds of Bibles and Christian literature and they are trying to persuade people to leave Islam and become Christians, all this is nonsense and not true."
Shelter Now, with headquarters in Braunschweig, Germany, runs relief programs in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The group was part of Wisconsin-based Shelter Now International until 1990 and receives donations from churches in both Europe and the United States, according to spokesman Johan Jaeger.
In early press accounts, U.S. officials released the wrong names for one of the American hostages, and the German agency quickly withdrew them. "The relatives have asked that we not release their names," Mr. Jaeger told WORLD. What is known about the two women is that they are single and in their 20s, known for their generosity because they regularly gave food and money to street beggars from their apartment in Kabul. Press reports from Pakistan said the women are Dana Curry and Heather Mercer.
Mr. Jaeger readily noted that many Shelter Now employees are Christians but also pointed to press materials dated Aug. 8, which state that the group's "purpose is to work solely and exclusively for the common good of all people. To proselytize is not included in our statutes."
Director Udo Stolte told a press conference, shortly after his own return from Kabul, "It is totally natural and part of the culture in Afghanistan to discuss the subject of faith, whether it's the Muslim or the Christian faith." He admitted that "when our co-workers are asked why they do this work, it often leads to discussions on social and relief work as an integral part of Christian life." He insisted that any material the workers might have would have been for their personal use.
The risks of working under strict Islamic law are well known to most aid agencies and Christian advocates. "The ground rules are different depending on the country," explained Jim Jacobson, director of Christian Freedom International, "but whether it is working under radical Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism, most organizations have in-house training and go through several scenarios on anticipating and preventing something like this." Having smuggled Bibles into China and other restricted countries, Mr. Jacobson said he doubted "aid workers would actually be found using material clearly intended for the local population. It doesn't square."
Until the charges are settled, aid workers in Kabul, particularly Afghanis associated with foreign groups, are nervous. "We are trying to maintain business as usual, but it is a cloud hanging over Kabul," said Tim Mindling, an American and acting head of International Assistance Mission, which operates eye hospitals throughout Afghanistan.
"We have had a policy to be respectful of local laws, and at least at this point I would not say we are doing anything different," said Brandy Westerman of Portland-based Mercy Corps International. Several aid organizations did say they would be ready to evacuate workers if Taliban threats increased.
Taliban is a term that literally means "pupils." It became the name of the ruling militia during the war that followed the Soviet Union's invasion in 1979. While most of its leaders are veterans of Afghanistan's 20-year war, they are also products of radical Islamic schools in Iran and Pakistan. With help from radical elements in those countries (and aid from the United States), Taliban leader Mulawi Mohammed Omar battled Soviet forces in the 1980s and forced their final ouster after the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991. He also overcame competing warlords to gain control of nearly all of the country.
Although it has maintained a ragtag commando image, the Taliban now controls all government offices in Kabul. Only three countries-Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates-maintain diplomatic ties. Most Islamic leaders in other countries disagree with the Taliban's extremism. The United States and most Western nations blackballed the Taliban for sheltering terrorist organizations, most notably Osama bin Laden and his training camps.
The fanatical Islamic regime also prohibits women from working outside the home or walking outdoors freely. Leena Rauhala, a Christian Union member of the Finnish Parliament, was part of a Finnish delegation allowed to visit Afghanistan last year. Citing poverty and a "dysfunctional infrastructure," she said, "It is absolutely clear that the people have no rights. The women do not have the right to work or to receive an education. In some places, women try to work but it is clear that they are afraid of the religious police, as everything in the country is linked to Islam."
In a sermon just after the arrests, Supreme Court Chief Justice Maulana Noor Muhammad Saqib declared: "Islam is a complete code of life." He accused the aid workers of "doing nothing but creating mischief and conflict." Speaking to Kabul's largest Muslim congregation, gathered for Friday prayers, he said, "These people should be given an exemplary punishment so that it becomes a lesson for others and completely ends religious preaching of this kind."