The two-day-old U.N. economic sanctions against Afghanistan, part of an effort to capture an Afghan-based fugitive from American justice, are provoking concern and anger in Pakistan. Many Muslims are sympathetic to the radical Islamic regime next door, while officials worry that thousands of hungry refugees may begin streaming across the border.
The U.N. punishment, which has grounded all international flights to Afghanistan and frozen all overseas assets of the country's Taliban government, is also creating difficulties for the U.N. relief mission inside the country, where six facilities have been mobbed, burned and stoned in the past week as angry Afghans turn their wrath against the hand that feeds them.
"We are trying to get out the message that there is a distinction between the political sanctions and the humanitarian aid we deliver, and we hope the people of Afghanistan will be able to make that distinction," said Stephanie Bunker, spokeswoman for the U.N. Afghan mission here. "Our bottom line is to deliver assistance where it's needed. For us, it's business as usual--but carefully."
The sanctions have been imposed because the Taliban, an Islamic militia that controls most of Afghanistan, failed to turn over Saudi financier Osama bin Laden by Nov. 14. Bin Laden, who has declared a holy war against the West, is wanted by U.S. authorities for allegedly orchestrating the August 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. The blasts killed 224 people.
In theory, the U.N. economic ban should have little impact on ordinary Afghans. All relief operations are exempted, and the country is already so poor and isolated that it has little international commerce. But many Afghans depend on money relatives send from abroad, which will no longer reach them. Moreover, the sanctions struck just as new Pakistani border controls aimed at rooting out smuggling have already doubled the price of wheat and other basic foods.
To many Pakistanis, who feel sympathy for Afghans and admiration for bin Laden, the sanctions seem unfair. To hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees who have no love for either the Taliban or bin Laden, the sanctions seem likely to reinforce the anti-Western feelings that the regime needs to keep its long-suffering populace in thrall.
"Bin Laden is one man, but millions of people who don't like the government must now suffer on his account," said Farid, 45, an engineer who sells batteries here. "My father is a carpenter in Kabul. He survives on the money my brother sends from Holland. Now, with food prices going so high, what is he going to do?"
Pakistani officials said they too feel victimized by the Clinton administration's determination to dislodge bin Laden from the Taliban's protection. They said they fear the sanctions may unleash a new wave of refugees into Pakistan, which absorbed more than 1 million Afghans who fled civil war against Soviet troops in the 1980s.
Moreover, they said, they resent American pressure on their month-old military government to coax the Taliban into giving up bin Laden. Pakistan is one of only three countries (along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) that recognize the Taliban. Its army has had a close relationship with them since the 1980s, when Pakistan was the staging ground for a U.S.-backed insurgency against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
"We cannot solve this problem for the world. Our influence on the Taliban is far more limited than our friends in the West think," Abdus Sattar, Pakistan's new foreign minister, said in an interview. "The world is taking a narrow and one-dimensional view of the situation, and as a result we face an immediate problem of another refugee influx. We are between the devil and the deep blue sea."
U.S. officials have little sympathy for Pakistan's predicament. They suggested that the government has squandered an opportunity to rein in the Taliban, even though Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the new head of the government, has said he favors a moderate version of Islam and would prefer a "truly representative" government in Afghanistan.
While there is no love lost between the Clinton administration and the Taliban, U.S. relations with Pakistan are an important element in South Asian stability. The sanctions have forced the government to choose between the Western powers it needs for financial aid and a Muslim neighbor with whom it has long-standing strategic and religious ties. And a synchronized series of rocket attacks here last Friday, aimed at the U.S. Embassy and several other international buildings, is widely viewed here as a form of protest against the U.N. sanctions and a direct challenge to Musharraf's authority. No recognized group has claimed responsibility, and Taliban officials have repeatedly condemned the attacks.
"The Taliban issue is very tricky for Musharraf. He must tread very carefully, or he will have both public opinion and [Islamic] militant groups against him," said Imran Khan, a Pakistani politician and former cricket star. "If the United States starves or bombs Afghanistan to get one man, it will only create a thousand bin Ladens."
Taliban authorities complain that the United States, and by extension the United Nations, are being unjust. They have repeatedly offered to talk with American officials about bin Laden's status, and they have suggested ways to control him without accepting the humiliating prospect of turning a Muslim guest over to a Western enemy.
But U.S. officials said the Taliban's offers have been meaningless and unrealistic--for example, a proposal to have Muslim religious officials in the region pass binding judgment on bin Laden's guilt or innocence as a terrorist. Only a gesture as tough as the new sanctions, the officials said, will convince the Afghan regime that the West means business.
"We have never refused a single meeting or conversation," said one U.S. diplomat. "We have offered to brief them and show them the indictment [against bin Laden]. We have talked a lot with them, and we are still willing to talk, but at some point we need to see action. You can't just keep coming up with empty proposal after empty proposal."
CAPTION: Fearing the effects of U.N. sanctions, Afghan families haul their belongings into Pakistan, where officials are concerned about an influx of refugees.
CAPTION: A poster depicting Osama bin Laden, who is being sheltered in Afghanistan and is wanted by the U.S., has been on sale in Pakistan.