The key question at the present juncture is when, and on what scale, the usual Spring offensives will take place in Afghanistan. Peace talks were held between the Taliban and representatives of the northern alliance at the end of April, under the auspices of the UN and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, but these broke up without a formal agreement in spite of an apparent understanding at one point in the talks that a Council of Ulema (Islamic scholars) would be formed to take forward the peace process and that neither side would object to the Ulema nominated by the other.
If the Taliban choose to launch new offensives, much will depend on their ability to recruit fighters and secure outside backing. Indications show that young people in Afghanistan are increasingly unwilling to martyr themselves for the Taliban cause and that their parents also share this ambivalence. This is seen in the growing number of young people who have fled to Iran to escape conscription and reports of tribal leaders demonstrating their antipathy to Taliban controls.
The Taliban must take this apparent weakening of their support base seriously.
They also have to look to the refugee camps in Pakistan and to young Pakistanis trained in the madrasahs of particular Islamic parties such as Jamiat al-Ulema al-Islami for their recruits, but it is not clear whether the Taliban will be able to draw on the same degree of support from the various elements within Pakistan which are rumoured to have provided backing on earlier occasions. With Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia demonstrating the beginnings of a rapprochement, it is possible that the level of support provided to parties to the Afghan conflict may dwindle.
However, we are not yet in a situation where the parties and their backers have reached the point which is necessary for any conflict to end, where all are convinced that they cannot win and that their best interests would be served by a peace deal. On the contrary, the disunity within the northern alliance, manifested in ongoing clashes between the forces of His-e-Wahdat, Dostam and Jamiat for control of Mazar, gives the Taliban every hope that the north is ripe for capture.
On the other hand, recent rumours suggest that the northern alliance are planning serious offensives within the eastern provinces of Laghman, Kunar and Nangarhar and, if successful, these could affect not only the hold of the Taliban on Kabul but also the access which the Taliban currently enjoy to the opium production of Nangarhar and to the timber of Kunar.
However, the Taliban would still be left with the considerable benefits to be derived from the smuggling, transit and opium trades in the south. Their ability to wage war would not, therefore, be much diminished.
With popular support for the Taliban appearing to wane, the value of humanitarian assistance as a means of maintaining this support takes on, perhaps, a greater importance. However, the Taliban have shown relative indifference to the continuing existence of aid and the relationships with UN agencies, NGOs and donor governments are characterised more by a clash of value systems than by an assessment of the best way of meeting the populations needs.
The hopes felt by many agencies after the Taliban capture of Kabul in September 1996 that, through dialogue, it would be possible to negotiate improvements in female access to education, employment and health care have not been realised.
Instead, agencies have encountered a high level of inconsistency in their dealings with the Taliban, with apparent agreement by one element within the Taliban being undermined by others within the movement. Statements by senior government officials and the UN system insisting on Taliban adherence to the UN conventions, have met with assertions by the Taliban that their policies are true to Sharia Law and that UN Conventions only represent western values.
The Taliban have also sought to exercise an increasing degree of control over the operations of humanitarian agencies and this has manifested itself in, according to a UN statement, an increasing tendency on the part of the authorities to interfere with UN programme design and implementation and an upsurge in harassment of UN staff.
Matters came to a head in March 1998 when UN staff in Kandahar were subjected to a series of physical assaults, leading the UN to withdraw from the city and to halt the programmes operated from the Taliban heartland. Negotiations comenced on 4th May in Kabul between a UN team headed by the Deputy UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Martin Griffiths, and the Taliban.
The Kabul talks, on which a report is imminent, were said to be aimed at a resolution of differences relating to the security of UN staff, female access to education, employment and health care and the refusal of the Taliban to allow humanitarian access to the Hazarajat, an area of Afghanistan affected by severe food shortages which is held by the Shia His-e-Wahdat party within the northern alliance.
The Kandahar withdrawal has brought into focus the difficulties of operating in a situation where there is a marked divergence in the value systems of the presumptive authorities and those of the assistance community. The meeting of the Afghanistan Support Group, held on 5th May, which combined donors, UN agencies and NGOs, considered how a principle-centred common programming approach could facilitate a more cohesive response to the dilemmas raised within a complex emergency such as Afghanistan.
The approach is interesting in placing the focus on the efforts of rural and urban communities to survive and to secure access to basic services and in devising a structure whereby donors, UN agencies and NGOs can cooperate at regional and national levels to strengthen these processes. It will be interesting to see how this use of Afghanistan as a test case by the UN Secretary-General in the context of the Strategic Framework Process will develop but the indications are that is a positive move.