- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 28, 2001

NEW YORK Some relief groups say that lawlessness and banditry have so eroded their security in northern Afghanistan that they have been forced to curtail deliveries of badly needed food and housing supplies.

Some agencies in recent days have turned aid convoys back to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and hundreds of thousands of people are feared to be in great need.

"Humanitarian agencies on the ground in Afghanistan said the security situation in the northern part of the country, particularly Mazar-e-Sharif, remains a cause for concern," said U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard, who noted that the U.N. security officer in the area was forced to withdraw to Uzbekistan because of the violence. With Kandahar almost unreachable, he said, "no trucks carrying relief goods have left Quetta (in Pakistan) for Afghanistan in the last two weeks."

As many as 7 million of 25 million Afghans depend on some form of international assistance. The situation is so acute that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan likely will speak about the security vacuum when he visits the White House and other U.S. officials and lawmakers in Washington today.

Unlike civil wars in places like Rwanda, Angola, Bosnia and the Caucuses in which rebel groups would target aid workers with a combination of intimidation, rape, arrest and kidnapping Afghanistan under the Taliban was a place of menacing authority, rather than anarchy. But now, lawlessness is the rule.

Yesterday, a Swedish cameraman was shot by Kalashnikov- and knife-wielding burglars who broke into a group apartment in Taloqan.

Incidents of highway robbery, extortion and mobile checkpoints are widespread, say reporters and other foreigners. They also complain that aid convoys are being plundered or "taxed."

"Every few kilometers there are roadblocks, there are holdups," Mike Sackett, the U.N. regional relief coordinator, told a donors conference in Islamabad yesterday. "Money has to be paid for relief items to go through."

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has been active in Afghanistan since the 1970s, is accustomed to these conditions. "We assess the security situation on a daily basis, sometimes three times a day," said Macarena Aguilar, a spokeswoman for ICRC operations inside Afghanistan. She said that a "constant dialogue" with whatever authorities happen to be in power have given ICRC a patina of protection. Over the weekend, the group brought in a convoy of 59 trucks.

Like many other aid groups that rely on a reputation of neutrality to protect them, the ICRC does not accept armed protection. Nonetheless, Ms. Aguilar said, her convoy of aid was not moving between Jalalabad and Kabul.

"We are not confident in that situation," she said yesterday from Geneva.

Observers say that the twin complexities of political reconciliation currently under way in Bonn and military coalitions need to be sorted out concurrently.

In the meantime, aid agencies are at risk. "Lawlessness is a problem that in the short term will get much, much worse," said Robert Templer, Asia Program director for the International Crisis Group. While the Taliban was effective at stopping extortion and robbery, Mr. Templer said, without a clear authority there was little to keep soldiers in line.

Relief organizations and the United Nations have clamored for the creation of humanitarian-aid corridors.

But until an all-Afghan force can be forged, or a U.N.-blessed coalition of peacekeepers assembled from predominantly Islamic nations, that military option appears to be on hold.

Few governments have shown an appetite for escorting aid workers or supplies. U.S. ground forces are still busy flushing out the Taliban and supporters of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.

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