Aid deadlock as Taliban tightens grip

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ON THE western edge of Afghanistan's capital are six long, low buildings. They were once dormitory blocks for the city's polytechnic. Five of the buildings are now unoccupied, and all are without running water, electricity, sanitation or windows.

A month ago the Taliban government ordered the 38 international aid agencies working in Kabul to abandon their offices in the city and to move en masse into the complex. The aid workers refused. Negotiations, brokered by the United Nations, failed and within days the aid workers left. Their offices have since been locked and sealed, and much of the multi-million pound aid programme in Kabul is collapsing.

For the aid workers it was a frustrating and depressing episode that summed up the difficulties they say they face in dealing with the Taliban. The Taliban claims the foreign aid community is being typically confrontational. Yet again, say leaders of the hardline Islamic militia, the customs of Afghanistan and the authority of its government are being deliberately flouted.

Tomorrow negotiations will start again when a three-member team representing the aid agencies arrives from Pakistan. No one is confident of finding a way out of the current impasse. The Taliban, having made huge steps in the past few days towards seizing control of the whole of Afghanistan, is unlikely to be in any mood to compromise.

Yesterday the movement, which captured Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan's second largest city, earlier this month, claimed to have taken control of Aibak, capital of the northern province of Samangan. Even some of the Taliban's bitterest enemies have come over to its side - on the frontline yesterday at Hotkai, 20 miles from Kabul, the platoon occupying the most forward position was made up of Hazaras, whose fellow tribesmen are desperately fighting the Taliban in the north. Their home valleys, to the west of Kabul, were even being bombed by the jets of their own side as we spoke.

The enmity between the Taliban, who are largely composed of Sunni Muslim Pathans, and the Hazaras, Shia Muslims of Mongol descent - has historically been vicious and bitter, but the men crouching in the shallow scooped trenches yesterday had a somewhat different view.

"Tajik, Pathan, Uzbek or Hazara, Sunni or Shia it doesn't matter," said Mohammed Sher, the platoon commander, rapidly listing the major ethnic and religious divisions of Afghanistan. "If they are the enemy of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, then they are our enemies too."

But while victory for the Taliban may soon bring an end to the fighting, its quarrel with the aid agencies is bad news for the people of Kabul. For large sections of the city the aid workers' departure has meant shortages of food and drugs as well as a lack of safe water. According to a recent United Nations report, hundreds of thousands of people are now at risk of disease at a time when the availability of medicine and the skilled staff to administer them properly has been drastically cut.

The northern suburb of Khair Khana is one of the worst affected areas. Its roads of dusty, dirty streets have had their water piped in by a French aid agency for over a year. Now the agency has gone and the only source of safe water is a single tap at the local mosque.

One local resident, Rachmatullah, said he was very worried because his wife was expecting their first child. "Water is the first necessity," he said. "We are all using the same tap. It is getting very crowded, and if there is a problem with supply there, then the only place to go will be the wells."

Less than a mile away, in another part of Khair Khana, the wells are already in use. According to the UN, many are already badly contaminated. "The water from our well is pretty bad," said Mohammed Ghous as he watched a flock of sheep being watered. "But there's no choice".

Mr Ghous needs hundreds of litres each day to keep his bakery running. He is one of several hundred bakers who are paid by the United Nations and aid agencies to provide cut-price bread. He still receives his subsidy, provided by the UN who have not joined the general pullout, but scores of other bakeries who belong to the scheme have had their funding withdrawn in the past two weeks. Every day people are coming, desperate to know what is happening. There are people who rely on the subsidy. If it goes they may die," said Mr Ghous, 30.

The agencies' position is now weak. If they come back into Kabul they will have to do so on the Taliban's terms. "The aid community have to decide whether they are here to follow a liberal Western agenda and fight for the right of women, ethnic minorities and so on, or whether they are going to swallow hard and try and do what they can without taking on the Taliban," said one senior aid worker. Most believe it is unlikely the aid workers will feel able to work with the Taliban's attitudes to women and the violence and discrimination which has characterised their regime. That is unlikely to bode well for the long-suffering people of Kabul.