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Thursday, 16 April, 1998, 08:45 GMT 09:45 UK
Afghanistan: renewed international interest

This week's visit by United States envoy Bill Richardson to Pakistan and Afghanistan marks the beginning of a flurry of international activity over Afghanistan.

Mr Richardson - the US ambassador to the UN - says his trip is aimed at supporting renewed UN efforts to achieve peace there after 19 years of war.

But as Pam O'Toole reports, Afghanistan is also increasingly under the international spotlight because of other issues, such as drugs production,terrorism and what Western countries see as its discriminatory policies towards women.

Over the next few weeks a series of senior Western delegations will set off for Afghanistan.

They have different official agendas, ranging from discussions on the Afghan peace process to the Taleban's treatment of women and ways of delivering so called 'principled' aid to Afghanistan.

According to some diplomats, this sudden burst of interest in what was fast becoming a forgotten conflict is due to renewed hopes for success in UN sponsored peace talks.

These negotiations have taken a step forward with the announcement that a steering committee made up of representatives from the Taleban and the Northern opposition alliance will meet soon in Islamabad.

UN optimism

An improvement in relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran - who are among the main supporters of the two Afghan factions - may also improve the situation. After his recent tour of neighbouring countries seeking support for the peace process, the UN envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, appeared to be in optimistic mood.

But other factors are also at play. According to State Department officials, Ambassador Richardson's task is to support the UN peace process.

The US has frequently offered such support in the past, yet it has been more than 20 years since Washington sent such a high ranking diplomat to Afghanistan to back it up. So why now?

US sees drug, terrorism links

Observers believe there are several reasons. One is the higher profile given to Afghan human rights issues in the US media recently. Prominent American womens' groups have lambasted the Taleban for banning women from employment and girls from education.

There's also the question of a plan for an American oil company to build a major pipeline through Afghanistan.

But diplomats say the main reason is that Washington has become aware that it's the United States which may suffer some of the worst political and social repercussions of the Afghan conflict.

Much of Afghanistan's lucrative drug trade is targetted at the US market and reports of anti-US terrorist groups training in Afghanistan are causing Washington alarm.

One of the issues Mr Richardson wants to raise is the presence in the Taleban-controlled area of Kandahar of Osama Bin Laden, who the US has linked to the bombing of a military housing complex in Saudi Arabia.

See also:

16 Apr 98 | Despatches
UN report condemns Afghan atrocities
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