United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator Kenzo Oshima warned on Thursday that, in addition to the dire humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, the continually evolving geopolitical crisis in the country since the 11 September terrorist attacks on the US had potential regional ramifications.
While refugee flows would most likely be towards Pakistan and Iran, if past migration patterns were any indication there could also be refugee outflows in other directions, and the implications of this must be kept in mind, Oshima said.
Neighbouring countries were concerned about potential refugee outflows, but also had a key role to play in helping to prevent further tragedy by supporting relief efforts - not least by opening their borders to those who deserved protection and assistance, he added.
The United Nations had a presence in all the countries bordering Afghanistan, and was taking a regional approach to assisting both the displaced inside Afghanistan and "a potentially massive outflow of refugees into neighbouring countries", UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced in New York, the same day.
The organisation was working hard to adapt its preparedness in the field, including its management structures, to handle the current crisis in all its broad regional dimensions, he added.
At the moment, the borders of all neighbouring countries - Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and China - are officially closed, although it is estimated that some 20,000 Afghan refugees have already made their way into Pakistan across that country's 1,600-km porous border.
Tajikistan, whose own stability is fragile after years of civil war, has said it cannot afford to host any Afghan refugees. President Emomali Rahmonov was recently quoted as saying that Tajikistan could not allow the entry of a single one, "because there could be emissaries of different international terrorist organisations among them".
Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan have also voiced security concerns, with the latter warning on Wednesday that these stemmed both from Afghans who would be upset at its support for the US in targeting Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, and from supporters of the opposition Northern Alliance, which has been strongly critical of Pakistan's past support of the Taliban.
Despite the borders remaining closed, relief agencies foresee as many as 1.5 million new refugees if the situation inside Afghanistan becomes untenable, about one million of whom are expected to head for Pakistan and the rest for Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, according to the NGO Refugees International.
Asked on Thursday if the humanitarian crisis had the potential to destabilise the whole Central Asian region, Annan said Afghan refugees would probably try to get to wherever they could, and "all the neighbouring countries would have pressures on their borders to varying degrees".
As anticipation grows of military action in Afghanistan by the American-led coalition against terrorism, some sources have suggested that the crisis may have some positive consequences for the former Soviet republics of Central Asia in the longer term.
According to this interpretation, countries like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, which had not generally featured highly on the list of priorities for the West, their location on Afghanistan's northern border had suddenly given them a potentially vital strategic significance.
"For a start, people are going to find out where they are," said Willem Buiter, chief economist of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, as quoted in the 'Financial Times' newspaper in Britain on Wednesday.
Uncertainty about the prospects for those countries had undoubtedly increased, as it had for the whole world, and they were likely to have some specific problems, particularly regarding refugees from Afghanistan, "but these are all manageable, given enough international support - and I think the support will be forthcoming"," Buiter added.
As very poor countries, suffering from the effects of mismanagement or heavily dependent on commodities, such as cotton (which accounts for more than half the value of the exports of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan), the current geopolitical crisis had brought about the possibility of attracting development finance, in light of the need to avoid destabilisation and radicalism in the region, the 'Financial Times' reported.
"There is an interest in creating stability in that part of the world if you want to 'drain the swamp' - to eliminate the breeding grounds for terrorism," it quoted Buiter as saying.
Yet there was also the danger that Western concepts of Central Asia being an unstable region rife with civil conflict could be reinforced, thereby inhibiting potential investors. US humanitarian assistance to the region could also be affected, as the result of increased expenditure being incurred as the result of the 11 September terror attacks, 'Asia Plus' newspaper reported from the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.
On the ground, US military aircraft have already been deployed in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan - traditionally within Russia's strategic orbit - and the other Central Asian republics have variously agreed in principle to facilitate the American-led coalition against terrorism through intelligence cooperation, over flight and refuelling rights, and access routes to Afghanistan, according to media reports.
In his 20 September address to the nation, US President George W. Bush linked the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) to Osama bin Laden. Since 1999, all the former Soviet republics in the region have had some experience of the destabilising effects of the IMU, which has launched incursions into Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and is alleged to have training and logistics bases in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan.
The military leader of the insurgents, Juma Namangani, has ties to both the Taliban and Bin Laden, according to the 'Eurasianet' news service.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov said on Wednesday that the targeting of Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda (Al-Qa'idah) organisation, coupled with the destruction of terrorist bases in Afghanistan, "corresponds completely with the interests of Uzbekistan", but asked for a UN security guarantee in regard to any possible retaliation by its neighbour in return for his country's military cooperation.
Meanwhile, as the United States prepares to make Uzbekistan a key ally and a possible base for any military strikes, the American-based NGO Human Rights Watch on Wednesday noted that the deplorable human rights record of the Uzbek government was largely being ignored.
The Uzbek government has justified its crackdown on independent Muslims as being part of its efforts against the IMU, and Uzbek human rights activists estimated that 7,000 Muslims were in prison in Uzbekistan today, most for "anti-state activity" or "attempted subversion of the constitutional order", it added.
Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have reportedly offered their airspace to the US for possible military strikes against terrorist targets in Afghanistan, while Russia and Turkmenistan have said they would allow the use of their airspace for humanitarian missions.
Iran, a longtime foe of the United States, has strongly condemned the 11 September suicide attacks - while urging caution in any response by the international coalition against terrorism - in what may herald another significant shift in the political dynamics of Central Asia. Tehran has been implacably opposed to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and, along with Russia, provided backing for the opposition Northern Alliance.
Despite these sea changes, Russia has lobbied hard to ensure that the US obtains legitimacy through the UN Security Council for any military strikes in Afghanistan (a draft resolution was distributed to Security Council members on Thursday, according to Kofi Annan). Both Russia and the Central Asian states have made it abundantly clear that cooperation with the anti-terrorism mission does not spell agreement to have the region transformed into a US sphere of influence after the current crisis.
It has also been widely reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin has demanded, and received - as a quid pro quo for Russian support for the US against terrorism - a free rein to crack down on rebels in Chechnya, whom it regards as terrorists, and who have had support from Taliban-trained Muslim militants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and other Central Asian states.
However, Russia is less than happy with Uzbekistan for offering military facilities to the American-led coalition without Russia's consent, and apparently despite Russian objections, the 'Eurasianet' news service reported on Friday. Tashkent's pursuit of an independent policy, "not agreeing its moves with Moscow and not seeking its permission" was the source of some concern to Russia, the report added.
In these respects, and in many others, the regional geopolitical climate has been transformed, perhaps irrevocably, according to regional analysts.
On the humanitarian front, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has appointed the current coordinator for Afghanistan, Mike Sackett, as the new regional humanitarian coordinator to address the overarching aspects of the crisis for Afghanistan and its neighbours. Annan has also asked the UN's top humanitarian official, Kenzo Oshima, to travel to Pakistan and Iran to review the state of preparedness of all the UN services and to consult with the governments of those countries.
With security concerns having forced expatriate relief workers to leave Afghanistan, and the Taliban restricting communications and logistics, aid agencies are planning to base humanitarian operations in countries neighbouring Afghanistan - not only for refugees but also for vulnerable and displaced people inside Afghanistan.
Pakistan is expected to attract about one million new Afghan refugees, and the government and relief agencies are making contingency plans to host new arrivals in a string of camps in border areas of Baluchistan and North West Frontier Provinces.
WFP has announced that it will resume food aid shipments into northern and western Afghanistan on a trial basis; food shipments into the country were suspended on 12 September, one day after the terrorist attacks in the US. For the moment, those shipments are to be made through Ishkashim in Tajikistan, for Badakhshan Province in the northeast, and through Turkmenabad in Turkmenistan, for Andkhui District in Faryab Province, northern Afghanistan.
The UN food aid agency has started airlifting high-energy biscuits to emergency depots in Pakistan, Iran and Turkmenistan, and augmenting other food supplies in these countries and Tajikistan. "We are ready to provide food aid to the needy Afghans who may cross the borders into neighbouring countries," regional director Khaled Adly said on Thursday.
The ICRC has said it is pre-positioning supplies in Pakistan and Tajikistan, and looking at routes through Turkmenistan and Iran to give readier access to different parts of the country. In Iran, the national Red Crescent Society, UNHCR and the government on Wednesday said they were preparing to assist up to 400,000 Afghan refugees, if required, as well as to respond to the needs of internally displaced Afghans.
UNHCR and Iranian government officials are continuing to identify camp sites for possible new arrivals in the border area, with 12 proposed sites identified so far - 10 in Khorasan Province and two in Sistan-Baluchestan, the refugee agency reported on Wednesday. The number of Afghans spontaneously returning home from Iran had fallen sharply, it added.
The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) has expressed particular concern for the fate of women and children, representing perhaps 70 percent of the Afghan population most at risk, and has transported shelter, water treatment and basic medical supplies into four countries in the region.
Yet Tajikistan, where some 80 percent of the population of six million live in poverty, the effects of two successive droughts - in the same drought cycle as that which afflicted Afghanistan even before the current geopolitical crisis - have pushed the very poor towards the brink of starvation, according to WFP Country Director Ardag Meghdessian.
"The international community does have to help Afghanistan and its refugees, but there are a million people here who need food just as urgently," he said. "Starvation is a real possibility," he added.
Kofi Annan on Thursday announced a US $584 million appeal by UN agencies to assist up to 7.5 million people in and around Afghanistan, to cover what the UN has termed "a crisis of stunning proportions".
However, an Afghan specialist and regional analyst in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, on Friday expressed concern at the tone of the UN's funding appeal, saying that the impression that came across was of a recent crisis when it had in fact been brewing for months, and years.
"There is a danger that people will look on this as a one-time initiative. Afghanistan and the region demand much more focus and investment over a long period," he said.
"They would need to put together a package of a few billion [dollars] for Afghanistan alone. Humanitarian relief is just one part of the country's needs. With suggestions of up to 70 percent of people's livestock killed [by drought], many people are left with only about half their previous income. And there has been massive destruction of infrastructure through years of conflict," the analyst added.
The US $584 million the UN had appealed for was very necessary, but did not go nearly far enough, and there was the danger of having Afghanistan remain "a weak state", vulnerable to threatening groups, even if Bin Laden and the Taliban were removed.
More generally, the most obvious threat the Central Asian region faced was a potential backlash from radical Muslim elements, he said.
"From my experience of previous crises, once the security imperative appears to have been tackled - Bin Laden removed, the Taliban toppled or whatever - then people [in the West] will probably start to forget the underlying issues," he said. "I would not be surprised if, after a year or so, the old donor fatigue starts to set in and the West starts to ignore Afghanistan as it did before. That would be my fear," the analyst concluded.
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