ISLAMABAD (dpa) - After ten years of Soviet occupation and another decade of civil war, few observers thought the situation in Afghanistan could get any worse. Yet it is poised to do so.
This month a harsh winter is bringing another year of fighting between the dominant Taliban faction and opposing Northern Alliance to an end, but not the sufferings of the war-ravaged poor Afghans.
A United Nations study released last June said the "process of pauperisation" throughout Afghanistan was being exacerbated by the worst drought in 30 years.
Up to 12 million Afghans, among a population of 21.9 million, are affected by the drought.
Pippa Bradford, an official of the World Food Programme, warned last week that between half a million and a million Afghans would die of hunger unless the international community came to their help.
"If we do not receive new pledges of aid this month, we will have to cut down or stop our operations in Afghanistan at a time when the Afghans will be in the midst of the pre-harvest hungry season," WFP director for Afghanistan, said Gerard van Dijk, appealing for 54 million dollars in donations.
Erhard Bauer, Kabul-based Coordinator for Afghanistan of the German NGO Agro Action, said, "the misery will be extreme during winter especially in the rural areas." This will also affect the towns and cities eventually, as refugees pour in.
"Programmes that deal with women or families have come to a standstill because Kandahar repeated the decree that forbids the employment of women," he said in reference to a ruling by the Taliban's paramount leader Mullah Muhammad Omar issued from his power base in southwestern Afghanistan.
Bauer warned that dramatic changes might occur in the North and the West of the country if the nomads lose their cattle.
Ironically, it's not a shortage of food, or high prices which make the drought-stricken go hungry but a lack of purchasing power. Food supplies from Iran are said to be plentiful and cheap.
Not just war and drought are uprooting the rural Afghans but also a ban imposed by Taliban chief, Mullah Mohammad Omar, on growing poppy. It is also driving Afghans out of their lands under international pressure.
Bernard Frahi, the United Nations Drug Control Programme officer for Afghanistan, disclosed that Afghanistan, the world's largest producer of opium, produced 28 per cent less opium in 2000 than last year.
But this December the UNDCP is winding up a programme to help Afghan farmers to grow substitute crops. The reason - a lack of funds.
Some 30,000 Afghans have already fled the fighting and the growing poverty to neighbouring Pakistan. Around 500 cross the border daily, according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Islamabad.
Pro-Taliban Pakistan has been playing host to 2.4 million Afghan refugees for 20 years. A similar number live in the anti-Taliban Iran.
Along with the new crop of refugees, the recent military successes of the Taliban in areas bordering Tajikistan have raised new tensions in the region.
The Islamic Taliban, which now controls 95 percent of Afghanistan, territory, and the opposition Northern Alliance have recently agreed to hold a political dialogue under the auspices of the United Nations.
"Yes, we have given that in writing to the United Nations," the Taliban ambassador in Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, told reporters in Islamabad.
Afghanistan's neighbours Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, together with Russia and the United States, have also formed a six-plus-two group to promote a political dialogue for a peaceful settlement rather than providing support to a favourite Afghan faction.
But deep mistrust continues to divide them and their favourites. The Northern Alliance, led by commander Ahmad Shah Masood who has found an ally in his former enemy Russia, demands a coalition government in Kabul, while the Taliban demand its surrender.
A meeting of the defence ministers of the former Soviet central Asian republics convened by Russia in October declared Taliban-ruled Afghanistan a source of terrorism and prepared security plans to meet the threat.
Earlier, Russia had agreed to fight international terrorism with the United States which has been threatening the Taliban for giving asylum to the militant Islamist, Osama bin Laden.
Washington accuses bin Laden of sponsoring international terrorism and launched missiles against his suspected hideouts in Afghanistan after two U.S. embassies in East Africa were bombed, killing 224 people.
Bin Laden is being investigated for involvement in last month's attack on the USS Cole in Aden in which 17 U.S. navy personnel were killed.
Last June's U.N. study on Afghanistan charged that if the international community pays attention "at all" to problems there, it focusses on isolated aspects such as refugees, drugs or terrorism and has failed to develop a comprehensive strategy for an overall settlement.