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In aiding Afghanistan, some advocate less-is-more approach. War-devastated economy has limited capacity to absorb aid

International relief officials are pressing ahead with what is potentially the largest post-war recovery program since the Marshall Plan. But even as the top United Nations official for Afghanistan forges together a ``task force'' of UN and voluntary agencies to carry out the $2-billion operation, some Western diplomats and foreign aid workers are cautioning the organizers to ``think small.''

One Western aid representative in Peshawar stresses that the war-devastated and primitive Afghan economy has a limited capacity to absorb money and resources. ``I don't think we can realistically provide more than a $100 million worth of effective assistance'' for the first 18-month phase of the UN plan, he says.

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Private foreign aid workers as well as resistance sources say that given continued fighting between the mujahideen (Afghan guerrillas) and Afghan government forces in large areas, it is too early and ambitious to embark on reconstruction on the scale the UN plan envisions. Leading Afghan guerrilla commander Abdul Haq has voiced warnings along the same lines.

According to most indications, Afghanistan still lacks the security conditions conducive to full-scale repatriation of the 5 million refugees and the estimated 2 million to 3 million Afghans who have been internally displaced in their country.

Until such a time, aid workers here say, the UN Task Force should concentrate on expanding the smaller crossborder operations. Some UN officials say the refugees may return in time for the autumn planting season, but most relief coordinators do not anticipate significant movement until next spring at the earliest. Much will depend, they say, on whether the mine fields have been cleared and Soviet-Afghan government forces halt their bombing of civilian areas. Recent visitors to Afghanistan report that men, women, and children are still fleeing to Pakistan to escape the attacks.

To get things moving, however, UN coordinator, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan is pushing for initial reconstruction projects in ``zones of peace'' - mainly border areas where fighting has ceased and there is considered to be little danger of bombing. The Prince is expected to inspect some of these ``zones of peace'' in September, pending the cooperation of the Kabul and Islamabad governments as well as that of local resistance commanders.

Prince Sadruddin has appealed for a total of $1.16 billion for the program's first 18 months. Although no starting date has been set for the project's first phase, he has so far received pledges of about $40 million.

Task Force representatives insist that it is vital to move fast in order to take advantage of international interest in Afghanistan. Also, says Martin Barber, Task Force representative in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, ``No one is sure how things will develop and there are many scenarios. So we must be prepared for the worst, such as a sudden return of refugees, and be able to act now.''

However, some worry that such haste may put the UN on the line.

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``What is at stake is the loss of credibility of the UN if much of what is being promised cannot be done,'' says one UN official who asked not to be identified.

Critics argue that Western donor countries will react negatively to what might be seen as unrealistic proposals. They say there is a tendency among some organizations to disregard political and military realities, and assume that conventional aid techniques applied in Africa or Asia are appropriate in Afghanistan.

According to certain relief sources, aid agencies only had three weeks to put forward proposals to the UN, and many of those plans were based on inadequate information and preparation.

``What we really need are programs with imagination that take local circumstances into account,'' says Robert Brenner of Freedom Medicine, an American voluntary agency that trains Afghan medics for work inside Afghanistan.

Afghans, it is often pointed out, are a resourceful and hardy people who do not necessarily require an aid operation that will lead them by the hand from start to finish.

As hundreds of refugee families did last year, many Afghans are expected to return on their own, and may only require limited assistance during the early stages. Not only will they probably carry basic food supplies with them, as the mujahideen have done for years, but they will leave family members behind until farm cultivation has been reestablished and a degree of self-sufficiency is achieved.

Relief representatives warn against establishing food distribution centers inside Afghanistan. These, they say, might cause logistical problems and attract refugees back in much larger numbers than desired over a short period.

``Dealing with Afghanistan is not an enviable task,'' comments a senior Western diplomat, based in Islamabad. ``But I think that if we are aware of the problems now, we can save ourselves a lot of headaches in the years ahead.''

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