Church-sponsored aid workers on the border with Afghanistan say time is running out for the international community to prevent a bloodbath inside Afghanistan.

"We need a massive influx of troops, not under the guise of protecting humanitarian aid, because we know best how to do that, but rather to simply stand between the warring armies and stop the country from falling into chaos," said a European church worker here who asked not to be identified.

While church workers on the Afghan-Pakistani border are not afraid to speak openly about relief operations, many say they are reluctant to make public political statements because they have to carry out their work in a treacherous political landscape.

In the dusty frontier town of Peshawar of more than a million Afghan refugees, aid workers fear they are about to watch history repeat itself. Following the ouster of the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, the country was torn apart by civil war.

Aid workers say the ethnic Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara warlords of the Northern Alliance, who have taken over several cities inside Afghanistan, are not very different from the Taliban, who came from the country's large ethnic Pashtun population.

"They are the liberators of Kabul today, just as the Taliban were the liberators of Kabul five years ago when they freed people from the grasp of the guys who form the Northern Alliance today," said Geir Valle, director of operations here for Norwegian Church Aid.

Valle argued for a rapid intervention by armed United Nations troops rather than U.S. and British soldiers. "The U.N. has more legitimacy and would be more acceptable to more Afghans at this point," Valle said. "And the British have been thrown out of Afghanistan three times in the past. Do they want to be kicked out a fourth time? It's always good to take a lesson from history."

Valle said he thought former King Zahir Shah, who lives in exile in Rome, had the best chance of bringing feuding Afghans together around a common political project. "It's time to give the king a chance," Valle said.

"It may be too late already," lamented another aid worker, noting that Northern Alliance troops have demanded the removal of British troops from the Bagram air base north of Kabul. "We may have come too far down the road towards the ethnic factions re-establishing control at a local and regional level. The warlords want the foreign troops removed so that they can further consolidate their hold on their little pieces of turf."

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The aid worker said it would be best for the intervention force to be multilateral in nature, but acknowledged that hammering such a force together may take too much time. "And time is one thing we don't have now. The warlords are rushing to take control of as much territory as they can."

According to Masoom Stanezkai, director of the Agency for Rehabilitation and Energy Conservation in Afghanistan, a central task of an international force would be to disarm the warring factions. "For ordinary Afghans, ethnicity is not a problem if the guns are put away," Stanezkai said. His organization is supported by Action by Churches Together (ACT), the Geneva-based international network of church aid agencies.

According to Julia McDade, Christian Aid, a key element to resolving the conflict is whether the Afghan people will perceive a negotiated solution as something that has emerged from their own troubled political culture or something that has been imposed from outside.

"If the people can own the solution that the international community is brokering with Afghan leaders, then they will reject the Arabs and the others who supported the Taliban, and turn them in," McDade said. "But if their sense of hope for the future is squashed, then the Taliban will be given a chance to reorganize. This solution has to come about soon, or the suffering of the people will be prolonged."

Related Elsewhere

Recent media coverage includes:
Discussions outline future for Afghanistan World leaders, relief groups meetSan Francisco Chronicle (Nov. 21, 2001)

Afghan Rebels to Discuss New Gov't — Associated Press (Nov. 21, 2001)

Northern Alliance agrees to UN multi-party talksThe Irish Times (Nov. 21, 2001)

U.S. Envoy Optimistic of Afghan Meet — Associated Press (Nov. 21, 2001)

What will Afghan talks produce? — BBC (Nov. 20, 2001)

Afghanistan Reporter Looks Back on Two Decades of ChangeNational Geographic (Nov. 19, 2001)

Ethnic divisions in AfghanistanThe Times, London (Nov. 19, 2001)

For more on the political and humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, see Yahoo! full coverage and World

Special Report: Afghanistan features ongoing PBS' Online NewsHour coverage of the situation in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan Humanitarian Update includes a look at the refugee situation at a glance, statistics, maps, and analysis. From the UN High Commissioner on Refugees.

Christianity Today reported that international relief organizations are quickly working to aid Afghanistan refugees.

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Media coverage of the aid situation in Afghanistan and for refugees includes:

Disaster looms at refugee camps — BBC (Nov. 7, 2001)

Food aid for the AfghansThe News & Observer (Nov. 3, 2001)

Religious relief group plans hospital for Afghan refugeesThe News & Observer (Oct. 27, 2001)

Relief groups fear time is running outThe Seattle Times (Oct. 25, 2001)

Afghanistan situation 'fragile' says Short — BBC (Oct. 24, 2001)

Threats and confusion at Pakistan borderThe San Francisco Chronicle (Oct. 24, 2001)

World Vision sends $500,000 in relief supplies to Afghan refugees — Canada NewsWire (Oct. 19, 2001)

Aid agencies fear it is too late for food reliefThe Financial Times (Oct. 17, 2001)

Christianity Today's Opinion Roundup looked at the economic and political conditions that may hurt donations for relief work in Afghanistan and other countries.