by Austin Bay
Last week, U.S. officials expressed grave concern that in the
near future Afghanistan's Taliban regime would poison food supplies Western,
regional and global relief agencies are delivering to starving Afghans.
Subsequently, World Food Program (WFP) and other U.N. agencies reported
there's no known instance of the Taliban tainting donated food. Food
shipments into Taliban-controlled territory have been "stolen, yes, but not
tampered (with)," one U.N. official observed.
The usual pull and pull of charge and counter-charge in war?
Agreed there's a propaganda component to this exchange (U.S.
spokesmen called it a "pre-emptive" move based on multi-source
intelligence), but this is much than the bark, woof and pulp of political
warfare. It's an indication of how central to success immediate humanitarian
aid is and long-term recovery assistance will be if America intends to win
this global war on terror.
At the moment, food supplies, medical assistance, disaster
relief and long-term development aid may not appear to be quite as important
to the American war effort as B-2 bombers and Ranger battalions, but as this
war extends and months turn into years, the ability to feed, fuel, heal and
clothe victim populations will be critical to victory.
Prior to Sept. 11, the Taliban's Afghanistan confronted a major
humanitarian crisis. A U.S. government analysis from June 2001 rated the
Afghan situation as one of four looming major humanitarian emergencies
(Colombia, Iraq and North Korea being the other three). Up to 5 million
Afghans would need assistance due to drought, increased fighting, logistics
challenges and donor fatigue. The study foresaw a 1 million ton grain
deficit and factored in the global economic slowdown (a slowdown Sept. 11
Now, as winter approaches, the U.N. says 6 million Afghans
confront extreme deprivation.
The U.S. either supplies or pays for 80 percent of WFP-delivered
food in Afghanistan. Washington also funds some WFP distribution operations.
During the first eight months of 2001, the U.S. supplied Afghanistan with
292,000 tons of wheat. (If the State Department were really prosecuting an
effective "information war," it would have an assistant secretary on Qatar's
Al Jazeera TV news service hammering that fact at the top of every hour.)
While U.S. airdrops of food to refugees in central Afghanistan
do get press attention, relief experts say the Afghans will need 52,000 tons
of food a month during winter. About 280,000 tons should be available in the
region by the end of November. This means secure land routes for truck
convoys are a must to move and distribute in bulk.
To get the trucks rolling, three key land corridors must be
secured. In the west (Iran border), the aid route runs through the town of
Herat. In the more thickly populated south, the city of Qandahar is the main
distribution point. Up north, near Uzbekistan, the road winds through the
city of Mazar-i Sharif.
In the dry language of State and Defense, these corridors become
"political and military objectives." Securing passage of food deliveries,
contrary to the conventional wisdom, may be, in the long term, much more
essential to winning the Afghan phase of this war than quickly seizing Kabul
by military attack. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have both publicly committed
to opening their borders for food distribution, a political signal that
someone understands aid deliveries are crucial.
Providing humanitarian aid promotes Washington's goal of
toppling the Taliban regime and building a counter-terror coalition more
directly than the rhetoric of daily Beltway press conferences indicates. For
countries who cannot contribute to the military effort, donating to the
"relief and aid arm of the anti-terror coalition" publicly reinforces the
"collective security" policies America is pursuing.
Osama Bin Laden also bears responsibility for magnifying the
humanitarian calamity. Bin Laden's first act in his nihilistic anti-American
assault was to assassinate Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Massoud. Bin Laden
saw the murder as "win win" -- if the Northern Alliance didn't collapse, then
the Afghan war would expand and the humanitarian crisis escalate. Bin Laden,
like Saddam Hussein toward Iraqi Kurds and Shias, demonstrates a barbarian
willingness to sacrifice Muslims (in Bin Laden's case, Afghan tribesmen) to
further his own self-aggrandizing aims.
Maybe this point's too subtle for U.S. TV, but it's not too deep
for the BBC, which more Afghans listen to anyway. "Rich kid" Bin Laden has
apparently done a poor job masking his upscale Arab disdain for Afghan
tribesmen. Afghan sources report Al Qaeda's "internationalists" treat the
locals shabbily -- as tools to be used then discarded.
Bringing humanitarian aid to the fore of the American war effort
will not only serve coalition political interests, but will save several
million precious human lives.