by Austin Bay
Last week, U.S. officials expressed grave concern that in thenear 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 reportedthere's no known instance of the Taliban tainting donated food. Foodshipments into Taliban-controlled territory have been "stolen, yes, but nottampered (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-sourceintelligence), but this is much than the bark, woof and pulp of politicalwarfare. It's an indication of how central to success immediate humanitarianaid is and long-term recovery assistance will be if America intends to winthis global war on terror.
At the moment, food supplies, medical assistance, disasterrelief and long-term development aid may not appear to be quite as importantto the American war effort as B-2 bombers and Ranger battalions, but as thiswar extends and months turn into years, the ability to feed, fuel, heal andclothe victim populations will be critical to victory.
Prior to Sept. 11, the Taliban's Afghanistan confronted a majorhumanitarian crisis. A U.S. government analysis from June 2001 rated theAfghan situation as one of four looming major humanitarian emergencies(Colombia, Iraq and North Korea being the other three). Up to 5 millionAfghans would need assistance due to drought, increased fighting, logisticschallenges and donor fatigue. The study foresaw a 1 million ton graindeficit and factored in the global economic slowdown (a slowdown Sept. 11accelerated).
Now, as winter approaches, the U.N. says 6 million Afghansconfront extreme deprivation.
The U.S. either supplies or pays for 80 percent of WFP-deliveredfood in Afghanistan. Washington also funds some WFP distribution operations.During the first eight months of 2001, the U.S. supplied Afghanistan with292,000 tons of wheat. (If the State Department were really prosecuting aneffective "information war," it would have an assistant secretary on Qatar'sAl Jazeera TV news service hammering that fact at the top of every hour.)
While U.S. airdrops of food to refugees in central Afghanistando get press attention, relief experts say the Afghans will need 52,000 tonsof food a month during winter. About 280,000 tons should be available in theregion by the end of November. This means secure land routes for truckconvoys are a must to move and distribute in bulk.
To get the trucks rolling, three key land corridors must besecured. In the west (Iran border), the aid route runs through the town ofHerat. In the more thickly populated south, the city of Qandahar is the maindistribution point. Up north, near Uzbekistan, the road winds through thecity 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 moreessential to winning the Afghan phase of this war than quickly seizing Kabulby military attack. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have both publicly committedto opening their borders for food distribution, a political signal thatsomeone understands aid deliveries are crucial.
Providing humanitarian aid promotes Washington's goal oftoppling the Taliban regime and building a counter-terror coalition moredirectly than the rhetoric of daily Beltway press conferences indicates. Forcountries 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 thehumanitarian calamity. Bin Laden's first act in his nihilistic anti-Americanassault was to assassinate Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Massoud. Bin Ladensaw the murder as "win win" -- if the Northern Alliance didn't collapse, thenthe Afghan war would expand and the humanitarian crisis escalate. Bin Laden,like Saddam Hussein toward Iraqi Kurds and Shias, demonstrates a barbarianwillingness to sacrifice Muslims (in Bin Laden's case, Afghan tribesmen) tofurther his own self-aggrandizing aims.
Maybe this point's too subtle for U.S. TV, but it's not too deepfor the BBC, which more Afghans listen to anyway. "Rich kid" Bin Laden hasapparently done a poor job masking his upscale Arab disdain for Afghantribesmen. Afghan sources report Al Qaeda's "internationalists" treat thelocals shabbily -- as tools to be used then discarded.
Bringing humanitarian aid to the fore of the American war effortwill not only serve coalition political interests, but will save severalmillion precious human lives.