On Point

Humanitarian Aid Critical to Success of US's War on Terrorism

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 accelerated).

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.

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