Keeping pace with bombing runs over Afghanistan, which entered their fourth month last week, U.S.-led humanitarian forces have been unloading food relief to Afghans in record supply. Since the war began in October, they have delivered 200,000 metric tons of food-enough to feed 7 million people for a month.
While the figures describe only the beginning phase of a long rebuilding process, most officials agree that the relief effort has averted-for now-widespread famine. The country was under a famine watch even before Sept. 11. Three years of drought and two decades of war already had made it one of the world's worst disaster zones (and the largest recipient of U.S. humanitarian assistance).
While U.S. air forces dropped the celebrated yellow packets for emergency meals, ships transported the bulk of food aid, mostly soft white wheat from Columbia River ports, to Pakistan. From there UN World Food Program workers trucked it into Afghanistan. As the Taliban collapsed, six truck routes into the country reopened. From warehouses set up along those routes, nongovernmental charities are delivering the food to scattered villages. As of early January, according to Andrew Natsios, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, three-quarters of the food has actually reached Afghan households.
Mr. Natsios insists that is a significant accomplishment, given the fighting on the ground. Food deliveries, he said, doubled each month at the same time UN and private relief groups were evacuating staff from the region. "The people who should be congratulated are not just these organizations but the Afghan staff who remained in the country, stood at their posts at a very difficult time and carried out their work," he told reporters at a Jan. 3 press conference.
Some relief executives believe the Bush administration is too quick to cook up a success story. "I don't think we averted a famine," said Nigun Ogun of Save the Children, "I would say that the problem has been averted for two months-no more."
Even as Mr. Natsios spoke in Washington, Afghan soldiers in Jalalabad fought off with sticks an angry crowd trying to force its way into a relief compound for rice. Rather than protecting food supplies, the soldiers were actually looting them. UN officials later confirmed that the soldiers supposedly protecting the compound, linked to anti-Taliban warlords aiding U.S. forces, took away four of the six truckloads of rice newly arrived from Pakistan. That left only two truckloads of rice to feed thousands of returning refugees.
Feeding Afghans is not the only challenge. About half a million Afghans have been displaced since Sept. 11. They are scattered to refugee camps along with nearly 4 million Afghans already displaced by fighting under Taliban rule. Medical workers are hoping to vaccinate children against measles to stem an outbreak that began this month in refugee camps along the Pakistani border. Dozens of children there and in camps along the Iranian border are dying each week from disease, cold, and malnutrition.
Even before Sept. 11, Afghanistan had one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world; one in four children dies before reaching age 5. Mr. Natsios promised reporters that the infant mortality rate would be a real barometer of improving conditions. But he admitted, prior to traveling to Afghanistan this month, "We do not have a nationwide system right now to tell us that."
If relief groups are unhappy with some of the Washington spin, they nonetheless give Mr. Natsios credit for pulling together a humanitarian response so near to the heels of military action. State Department insiders say Mr. Natsios, a longtime World Vision executive who took charge of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority for a year before joining the Bush administration last May, convinced his Pentagon counterparts to allow food in concurrent with bombing runs. During early military planning for the Afghanistan campaign, he made the case to coordinate humanitarian relief with the war.
Food deliveries, however, have proceeded without cover from U.S. forces. Charity groups asked for the protection, but Mr. Natsios insisted more food would get through without it. Studies show, he said, that in Bosnia U.S. food aid without military protection had a higher delivery rate; with escort, trucks loaded with wheat and rice became military targets.
But Mr. Natsios did borrow an idea from the soldier's playbook. Along with the food, USAID is handing out radios. More than 30,000 hand-held radios with battery packs have gone to locals so they can tune in to bulletins about nearby food distribution and medical care. The announcements go out in local languages over existing Voice of America frequencies.
USAID officials say they have used radios as a public service tool elsewhere, but in Afghanistan they are one way to make the system honest. If warlords cheat and steal, they will have to answer to hungry locals who heard food was on the way.