Preparing for the worst

As war looms over Afghanistan, relief agencies are racing to stave off mass starvation -- inside and outside the ravaged country.

Published October 5, 2001 8:00AM (EDT)

While the world waits for what appear to be inevitable military strikes in Afghanistan, international aid organizations are urgently preparing for what they fear may be the worst refugee crisis in a generation. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is preparing for as many as 1 million refugees to seek refuge in the wake of a military campaign. UNHCR is also preparing for a "worst case scenario" in which it must provide humanitarian aid to nearly 2 million Afghans inside and outside the country.

The looming refugee crisis is urgent, yet it threatens to obscure what some believe is an even bigger problem inside Afghanistan. Ravaged by war, tribal conflict, endemic poverty and -- for four years -- devastating drought, Afghanistan is one of the world's disaster areas. According to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 25 percent of all children in Afghanistan die before the age of 5. The country has the second lowest life expectancy in the world -- just under 46 years old -- and 40 percent of all Afghan children are malnourished. Drought has affected at least 12 million Afghans.

Over the last year, the UNHCR estimates 180,000 Afghans have fled into Pakistan. Since Sept. 11, the UNHCR has reported "large-scale population movements inside Afghanistan" -- some people fleeing to the borders, others fleeing the cities for the countryside. The UNHCR reported 15,000 new arrivals in Pakistan since Sept. 11. Up to 20,000 Afghans were recently reported waiting on the Afghan side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, but reports Thursday indicated many of those 20,000 refugees had left the border area, perhaps to return to their homes as fears of indiscriminate military strikes have subsided.

In fact, new concerns have emerged that Afghans may leave their homes needlessly and flee to the refugee camps if they believe there is an abundance of food in the camps. One British aid worker told the Financial Times, "There's a real danger we may be talking ourselves into a refugee crisis."

Just how large the refugee crisis will be remains unclear. Nearly one month after the U.S. threatened military action against Afghanistan's Taliban regime, the mass exodus many were expecting has yet to materialize. And aid organizations, led by the United Nations' World Food Program, are currently delivering thousands of tons of food to needy people inside Afghanistan. But such deliveries have become increasingly difficult, as the Taliban has cracked down on foreign aid workers.

As it struggles to hold together a delicate coalition and avoid inflaming the Islamic world, the Bush administration is giving humanitarian issues high profile. In a speech Thursday, flanked by Secretary of State Colin Powell, President Bush announced $320 million in new humanitarian aid for Afghanistan.

Pledging to help "the poor souls" of Afghanistan, Bush said, "Through our tears, we see opportunity, that in our sadness and grief we see an opportunity to not only defend freedom, but to make the world more peaceful."

Salon spoke with Lionel Rosenblatt, president of Refugees International, a Washington-based NGO dedicated to serving refugee populations, about the current humanitarian problems in Afghanistan.

How bad is the current refugee crisis in Afghanistan, and is it getting worse?

Looking ahead, the danger is that more people will be dislocated by a combination of food deprivation and fear. Fear of conscription is now the No. 1 fear inside the country. Men are being forced to sign up and fight for the Taliban. But you would expect if that fear was really setting in, you would have seen more movement by now. I thought that more people might have started to flee.

As of now, the situation is nothing like Kosovo or the Kurds, knock on wood. The challenge is how to get food in to these people, since they're not heading to refugee camps. It's a little different than Kosovo or Iraq in that way. We have to think about how to deliver aid in a way that gives people the option of not fleeing.

Is any aid getting through now?

The World Food Program is off to a good start. It looks like they have the capacity to put quite a lot of food through. Their local employees have stayed on the ground and have been working on delivering aid. A couple hundred tons of rice shipped the day before yesterday, and earlier in the week there were a couple of other similar-sized shipments.

The key question is whether those deliveries can keep people one step ahead of malnutrition. And of course, we're only talking about the towns. People in the more remote areas pose a different problem. Presumably, they're living as they have for centuries up there. But I guess the bottom line is if food is needed there, it's going to be a much more daunting prospect. We could resort to air drops, but they're not very effective. Often, that food goes to the strongest, and is kept away from the neediest.

Does the threat of mass refugees exist along all of Afghanistan's borders, or just its border with Pakistan?

Iran has sealed their border but has allowed refugees to amass along it and has allowed U.N. agencies to administer aid. The main problem is along the border with Pakistan. But so far, very few have showed up. If more come, water is going to be a bad problem. And all areas, winterization will be a problem as well.

How precarious is the situation in Afghanistan now?

I'd say they're just barely holding together. One hopes that's helped in part by the $320 million in aid the administration announced today. Hopefully, that will help avert wholesale flight. Quite honestly, I'm surprised that there aren't more refugees fleeing.

Has the Bush administration been sensitive to the potential humanitarian crisis looming in Afghanistan?

I attended the president's speech today with Powell, and I was really struck by the tone. The message of the speech was: If they attack Afghanistan and start to generate large numbers of refugees, the operation will not have succeeded. So the humanitarian toll is being used as an index of success and failure. It wasn't said but it was implied. Somewhere along the line was a reference to the fact that innocent civilians should or would not suffer. I think that shows how the thinking has really evolved inside the administration. The first reflex seemed to be sending B-52s in to get bin Laden, which never made a whole lot of sense.

If they use this funding wisely, there may be a hope to go beyond merely preventing a mass exodus and actually do some development work inside the country, the way we should have done when the Soviets left. The groups on the ground there want to turn as soon as possible from this relief effort into development. So this may even be an opportunity to help people of Afghanistan. We shall see. It's worth reminding that the U.S. and international community dropped the ball once the Soviets were evicted from Afghanistan.

So there is some reason to be optimistic?

There might be. Maybe in the global scene, we'll begin to understand that humanitarian concerns should be part of the calculation of any potential military operation. It was nice to see the president today with senior people responsible for international aid. That was very different than the elder Bush 10 years ago who was taken by surprise when they had hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees on their hands in Iraq. We've come a long way. Maybe we'll learn a global lesson here.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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Afghanistan Iran Middle East Pakistan