Crying wolf, or doing their job?

Humanitarian aid groups warned that the bombing would create an aid catastrophe -- but they've brought in far more relief since the war than before it began

Published November 16, 2001 8:17PM (EST)

While the citizens of Kabul cheered as the Taliban retreated from the Afghan capital this week, some humanitarian aid organizations warned that instability on the ground was hampering their efforts to reach Afghanistan's population of 5 million seriously hungry people.

"In Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of people will be helplessly exposed to the elements this winter, no matter which authority sits in Kabul," said Carol Bellamy, the executive director of the United Nations Children's fund, UNICEF, on Wednesday. "We are moving supplies every day, but we still face a very tough road ahead."

The statement echoed earlier warnings by humanitarian groups that the U.S. bombing was disrupting their efforts to truck in and distribute aid in the few short weeks before winter arrived.

"We just don't know how many people may die if the bombing is not suspended and the aid effort assured," said Oxfam's Barbara Stocking in an Oct. 17 press release calling for a U.S. bombing pause, signed by Oxfam, Islamic Relief, Christian Aid, Tearfund and ActionAid.

But aid experts say that the agencies' repeated alarms about the impact of the U.S. military campaign against the Taliban on relief efforts have ignored the fact that more food has been reaching Afghanistan since the U.S. bombing began than was before -- a lot more.

"More aid has gone into Afghanistan in the past month than in the past year," says John Fawcett, a longtime humanitarian relief worker who studies the politics of aid. "The aid agencies cried wolf. They said the bombing will stop us from delivering humanitarian aid. It will create 1.5 million refugees. Well, in fact, the result of the bombing is there are 150,000 new refugees -- one-tenth of what they expected, and there's been a tenfold increase of humanitarian aid getting in, because everybody's focused on the problem now."

The lead U.N. food agency, the World Food Program (WFP), has been getting 2,000 tons of food a day into Afghanistan -- up from 200 tons a day before Sept. 11, Fawcett notes. The WFP confirms that.

"The month of October was an all-time high for WFP," said Bear McConnell, the Central Asia Task Force director for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), at a press conference Wednesday. "They moved 29,000 metric tons of food. That is the highest month that they have ever had, whether it's before or after September. But what is even more significant, it seems to me, is this month, not yet half done, they have moved over 27,000 tons already."

Fawcett says aid groups shouldn't be criticized for sounding the alarm about Afghanistan's horrific humanitarian plight. "It's aid groups' job to cry wolf. We know that. And the WFP is doing a good job. They have been very flexible" in a situation of constant flux on the ground in Afghanistan.

"The reason we've been able to do it is, we have the food, the staff and the commercial trucks," says Abigail Spring of the World Food Program.

And they have the money. The WFP has gotten about half of $320 million President Bush pledged to support humanitarian relief efforts in Afghanistan and the surrounding region in the wake of the 11 September attacks, which the U.S. traced to Osama bin Ladin and his Taliban hosts in Afghanistan. The money was also disbursed to two other leading U.N. emergency organizations working on Afghanistan, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and UNICEF.

Aid groups say they aren't broadcasting their relative success, many say, because the situation remains so dire for Afghanistan's population. USAID estimates that some 5 million Afghans face serious hunger from drought, conflict and displacement, and some 1.5 million face starvation.

"The big problem we are still facing is internal distribution," says the WFP's Abby Spring. "We have been able to feed 2 million people since the crisis began. We need to feed 6 million. And we can't get to all of them because of insecurity on the ground. And thousands of people have fled to rural areas and it's hard to find them. And it's hard to get trucks of food to them."

Still, it's hard not to think that some aid groups' opposition to the bombing stemmed more from a fundamental reluctance among humanitarian groups to endorse a campaign of violence. Few hawks are attracted to relief work, of course, and many in the aid community are preternaturally inclined to be suspicious of the Pentagon. And there were divisions among aid agencies themselves over whether to oppose the U.S. bombing, with groups like Oxfam strongly opposed, U.N. agencies more muted in expressing concerns -- and some refugee advocates saying privately (but never for attribution) that the campaign against the Taliban was in the long-term interest of the Afghan people.

But there's no doubt aid groups are having to scramble to adapt to a fluid situation on the ground. While Kabul is said to be calm, fighting reportedly continues in several Afghan cities, and there are reports of widespread looting in the northwestern city of Mazar-e-Sharif that have prompted some groups, like Oxfam, to demand an international military escort to deliver humanitarian supplies.

The WFP reported Wednesday that no aid was trucked in on two of its six routes into Afghanistan, because truck drivers in Peshawar and Quetta were nervous about the unstable situation in the southern part of the country. But the WFP also noted that food deliveries "continued as normal in many parts of the country," and said that the humanitarian situation could ultimately benefit from the withdrawal of the Taliban from the north of the country, where the most serious food shortages are concentrated.

Aid groups must also negotiate relationships with new local authorities, and persuade nervous commercial truck drivers to deliver the aid. And as yet, all this must be performed by local staff, as international aid workers were expelled by the Taliban after Sept. 11. The U.N. plans to send assessment teams into the country as early as this weekend to begin to plan for a larger transitional humanitarian mission to Afghanistan.

It's enough to make some aid groups sound a bit wistful for the predictable days of the Taliban.

"The Taliban have never really posed a serious threat to the food pipeline," says Sam Barratt of Oxfam, one of the WFP's partner agencies in Afghanistan. "In the short term, the Taliban's fall is posing a lot of problems. WFP trucks haven't moved into the country for last the last three days because of fears of looting."

Aid experts say Barratt's suggestion that his group worked just fine with the Taliban reflects a longstanding division within the humanitarian aid community in Afghanistan.

"There has always been a lot of conflict within the community about working real closely with the Taliban," says John Norris, a Central Asian expert and senior advisor to the president of the International Crisis Group. "There have always been people who say this [working with the Taliban authorities] is how we do business, this is how we get food to people. Then there were other groups saying we are letting the Taliban use us to their own tactical ends."

But Norris believes that ultimately the retreat of the Taliban from key positions could make way for the rapid return of international humanitarian staff to parts of Afghanistan and a significant increase in aid deliveries and distribution.

"The spigots for aid are going to be open in Afghanistan now like never before," says Norris. "With more planes, with more airports, more roads into Afghanistan, humanitarian relief will be less of a problem in the immediate term than dealing with a very messy military situation."

And while aid groups worry about a vacuum of power and bouts of looting, few aid veterans with long experience in Afghanistan say they will mourn the departure of the Taliban.

"It was extremely hard for the aid community to work with the Taliban," says Rupert Colville of the UNHCR, who spent eight years in Afghanistan. "You needed some kind of relationship with the local authorities, and it was very difficult for the U.N. to judge how far to compromise with the Taliban -- in terms of assisting females, in terms of monitoring the aid you are distributing, and determining who works for you."

Still, there's no denying the current instability poses at least short-term problems for aid distribution. And if the U.S. fails to work with Northern Alliance and other leaders to facilitate the relief effort, it will be a black eye for the effort to marshal support for the ongoing campaign against the Taliban. That campaign got a huge boost from pictures of Afghans cheering their liberation, but will be set back by photos of starving Afghans, if the various tribal chiefs warring over the country's future aren't forced to assist the aid workers' efforts.

But aid expert John Fawcett insists any short term disruption in relief delivery is well worth getting rid of the Taliban.

"The fundamental question people are not willing to look at is that this military action is humanitarian action," Fawcett says. "Do you want to deliver food packets to the concentration camp, or do you want to get rid of the concentration camp?"

By Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

MORE FROM Laura Rozen

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