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Afghanistan's Coming Humanitarian Disaster

The looming refugee crisis in Afghanistan, where millions are on the brink of starvation, begs the question: will the U.S. provide real aid this time, or just lip service?
 
 
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As the U.S. bombing campaign of Afghanistan enters its first week, the humanitarian crisis that aid groups have been warning against seems inevitable. According to Russia's Interfax News Agency, which was among the few news organizations to report actual numbers of refugees on Thursday night, 350,000 people have amassed in the northern Panjsher Gorge and over 150,000 in the provinces of Tahor and Badakhshan. There was no information available about the likely larger number of refugees on the Afghan-Pakistan border.

"People are fleeing their homes, while the humanitarian organizations have ceased activities everywhere but the northern parts of the country because of the air strikes," said the Northern Alliance's Public Relations Minister Dr. Kanuni.

Since Oct. 9, the U.N. refugee agency has been forced to halt work at six planned refugee camps on the Pakistan border because of opposition from Afghan tribal groups. U.N. officials have said that more than a million Afghans may flee their country in the coming weeks if the U.S. attacks continue and serious fighting breaks out, with 1.5 million risking death by starvation this winter. Pakistan already shelters more than 2 million Afghan refugees and Pakistani officials have stated they do not want refugees in their urban areas.

On Oct. 10 members of the U.S. Senate foreign relations committee heard testimonies from representatives of humanitarian groups, who questioned the effectiveness of the daily air drops of 37,000 food packets, especially given that they will be used by tribal groups, now struggling for prominence in the political vacuum caused by the war, to manipulate civilians' alliances rather than to prevent hunger.

The food drops "appear to be intended more to send a political message to the Afghan people and to the Muslim world than to reach large numbers of people at risk of starvation," said Kenneth Bacon, a former Pentagon spokesman who now heads up Refugees International. Other aid workers have pointed out that 37,000 food packets are an incredibly small number considering the masses of people going hungry in Afghanistan.

However government aid groups have stated the deliveries may grow and are aimed at saving lives. "When you're feeding people, you're making a statement," said Andrew Natsios, an administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. "I don't think that's bad, I think that's good ... We want to send a message."

One of the questions humanitarian aid workers are asking is, should mass starvation come, and should Afghanistan be depleted of almost all resources as a result of the war, will the U.S. spend the billions of dollars necessary to prevent a long-term humanitarian crisis. Delaware Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has argued the U.S. should, and has criticized the Bush administration's previous pledge of $320 million in humanitarian aid as insufficient. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been urging the Bush administration to rethink its statement that it "will not be involved in nation building" in Afghanistan.

And indeed, in an Oct. 11 news conference President Bush retreated from his previous position, stating the U.S. would be involved in Afghanistan after the ousting of the Taliban and would work with the U.N. "to take over the 'nation building'" for the "stabilization of a future government." Bush even urged American children to send a dollar to the White House to help rebuild Afghanistan.

Zieba Shorish-Shamley, director of the Women's Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan, praised Bush's promise to help rebuild Afghanistan and work with the U.N, though she said she has heard such promises before. "No government should be imposed on the Afghan people," said Shorish-Shamley. "If the nation of Afghanistan is ever to extricate itself from the current chaos, an interim government must be formed that includes representatives from all 23 tribal groups, the participation of women and bona fide oversight from the United Nations, followed by democratic elections."

Given the U.S government's policy record in Afghanistan, Shorish-Shamley is certain a democracy cannot be formed only with U.S. assistance. "What the U.S. government created during the Cold War and afterwards in Afghanistan was the seeds for permanent violence. It spent billions of dollars on arms and training of the very soldiers who have become terrorists."

Shorish-Shamley adds that the greatest challenge for peace and democracy in Afghanistan is to remove the influence of governments that have created warring factions in the post-civil war era. "After 1989, the U.S. totally dropped Afghanistan, providing no help for reconstruction," she said. "That's when Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and practically all Afghanistan's neighboring countries moved in, making it impossible for a coalition government to come about and securing the rise of the ruthless Taliban."

Shorish-Shamley also believes that the Afghan people will not accept a puppet regime forced into power by any diplomatic initiative. "People in Afghanistan may not be educated in the formal sense, but after over two dozen years of war and rule by fear they will not abide another foreign-imposed government." Shorish-Shamley argues that the participation of Afghan women in a coalition government should be primary in any U.S. or U.N. diplomacy. "Women are the majority population in Afghanistan," she said. "They have been living in terror and the protection of their rights must be part the deal."

It is impossible to know the outcome of the current bombing campaign in Afghanistan. Taliban military targets are running out. The U.S. government, for the moment, is reluctant to put air strikes behind the Northern Alliance forces outside Kabul to allow them to overrun the city. The Taliban may never be able to deliver Osama bin Laden to the U.S. government, a stipulation of ending the war.

What is clear is that millions of Afghan civilians may die over the next few months. Shorish-Shamley reports there are 300,000 pregnant women in Afghanistan with no access to medical care. One out of four children born in Afghanistan today die within the first few years of their life. "If you could think of a worst nightmare, this is it," said Shorish-Shamley. "Food drops don't hurt, but they don't really help."

Tamara Straus is senior editor of AlterNet.org.