[Last update: 18 September 2001]

Conditions in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is a poor rural society that is at the bottom of the U.N.'s Human Development Index. It has experienced more than twenty years of continuous war, first with the Soviet Union and then a civil war as militia factions struggled for power. Hundreds of thousands have been killed, 2.5 million Afghans are refugees in Iran and Pakistan. Another half million are internally displaced. 85 percent of Afghans are subsistence farmers. There are no newspapers. There's no postal service. Television sets are banned by the government. Most people don't have radios and, if they've even heard of New York City, they're unlikely to know that the World Trade Centre has been destroyed and that they are about to pay the price. [See Buckley in [1] on material conditions in Afghanistan.]

A crucial fact about Afghanistan has gone virtually unreported in the last week. Afghans have experienced three years of unprecedented drought and crop failures. The conclusion of the U.N. World Food Programme's Food Supply Assessment mission to Afghanistan, which reported in July, is that "starvation is facing millions of Afghans". [3] "The almost total failure of the 2001 harvest means some five million people will require humanitarian food aid to survive". That's a quarter of Afghanistan's population. The mission warned that "Given the scale and magnitude of the food crisis facing Afghanistan, the mission urges the most urgent international response to avert an imminent catastrophe." [3] "Near famine conditions" already existed in the early summer in the northern and western provinces, where "the poorest families have already resorted to the consumption of wild grasses" to survive. [3] By the first half of this year, as much as 70 percent of Afghanistan's livestock has died or been exported. [4]

Because of the threat of impending U.S. attack, foreign food aid workers have withdrawn from the country and the work of the U.N. World Food Programme and other agencies has come to a halt. Chris Buckley, the Afghanistan programme officer of Christian Aid, and one of those who left, wrote last week in the British newspaper The Independent that "the effects of this withdrawal could be infinitely more tragic and devastating than the worst that a wounded America may throw at this troubled and long-suffering country." [1] He writes, "already, men, women and children in the bulging refugee camps are dying of cholera and malnutrition. I have spoken to orphans with swollen bellies... I have spoken to families who say they will wait in their villages for death. And that was even before the aid agencies were forced to withdraw." He reports that "Pakistan and Iran are throwing thousands of Afghans out each month". The United States has now demanded that Pakistan close its border with Afghanistan. If Afghanistan is cut off from the outside world and with the United States preparing for a prolonged war, how can food aid resume?

Those people, such as the letter-writer to the National Post, who called for "a thousand eyes for one eye" (more than 5 million deaths, another Holocaust) could have their dreams come true. [5] It's frightening that the U.S. military (with whatever Canadian assistance our government can provide) could accomplish it by hardly firing a shot. What a convenient way of screening us from feeling responsibility for the predictable consequences of our actions. The deaths from disease, malnutrition and starvation will be as invisible to us as the hundreds of thousands of deaths in Iraq that resulted from the Gulf War and the sanctions policy that followed it.

What should we do?

As Canadians, we must make it clear to our government that it should oppose an attack on Afghanistan and the isolation of that country. The consequences of such an attack would be a crime against humanity and, in the worst case, a virtual genocide against the people of Afghanistan. Our government should also raise international awareness, especially in the United States, so that a catastrophe can be avoided and the activities of the World Food Programme and other aid agencies resumed as soon as possible.

Rod Hill is an economist at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John.

Sources :

[1] Buckley, Chris, To punish innocent Afghans would be immoral, The Independent, 14 September 2001

[2] United States, Department of State, The plight of Afghanistan

[3] World Food Programme, "Afghanistan facing famine, millions of lives at risk", 3 July 2001, available at http://www.reliefweb.int

[4] Bokhari, Farhan, Bread and politics: Taliban lets UN food program stew, Christian Science Monitor, 14 June 2001.

[5] The letter writer was Tony Markle, Victoria, B.C., under "What's next?" in National Post, 12 September 2001.

Rod Hill (506) 648-5592
Department of Social Science -5611 (fax)
University of New Brunswick
P.O. Box 5050
Saint John, NB E2L 4L5

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