I spent the summer in Afghanistan, researching the plight of a people on the verge of starvation, after drought had claimed a third successive harvest. A quarter of the population, according to the UN's World Food Program (WFP), was then in need of food aid. And there was a desperate need to find the means and resources of delivering this, and other vital supplies, before the winter cut off isolated communities.
Now, as the bombs and missiles fly and aid agencies are hamstrung, I know just how desperate the people of Afghanistan will be. People were already dying there when I left, just before the horrific events of 11 September. But at least then food was getting through. At least then plans were being put into place that could, even at that late stage, have averted the worst of the unfolding crisis. But now? We really don't know.
Let's get a few facts straight. The WFP figures referred to stated that more than five million people in Afghanistan would be dependent on food aid before the winter. Within days of 11 September, this estimate had grown to 7.5 million. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the military action now being taken, this implies a huge responsibility on the US and her coalition allies.
Tony Blair, on the night that bombing began, spoke about a triple-track strategy covering military, diplomatic and humanitarian action. He went so far as to speak of a "humanitarian coalition" being formed to help the Afghan people. So the question to Mr Blair must now be, when are you going to start doing something meaningful towards this end?
Hopefully he will pass that on to his friend George Bush. Because while we are neither military nor diplomatic experts, we do know about humanitarian aid – and we can state that air-dropping ration packs will be about as useful as dropping leaflets telling Afghan people not to worry.
Some more facts. The WFP says that just to supply sufficient food for 400,000 people in northern Afghanistan would require about 1,800 Hercules cargo flights a month – a rate far in excess of even the military missions now being flown. And, again, there are now 7.5 million people needing aid.
Not that air-drops can get the aid where it is needed. Christian Aid's experience tells us that much will end up in the hands of warring parties, that fighting over the food will occur where it does reach hungry populations, and that the weakest – women, children and the old – will go without.
After Angola, Afghanistan is the second most mined country in the world and dropping aid in open country will expose desperate people to increased risk from this menace. The policy of airdrops, then, is either extremely naive, or a cynical attempt to mask the real needs of the situation.
The only way of getting the food aid a month through is by truck. Yet most drivers will simply not venture on to the roads under threat of violence from the Taliban, the opposition or US strike aircraft.
Quite simply, the bombing must stop as soon as possible, and the international community, under the auspices of the UN, must launch a huge and credible aid effort – within days, not weeks – guaranteeing the safe passage of convoys.
If this is not done before the winter snows come, thousands – even hundreds of thousands – will certainly die. If this happens, then the "civilized" Western powers who have put so much store by humanitarian values will be culpable. A curious way, indeed, of winning Afghan hearts and minds.
Dominic Nutt is an emergencies officer for Christian Aid
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd
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