U.S. and international relief organizations said yesterday they are organizing a massive humanitarian relief effort in Afghanistan, even as war continues to rage across the country’s southern half.
Major territorial gains this week by U.S.-backed rebel forces in Afghanistan’s north have been followed often within hours by a massive mobilization of relief efforts bringing food, tents and emergency medical supplies.
According to figures from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. government has provided nearly $120 million in aid to Afghanistan since Oct. 1 alone.
U.S. agencies also have financed more than 80 percent of the food aid to vulnerable Afghans through the U.N. World Food Program.
U.S. officials said yesterday the relief effort complements the war effort, demonstrating that the U.S.-led coalition is not targeting the Afghan people, while dealing with what aid officials say is the greatest famine threat on the planet, involving about 3.5 million Afghans.
“Never before has the United States engaged in a war in a country that was already in the middle of a full-blown humanitarian crisis,” Joseph J. Collins, deputy assistant secretary of defense for peacekeeping and humanitarian affairs, said in a Pentagon briefing yesterday.
Afghan-based Saudi financier Osama bin Laden the ultimate target of the U.S.-led military effort for his suspected role in the September 11 terrorist attacks frequently has tried to make the conflict into a war between the West and the Islamic world.
U.S. officials thus have been at pains to address the vast humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan even as they battle bin Laden and the Taliban regime that has sheltered him.
President Bush on Oct. 4 announced an additional $320 million in humanitarian assistance for impoverished Aghans, including $195 million in food and relief supplies, $25 million for a special refugee-assistance fund and $100 million to the State Department to assist millions of Afghan refugees now living in border states such as Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Andrew S. Natsios, USAID administrator and the U.S. point man on foreign relief efforts, was in the northern Afghan village of Khwaja Bahawudin yesterday, announcing a $5.5 million grant to a French humanitarian organization for food, blankets, winter clothing and shelter.
“In areas where there is peace and stability, President Bush has instructed us to begin reconstruction at the village level,” said Mr. Natsios, who is on a fact-finding tour through the region.
The Pentagon said yesterday that U.S. military planes have airlifted 40,000 blankets, 200 metric tons of high-energy biscuits, and 100 rolls of plastic sheeting for shelters into Pakistan and Turkmenistan, with more being planned. U.S. military planes have dropped 1.5 million daily rations inside Afghanistan even as the bombing campaign proceeds.
The United Nations scored a public relations coup yesterday when a barge loaded with 200 tons of wheat flour left the Uzbek port of Termez to the Afghan city of Hairaton, the first significant land shipment of aid since the war began.
Although security remains shaky in the northern crossroads city of Mazar-e-Sharif, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday the land bridge between Uzbekistan and Mazar-e-Sharif has been established.
“This is exactly the right time of year to start getting some supplies in to help those who don’t have the food or the clothing to make it through the winter,” Gen. Myers said yesterday.
But security and supply lines remain a problem both in the north and along the southern Afghan border with Pakistan, where aid convoys reportedly have slowed in recent days as fighting between the Taliban and opposition groups has shifted to the region.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons yesterday that he was putting about 4,200 troops on standby for potential duty safeguarding the relief efforts, although Mr. Blair also said the troops could take part in offensive actions.
Canada, France, Germany and Turkey are among the other nations either deploying troops or contemplating military missions that would be charged primarily with aiding the humanitarian relief effort.
International relief organizations and private charities, many of which were shut down or radically curtailed by the Taliban in recent months, also have been returning to offices in the capital of Kabul and other cities, including the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Food Program, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders.
Betsy Pisik in New York contributed to this report.