Monday, November 19, 2001

ALMATY, Kazakhstan Famine in northern Afghanistan and Tajikistan will be averted this year, the top U.S. aid official said over the weekend at the close of a six-country tour of Central Asia.
“We need to get 55,000 tons of food per month into Afghanistan, and now I’m confident we’re going to be able to do it and stop this famine,” said Andrew Natsios, administrator of the Agency for International Development, during a lengthy interview before his return to Washington.
“We are now moving food into northern Afghanistan from four countries Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan,” he said.
“In two weeks, the World Food Program has more than doubled the amount of food it’s moving into the country, and that’s made all the difference.”
Earlier this year, “We used 12 indicators to determine the likelihood of a famine, and 10 of these were positive,” he said.
Mr. Natsios met with the president of Tajikistan and senior officials of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan during his tour. All three countries border on northern Afghanistan, where a three-year drought has put an estimated 7 million people at risk of famine.
“I asked them for their cooperation in opening their borders and issuing visas to nongovernmental organizations, and they promised to help,” he said.
“I told them that when there’s a famine, people start traveling, and in this case they would be heading toward their countries and becoming refugees there,” he said.
“I don’t think they had realized that. They looked quite surprised. I guess it’s because there hasn’t been a famine in the region for a very long time.”
Mr. Natsios, who is also the special coordinator for international disasters, has had experience with the Ethiopian famine and has written a forthcoming book on the North Korean famine.
He said that in Tajikistan, where a two-year drought had depleted food reserves in the south, he was able to reassure Tajik and relief officials that the rush to send food to Afghanistan would not leave the Tajiks behind.
In the last two weeks, pledges of 84,000 more tons of wheat have erased a shortfall that threatened to let Tajiks starve as they watched trucks laden with food roar past them on their way to Afghanistan.
“That’s been taken care of,” he said.
During his tour, he also visited Kazakhstan, the region’s breadbasket, where he announced a $6 million U.S. grant to buy 15,000 tons of wheat for northern Afghanistan to be shipped through the Afghan-Uzbek border at the port of Termez on the Amu Darya River.
Until Uzbekistan opens its Friendship Bridge across the river near Mazar-e-Sharif, most of the aid will flow through Turkmenistan.
“The Uzbeks promised me they would open the bridge as soon as the security situation would allow it,” Mr. Natsios said.
He also stopped in Kyrgyzstan and spent two hours in the northern Afghan town of Khodja Bahauddin, where he flew in a U.S. military helicopter. That made him the most senior U.S. official to visit Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion of 1979.
Mr. Natsios said the United States would not stop at food assistance.
“We’re going to have a big development program focused on drinking wells, irrigation ditches and roads,” he said. He also said that just how big that program will be has yet to be decided.

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