- The Washington Times - Friday, March 15, 2002

U.S. aid officials yesterday declared a massive battle against hunger, disease and illiteracy in Afghanistan, but members of Congress, mulling over a proposed $1 billion aid package, called for more anti-drug efforts before the current poppy crop ripens next month.

"This is a speed we have never seen before in reconstruction … the staff is moving to get the money out the door," Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said during a congressional hearing.

He passed around copies of pink and yellow Afghan schoolbooks, in both Farsi and Pashtun languages. The United States has paid for 9 million of the books and expects that 4 million will be distributed to students by March 23 when the Afghan school year begins.

The United States also is spending $7 million on a United Nations Children's Fund campaign to immediately vaccinate millions of Afghan children against measles.

"The health situation is one of the worst we have ever seen in the world," Mr. Natsios said.

A massive food-relief effort during the October and November bombing campaign against the Taliban averted widespread starvation in Afghanistan, but poverty and lack of basic health and nutrition remained rampant.

The death rate among children in Afghanistan is perhaps the highest in the world.

Responding to a request from interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai, the United States also has begun to revitalize a cement plant in the country to speed repairs of roads, schools and clinics, Mr. Natsios said.

The House International Relations Committee members at the hearing endorsed Mr. Natsios' plans to rebuild Afghanistan, asking him whether the draft bill they completed last Friday provided sufficient funds to get the job done.

The bill would authorize $300 million in fiscal year 2002, $250 million each in 2003 and 2004, and $200 million in 2005.

"The American people want a commitment to rebuild Afghanistan at the same level of intensity as we fought the war on terrorism," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican.

Many Americans have expressed a sense of guilt at allowing the Afghans to bear the brunt of the war against the Soviet Union from 1980 to 1989 and then having abandoned them during the subsequent internecine fighting that paved the way for the rise to power by the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda.

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