Aiding Afghanistan

October 5, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Reaching out to, in his words, “the poor souls in Afghanistan,” President Bush yesterday announced $320 million in aid to the country.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: This is our way of saying that while we firmly and strongly oppose the Taliban regime, we are friends of the Afghan people.

RAY SUAREZ: Relief workers are bracing for an Afghan exodus of 1.5 million people, fleeing in anticipation of U.S. strikes. That’s on top of the four million refugees already displaced, creating what aid workers say could be the worst flood of refugees since Rwanda in 1994.

Since the terror strikes in the U.S., hundreds of thousands of Afghans have tried to leave, but the Taliban has closed the borders. Groups like these make it to Pakistan by bribing officials along the way. Much of the U.S. aid will supplement the delivery of food on the ground. In the northern part of the country, food is expected to run out within a week.

Relief programs in Afghanistan stopped after September 11, when foreign workers pulled out. But U.N. deliveries resumed this week, in places like Kabul, the capital. American food will also be dropped into Afghanistan by cargo planes, escorted by U.S. fighters. That’s because the Taliban are believed to possess anti- aircraft Stinger missiles. Washington provided those weapons in the 1980s to help Afghan rebels defeat the Soviet occupiers.

ADMIRAL CRAIG QUIGLEY: We know the Taliban have anti-air capabilities. We would plan accordingly and help to plan the altitudes and the flight profiles and things of that sort to try to accomplish both objectives, be able to provide food in meaningful ways to the people of Afghanistan and allow the aircraft to get in and get out in a safe manner.

RAY SUAREZ: Ultimately, the U.S. aid program is designed to flood Afghanistan with food from all directions, to lower prices just as the population prepares for winter. The refugees have fled two decades of constant war and four years of drought. The conditions are expected to kill up to a third of the population within a year.

Afghanistan ranks first among the word’s nations in the number of women who die in childbirth and last in calories consumed per person. A quarter of the children die before they’re five. Previous waves of refugees now live in camps and other temporary shelters in all of Afghanistan’s neighbors. Pakistan is home to about half the refugees.

At this camp, 9,000 Afghans arrived in a single day earlier this year. The U.S. is also providing medicine. Many Afghans on the run now have malaria. Another disease on the rise is a deadly virus, similar to Ebola; relief workers fear cases will only multiply as the crisis gets worse.

RAY SUAREZ: We’re now joined by Andrew Natsios, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the federal agency that deals with foreign aid.

Mr. Natsios has had a long career in international relief work, both in government and as vice president of World Vision. Well, you’ve been given an assignment by the president, some money to carry it out with. Are you assuming that you’re going to have to feed a lot of people and do it for a long time?

ANDREW NATSIOS: Well, as a matter of fact, AID has been in Afghanistan doing work for a number of years now. This is the third year of drought. So we’ve had an emergency long before this and there has been 20 years of civil war. So U.S. food aid is not unknown to Afghanistan right now. Our job right now is we are entering a famine.

We did send an assessment team in May when I look my position that I hold now, to determine whether these famine indicators we were seeing from reports were accurate. And our staff came back from the refugee office in the State Department, and our office. We had food experts from the Department of Agriculture and they concluded there is indeed a famine started. It has not peaked yet but the death rates are going up way before September 11. We had a $172 million program last year. The President made a decision to go to a very aggressive program of $320 million, which almost doubles the amount of aid going to the country.

RAY SUAREZ: Many of the emergency feeding programs the people will recall seeing on television over the years, the government in charge wants the United States there. It’s understood that we are going to be on the ground feeding people. Isn’t this a little different, a government with which we have hostile relations and we’re still going to try a support program?

ANDREW NATSIOS: Well, first it’s an exaggeration to call the Taliban the government. It’s not a government. There are only two countries that recognize it even before September 11. And they have very weak control even in areas in the south. People don’t like the Taliban. The great bulk of the Afghan people would like the Taliban to leave the country tomorrow. And polls have been done on this. Sixty percent of the population have had atrocities committed against it by the Taliban. There are whole areas of the country where the NGOs, the private voluntary organizations that do the relief along with U.N. agencies are not only welcomed but they’re protected by the population from interference by the groups like Taliban.

RAY SUAREZ: But while it may be an exaggeration to call it a government, during the taped report, we saw a Pentagon spokesman explaining how dangerous it is to fly over the place – it must make your hard work a little harder.

ANDREW NATSIOS: Oh, it is much more difficult, but we have been running a relief effort under very difficult circumstances with some success for a couple of years now. This will be the greatest challenge because the death rates are rising; this will be the worst year of famine in Afghanistan in a couple of decades because of the drought.

RAY SUAREZ: How will you design a program like this to make sure aid gets to the neediest people and to the people you want to feed?

ANDREW NATSIOS: We’ve learned a lot over the last decade about what to do and what not to do. The first is that it’s very dangerous for anyone, including the Taliban, to interfere with the commercial shipments of food by Afghan merchants. They have their own private security forces to protect their shipments and their purchases. We are going to sell food to Afghan merchants. We’ll take the money and give that to private volunteer organizations for relief programs. We’ll take the money, give it to– the food, sell it to them, and it will be their food. They will move it into markets and lower the price of food. What kills people in famines, in most famines, not all famines, is rapidly rising food prices and a collapse of family assets and income. People don’t have the money to access the markets. There are some people who are completely destitute and need feed assistance from private voluntary organizations and the U.N. They won’t be able to get to the markets one way or the other. So there are two different groups we are trying to reach.

The second thing we are going to do through the World Food Program and with these organizations is to move food in through every border of the country. Basically we’re going to move in through Iran. We’ve not done that before. We’re going to move in from the Central Asian republics in the North and we have of course been moving a lot of food in from Pakistan traditionally. But if we move it in from all borders, we will not have to traverse the entire length of the country. That will reduce the chances for looting and diversion. The final thing we’re going to do is not to store much food inside the country. The food will be stored in secure areas in the bordering countries, and that way we minimize our risk. There are things we’ve learned. I think we can run a program from our experience there from the last few years that will be successful that will reduce the death rates.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you and I have been talking about food and using that generic term, but I’m wondering what it is the United States is giving people? Is it prepared food, packaged food, raw and unprocessed? What are we giving?

ANDREW NATSIOS: In these famines almost always we choose the food that’s most appropriate for the country. In the case of Afghanistan people are used to eating bread, flat bread made from wheat flour so most of the food going in is wheat, 90 percent of it. About 10 percent, about 7 or 8 percent is lentils or beans for the protein and then there’s 3 percent in vegetable oils, which are necessary for amino acids for people to completely digest the food. So you have all three food parts in a food basket that is nutritious enough to keep people alive.

RAY SUAREZ: And there is a political dimension to this? Do we make sure that people know that this food is from the United States?

ANDREW NATSIOS: Well, I’ve instructed our staff to contact the Department of Agriculture that of course provides the logistical support for this and they buy the food in the Midwest grain markets. U.S.D.A. is going to be printing on the bags in the two major languages of Afghanistan “gift of the people of United States” and we’re putting a large U.S. Flag. We’ve done that in a couple of other famines just to make clear where the food was coming in. We used to put the AID symbol that has the American flag but we wanted to make it crystal clear in their own language where it was coming from.

We are sending a message though even though the purpose of this program is to reduce the death rate and save people’s lives, there is a secondary message that’s being sent and that is the one the president and Colin Powell have repeatedly said, that the Afghan people are not our enemies. It is the Taliban that we have a problem with and the Taliban is a very narrow base of support in that country. So we want to make it clear to the great bulk of people in Afghanistan that we are going to continue to provide assistance and support them in their time of need. That’s the order from the president; that’s the order from the Secretary of State that we are going to carry out.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, it sounds like you’ve thought in advance about a lot of things, and we have heard about the experience that the United States has. Do we, as a country, also have an interest in trying to reduce the number of refugees? Will food be delivered in a way that tries to keep people at home or near their home region rather than displacing them inside the country?

ANDREW NATSIOS: We learned a long time ago that mass population movements will have very high casualty rates. And some famines up to 50 percent of the people will die along the way, particularly small children, pregnant women, elderly people. They simply don’t have the energy to move long distances to refugee camps or even to displaced camps.

So we want to prevent to the degree possible, discourage population movements, by getting food into the villages where they live now so they stay there and they don’t move so we can keep the death rate down. These camps, I have to say, are not good places to bring up kids. They’re breeding grounds for people to be angry, to be separated from the elders and the clan structures and tribal structures that keep community together. And that keep their families together. We don’t want to divide up families. It’s not good for the kids to be brought up in those circumstances. To the extent that we can, we are going to discourage those population movements.

RAY SUAREZ: Andrew Natsios, good to talk to you.