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Aiding Afghanistan

As the Taliban retreats, what will it take for the Afghan people to become self-sufficient? Three aid experts assess the situation.

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  • RAY SUAREZ:

    With us now for more on the situation in Afghanistan, we're joined by Andrew Natsios, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the federal agency that deals with foreign aid. He recently returned from a trip to the region; Carolyn McAskie, deputy emergency relief coordinator in the Office for Humanitarian Affairs at the United Nations; and Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam-America, a humanitarian relief organization.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    And I'd like to start the conversation by getting from each of you – from your very different perspectives – an overview of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan today. Why don't we start with you, Andrew Natsios.

  • ANDREW NATSIOS:

    Well, it was a dramatic change of events. I was there when the offensive started by the Northern Alliance. None of us were quite expecting such a rapid collapse of the Taliban, but that having happened, the whole situation has shifted now, and we think we can begin reconstruction work, not on the whole country, but in those regions of the country which are relatively stable.

    It will take another couple of weeks for the security situation to move to a stable enough circumstance where the NGO's [Non-Governmental Organizations] and the U.N. agencies, the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross], can move a lot of their expatriates back in, but many of them are preparing to do that. Some of them have already set up shop in Kabul, and we believe that we can begin small scale reconstruction of the irrigation system, the wells, the roads, some of the schools, and that's necessary for stability to come back to the country and for security to return, and for people to go back to their homes. There are a lot of displaced people, refugees. It is very important they get back to their homes as soon as possible.

    The other thing we face is we've got a problem of landmines. It's been around for 15 years. It's gotten worse because the Northern Alliance and the Taliban replacing landmines in some areas of the country. And we're now going to have to do something to remove those because that is going to impair rehabilitation of the country.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Carolyn McAskie, from where you sit, how does Afghanistan look today?

  • CAROLYN McASKIE:

    Well, I certainly agree with everything that Andrew has said. And change has been dramatic, and what we have to remember is that at a time of change we are in a very volatile situation right now, and the good news is that we too are getting back in. We have fifteen to twenty people in Kabul already. We have a team now in Feyzabad. We have people going in and outside of Mazar[-e-Sharif]. And we're doing security assessments of other major centers.

    What we have to realize, though, is that with the Taliban retreating to the South and Southeast, this is cut off and our major supply routes from Pakistan, so we've had a few days now where we are getting very worried about the situation in the country, because I think one of the biggest tasks for us immediately would be to do as much as we can to help to stabilize the population. We've actually been far more successful than we ever thought possible in maintaining the food and medicine and the clothing supplies into the country. The agencies have done a tremendous job, but at the same time we have to realize the extent of the suffering, because there's a lot of people who we haven't had access to and where we just don't know exactly what their situation is. But it's certainly going in the right direction now.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    And Raymond Offenheiser, your thoughts?

  • RAYMOND OFFENHEISER:

    We would, I guess, fundamentally agree that the landscape has changed dramatically in the last week or so. Certainly with the Northern Alliance moving its front forward and isolating the Taliban to the South, the situation has improved to some degree, however, I would disagree somewhat with our previous speakers in the sense that I guess we still see the country as a patchwork quilt of both opportunity and constraint, where, on the one hand, we've made tremendous strides. And I'd like to commend USAID and Andrew particularly and the United Nations for the dramatic work they've done over the last few weeks in repositioning food in the North and trying to new arrangements for getting food in and for the United Nations for moving food into the country and making it available to NGO's; however, the larger issue for us is the safe delivery of that food within the country.

    And I think it is still a question of how we secure safe access to some of the more difficult areas. The roads from Termez in the North to Mazar are not quite secure yet. The routes in from Iran are not quite secure yet, so there's still some work to do for us to get the major routes from the North where food has been pre-positioned open and get large quantities of food in there. There's also the larger issue of security and the question of whether in fact this is the moment to look for the introduction of a U.N.-led force to provide security for the larger population, and to enable NGO's who are going to provide that safe delivery to get on with their work, and it may also be important for us to look at the possibilities of getting more trucks on the road, and perhaps even looking at the possibility of airlifts into the some more difficult to get to regions.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Well, Raymond's discussion of a U.N. force coming in implies that just because the front has moved and the Taliban has collapsed into a small geographical area, that doesn't mean that effective civil administration exists everywhere. What are you dealing with in conditions in some of those areas that have changed hands rather quickly? Is it chaos? Is it something that's quieter than that, Andrew Natsios?

  • ANDREW NATSIOS:

    Well, I think there are some areas that are stable and some areas that are insecure. I mean, Ray's right. I would not disagree with what he said in terms of patchwork. That's the case in almost every situation, including, I might add, even after the Gulf War in Kuwait, there were some areas that were more stable than other areas. It takes about two weeks after a conflict is over for things to settle down.

    We're only into a few days literally after the major areas were liberated and particularly in the North and central part of the country. Our biggest problem right now in terms of the immediate circumstance is the winter. The winter has already started in the Hindu Kush; it was snowing in certain areas when I was there last week, and we're outfitting some of the food trucks now. By the way, there are 2,000 trucks now that have been contracted for by WFP [World Food Programme] or bought by them that are now on the move to move food into the country.

    The biggest problem is really access to the mountainous area in the Hazar jah, which is the Alpine Plateau in the center of the country where we think is going to be the most serious problem. We've already designed an airlift into the Hazar jah if it becomes necessary. Right now WFP says they don't think it' going to be necessary. I'm a little bit more skeptical. I think we might need it. We're prepared to do it. We've got the planes lined up; we've got the money reserved for it, and the food has been pre-positioned — 65,000 tons of American wheat arrived in Iran two weeks ago. It's being loaded onto trains. It's going to move up through Iran. Some of it will be left in Iran and then some in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, the countries I just returned from, to be pre-positioned to move in. If we need to use an air bridge, we'll use an air bridge if necessary, but we prefer moving it across the ground route.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Carolyn McAskie, it's easy to see why people who are displaced in a town in an area of the country not their own may not have good access to food. But are we also dealing in Afghanistan with a population that isn't displaced but still is living with food deficits?

  • CAROLYN McASKIE:

    Well, I think you touched on one of the most serious issues in Afghanistan right now, and we are assuming, although official figures on internally displaced is probably less than two million, we have official figures of slightly over a million, and there are bound to be others in the last few days, and our estimate is that at least a quarter of the population are what we describe as vulnerable.

    We are assuming that once we get in and get our systems up and running our next sort of 30-day plan assumes that for the first month we will be feeding practically 100 percent of the people in Kabul and Mazar and Herat, and some of these other centers. Their systems have broken down, and people don't have access to normal employment, and the markets are not working. What we have to remember is that as well as the current situation, Afghanistan has suffered from 23 years of war, plus on top of it to add insult to injury, they've had three years of one of the worst droughts, and all of us are very concerned about those facts, but very large numbers of the population are living on the edge of famine. We see very high rates of malnutrition.

    So we're assuming that even with a reconstruction program going on, you're going to see a powerful humanitarian effort going on for – and several planting seasons before they – people are self-sufficient, and certainly immediately there will be large scale feeding programs in the major urban centers, and to the extent possible, as we get access, to the rural areas as well.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Raymond Offenheiser, does that mean that organizations like yours have to start talking to the donor world about not only the need to feed Afghanistan today but the long-term prospects for creating food self-sufficiency there?

  • RAYMOND OFFENHEISER:

    Absolutely, and I think this work in Afghanistan for the last several years has really been a very complex process of collaboration between both the public sector and the private sector, and as we speak, there are NGO's all over Afghanistan working closely with U.N. personnel in the humanitarian work, and the conversation that reconstruction has really already begun.

    There's a meeting in Berlin next week. There are a series of meetings that are taking place in Washington to look at the issue of what kind of long-term aid we're going to be needing to move this whole agenda forward. Kofi Annan has named Mark Malik Brown to head this whole initiative, and I think he's put forward a figure of something like $6.5 billion being needed for this whole exercise. I think it's never too early to start the conversation about reconstruction, and we, I think, feel that so far the administration's position on reconstruction is one that we're very, very sympathetic to. The idea that it would be multiethnic in character, there would be a strong leadership role for the United Nations, a strong emphasis on democratic governance, the idea that there would be a strong emphasis on the rights of women, all of these are elements that we think will make for hopefully a very successful process of political transition within Afghanistan that can guide the reconstruction process from within while it's adequately financed from with out.

    I think the key thing is, however, that we both within the public sector and the private sector commit ourselves not to work on this issue for one year or two years but recognize that there's a considerable degree of reconstruction work necessary in Afghanistan, and I would also agree very much with Carol that there's a considerable amount of humanitarian work that's going to have to go on parallel to the longer-term reconstruction work.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Well, Carolyn McAskie just referred to having to feed 100 percent of the people of Afghanistan.

  • CAROLYN McASKIE:

    Three large cities –

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    And you in a press briefing the other day mentioned a country where a lot of the seed has already been consumed. Where do you begin when a country is so denuded of ability to feed?

  • RAYMOND OFFENHEISER:

    I believe one of the mistakes we've made in these emergencies after the conflict is over is not focusing on the local economy, the roots of which in Afghanistan is almost entirely agricultural. It is an agricultural economy. Eighty percent of the people's livelihood comes from the farms. They're either herders, or they plant crops. That's where we need to focus our attention in terms of the longer-term reconstruction. That's how you improve food security. People – family incomes will increase. Kids will get off the street. They'll have something to do on their farms there with animal herds. And you don't want them on the streets. You want them either in school, or you want them working on the farm. That's where we got into trouble before. We don't want teenage boys or young men running around with nothing to do. And that's what happens in refugee camps and internally displaced camps, and that's why having them go back to a normal life where there's work and their job is very, very imperative not just to the economy but to political stability in the country.

    So I think seed is one thing we're really looking at because in famine people eat their seed; they don't think they're going to make it to the next crop. And FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization], the agency that deals with agriculture in the U.N. system, says there's only 10,000 tons of seed. They need 400,000 tons of seed in the country. So we're now doing a large scale review of where we can get improved varieties of seed, which will actually improve crop production in the country. We want to do something to improve the animal herds and reconstitute. Many of the animals have died from the drought. The irrigation system has been devastated by the Soviet civil war, and then the Taliban has a scorched earth policy in many areas where they've destroyed the – the irrigation system; that needs to be reconstructed completely. It's an arid country with a lot of rivers from the snow runoff from the mountains. So there's a lot of water; it's just in the wrong places, and they need irrigation systems to rebuild that.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Andrew Natsios, Raymond Offenheiser, Carolyn McAskie, thank you all.