The Humanitarian Front

Money to fund relief efforts to help millions of displaced Afghans, for now, isn't a severe problem. It has poured in to relief agencies from around the world.

But life for Afghan refugees amassed at Afghanistan's borders and unable to cross, as well as those already eking out existence in overcrowded camps just over the border in Pakistan, remains tremendously difficult. Some 3.5 million Afghan refugees already are in Pakistan and Iran as a result of the Taliban regime's repression, a severe drought, and the most recent military campaign.

But a new - and even more immediate - problem is the plight of at least several hundred thousand Afghans now internally displaced, largely as a result of the US bombing campaign over the past month. Getting assistance to these individuals is proving far more difficult.

The European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, Poul Nielson, says some 2 million Afghans are on the move inside the country, leaving towns for more rural areas. Racing against a rapidly ticking weather clock, air drops (already less effective than trucked-in supplies) will be even less useful when the snows arrive. Aid workers have criticized the air-dropped packets, since there's no supervision of distribution, they could land in the mined areas, or they could wind up in enemy hands.

The US has begun to augment drops of food packets with plastic sheeting and wool blankets. Those supplies, plus more food, are moving to Turkmenistan from Italy in anticipation of a large movement of refugees northward away from Taliban-held territory. This aid is part of the $320 million package for Afghanistan the Bush administration announced last month.

As the US continues to struggle with the inherent problems of rooting terrorists out of caves while sending in massive relief, it will have to find ways to reach these internally displaced refugees, as well as step up efforts to convince Afghan civilians that its military campaign is directed solely at terrorists and their backers.

European Parliament President Nicole Fontaine called for "humanitarian corridors" in Afghanistan through which aid could safely be transported. The US could provide military escorts to aid workers through such corridors, but that would require significant reductions in Taliban control. The prospect of humanitarian disaster strongly argues for a more flexible strategy in pursuing an end to the military component of this "new war."

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