Massive food aid as a tool of diplomacy

Saving lives in Afghanistan may translate into gains with Muslims.

If the thousands of tons of food aid in the pipeline can be successfully delivered, most of the millions of Afghans facing famine just weeks ago should have the food they need to get through the winter.

No one claims the crisis is over yet. Poor security conditions could still make the tons of food impossible to deliver safely.

Yet the US-led war that is now in its second month of hitting Taliban and Al Qaeda forces has also quickly moved Afghanistan up on the world's to-do list. Now with food - a majority of which is from the United States - pouring in, aid workers are increasingly confident that an announced humanitarian disaster can be averted.

Despite this heartening turn for the Afghan people, however, what looks less clear is how successful the US has been at translating a massive humanitarian effort into a diplomatic win - particularly among the broader Muslim population it wants to reach.

Since the beginning of the bombing campaign, the US has stressed that this is not America against Islam. The food aid, which has been falling from US transport planes in shoe-box-sized packets, was supposed to prove that. But just as the lack of broad and lasting recognition of US efforts on behalf of Muslims in Bosnia and elsewhere demonstrates, turning aid into long-term goodwill is no easy task.

"The whole [relief] program is a message - that we care about the Afghan people, that they are not our enemy," says Andrew Natsios, administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) here. "Does that mean we are loved in every country? No, but people are not that angry."

Mr. Natsios, who has appeared twice on the pan-Arab news channel Al Jazeera since the intense US aid effort began, notes that anti-US demonstrations in Muslim countries have dropped off to nearly nothing.

The US acknowledges that the food drops, which began with such fanfare, were never a serious answer to Afghanistan's pending famine: They constitute only a quarter of 1 percent of estimated needs. But they were meant to give high profile to America's humanitarian take on the war.

A dangerous mix?

Yet many independent aid organizations oppose the food drops by the US military because they risk confusing the war with humanitarian assistance - thus making vital on-the-ground assistance work more dangerous.

"From the military's point of view, I suppose this is fairly effective, because it helps make the argument, 'We're the good guys,' " says Frances Stevenson, a humanitarian assistance analyst at the Overseas Development Institute in London. "But from the humanitarian point of view, it's dangerous, because it damages the neutrality of assistance and can make workers look like one of the parties of the war."

But since the food drops began in October, the war has evolved to allow more effective and much more massive food deliveries by truck. Over the past month, the United Nations' World Food Program (WFP) hit its goal of delivering about 52,000 tons of food inside Afghanistan.

The success so far of the humanitarian effort is reflected in the fact that international leaders have been able to turn to the longer-term task of rebuilding a failed state that is Asia's poorest country. Earlier this week, aid organizations and aid officials from more than two dozen countries met here to begin mapping out Afghanistan's reconstruction - a daunting task expected to cost more than $1 billion a year over the next half decade.

Although the events of Sept. 11 and a "sudden turn in the war" mean that international political attention is "focused today," says Mark Malloch Brown, administrator of the UN Development Program, the big need is for long-term commitments. He says a series of international meetings, culminating in a January ministerial conference in Japan, will seek to lock mostly Western donors into commitments for rebuilding the country - from roads to viable governing institutions.

In the meantime, aid workers are cautiously optimistic that the worst can be avoided this winter.

"We should have the food we need. The problem now is increased lawlessness on the roads," says Khaled Mansour, chief coordinator for the WFP in Islamabad, Pakistan. The rout of the Taliban across the northern half of Afghanistan has allowed bandits to reemerge on many of the country's vital highways. In fact, bandits are blamed for the killing of four foreign journalists earlier this week.

Not any easier

"Since the fall of Kabul, the job hasn't gotten easier, but harder," says Peter Bell, president of CARE USA in Atlanta. "The situation remains volatile," he says, "so we need to run scared about getting in a steady supply over the next few months."

Last week, security concerns had become so bad that vital commercial truckers refused for eight days to drive into Afghanistan. But Mr. Mansour says the WFP sent in six of its own trucks as a test, and they safely arrived in Kabul Tuesday, so the commercial drivers were reassured about returning.

No matter how successful the aid effort this year, however, next year is almost sure to present a crisis as well. Afghanistan needs an estimated 400,000 tons of seed annually for crops, notes USAID's Natsios, but the crisis has reduced stocks to just 10,000 tons.

Such indicators of the challenges on the horizon suggest to experts that the real test of success or failure will be the readiness of donors to see Afghanistan through to recovery. "The ultimate judgment of [US] intentions will be made over the degree of commitment to stay the course," says Joseph Montville, a preventive diplomacy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here.

"Much of the Muslim world is watching," he says. "It's hard to sympathize with the Taliban when their own people are celebrating their retreat. But they also want to see if the world has learned something from the past, or resorts to leaving without solving anything."

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