A fight to feed hungry Afghanistan

Since the Taliban's fall, poverty is spreading and undermining US efforts.

Lt. Mark Fulmer, his flank protected by a burly, bandanna-clad cop from Tennessee, wants to know why US bombs turned the Afghan schoolhouse into a mound of scattered brick and bent metal beams. "Were there Al Qaeda and Taliban here?" he asks.

"No, never!" shout several villagers.

But the story changes. Haji Sher Mohammed, a soft-spoken Afghan elder, steps up to explain that Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters did – for a short time – occupy their village. He says that after the first US airstrike last November, the entire village fled. Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters arrived shortly after, and stayed until US and Afghan forces liberated Kandahar in December.

If the villagers get their story straight, they may receive several new wells and a new schoolhouse from the 49th Civil Affairs Battalion, out of Knoxville, Tenn.

For the small number of US Army reservists working here in the field of drought relief, the stakes couldn't be higher. Senior US officers in Afghanistan's volatile Pashtun tribal region say they are fighting both a war against terror and one on poverty. And while there are some small signs of success in the war against terror, there are few signs that the war on poverty is going well.

Yesterday, US-led coalition forces launched another hunt for Islamic militants based in the rugged eastern Afghanistan frontier after Pakistan said it would remove troops from the border. Hundreds of coalition forces have deployed along the border to prevent Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters from crossing.

But Afghan officials warn that if the US military – or the international community as a whole – does not pay more attention to this war on poverty, the gains made in the war against terror could soon slip away.

Indeed, Afghan administrators – from doctors to warlords – here in the country's drought belt, agree on one thing: The country's unchecked poverty is feeding the angry tirades of Islamic fundamentalists who charge that the West does not really care about the Afghan people.

A new report commissioned by the US Agency for International Development and based on interviews with 1,100 households across Afghanistan has found that the level of "diet security," a measurement of vulnerability to famine, has plummeted from nearly 60 percent in 2000 to just 9 percent now.

Effects of drought

Outside the big cities that team with Western aid workers and well-meaning diplomats, the effects of drought and neglect are severe and getting worse.

In neighboring Zabul Province, Qayam Uddin tries to understand how his 10-year-old son, Shafi Ullah, became so ill.

He says the doctors at the only hospital here told him that his son's meager diet probably opened the door to disease. "We have bread, but only bread. My son eats bread and water and sometimes our neighbor gives us a bit of yogurt."

The indirect effects of drought are everywhere in the parched villages of southeastern Afghanistan. Ghullam Rabbani, the head of a UNICEF vaccination team working in the province north of Kandahar, says he visited three districts last week and "didn't see one completely healthy child."

Afghanistan has been one of the world's poorest countries for decades. The average life expectancy, which hovers at 46, is the clearest indication of how far it is behind the rest of the world.

When the US and its allies overthrew the Taliban regime last year, people were hopeful that enough food would finally be available. Instead, doctors in Zabul Province say they are seeing far more drought victims than even a year ago.

"If we compare the situation, there has actually been an increase in disease and illness," says Gul Ahmed, a young English-speaking Afghan doctor in Kalat. "Due to the drought, we have found much more typhoid fever. Usually the situation worsens in the summer months, particularly in July and August."

While doctors in Zabul see the problems they face through clinical lens, politicians and administrators are warning that Afghanistan's continuing hardships could play into the hands of groups that scoff at the US-led war against terror.

The director of Zabul's hospital, Ghulam Dastagir, insists that the US government and its allies have made a lot of promises but they have not delivered.

"This is the sixth month since the fall of the Taliban, but we are at less than zero," he says. "The Taliban is using the ongoing hardship to preach against the US interests here. They say that if the Westerners can't help you, we will. We have nothing to offer to the people. If the international community wants an end to terror, they must support civilians."

Willy Newman, an Australian Oxfam director in Kandahar, says that it is unfair to say the West does not care. "Many aid agencies are still concerned about the security situation," she says. "They are hesitant to start projects in Afghanistan and then see them ripped to shreds by more fighting."

When Afghanistan was being torn up by turf wars in the mid-'90s, the Taliban stepped in to fill the void. They first brought security and then found a wealthy financier, Osama bin Laden, to help pay for both military and humanitarian needs. "What many Westerners don't realize is that bin Laden and his people were some of the largest donors to rural healthcare in provinces like Zabul," says Mr. Dastagir. "They brought us medicine and expertise. They were very active."

A district chief along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, where many Al Qaeda fighters have taken refuge, says that continuing poverty is opening the door again for religious extremism. "Poverty is Al Qaeda and Taliban's only chance to return," says Wazir Mohammed. "It is why the terrorists can find a nest here."

Needed: food and money

Yesterday, the World Food Program said that it is hundreds of millions of dollars below target. It needs more than $585 million to feed 9 million people. The agency said it had received less than 60 percent of that. The United States has spent $230 million on assistance to Afghanistan, $190 million of that through USAID, US government's agency for international development.

Alongside the US government's annual war against terror chest of nearly $40 billion, that assistance for Afghanistan, which has suffered the brunt of the US war on terror, is still small, according to Western development experts.

And most of the projects the US Army's 49th Civil Affairs Battalion are working on are within a 20-mile radius of Kandahar and a 70-mile radius of Kabul, both large cities where Afghan citizens already have better access to food and healthcare. "This is social Darwinism at its worst," says Staff Sgt. Eric Newport, describing the infighting among Afghans for Western relief dollars.

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