Aid Drops in Afghanistan

by Margaret Emery , Hiram Ruiz , Jeff Drumtra | published October 10, 2001

In the wake of the military offensive against Afghanistan that began October 7, the United States is settling in for what appears to be a long-term campaign. As the Bush administration selects its next military targets, some five million people inside Afghanistan who depend on international food aid for survival are considering a more basic, but no less urgent matter: how to survive the coming winter. They can stay in their homes, where they may find themselves without food in a matter of days. They can attempt to travel toward Pakistan or Iran, under threat of US bombing raids and freezing temperatures in mountain passes. Or they can migrate to locations within Afghanistan, where they have heard that food is—or might become—available.

How best to deliver food to a starving, embattled and isolated population is a daily challenge faced by aid workers. The $320 million aid package and food air drop campaign unveiled with great fanfare by the Bush administration is, on the surface, a generous attempt to facilitate the work of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Food Program (WFP) and other humanitarian agencies. Yet the US had more than altruism in mind when it announced a large aid campaign for the country with which it is at war. Responding to pressure on several fronts -- from the Islamic world, already suspicious of or hostile to the idea of US military action in Afghanistan, from Afghanistan's neighbors, who are bracing themselves for a massive new refugee influx, and from domestic critics who have urged the US to address humanitarian considerations -- the US is using refugee aid to score political points. While food drops in Afghanistan are hardly the first example of politicized humanitarian aid, the current US campaign has linked military and aid goals to the point that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is fielding questions about food drops at Pentagon briefings.

Some humanitarian agencies have dismissed the Administration's food drops as mere "propaganda," reflecting their fear that the primary US interest in humanitarian assistance lies in its value as a public relations tool. If these fears turn out to be well-grounded, it would be catastrophic for the displaced and hungry within and outside Afghanistan. Unlike the sudden emergency of the "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in 1999, which created a huge refugee population, the conditions which led to the current humanitarian situation for Afghanistan's refugee populations run back 20 years. The Afghan refugees' deeply entrenched crisis has taken years to create, and will take more years to effectively resolve. US and international aid efforts must go beyond the cosmetic—ineffective, risky and expensive air drops—and concentrate, at the first opportunity, on effective long-term solutions to the misery faced by Afghanistan's large population of internally displaced people and refugees.

"Race Against the Clock"

Twenty-three years of unrelenting conflict, widespread human rights abuses and, more recently, acute drought have created devastating humanitarian conditions in Afghanistan. Since 1978, millions of Afghans have sought refuge in neighboring countries (2 million currently live in Pakistan and 1.5 million in Iran), while at least 900,000 were displaced from their homes within Afghanistan before September 11. Both refugees and internally displaced Afghans face an everyday struggle to survive.

Inside Afghanistan, millions of Afghans rely on international food aid—largely supplied, in 2001, by the US—for survival. The economy, ruined by years of war, suffered a further blow when the worst drought in 30 years caused crop failures that led hundreds of thousands of Afghans to leave their homes in search of food beginning in June 2000.

Under these conditions, and with the onset of winter, the potential for a humanitarian disaster is increasing exponentially by the week. Current aid efforts have been described by the UNHCR as a "race against the clock." Without a significant aid effort to respond to the large-scale human movement that has already taken place within Afghanistan, thousands of Afghans could face death from starvation in the coming months.

Bleak and Bleaker

For refugees in Pakistan, assistance is currently hampered by deteriorating security conditions in and around Peshawar and Quetta, where most groups assisting Afghan refugees are based. Violent demonstrations and a string of attacks on international and local relief agency offices have forced aid workers to curtail their activities, including surveying prospective areas for new refugee camps and border monitoring. Both Iranian and Pakistani officials insist that they cannot accommodate any more refugees and have sealed their borders. While no large refugee movements resulting from US military strikes have been reported, civilians are continuing to trickle clandestinely across the Pakistani border at the rate of about 1,000 per day. UNHCR has made preparations for 300,000 new refugees in Pakistan and 80,000 in Iran. UN officials warn that the number could rise as high as 1.5 million, although it is unclear whether Pakistan and Iran will allow such large numbers of refugees to enter.

For those inside Afghanistan, the prospects for obtaining basic food aid, shelter and medical care are even bleaker. Although the UN and other aid agencies have supplied food and other assistance to the Afghan population for years, all international aid workers have withdrawn since the September 11 terrorist attacks, leaving only a skeleton staff of local UN employees in place. Operating conditions have been hampered by a communications blackout inside Afghanistan, with the Taliban banning aid workers from using satellite phones. Ground delivery of new supplies from outside Afghanistan has come to a halt because of the US air strikes; the danger posed to aid workers was highlighted on October 9, when a stray missile or bomb struck the UN de-mining office in Kabul, killing four local employees. Although conditions on the ground are changing rapidly and delivery of aid by truck may be possible within days or weeks, at the moment, the only option for food delivery is the controversial food air drops.

Food From the Sky

Virtually all aid agencies view air drops as a last-ditch tactic for delivering humanitarian relief to isolated areas. Air drops are more expensive and usually less targeted to the neediest people than are other methods of food distribution. A certain percentage of food will become spoiled or unusable because of packaging that breaks on impact or gets lost, while the lack of distribution controls on the ground means that a certain percentage of food will not reach the intended recipients. Air drops also create problems of their own: civilians on the ground near drop zones can be injured by food falling from the sky, or aid may fall into mined areas, endangering people attempting to retrieve the aid. If air drop locations are few, the drops can trigger large-scale migration to the drop location, resulting in population overcrowding, water shortages and health problems that might not have existed otherwise. Social tensions between different local communities can also arise in drop areas. Finally, it will be impossible to prevent aid from falling into the hands of Taliban officials.

In the southern Sudan, where the international community has conducted relief operations for more than ten years, air drops are at least partly successful because they occur at specific locations on a pre-arranged schedule, allowing well-trained international and local aid workers on the ground to designate "drop zones," clearly mark the drop zones for pilots and control crowds who inevitably converge on the drop area. Pilots are able to drop the food from an altitude as low as 200 feet, maximizing accuracy and minimizing food spoilage. Relief agencies on the ground have, through years of experience, developed a disciplined process to collect the food after it is dropped by planes, inventory the food stock and distribute the food systematically to local heads of families, using beneficiary lists developed in advance.

In 1996, international policymakers toyed with the idea of air dropping food in Congo-Kinshasa during 1996 to assist tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees who were in the country and fleeing from Congo's own violence, but the air drops never took place because of rugged forested terrain, uncertainty about the numbers and exact locations of refugees on the move, and concerns that the food would be confiscated by combatants living among the refugees.

Some of the food dropped in Afghanistan probably will reach extremely hungry people who cannot be reached in any other way at this time. While air drops have limited usefulness, they should be utilized if they offer the only method of food delivery. The US government has already acknowledged that air drops are not the optimal way to deliver aid, and has indicated that ground delivery will resume when conditions become safe.

Taking the Long View

The effectiveness of food drops aside, restoring stability and self-sufficiency to Afghanistan will require a long-term commitment involving more than emergency aid. While the US commitment of $320 million in aid is an important first step, any lasting effects will require an intensive and well-planned effort that reflects the reality of a population that has endured decades of civil war, and, in the case of 3.5 million Afghans, has lived for years in exile in neighboring countries. With the situation on the ground in Afghanistan shifting on a daily basis, it is difficult to assess the long-term prospects for peace and stability. The Northern Alliance, to which the US has reportedly lent covert assistance in its efforts to overthrow the Taliban, has a spotty human rights record that does not bode well for large-scale return of refugees at the conclusion of US military activity in the region. Whenever stability returns to Afghanistan, the US should support a government that will create a safe environment for the return of refugees, continue to protect, support and/or resettle refugee populations that cannot return home, and administer aid programs for the Afghan people that restore economic self-sufficiency.

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