WASHINGTON – Starving Afghan refugees ducking their nation's warlords and fleeing to the borders before possible U.S. strikes have an ally they may never have known — the United States.
President Bush announced Thursday that the United States will pump $320 million in food and medical aid to displaced Afghans inside the country and to refugees at border camps near Pakistan, Iran and post-Soviet nations to the north.
"This is our way of saying that while we firmly and strongly oppose the Taliban regime, we are friends of the Afghan people," Bush said.
An estimated 12 million people in Afghanistan are affected by famine and inadequate health care, according to State Department officials. Conditions in the country, which have been miserable for the last 20 years, have rapidly deteriorated since the Taliban took over in 1996.
State Department AID Administrator Andrew Natsios said the U.S. aid program to Afghanistan — at $150 million prior to Thursday's announcement — was already the largest relief effort in the world.
"We're simply increasing it because of the famine. It is tangible evidence of our regard for the Afghan people," Natsios said.
Waste Not Want Not
The relief will be distributed as direct food supplies, some of which will be taken by a convoy of 4,000 donkeys into the mountainous villages; through food-for-work programs; and as financial assistance to neighbors taking in refugees.
The U.S. expects to send up to 400,000 tons of food. Some might be airlifted in and much will be sold to armed food traders inside Afghanistan, officials said. Trade routes will be kept deliberately short so as to avoid sabotage by the Taliban.
International relief organizations like the Red Cross, UNICEF and the World Food Program will also distribute relief. Leslie Van Sant, a spokesperson for the Red Cross, said no Americans will be inside the country, but the Red Cross has been working for years with experienced local people.
"Our personnel reflect the people we serve because we have a partner society in every country we go into. The International Committee of the Red Cross has been working in Afghanistan for a long time," Van Sant said.
The announcement was welcomed by many focused on the plight of Afghans.
Otilie English, Washington, D.C., spokeswoman for the Northern Alliance, the main opposition to the Taliban, said, "going in there with food is one of the smartest things we can do, but we have to do that with the Northern Alliance — they speak the language, they know the territory, they know the customs."
English said she visited refugee camps in opposition-held territories north of capital city Kabul just three months ago and aid couldn't come at a more needed time.
"There were people dying of horrible starvation, dying of diarrhea, mothers with babies who were turning blue. They're having outbreaks of diseases that people are still trying to identify," she said. News reports Thursday confirmed an outbreak of hemorrhagic fever in the refugee camps along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Quadir Amiryar, an adjunct professor at George Washington University who was raised in Kabul, said aid for people weakened and brutalized by the Taliban may be not only subsistence building, but perhaps the first step towards democratization.
"They have gone so weak, so preoccupied with their survival, they don't have time to think about their future. Once we give them time to think it will be the beginning of a more democratic and pluralistic system in the country — which is something they deserve and have been denied for the last 20 years," he said.