WASHINGTON – So much emphasis has been put on the military mission in Afghanistan, U.S. officials decided Thursday to focus on the other U.S. contribution to the war-torn nation — its $320 million humanitarian effort, which has prevented massive starvation among Afghanistan's population.
"We have averted widespread famine in Afghanistan," U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Andrew Natsios said Thursday.
Natsios said that 200,000 tons of food was sent to Afghanistan between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, 2001, 64 percent of which came from the United States. Almost 7 million people have been fed, of which 1.5 million were critically close to dying from lack of food.
At the Pentagon too, officials are taking pride in their success at getting rid of the Taliban regime, which ultimately allowed the aid to get through.
"The circumstances, the lives of the people of Afghanistan today are so vastly better off than they were three months ago that it's breathtaking. And we need to keep that in balance," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday.
The military helped with food aid in the beginning of the relief effort, dropping pre-packaged survival meals in remote areas. But a major part of the success story, Natsios said, belongs to Afghans on the ground, who resisted robbery, banditry and hijackings by Taliban fighters to make sure that 79 percent of the aid reached affected villages.
"Literally 300 trucks and cars were confiscated or stolen by the Taliban during the four-month period, three-month period, until they were defeated. They took that many cars and trucks, that had a huge effect on the relief effort," he said.
The relief organizations have delivered more than food. They have distributed 20,000 radios with another 10,000 on the way. The move, Natsios said, is important not merely because the radio was a cultural centerpiece in Afghanistan before the Taliban outlawed music, but because it enables broadcasters to inform the hungry masses where the food is.
But in the grand tradition of teaching a man to fish, Natsios said more work needs to be done, including helping Afghans grow their own crops — like winter wheat, a difficult task in a drought-stricken nation — in order to enable them to sustain themselves.
When that is achieved, he said, then the U.S. has accomplished its mission.