HERAT, Afghanistan – Dire words from Secretary of State Colin Powell: Unless the international community takes action, Afghanistan faces death and tragedy on a scale rarely seen.
This embattled corner of Central Asia faces the most severe drought in 30 years and perhaps the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
In some parts of Afghanistan, it has not rained in three years. "It seems to be beyond our wildest expectations," the U.N.'s Hans-Christian Poulsen told Fox News, "and beyond our wildest fears."
Some 4 million people are now at risk of starvation. Well over 500,000 are on the move, fleeing parched villages and streaming, packed like cattle in open trucks, into refugee camps like the huge Maslach facility in western Afghanistan near Herat.
One of those we saw arriving was a man named Mohammed. When he could no longer farm and was forced to sell his livestock, he moved his extended family to the camp. The trip took 15 days and two of his young nephews died along the way.
"It was our only choice," he said. "We came here searching for food."
More than 20 years of war in Afghanistan have made a terrible situation even worse. Afghanistan's ruling Taliban is preoccupied by opposition forces fighting its 1996 takeover of the country. Housing, roads and infrastructure in the country are an absolute mess, hindering relief efforts.
The Taliban regime has been overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the humanitarian crisis, forcing the international community to step in with aid for tens of thousands of sick and starving children and adults.
The international community, however, is suffering itself from a bad case of Afghan donor fatigue. U.N. warnings and pleas have been met with lackluster response by countries tired of helping with problems in Afghanistan.
The U.N.'s Stephanie Bunker said a major donor drive in the past year netted only half of what the organization requested.
To a large degree, the United States is picking up the slack. Half of all humanitarian assistance and 90 percent of all food aid has been ponied up by the U.S. Powell recently announced that $43 million in new funding has been set aside for Afghanistan, with more on the way.
The largesse is remarkable considering America's harsh criticism of the Taliban regime for, among other things, human rights abuses and harboring alleged terrorists like Usama bin Laden.
The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, William Milam (there is no American recognition of the Taliban and no representation there), told Fox News: "We're smart enough to discern the difference between bad leaders and good people. This assistance is directed at the people, they're the ones who are suffering."
The Taliban says outsiders are partly to blame for the crisis. U.S.-backed U.N. sanctions aimed at changing its policies are hampering trade, devaluing the currency and imposing more hardship on a people already enduring severe economic conditions.
"Sanctions have really added to our problems," said Taliban humanitarian official Raaz Mohammed Agha. "People don't have money to buy things."
The United Nations rejects that idea, saying the sanctions have not impacted the humanitarian crisis. What has, its officials say, is the Taliban's interference in the daily running of U.N. operations in the country and its rejection of a proposed cease-fire in the current fighting. The United Nations says its ability to deliver aid has been significantly restrained by the Taliban's policies.
Politically, the two major players in this standoff, the United Nations and the Taliban, appear to be at a standoff. The only hope for the people suffering seems to be a break in the weather, and that's not expected anytime soon.
About this series: Fox News Correspondent Greg Palkot traveled to Afghanistan in May for a first-hand look at a country shrouded in mystery after decades of war. This five-part series chronicles his trip. Part I takes an introductory look at the country in the news. The remaining three parts will examine the whereabouts of alleged terrorist Usama bin Laden, the state of the Taliban's war against opium production, and the fate of the country's cultural heritage in light of the Taliban's decision to destroy non-Islamic "idols."