THE scales of justice cannot be balanced by the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Afghans.” So said Dominic Nutt of Christian Aid, one of six aid agencies that last week called for a pause in the bombing of Afghanistan to allow enough food to be delivered to sustain the population through the harsh winter. The UN Children's Fund says that, in addition to the 300,000 children under five who die every year of preventable causes, another 100,000 may perish this winter, in part because the conflict could complicate aid deliveries.
These are grave charges against a campaign that, its authors insist, is directed not at the Afghan people but at the Taliban government. Everyone agrees that the war is making it harder to get help to millions of people who were already barely surviving, thanks to years of drought and war. Even before September 11th, the UN thought 5.5m people, about a quarter of the population, were at risk”. The bombing has frightened people out of the cities, adding unknown numbers to the 1m within the country who have already left their homes. Without food, blankets and other essentials, many may starve or freeze.
Not all humanitarian agencies think, though, that the American attacks will make it impossible to deliver such supplies, or that, having started, they should be suspended. Several NGOs have declined invitations to join the call for a bombing pause for these or other reasons.
War between the anti-terror coalition and the Taliban has complicated relief efforts, but not principally by placing aid agencies in the crossfire. More of the problems stem from uncertainty about the future of the Taliban, which is making them both weaker and more repressive. The modicum of order they brought to Afghanistan is breaking down, and aid agencies are among the first victims of lawlessness. There have been dozens of incidents. One Taliban faction seized a warehouse of the World Food Programme, a UN agency, in the capital, Kabul. Taliban authorities restored it to the WFP's control. Save the Children's office in Mazar-i-Sharif, a strategic northern town under attack from anti-Taliban forces, was among those looted last week. Aid workers' worst fear is that the disorder will spread.
All foreign aid workers left Afghanistan soon after September 11th. Fearing espionage, the Taliban sealed the telecoms rooms of many agencies in Afghanistan and made unauthorised contact between local staff and their foreign colleagues punishable by death. This makes it hard to plan or monitor aid deliveries. Afghan aid workers are, understandably, concerned for their own safety. When bombing started near Herat, staff left their jobs at camps for displaced people.
Some old Afghan hands are less upset. They have seen worse war and lawlessness than this, and they have seen earlier predictions of catastrophe confounded by the Afghans' resilience. America's intervention has at least turned global attention on what had been a forgotten disaster.
The top priority remains food. The WFP, which delivers food to Afghanistan and gives it to NGOs for final distribution, reckons that the country needs 52,000 tons of food a month for the next six months. It suspended deliveries from September 12th to 25th, to the fury of some NGOs, and is now racing to catch up. There is a lively argument among agencies in Islamabad about whether that is possible. Charities such as Oxfam complain that the WFP is not delivering enough food, especially to parts of the country that will be snowbound by December. The WFP says the real problem is distribution within Afghanistan. This seems to be getting sorted out. NGOs have made commitments to distribute the full amount of food that the WFP thinks is necessary, though conditions on the ground may hinder it.
The intensity of the emergency varies by region. Food is being delivered normally in most of the north-east, which is controlled by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Much of the drought-hit north, where 2m people face acute shortages, has so far escaped the ravages of the attacks, but the embattled area around Mazar-i-Sharif has been hard to reach.
Fortunately, this may be about to change. On October 25th, Uzbekistan promised to open its border, a deep river gorge at the north of Afghanistan, for the first time in three years, to let the UN bring in relief supplies. It had been shut after the Taliban seized northern towns and threatened to export northwards its brand of Islamic fundamentalism, arms trading and drug-trafficking.
The prospect of using the Termez river port and Uzbek airfields could transform the prospects for the central highlands, where 500,000 people are dependent on food aid. The WFP wants to stockpile 23,000 tons of food there before winter sets in. Oxfam, which distributes food in Hazarajat, a central region populated mainly by the Shia Hazara minority, says little has arrived. Part of the reason is that turmoil in Kabul discouraged lorry drivers from picking up food from the WFP's warehouse there. The WFP is trying a new tack: transporting food directly from Peshawar to NGOs in central districts. In a rare expression of appreciation from the aid agencies, Oxfam calls this really good thinking”. If convoys cannot supply the area before winter, the WFP proposes air-drops. These would be from a low altitude and directly to local aid workers, unlike the high-altitude American food bombs”, which one aid official describes as 0% humanitarian and 100% spin”.
Unicef is still getting supplies like blankets and emergency food rations through, by mule train in one case, but says that a delay of a day could mean life and death.” Whether ingenuity can defeat anarchy depends on how much worse things get. If the Taliban fall with no new order to replace them, people will starve.
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